As the range of Compact System Cameras (CSCs) has increased, the sector as a whole has become more varied. Some, for example, offer viewfinders built in to their bodies, while others have these as optional accessories. Some are designed to be as streamlined as possible, while others are shaped like DSLRs with a defined grip and a range of physical controls.
Perhaps most interestingly, some offer the same types of sensors used in compact cameras, while others incorporate those found in DSLRs. This in itself has a significant impact on the size of cameras and lenses, as well as the type of results possible from each.
The three CSCs on test exemplify this well, with each seemingly designed for a different type of user, and each also using a sensor that’s sized differently from those in the other two.
So what kind of impact do these differences make to the handling, performance and image quality on each? Let’s see…
INTRODUCING THE THREE COMPETITORS…
NIKON 1 S1 – £480
Stable and clear screen
Excellent AWB and metering
Superb video quality
Lack of direct controls
No lens- or sensor-based VR (only electronic)
Lens not as wide as others
Sensor- 1in CMOS type, 10.1MP
Output Size- 3872 x 2592
Focal Length Magnification Approx.- 2.7x
Lens Mount- Nikon 1
Shutter Speeds- 30-1/16,000sec
Drive Mode- 5, 15, 30, or 60fps
Movie Mode- 1920x1080p, 30fps
Display- 3in TFT, 460k dots
Focus Points- 41
Dimensions- 102.0 x 60.5 x 29.7mm
Weight- 240 g (including battery and memory card)
Plenty of physical controls
Decent flash performance
Some fiddly controls
Inconsistent image quality
AF could be faster
Slow shot-to-shot times
Sensor- 1/2.3in backlit CMOS, 12.4MP
Output Size- 4000 x 3000
Focal Length Magnification Approx.- 5.5x
Lens Mount- Pentax Q
Shutter Speeds- 30-1/2000 sec (exp. to 1/8000sec)
Drive Mode- 5fps
Movie Mode- 1920×1080, 30fps
Display- 3in LCD, 460k dots
Focus Points- 25
Dimensions- 102 x 58 x 34mm
Weight- 180g (excluding battery and memory card
SONY NEX-3N – £400
Excellent Power Zoom Control
Good noise control (next to others)
LCD is noisy and can be difficult to see outdoors
Indicator lamp poorly placed
Sensor- APS-C CMOS type, 16.1MP
Output Size- 4912 X 3264
Focal Length Magnification Approx.- 1.5x
Lens Mount- Sony E
Shutter Speeds- 30-1/4000sec
Drive Mode- 2.5fps
Movie Mode- 1920 x 1080, 50i/25p
Display- 3in LCD, 460,800 dots
Focus Points- 25
Dimensions- 109.9 x 62 x 34.6mm
Weight- 210g (excluding battery and memory card)
Go to the next page to find out how they compare…
Battle of the Budget CSCs – How They Compare
Look and Feel
The Q10 differentiates itself from the others with its slightly more generous assortment of physical controls dotted around the body. It’s the only camera to have a mode dial, for example, and also alone in offering a hotshoe for the mounting of external accessories.
None of the three cameras offers a viewfinder of any sorts, but each camera’s display has something different to recommend it. The Q10’s display has very little noise when working in poorer lighting conditions, while the S1’s display – while also being largely free from noise – has a very smooth feed as the camera is panned around the scene. The NEX 3N’s display is a touch brighter than the others, and shows better contrast too. All three displays resolve a very similar amount of detail although, overall, the S1 edges its way to the top of the pack.
Colour and Auto White Balance
While none of the cameras’ Auto White Balance systems make any serious errors of judgement, there are differences. The NEX-3N typically reproduces the scene very slightly warmer than the other two, with a subtle magenta cast over more neutral areas. The Q10’s slightly inconsistent results means some images show pleasingly vibrant colours while others end up a little flat. The Nikon wins for accuracy, although some may prefer more vibrant than neutral colours.
The Q10 is the most inconsistent with its metering system, being easily swayed into both under and overexposure on occasion. In the latter case its highlights easily lose their details on account of the small, populated sensor. The NEX-3N does well in a range of conditions, with its slight tendency to underexpose from time to time easily rectified with the DRO function, while the S1 shows a similar performance, often getting it right with just the odd underexposure.
Resolution and Image Noise
With both the largest sensor and the highest pixel count, it comes as no surprise that the Sony NEX-3N maintains the best resolution across the sensitivity range out of the three cameras. The Nikon comes second with a reasonable performance at lower sensitivities and a mediocre performance at higher ones, while the Pentax Q10 comes in last place.
For all its prowess elsewhere, the S1 can’t quite deliver the cleanest images at higher sensitivities. The Sony NEX-3N shows that even with a higher pixel count, the larger sensor allows it to control noise far better than the other two. Its images show more detail and better contrast than the those from the S1, and far more on both counts when placed next to the Q10’s images.
When set to their Auto-area AF modes, the Nikon S1 manages to acquire focus almost instantaneously. The Q10 and the NEX-3N take just a fraction longer, with both confirming focus in roughly the same time as each other. This is most likely down to the hybrid AF system employed by the Nikon S1, which uses phase-detect AF pixels on the sensor in combination with contrast detection. The others aren’t necessarily slow as such, just marginally slower by comparison. All three struggle to maintain focusing speed in low light and against low-contrast subjects, but their respective AF assist lights mean they do eventually get there.
When capturing video the Nikon manages to produce richly detailed footage, with low noise and artefacting, and reasonable sound quality. The Sony NEX-3N manages to capture a good level of detail, but it’s not quite as crisp as the Nikon’s video and is bothered more by artefacts over areas of fine detail. The Pentax Q10’s movie mode should suffice for everyday videos, but it falls behind the others by struggling to resolve details, despite its Shake Reduction system doing well to stabilise footage.
The three also vary with their shot-to-shot times. Here the Pentax comes last, taking a surprising amount of time to process just one or two Raw+JPEG frames; this can be inconvenient if capturing a scene as it’s unfolding. The Sony NEX-3N fares much better, maintaining operation as a steady stream of images is captured, while the Nikon S1 seems unwilling to slow down between captures, writing them quickly to the card.
So, with its excellent AF system and super-fast burst rates the Nikon S1 is clearly the best option when action presents itself. The Sony NEX-3N’s wider kit lens and articulated screen is more suited to cityscapes and landscapes, and a good candidate for reportage, while the Q10’s is best suited to those who require the full control of a DSLR in the form of physical controls, and system expandability offered by the hotshoe.
Go to the next page to see our verdict…
Battle of the Budget CSCs – Verdict
At a Glance
The Sony NEX-3N walks over the others here, with its 16.1MP pixel count and APS-C sensor making it the most appealing for enlargements and cropping.
Winner: Sony NEX-3N
Although the Sony NEX-3N is the only camera here to offer an articulated display, the S1’s LCD provides the best all-round performance.
Winner: Nikon S1
Video specifications are similar across the three, but the S1 produces the best footage with the best sound, with the NEX-3N second and the Q10 in last place.
Winner: Nikon S1
Sony’s E-system currently has 12 optics, in addition to third-party options and a Zeiss-branded lens. Pentax’s Q system has six while Nikon’s 1 system comprises of eight.
Winner: Sony NEX-3N
It’s close between the Pentax Q10 and the Nikon S1, but the Pentax Q10 does appear to have a slightly better flash performance, in addition to its hotshoe.
Winner: Pentax Q10
Noise is kept to a minimum by the NEX-3N at high ISO settings, with Nikon in second place. The Q10’s smaller sensor struggles by comparison.
Although the Nikon S1 is the most expensive camera of the trio, its premium over the others is, for many reasons, well worth it. In terms of its overall performance it simply walks over the others, from its snappier autofocus system, prompt shot-to-shot times, excellent LCD screen and its surprisingly good video recording. Both its metering and Auto White Balance systems are reasonably consistent, although it falls down when shooting at higher sensitivities. It’s also a shame its 11-27.5mm kit lens offers an equivalent 30mm start rather than something wider, and that it lacks a VR system (particularly with a launch price above the others).
The other two have their plusses; the Q10 scores points for its direct control and the wealth of customisation options, but images are marred by noise, metering inconsistencies and a general lack of detail. While the size of its sensor next to those in the other two cameras means this isn’t particularly surprising, it does raise concerns over how such a system will realistically compete with its peers which (almost) all offer larger sensors. The Sony NEX-3N is clearly the best option for high-sensitivity shooting, and its articulated screen does make it ideal for awkward shooting situations, but in practically every other area it’s clearly bettered by the performance of the Nikon S1.