Remember the NEX-7? Ever since a days-long shooting session back in September, Sony's prized mirrorless cam has eluded us -- and the rest of the world. As you may recall, the flagship Alpha ILC was hit by the Thailand floods, resulting in delay after delay, eventually missing the holiday shopping season entirely before resurfacing late last month. Another week later and our beloved Sony Alpha NEX-7 has finally arrived, ready to take on the streets of New York City. So what exactly is the NEX-7, and why does it cost as much as a mid-range DSLR? First off, the 24.3-megapixel APS-C ILC captures, well, 24.3-megapixel images, offering the highest resolution of any mirrorless model on the market. Its APS-C sensor is identical to the one found in Sony's A77 DSLR, measuring larger than Micro Four Thirds and on par with most full-size digital SLRs.

If having the ability to capture mural-size images ranks fairly low on your digicam wish list, you may take comfort in some of the NEX-7's other features, such as its gorgeous and durable magnesium alloy body, built-in XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, 3-inch, 921k-dot articulating LCD and unique tri-navi control interface that enables direct access to key settings adjustments, including both aperture and shutter speed in manual mode. There's also 1080/60p HD movie capture with full manual control and microphone input support, a 10 frames-per-second continuous shooting mode (with exposure and focus locked) and a BIONZ image processor that's capable of delivering low-noise images all the way through ISO 16,000. These features combine to make the NEX-7 one of the most powerful mirrorless cameras to date, but are they enough to justify the $1,200 body-only price tag? Join us past the break to find out.
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Sony NEX-7 review


Hardware


From the moment you see the NEX-7's black packaging, it's clear that Sony wanted to provide an upscale experience from start to finish. The box is larger than that of the NEX-C3, with felt-topped dividers spanning multiple layers. Each component from the battery to the USB cable has its own compartment, and a large, box-width lens cloth rests on top. The basic $1,350 NEX-7 kit includes the same 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens that ships with every NEX kit, though this iteration features a matte black finish, compared to the silver lens available through other channels. There's also a premium 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss lens ($1,000), which you may want to consider adding to your collection as well -- if your pockets are deep enough.

While many of the NEX-7's overarching design elements should seem familiar to NEX camera owners, the camera body is noticeably larger than the NEX-C3 and NEX-5N -- a design choice intended to accommodate the built-in XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, tri-navi interface and full-size hot shoe. NEX critics may actually prefer the larger size of Sony's new flagship, since some E-Mount lenses look awkwardly large when mounted on this camera's smaller siblings. Still, it's by no means a big compromise -- the mirrorless cam is petite and lightweight compared to full-size DSLRs. It's also quite durable, with a magnesium alloy frame and solid construction (we spent a few hours shooting at a dusty track during our initial test period, and while the housing contracted a thin layer of dirt, the sensor and internal lens mount remained clean).


Naturally, the camera itself feels like a top-shelf imaging device, with a consistent, elegant design and solid controls. On the top of the NEX-7 you'll find a full-size hot shoe with a slide-in cover that allows for a flush appearance when not in use. There's also a built-in pop-up flash with an arm that's long enough to project light beyond the end of the sizable 24mm lens with the included lens cover removed -- leaving the cover on will result in an uneven vignette effect, though if the scene is dark enough to require the flash, you probably won't need to worry about lens flare. When retracted, the strobe lies flush, so you may not even notice it at first glance. To the right, there's a pair of control wheels that can be used to adjust a variety of settings, depending on mode, followed by a power slider, shutter release and shift button above the grip.

Continuing the tour, the right side of the camera is completely bare, leaving the rubberized grip to stand on its own. On the rear, there's the built-in EVF in the top left corner, with the 3-inch LCD below. Unlike the NEX-5N, there's no touchscreen functionality here, though you aren't likely to miss it. You may opt to not even use the LCD at all -- the XGA electronic viewfinder is sharp enough to completely replace the LCD for settings adjustment, framing and focusing. Dedicated controls include a flash release, playback button, AF/MF and AEL slider, a circular navigation dial with select, display, shooting speed and exposure compensation buttons. There's also a pair of variable controls that are used for launching and selecting different menu items. All of the buttons are easy to press, but not so much so that you need to worry about accidentally bumping one and changing a critical setting.


Centered below the lens on the bottom of the camera is a tripod mount, with a battery door to the right. Inside, there's the same 1,080mAh battery that Sony includes with all NEX cameras, and a combination SD / Memory Stick slot. The left side of the camera houses a pair of durable plastic doors, hiding an HDMI port, mini-USB connector and a microphone input jack for connecting your own audio source for video capture -- a first for an NEX camera. There's also a rather stiff leather camera strap in the box, with Sony and NEX-7 markings on either side.

User interface

The NEX-7's tri-navi interface isn't just another marketing gimmick -- it works well, and enables direct access to key settings without the need to flip through menus or even back away from the EVF. By default, the left top dial changes the primary capture setting -- if you're in aperture priority, turning it changes your aperture, while the right control adjusts exposure compensation. In shutter priority, the left dial adjusts your shutter speed, with exposure compensation again on the right. In manual, you have unfettered access to shutter speed adjustments on the left, and aperture on the right. In any of these modes, the secondary dial to the right of the LCD controls ISO, giving you instant access to aperture, shutter speed and ISO without clicking through to a single menu screen. A shift button to the right of the power slider changes the dial mode, instead letting you adjust focus settings, white balance, dynamic-range or Creative Style.


You'll still need to head to the system menu to get to a handful of seldom-used settings, such as turning off that awful camera beep, formatting a memory card (still buried at the bottom of the setup menu), turning on front-curtain shutter to reduce camera noise and activating the viewfinder proximity sensor that switches to the EVF when you bring the camera to your face. Speaking of that auto-switching feature, we had no choice but to disable it on our camera, since tilting the LCD up often caused the EVF to light up and the primary display to go black. Otherwise, it worked fairly well, but it could benefit from a sensitivity adjustment.

The menu layout is virtually identical to what you'll find in other NEX cameras, though the camera icon is clearly a render of the NEX-7 rather than the generic mirrorless ILC displayed in other menus. You can view options and a full settings readout on either the LCD or EVF, though some screens are stretched vertically, since the EVF has a 3:2 aspect ratio and the primary display is 16:9. There's also a horizontal and vertical level indicator, to assist in camera positioning.
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Sony NEX-7 user interface


Performance and battery life

Sony's certainly made a name for itself in the mirrorless camera category, and the NEX-7 won't be interrupting that winning streak. Overall, the camera is a solid performer. Still, it's not the fastest focusing imaging device in its class, though you won't be waiting long before your subject's sharp and ready to shoot. It can power on, focus and capture its first image in 1.5 seconds with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens attached. There's a delay of 0.6 seconds when adjusting focus between subjects and firing another image, but it drops to 0.3 seconds when capturing another shot of a subject already in focus.

It also offers excellent performance in continuous mode, snapping a full 10 frames-per-second with focus and exposure locked, and a solid 3 fps with variable focus and exposure -- that former figure is one frame shy of Nikon's recently announced D4, which offers other benefits beyond the NEX-7, but also costs and weighs far more. The camera can also shoot in continuous mode with flash, snapping between one and three frames-per-second, depending on how much power the strobe needs to output. You may have some reservations about using the NEX-7 to shoot an important sporting event, but the ability to capture consecutive images at high speed shouldn't rank among them.


Like we've experienced with the Sony NEX-C3, the 7 offers fantastic battery life with a percentage readout on the LCD and EVF. The battery and charger are identical to the models used in every NEX camera to date, and we really have no complaints here. We were able to capture 700 stills and 45 minutes of HD video on a single charge over the span of five days, including plenty of time navigating menus and framing and reviewing images on the LCD and electronic viewfinder. If you're going to be away from a power outlet for more than a few days, it wouldn't hurt to bring a spare battery, but you should have no problem getting through a full day or two of shooting on a single charge.


Image quality

So, the NEX-7 shoots up to 10 frames-per-second, has a large APS-C sensor, captures 24.3 megapixels and is compatible with pro-level DSLR Alpha A-mount lenses when paired with the LA-EA2 adapter. Why, then, would you still opt for a much larger high-end DSLR? One of the reasons is low-light shooting. The NEX-7 is capable of capturing images with a sensitivity of ISO 16,000, but will you want to? If you have no other choice -- say you're shooting a football game on a dark field at night, or need to avoid blur while bouncing around on a subway car -- then sure, ISO 16,000 is serviceable. But if we're being more realistic, anything above ISO 6400 should be avoided.


To get a better idea of how the camera performs in low light, we shot the same scene -- the interior of a dimly lit Manhattan church -- at every image sensitivity setting between ISO 100 and 16,000. As expected, noise was completely indistinguishable at ISO 100 and 200, with smooth, artifact-free details. Noise became visible at ISO 400 and 800 at a 1:1 pixel (100-percent) view, but faded at a 50-percent view. At ISO 1600 and 3200, noise was visible at a 50-percent view, but faded at 25 percent, where we were able to spot noise in our ISO 6400 sample. At ISO 12,800, we noticed it at 12.5 percent, but not when scaling the image to 600 pixels wide with a 1:1 view. With sensitivity set at ISO 16,000, we could see noise even after scaling the image to 400 pixels wide, making this mode generally unsuitable even for images shot for the web.


When we shot at lower ISO settings in both bright and dim light, however, our pictures displayed vibrant, accurate colors, and sharp details. White balance was accurate in automatic mode, though the camera did take a second or two to adjust when quickly moving from a scene with one color balance to another. We spent most of the time shooting with the 24mm Zeiss lens, which likely played a role in the camera's output quality, though pictures looked sharp and vibrant as well when captured with the 18-55mm kit zoom. Thumb through the gallery below for some sample images captured with the NEX-7.
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Sony NEX-7 sample pictures


The competition

Traditionally, we've only seen sub-$1,000 cameras in the mirrorless category, though the Sony NEX-7 and even more recently the Fujifilm X-Pro1 have raised the bar, both when it comes to performance and body-only price. The advantage of a higher-end model is clear, with both cameras delivering top performance with premium image sensors and body designs. We had a chance to check out the Fujifilm camera at CES, but were only able to view manufacturer-supplied samples, so we can't really speak to that model's image quality until we have an opportunity to shoot our own samples. It's also priced at $1,700, which is a nearly 50 percent boost over the NEX-7's price tag.


If you're looking for a camera with a similar body size, there are plenty to choose from, ranging in price from our category pick, the Sony NEX-C3 (starting at $499 with lens) to the $900 Olympus E-P3. If you're comfortable investing in a camera with a 16-megapixel sensor, the NEX-C3 is an incredible value, and eight months later remains our top pick in the category. You'll lose out on many of the NEX-7's pro-level features, however, including the 24.3-megapixel sensor, 1080p video (720p on the C3), audio input, tri-navi interface, EVF and 10 fps capture mode, among other features. The NEX-7 really is in a class of its own, and if you're here for the features, there's really nothing else that can compare without stepping up to a full-size DSLR.

Wrap-up

As you may have gathered, we're quite smitten with the Sony Alpha NEX-7. The camera offers many features previously only accessible to full-size DSLR owners, delivering excellent performance in a body size only nominally larger than the NEX-C3 and 5N. With the exact same sensor that Sony uses in the Alpha A77, you can expect DSLR-quality images with the NEX-7, and the camera's 10 frames-per-second consecutive shooting mode really blurs the line between mirrorless and traditional ILCs. There's definitely room for improvement in the high-ISO department, but given the camera's size and even its $1,200 price tag, we're willing to live without noise-free ISO 16,000 low light images.

If you want the full NEX-7 experience, you'll need to budget an extra grand for the 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss lens, which really is an excellent piece of glass. But even if that lens is priced out of reach, the 18-55mm kit zoom captured excellent images, and performs decently in low-light. The camera's focusing system, while accurate, isn't the fastest on the market, especially when you consider what's on the horizon. Still, the NEX-7 is a fantastic camera, and if you've been waiting for Sony to beef up supply numbers before taking the plunge, there's no reason to hold back now.
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Sony

Sony Alpha NEX-7

Pros

  • Built-in EVF
  • Tri-navi interface
  • Superb battery life
  • Excellent image quality
  • 1080/60p video with mic input

Cons

  • Expensive for a mirrorless camera
Summary

Sony's NEX-7 is the company's best mirrorless camera yet, offering true DSLR image quality in a compact body.