Last year, Sony's peculiar move to beef up its entry-level NEX left us puzzled, and generally unimpressed. The NEX-F3 was a fine mirrorless camera by most accounts, but its larger footprint left us hoping for a next-gen offering more in line with its predecessor, the NEX-C3 -- a tried-and-true shooter that many Engadget staffers still turn to for review photos and trade shows, thanks to its consistent performance and light weight. We were quite relieved, then, to see that this year's device represented a return to the 2011 design, with a few very compelling additions, to boot.
Like last year's model and even the C3, the Sony NEX-3N packs a 16.1-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor. The chip is physically larger than what you'll find in a Micro Four Thirds camera, and it's comparable in size to the sensors that ship in many full-size DSLRs. That imager is the key to the 3N's success -- it enables the camera to offer DSLR-like performance in a body that's much smaller, and even less expensive. Speaking of which, the 3N kit carries an MSRP of $500, though you may be able to find it for a bit less, including the 16-50mm retractable zoom lens -- we'll touch on that a bit more after the break.%Gallery-185930%
- Excellent performance and image quality
- Solid build and design
- Very affordable for a mirrorless kit
- 16-50mm power zoom lens in the box
- No accessory port or mic input
- Power zoom is too choppy for video
Sony's latest entry-level mirrorless camera is hard to beat.
The NEX-3N's most celebrated asset is its size -- sans lens, it's barely thicker than a deck of cards.
The NEX-3N's most celebrated asset is its size -- sans lens, it's barely thicker than a deck of cards, with a body that measures roughly 4.3 inches in width, 2.4 inches in height and 1.4 inches in depth. It's also fairly light, at 7.4 ounces (body only), yet it still feels substantial, and very well made. Adding the 16-50mm (35mm-equivalent 24-75mm) f/3.5-5.6 lens serves to boost the camera's weight and depth, as you might expect, though the protrusion is far less significant than what we once saw with Sony's previous inclusion, which lacked the retractable-zoom design of this generally superior optic. The detachable lens ships in the box, which makes this $500 3N kit quite a bargain, especially considering the zoom's standalone price of $350.
fresh addition is the built-in, pop-up flash, which, believe it or not, is a first for Sony's starter NEX. Of course, adding in a strobe without boosting the body size doesn't come without compromise -- there's no proprietary mount up top, which means an external mic is out of the question. This may be slightly disconcerting to video shooters, especially considering that the camera's stereo microphones are mounted on the top of the camera rather than on the front, flanking the lens. That configuration makes the 3N a fine fit for narration but a less-than-stellar option for conducting interviews in noisy environments. We would be willing to look past this oversight had Sony included a microphone input, but alas, there's no such port present.
Sony opted to shift port positioning a bit this year. The only I/O options can be accessed by lifting a door on the left side of the camera, behind which you'll find micro-HDMI and micro-USB connectors, along with an SD card slot. Previously, the removable storage could only be accessed from the bottom of the camera, which often meant unscrewing a tripod mount before popping in a new card, so this left-hand slot is much appreciated. The battery door remains on the bottom of the camera, but the 3N can be charged using a USB adapter, so unless you want to swap cells for a long shoot, your power pack can stay in place.
Otherwise, the layout remains virtually unchanged. Power, a shutter release and playback button are all located on the top of the camera, with a new zoom toggle positioned around the shutter control. You can zoom using this new control or with the one mounted on the lens itself, though we found the on-camera option to offer smoother zooming during video capture, albeit with limited variable speeds. If you're shooting stills, however, the lens-mounted toggle is likely to be the better pick, due to its ability to zoom in completely with a single flick.
On the camera's backside, there's a 461k-dot, 3-inch LCD that can flip 180 degrees to face forward for self-portraits, just like on the F3 -- the C3, on the other hand, offered more flexibility when it came to downward tilt, which came in handy when framing overhead shots. The display itself is sufficiently sharp and reasonably bright -- a boosted Sunny Weather mode works well outdoors, but with this enabled, the on-screen picture is more saturated with higher contrast than what you'll actually capture. Naturally for a camera in this price range, there's no EVF, so all of your shots will be composed using the LCD.
To the right of the panel, you'll find two variable controls that enable different adjustments depending on the mode, along with the same four-position wheel with center selector that we've seen on every NEX model, with dedicated buttons for display settings, shutter mode, exposure compensation and ISO. There's also a video capture button towards the top of the camera, just above the thumb grip.
For better or worse, nothing's changed on the UI front. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised to hear that Sony fired its entire user interface team following the very first NEX release, considering that software tweaks have been minimal at best. This is generally good news for current NEX owners -- everything is exactly where you'd expect it to be, making a jump from a different model uneventful. The two additions we saw on the NEX-5R, WiFi and a touchscreen, are both absent here, though we don't miss that first feature.
For better or worse, nothing's changed on the UI front.When reviewing the 5R, we had quite a bit of difficulty taking advantage of the camera's built-in WiFi, which theoretically enabled wireless sharing and a small handful of "apps." Once we did get the companion smartphone app to recognize the camera, things moved at an uncomfortably sluggish pace, meaning long waits for file transfers. Sending images directly from the camera to sharing sites, while possible, also meant frustration -- typing in usernames and WiFi passwords using the tiny camera display was a tremendous hassle. As for the in-cam PlayMemories Camera Apps, we didn't really find anything useful there, and while Sony has promised to add in new features with a-la-carte pricing, the store won't be open to third-party developers, and applications are currently limited to rather weak image effects.
The touchscreen, on the other hand, did prove useful for focus tracking while recording video. It also came in handy when navigating menus and adjusting settings on the fly. The touch interface never got in the way, and with hardware controls available, its use was always optional. While the touch-enabled display did take a bit of time to grow on us, its absence here was one of the first things we noticed, so if touch is important to you, you'll want to check out the NEX-5R, instead.
Another feature we've grown to love on the NEX line is the dedicated mode dial, which is also missing here -- if you want one atop your camera, take a look at the $900 NEX-6. You do still have that functionality with the 3N, though jumping from mode to mode will require a trip to the camera's interface, adding a bit of complexity to the mix. Still, you have your pick of Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Sweep Panorama and Scene Selection modes, all selectable using the camera's rear wheel.
We generally don't pay much attention to scene modes, but Sony's got some good ones, including Hand-held Twilight, which captures multiple sequential images of dark scenes with each shutter press, merging the frames together for a seamless, steady night shot. It's not something you could manage to pull off in manual mode, and it's quite intuitive in practice. There are also some pretty nifty Picture Effects, such as Toy Camera, Pop Color and Partial Color options that maintain your selected color (red, green, blue or yellow) while making the rest of the frame grayscale.
For folks that are new to the NEX ecosystem, we'll touch on the basic menu structure quickly. Many key settings, such as shutter mode and ISO, can be tweaked using dedicated controls, as we outlined above. More granular adjustments require a trip through the menu system, however, such as selecting the image size, video capture file type, turning off the camera beep, formatting the SD card and so on. The interface isn't tremendously cumbersome, but it's not the most intuitive we've seen.
Performance and battery life
One major fault of the NEX-F3 (and models that came before it) was very sluggish focus speed, and a bit more focus hunting than we like to see. Fortunately, most of the issues were resolved with the 5R, and now the improvements have trickled down to the entry-level model, too. Performance is by no means comparable to what you'll get with most DSLRs or even Micro Four Thirds cameras from Olympus, but it's far better than what we used to see with Sony, and even what you'd get today with cameras like the Canon EOS-M.
During our test, the camera powered on and fired its first shot in two seconds. There was a 0.2-second shutter delay between when the release was pressed and when the 3N captured an image. As for high-speed continuous shooting, you have two options to choose from, including a Speed Priority mode, which nets four frames-per-second, and a regular mode than can snap 2.5 fps. Sony's NEX-6, on the other hand, can snap at up to 10 frames-per-second, so if speed is a priority, the 3N isn't necessarily the best pick for you.
Battery life is also quite impressive for a camera of this size. Sony opted to keep the NP-FW50 1,080mAh battery pack, which is great news for previous NEX owners who might have a spare or two sitting around. With a full charge, we were able to snag more than 1,400 stills and 90 minutes of video, despite several minutes of menu digging and image review. You should expect the 3N to make it through a full day of touring, for example, but you might want to bring a spare battery along on extended outings, just in case. Fortunately, the camera charges using any USB power source, so you can very easily juice it up on the go.
Judging image quality is no easy task. Many of the APS-C cameras we've seen recently can handle just about any scene quite well, but kit lenses seem to be a bit more hit or miss. As you've probably figured, a $500 mirrorless camera kit isn't going to ship with the most capable lens, and distortion and sharpness can be apparent here. Looking past those issues, though, the 3N performed quite well.
Colors were vibrant and accurate at all sensitivity settings, and details were quite sharp as well. The NEX-3N offers a sensitivity range of ISO 200 through 16,000, allowing for quite a bit of flexibility. If you're capturing images for the web, you'll be perfectly happy when shooting through ISO 6400 -- at ISO 12,800, noise becomes visible in dark areas of the frame even when viewing images at about 12 percent of their full size. And at 16,000, you can see noise in dark areas at an 8 percent view. Noise is barely visible at ISO 3200 and below, however, so even if you're printing your images, you should be able to bump sensitivity up quite a bit.%Gallery-185963%
On the video front, the 3N can shoot at 1080/24p or 60i in AVCHD mode, or 1,440 x 1,080 and VGA in MP4 mode. We opted to shoot most clips with MP4 output, and video looked smooth and sharp, with accurate exposure and color balance. Sensitivity obviously comes into play here as well, and we managed to capture video with very little noise even indoors. The camera includes optical image stabilization, which came in handy for video clips, but movement was still noticeable in handheld shots. The bundled power zoom lens can be used while recording -- the mic didn't pick up any zoom or focusing noise, but zooming wasn't as smooth as we'd like to see, as you'll likely notice in the sample clip below.
Sony has done an excellent job of pricing its NEX-3N. With a $500 MSRP including the new 16-50mm retractable power zoom lens, this camera is an absolute bargain. It's a very capable device that even professional photographers wouldn't mind having around, though it won't replace the pricier models for advanced shoots. The most substantial competition comes from Sony as well, believe it or not -- the NEX-5R is a phenomenal camera that adds a secondary control wheel, WiFi, a touch-enabled LCD and faster performance for about $650 with the older 18-55mm zoom lens. The NEX-6 adds an OLED EVF and dedicated mode dial on top of that, and ships with the new 16-50mm lens for $900. The very impressive RX100 point-and-shoot is not to be overlooked as well, at $650.
There are a few other major players in the mirrorless camera space, with compelling models from Olympus, Panasonic and Samsung, and to a lesser extent, Canon, Nikon and Pentax. The Olympus E-PL5 is a solid buy at $550 with a 14-42mm lens, with multi-axis image stabilization and a touchscreen. From Panasonic, you might consider the Lumix GX1, which retails for $450 with a 14-42mm kit lens. Samsung, for its part, has the NX1100, which retails for $600 with a 20-50mm lens and a free copy of Adobe Lightroom. Canon fans with a lot of patience might look at the EOS M -- a surprisingly mediocre model that ships for $570 with an 18-55mm lens -- while Nikon shooters could consider the J3, which is available for about $550 with a 10-30mm optic.
Is this Sony's strongest NEX to date? No, it's not. But it's by far the most impressive entry-level Sony ILC we've seen, and one of the very best options for less than 600 bucks. Excellent image quality, a solid (but compact) build and Sony's new 16-50mm retractable zoom lens make the NEX-3N an excellent fit for interchangeable-lens hopefuls making the jump from a compact point-and-shoot, or even current NEX-3/C3/F3 owners ready for something a bit more fresh. It's a fantastically capable camera, and it looks great, too. We wouldn't hesitate to pick one up.
Update: We originally reported that the NEX-3N is the first entry-level Sony mirrorless camera to include a built-in flash. The NEX-F3, however, featured a pop-up flash and an accessory connector.