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.