Review Price £359.99
Sony Alpha NEX-3 - Performance and Verdict
A flick of the chunky on/off switch that encircles the shutter release button and the NEX-3 powers up in just over a second, so whilst it isn't as lightning quick as an actual SLR, you can almost be shooting as fast as your forefinger can press down fully on that shutter release. With integral Bionz processor - the same as that used with Sony Alpha DSLRs - operation otherwise zips along at DSLR speed.
That not only relates to start up and response times but also allows a continuous shooting speed of an impressive 7 frames per second, which is up there with mid-range DSLRs, as opposed to the typical 3fps offered by entry-level models. In single shot mode, a half press of the shutter release and focus/exposure is determined in the blink of an eye, AF point/s highlighted in green accompanied by the usual bleep of affirmation. Press down fully to capture the image and this is also a nigh instantaneous process.
Shooting with both lenses in our possession we were able to gather an impressive degree of detail shooting on the NEX-3, though crispness just falls short of that achievable when shooting with a digital SLR proper. Both lenses performed very well for general sharpness and detail, though the pancake does maintain a slight advantage in quality, and is of course faster so more suited to indoor photography. One thing to be aware of when changing lenses is that as this is a compact system camera (and a comparably slender one at that) the sensor is visibly close to the lens mount. So we had to watch for our fingers straying where they shouldn't when making swaps. Otherwise we felt it would be all too easy to inadvertently brush against it.
A word about the camera's overall usability. Sony trumpets the fact that both current NEX cameras sport an approachable 'never get lost' user interface. Though icons are large and illustrated in cartoon-ish fashion, which shouldn't threaten the uninitiated and in fact prompted us to question whether this was (or could be) a touch screen model, both ourselves and fellow reviewers have criticised the range for the way you have to hunt around to find certain key features. This is largely because they're not always located where one would intuitively expect from handling rival models.
One example is ISO, with the range here a commendable ISO200 to ISO12800 to enable a wider than average breadth of low light shooting without flash, again a spec comparable with a mid-range DSLR. Instead of finding light sensitivity settings within the main camera menu however, denoted by the camera icon, ISO adjustment is included behind a separate brightness/colour icon, which kind of makes sense, though the divvying up doesn't. OK, so arguably with the NEX-3 Sony is aiming at someone upgrading from a point and shoot who both won't be adjusting settings all that often plus requires a little hand holding. But still.
Also, we're not big fans of the Canon PowerShot-a-like and new Olympus E-PL2 Pen-style scroll wheel on the backplate, via which the NEX-3 user flits from one setting to another. Sony may argue that this makes for swifter access than simply pressing down on a corner of the control pad (which you're alternatively able to do, incidentally), but as with others of its ilk we find the responsiveness of scrolling action means it's all too easy to end up on a setting adjacent to the one you actually wanted.
In practical terms when utilising Sweep Panorama shooting mode, an on-screen indictator prompts you to pan from left to right. You don't get the choice of shooting a full 360Â°, slightly disappointingly, just a maximum 226Â°. But with practice it's still possible to achieve results with impact, and especially so if selecting the 3D option. We found that we had to pan slightly slower when shooting for 3D, as opposed to 2D however - the camera providing an on-screen text message indicating you slow down if it's struggling to keep up. As the final image is a composite - and commendably in our test samples' case you can't see any skewed angles or awkward joins - this allows Sony to claim it can deliver 'pixel packed' 23MP images in this particular mode. In any event, it's a cinch to get usable results and they're packed with a lot more detail than the results achievable utilising the same 3D feature on Sony's DSC-WX5 Cyber-shot.
With its two NEX series models you feel that Sony has done just enough to stake its claim on the fledgling compact system camera market, whilst leaving plenty of room for refinement and improvement in future models - chiefly by adding a pop up flash, touch screen operation and greater flexibility as regards the movement of said screen.
The other 'negatives' here are a 'basic' looking design, lack of body integral anti shake, omission of built-in flash (so you have to carry the clip-on variety around with you), and in the case of the NEX-3, video clips are 'just' 1280x720 pixels rather than Full HD. Howevermitigate, on the positive side, the price for the NEX-3 body plus twin lens kit combo on review feels very fair, at between Â£540 and Â£599 depending on where you shop. It's also very easy for the amateur to get detailed, 'professional' looking results at the press of a button. It may not be truly pocketable, and has it's issues but overall it's well worth considering either as a smaller alternative to a DSLR or a step up from high-end compacts.
As we were putting the finishing touches to this review, news filtered out of Japan that Sony was wrapping up production of the NEX-3, at least as regards that territory. Whilst that's as much of a bombshell as day following night - with the average life-span of a digital camera six months to a year - it's actually good news for anyone now considering buying one in terms of grabbing a good deal on existing stock; especially as the reported model number of its replacement (if true) indicates more of a refinement than sweeping overhaul.
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