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Sony Alpha NEX-3 review

By on July 19, 2010
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Too good to be true?

Editor's Score

Features:
Performance:
Value:
The Verdict:
The NEX-3 provides DSLR level of quality with a point & shoot's ease of use. Unintuitive menus and weak battery issues aside, the NEX-3 one of the best prosumer cameras on the market.

There comes a time once every couple of years when a company releases a product that combines simplicity and elegance with practicality and effectiveness. Then, everybody around the world, no matter what side of brand loyalty they’re on, loves this product regardless of its deficiencies, minor as they are. The last time this happened was when the iPhone launched, back in 2007. The Sony Alpha NEX-3 & 5 is another such product that promises to revolutionize the digital camera market with its DSLR performance in a point & shoot body.

So let’s take it from the top, the Sony Alpha NEX-3 that we got for review looks ridiculous and awesome at the same time. The camera’s body is your average sized Cyber-shot, but with a zoom lens attached up front. For our review, we got the f3.5-5.6/18-55mm kit lens. While the plastic body and grip of the NEX-3 doesn’t look anything out of the ordinary, the aluminum barrel of the kit lens gives it an extremely potent look. The backside is dominated by the 3” Live View widescreen LCD which tilts up and down with flaps on the side for USB and HDMI connections and one on the top for the included flash attachment.

Unlike other Micro Four Third cameras from Olympus and Panasonic, the NEX-3 uses the latest Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor from Sony. This is basically a bigger sensor than you’d normally find in a camera of this category, coupled with their 3rd generation BIONZ image processor, the NEX-3’s picture quality is truly amazing, even in low light conditions. And then there’s the many modes accompanying the NEX-3 that make taking pictures as easy as any point & shoot. The Sweep Panorama mode taken from their recent Cyber-shot cameras is a nice addition which allows you take ultra-wide images as you take pictures from the right to left. The new firmware also allows for 3D panoramic pictures as well, but these can only be seen on 3D capable TVs such as Sony’s upcoming Bravia LCDs.

You also have the Handheld Twilight mode which snaps 6 pictures within a second, combining them into one image that allows for greater exposures and therefore much better indoor pictures as opposed to simply raising the ISO and suffering background noise. The Auto HDR mode does something similar, but with 3 pictures instead of 6, all taken at different exposure levels. This provides better pictures when the subject matter isn’t brightly lit. All of this, without the need of a flash. Yes, there’s a nice little flash attachment which you can screw onto the top, but the tech inside the NEX-3 is good enough that you can get by without it in most situations with ease.

If you have been using DSLRs, then all the extra modes and settings provided in the NEX-3 will delight you to no end, especially considering the quality you’re getting in such a compact form. However, if you’re upgrading from a point & shoot, then simply selecting the iAUTO (Intelligent Auto) mode will suffice in pretty much every scenario. All of the automatic functions like the face recognition and image stabilization will be turned on by default. What happens next is that after detecting the subject, background, zoom length and light conditions, the iAUTO mode will give you the best possible results without having to fiddle anything. Almost always I found myself using the iAUTO mode simply because it gave the results I desired, and I didn’t want to go into the menu system.

At first glance the menu system looks smooth and great to look at, but soon you will realize that things aren’t as easily accessible, or as intuitive as you would like them to be. For instance, just to select the Auto HDR level means you have to navigate into the Menu, then Color/Brightness, then Auto HDR which then takes you back to the main screen (Live View) for you to adjust the levels as you require. A quick access button to this, or even something as frequently visited as the ISO level, would have saved a lot of time. Why Sony left out the simple, yet effective menu system of their Alpha series is beyond me. Sure, the menus in the NEX-3 look nice, but they’re also cumbersome to use.

The NEX-3 is always auto-focusing, unless you set it to Manual Focus, which is one of the benefits of the new E-Mount lenses that the NEX series will natively use. This helps tremendously during the Movie Mode as fast moving objects are easily captured without any unnecessary fiddling.  What this also means is that your battery will always drain faster than the rated 300 shots with a single full charge, especially if you record and playback the movies. The NEX-3 records movies in 720p @ 30fps, quite impressive for a camera this size, even in low light conditions, thanks to the huge APS HD CMOS sensor and BIONZ processor inside.

One other neat little feature is the dust removal system, which triggers every time you turn off the NEX-3, or when inserting the battery at the bottom of the camera. Speaking of, the battery enclosure also holds the memory card, which is a dual card slot. Basically you can insert regular an SD, SDHC, SDXC or Memory Stick Pro Duos inside.

Apart from the complicated menu system, the only other thing I can fault the NEX-3 is the Lithium-ion battery which drains fast and then takes a ridiculously long time to recharge. These two are certainly drawbacks, but not significant enough to stop anyone from purchasing the camera, as the rest of the NEX-3 completely overshadows these niggles with its features and quality pictures and videos.

When Sony released the Walkman and the PlayStation, other products providing similar experiences already existed. However, Sony made their products with precision engineering that would make everything works easily with the best results possible, all the while looking incredibly sexy. This design philosophy is perfectly encapsulated in the NEX-3.

So if you’re in the market to buy a prosumer camera, but don’t want to fumble about with a big and bulky DSLR, and just want to take high quality photos with extreme ease, the Sony Alpha NEX-3 should be the ideal purchase. If however, you want to do all of what the NEX-3 does, but in a more compact alloy body with a slightly better grip and 1080i recording capability, get the NEX-5 instead.

Sample pictures all taken with iAUTO mode and have been resized from 4592 x 2576 to 1920 x 1077; nothing else has been touched.


About

From auditing to editing, I now test and analyze the latest gadgets and games instead of the latest financial statements. Both jobs are equally intense and rewarding. When I'm not burning up hardware in the name of science, you'll find me nuking in DOTA 2 or engineering in TF2.

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