While Olympus and Panasonic were developing the revolutionary Micro Four Thirds camera format--a larger sensor in a smaller package--Sony was busy devising its own. The result: the Alpha NEX-3, a compact camera with a huge LCD, huger sensor, and an interchangeable lens that can take photos on a par with larger prosumer DSLRs. At $599, the NEX-3 is priced to compete with them, too.
Despite its diminutive size, the Alpha NEX-3 feels solid in hand; much of this has to do with the metal lens, which dominates the camera. The body itself is a silver-colored plastic, but consumers can opt for red or a black. At 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 inches, the NEX-3 is slightly smaller than the latest Olympus PEN E-PL1 (4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 inches), and, at 10.1 ounces, it's about 2 ounces lighter. The Panasonic DMC-G10K, another Micro Four Thirds camera, weighs in at a hefty 19.7 ounces.
A large 3-inch LCD dominates the back of the camera, and can be tilted up or down so you can hold the camera above your head to take photos; a nice feature if you're in a crowd.
There are only a few controls on the camera's surface: on the top is the shutter ringed by the on/off switch; to its left is a button that turns the LCD on and switches to review mode. Just below that is a small button used to record video. On the back, to the right of the LCD sits a small menu button near the top, and an equally small button on the bottom displays shooting tips on-screen, the most obvious nod to potential customers. In between is a clickable scroll wheel used to access menus and adjust settings.
Also on top of the camera is a large flap that opens to reveal a slot for the detachable flash (which, thankfully, is included). On the left side is a mini-USB port and a mini-HDMI port. While Sony insists on retaining its Memory Stick format, the slot also accepts SD Cards.
At launch, the camera is available with an 18-55mm lens, but for $50 less you can opt for a smaller 16mm lens; we say go for the 18-55mm zoom, which also includes motion stabilization. An 18-200mm zoom lens will be available in the near future.
The major knock we have on the Alpha NEX-3 is its user interface, which, while tailored for novices, can become convoluted. For example, if you want to switch shooting modes, you have to press the Menu button, select Shoot Mode, then rotate the dial. As you change modes, the camera offers helpful on-screen dialogue saying what each mode is best suited for.
Another annoyance is that can't view both recorded stills and videos together; it's needlessly complicated having to switch to a different menu to see a movie when you're just trying to scroll through everything you shot. At first, we thought the camera had failed to record video. We preferred using the image index, which displays thumbnails in a grid; at least here, it's obvious (by a tab on the left side) that you've actually taken videos, too.
Performance and Features
Photos taken with the NEX-3 looked excellent. While similar in size to Micro Four Thirds cameras, the NEX-3 uses a different 14.2-megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor that's 50 percent larger than the Micro Four Thirds format adopted by Olympus and Panasonic. The camera adapted well to a variety of shooting conditions, and colors were downright
Click to enlargevibrant; oranges, purples, and reds on flowers popped.
The NEX-3 has a huge ISO range of 200 to 12800; even cranked up to 1600, photos taken at a nighttime softball game illuminated by just overhead lights showed very little noise, and the camera was able to freeze the action on the field. Even though we kept the flash on the camera at all times, we rarely found ourselves using it. When we did require this function, it didn't wash out the foreground of our photos.
The Intelligent Auto modeis well-suited for those who know nothing of f-stops, shutter speed, or depth of field. A feature called Background Defocus (seetest shotto the right)does just that--turning the dial on the back brings the background into focus, or blurs it. What the camera is really doing is adjusting the f-stop, but if you're just starting out, you don't need to know that, do you? Even for more advanced shooters, it's a nice convenience.
Another excellent feature on the NEX-3 is the Auto High Dynamic Range function, which snaps three shots in quick succession--each at a different aperture setting--and combines them into one photo (pictured below). When used artistically, it creates truer-than-life images, but for more practical purposes, it was helpful when we wanted to photograph a dark foreground with a light background. The NEX-3 was able to bring out details in green shrubs while letting us see the definition of white clouds in a blue sky.
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When you use Panorama mode, you'll think the NEX-3 has a mind of its own. On other cameras, panorama modes make you take one picture, move the camera, then take another picture, and so forth. Once you press the shutter on the NEX-3, the camera starts firing away madly; all you have to do is move it from left to right. The camera stitched the pictures in a few seconds, and did so well. Even when taking a panorama in a small room, we saw very few errors.
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The NEX-3 is capable of taking 1440 x 1080-resolution video at 30 frames per second, and 640 x 480 videos at 60 fps. As with stills, video was quite good; footage of a group of people using hula hoops was smooth as the rings circled around their bellies, and the NEX-3 automatically adjusted its focus to keep things sharp. The stereo mics on the camera (found on either side of the flash) also picked up excellent sound.
Sony rates the camera's battery at approximately 300 photos; we shot about half that, as well as a few videos, and saw the battery life drop below 50 percent. Three hundred pictures may seem like a lot, but we found ourselves charging the NEX-3 more often than we'd like. To be fair, the Olympus Pen E-PL1 is rated for fewer shots (290), but the upcoming Panasonic DMC-G10K has a rating of 380 images. Bottom line: if you'll be doing a lot of shooting we suggest springing for an additional battery ($79.99) so you can have a charged spare handy.
The Sony Alpha NEX-3 is very close to an ideal camera for travelers who want to get great shots on the road, but don't want to lug around a full-size DSLR or mess too much with settings. At $599, it's about the same price as a prosumer DSLR such as the Canon T2i or Nikon D5000, and takes great-looking photos and HD video. While we wish its menu structure were less convoluted and the battery life longer, we can't argue with the results.