Sony Alpha NEX-3N review

The Sony Alpha NEX-3N isn't as good a performer as its predecessor, but it does include a collapsible power zoom lens and comes at a lower price.
Photo of Sony Alpha NEX-3N

In the past we’ve given a few Editors’ Choice awards to cameras in the Sony NEX series. The latest entry-level model, the Sony Alpha NEX-3N ($499.99 direct with 16-50mm lens), comes in at a lower asking price than its predecessor, the NEX-F3, but does so at the cost of some useful features. It does include a smaller, collapsible power zoom kit lens and an excellent 16-megapixel image sensor, but the camera’s LCD is not as sharp, support for an add-on electronic viewfinder has been dropped, and burst shooting is slower. These cut corners prevent it from earning our Editors’ Choice award for under-$1,000 compact interchangeable lens cameras, that stays with the well-rounded, better-performing Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5.

Design and Features
When you consider that it packs the same size image sensor as a D-SLR, the sheer compactness of the NEX-3N is impressive. Its body measures 2.3 by 4.4 by 1.4 inches (HWD) and weighs 9.5 ounces. Adding the included 16-50mm Retractable Zoom Lens just about doubles the depth and adds 4.1 ounces to the package. The closest size compact interchangeable lens camera we’ve seen is the Olympus PEN E-PM2 at 2.5 by 4.1 by 1.3 inches and 9.5 ounces without a lens. Its lens also features a collapsible design, but is a manual rather than a power zoom. The 3N does have a built-in flash, a feature lacking in many small mirrorless cameras, including the E-PM2. It’s on a hinged neck, giving you the option of firing it directly at your subject or tilting it back with your finger in order to bounce light off a ceiling for softer illumination.

The control layout will be familiar to anyone who has picked up an NEX camera before. Up top you’ll find the power switch—it’s a physical lever on this model—as well as a Play button, the flash release, the shutter release, and a dedicated Movie button. New to the 3N is a zoom rocker, which like the power switch is integrated with the shutter release button. If you’re using the included power zoom lens it will zoom in and out, a familiar feeling for users moving up from a point-and-shoot camera. Sony doesn’t have any other power zoom lenses in its lineup at this time, but that functionality would extend to any that are released in the future. There’s also a zoom control on the lens barrel itself.

Rear controls include a control wheel with four directional buttons and two controls whose functions are displayed on the rear LCD. The top button takes you into the 3N’s menu system, while the bottom can be reprogrammed to perform any number of functions. By default it activates a tip guide that will help you better understand camera functions. The directional controls allow you to adjust the amount of information displayed on the rear LCD, adjust the drive mode and activate the self-timer, and adjust exposure compensation (used to brighten or darken a scene). The right direction key is labeled as ISO, and will bring that setting up by default, but can be reprogrammed to bring up a menu that can adjust up to six camera settings on the fly. Each of these six slots is customizable. Once you have the camera configured to your liking, you will be able to avoid diving deep into its menu system, which is a good thing as it’s easy to get lost in there.

The control wheel turns freely and its function varies based on the mode in which you’re shooting. If you’re in Aperture Priority, it adjusts the f-stop, and if you’re in Shutter Priority it changes the shutter speed. If you’re brave enough to venture into Manual mode you’ll use the EV Compensation button to toggle between control over the f-stop or shutter speed. Inside the wheel is a big button; it’s dedicated to bringing up a software screen that allows you to change the current shooting mode.

There’s no EVF add-on for this NEX model, so you’ll rely on the 3-inch hinged rear LCD for framing and focus confirmation. It only flips up, however, making it great for self-portraits or waist-level shooting, but not so useful if you need to hold the camera over your head to get a shot. Other mirrorless cameras, including the NEX-5R and the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 feature displays that are hinged to tilt in either up or down. The resolution of the display is also a step back; last year’s NEX-3F had a 920k-dot display that was exceptionally sharp and bright. The 460k-dot screen on this model is still bright, but it’s just not as crisp as its predecessor.

Wi-Fi is becoming more common on cameras, but it’s still not standard issue across the board. If you want wireless within the NEX system you’ll have to move up to the NEX-5R or NEX-6, or you can look at the Samsung NX1000, which also features an APS-C image sensor and has one of the best Wi-Fi implementations we’ve seen in this type of camera. Micro Four Thirds shooters who want to share photos with immediacy will want to read up on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF6. It was just announced, so we haven’t reviewed it yet, but it supports both Wi-Fi and NFC for wireless data transfer.

Performance and Conclusions
The NEX-3N isn’t the fastest mirrorless camera on the block. It takes 2 seconds to start and grab a photo due to a bit of added time required for the power zoom lens to extend. Its shutter lag is very reasonable at 0.2-second in good light, but averages about 1.2 seconds when shooting in dim conditions. Burst shooting tops out at 4 frames per second in Speed Priority mode; the 3N can capture 10 JPG photos, 3 Raw+JPG shots, or 4 Raw photos before slowing. Compare this to last year’s NEX-F3; it starts and shoot in 1.3 seconds, and also nets a 0.2-second shutter lag in good light. In terms of burst shooting it betters the new model, firing away at 5 frames per second for 15 JPG shots, 7 Raw+JPG captures, or 8 Raw photos. The new model does beat its elder sibling in terms of low light focus performance; the NEX-F3 took 2.1 seconds on average to focus and fire in dim light.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of photos captured by the included lens. The power zoom lens is a 16-50mm (24-75mm equivalent) design, and is impressively small. The size comes at the cost of optical performance. At 16mm f/3.5 it only manages 1,633 lines per picture height, shy of the 1,800-line center-weighted score that we require for an image to be deemed sharp. Stopping down improves performance marginally, it scores 1,741 lines at f/5.6 and 1,777 lines at f/8. None of these apertures will get you images with extremely sharp edge-to-edge performance at the 16mm setting, there is always going to be some softness there.

Zooming to 33mm narrows the maximum aperture to f/5, but improves image quality. It scores 1,821 lines there. At its maximum 50mm zoom setting the lens notches 1,713 lines at f/5.6, but improves to 1,821 lines at f/8. Sharpness isn’t the only compromise you’ll make for size; if you shoot in Raw format you’ll quickly notice that there’s an incredible amount of barrel distortion at 16mm. The 9 percent mark curves lines to the point where you’ll wonder if you are using a fisheye lens. Distortion is minimized as you zoom in. If you shoot JPG you won’t have to worry about the distortion; the camera corrects for it automatically. It’s likely that the curved field of view captured by the lens at its widest setting hurts image quality at the edges of the frame.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can make photos appear to be grainy when the sensitivity to light (ISO) is set too high. When shooting JPGs, the NEX-3N keeps noise below 1.5 percent through its top ISO of 16000. But you can’t judge noise by a single number; when comparing Raw files to the JPG images at that extremely high setting you’ll see that not only has detail been erased by clumps of grain in Raw photos, the JPG output keeps its score low by washing away this grain and leaving photos with a waxy look. At ISO 3200 JPG files have very little grain, but capture a good amount of detail; Raw files show more detail, but are a bit grainy. Detail is a little less at ISO 6400 when shooting in either JPG or Raw, but still quite acceptable for web sharing and smaller prints. We don’t recommend pushing the camera any higher than that, as image quality essentially falls off a cliff at ISO 12800 and 16000. The Panasonic G5 takes a different approach to noise reduction; its JPG output crosses the 1.5 percent mark at ISO 6400, but retains almost as much detail as a Raw file at that setting.

Video is recorded in 1080i60 or 1080p24 quality in AVCHD format. Autofocus is supported during recording, and thankfully adds no noticeable noise to the soundtrack. You can hear a slight whirr as the lens zooms in and out, but it’s nothing that is too distracting. There’s no way to connect an external microphone. Videos are started by hitting the Movie button, but you can disable it if you find yourself hitting it accidentally; that was a common complaint with older NEX models. The camera doesn’t include a battery charger; instead you’ll have to plug it into a wall via the included micro USB cable and AC adapter in order to charge the battery. Be sure to use the cable supplied by Sony, as it has a couple of extra contacts to transfer power; generic cables won’t recharge the battery. There’s also a micro HDMI port to connect to an HDTV, and a memory card slot that supports SD, SDHC, SDXC, and Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo cards. All three are hidden under a hinged flap on the 3N’s left side.

The Sony Alpha NEX-3N is the classic example of one step forward, two steps back. It’s less expensive than its predecessor, and includes a smaller, more-expensive zoom lens. But its burst shooting speed and buffer have been reduced, and its rear LCD isn’t as sharp. This creates a bit more separation in features between the NEX-3N and the next model up in the line, the NEX-5R. There are now more reasons—including a hinged screen that tilts down and flips all the way to face the front, an accessory port for an add-on EVF, Wi-Fi, and a faster autofocus system that adds phase detection on top of the more common contrast detection. If you’re primarily a JPG shooter and don’t see the need for an EVF, the NEX-3N is small, priced very attractively, and its low-light performance is quite impressive. But if you want a bit more out of your mirrorless camera, consider our Editors’ Choice Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5. It’s styled more like a D-SLR, complete with an eye-level electronic viewfinder, and gives you access to the more mature Micro Four Thirds lens system. For a smaller camera that delivers a bit more, look at the Samsung NX1000, which has a big APS-C image sensor and Wi-Fi, and is currently selling for around the same price as the NEX-3N.

Specifications
Dimensions 2.3 x 4.4 x 1.4 inches
Interface Ports micro USB, micro HDMI
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.25 seconds
LCD dots 460800
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 1633
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 16000
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 2 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 24 mm
Weight 9.5 oz
Lens Mount Sony E
Video Resolution 1080i, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 16
Image Stabilization In-Lens
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 75 mm
Shutter Lag 0.2 seconds
Sensor Size 23.5 x 15.6 (APS-C) mm
GPS No
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Sony Alpha NEX-3N isn't as good a performer as its predecessor, but it does include a collapsible power zoom lens and it comes at a lower price.
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