After the NEX-3, the C3 and the F3, Sony has updated its entry-level NEX with the new and improved 3N. More than ever, Sony has sought to pack as many qualities as it can into the smallest possible camera body, aiming to deliver "SLR-style" picture quality—the ultimate goal for any interchangeable lens compact.
The NEX-3N has lost 27% of its bulk compared with the NEX-F3. It now sports a similarly small set of dimensions to the NEX-C3 but has gained the built-in flash that appeared in the F3 and a 180° tilt screen that's handy for self-portraits. Note that when you flip the screen up into its vertical position the camera automatically switches to self-timer mode, but this can be deactivated in the camera's menu if need be. In this year's model, Sony has ditched the bar-of-soap design seen in the C3 and the huge grip handle seen in the F3, giving the NEX-3N a slightly different look based on simple, harmonious lines. Although it's a similar size to the Nikon 1 J3 and the Canon EOS-M, this model is actually nicer to hold thanks to its handle. This is sleekly integrated into the design and has a dimpled "golf-ball" finish to ensure good grip. Users with larger hands therefore won't struggle to hold the NEX-3N comfortably. Thank you Sony!
Build quality is good in the NEX-3N. In fact, both the black and white versions of this camera feel to have been built with quality worthy of the higher-end NEX-7. That's scores points for Sony in a market where some manufacturers seem to automatically equate entry-level with low-quality. This camera's controls are typically "NEX" in style, but one or two small details may throw you when using this camera for the first 10 minutes or so. Seeing as the NEX-3N has been scaled down in size, some buttons have been moved and others have disappeared entirely. The playback button, for example, has been moved to the upper edge—a location that's neither practical or particularly intuitive. Similarly, the memory card compartment (SD/Memory Stick) has moved to the camera's left-hand edge with the USB and HDMI ports, leaving the battery behind in a separate compartment. This new memory card compartment is very handy when you're using the NEX-3N on a tripod, as the card can be accessed quickly and easily without the tripod mount getting in the way.
One major new design feature in the NEX-3N is a freshly arrived zoom control on the camera body. Some of you may worry about the practicality of its location around On/Off button, but Sony's design ensures that it's pretty difficult to turn the camera off by accident when using the zoom and vice versa. Plus, it turns out that zooming directly from the camera body is faster and quieter than using the zoom control on the lens. Note that you can also still zoom via a ring around the lens if you prefer. In order to prevent control conflicts—zooming from the camera body and the lens at the same time in opposite directions, for example—the first zoom control moved takes precedence while the other remains inactive.
On the downside, it's a shame to see that there's no longer a connector for an external viewfinder. This has no doubt been sacrificed to keep the camera's size to a strict minimum. The screen's viewing angles and image fidelity are both good. And although Sony has scandalously dropped the screen resolution from 921,600 dots in the previous model to 460,000 dots here, you'll no doubt soon forget about that in practice. However, the screen still can't tilt downwards, which is a shame. One last little niggle is that the shutter-release button requires a long press—very long, in fact. You therefore need to make quite a long, firm movement with your finger to take a photo. But, to be honest, when we're reduced to picking out little things like this, it's a sure sign that the rest of the camera's design is more or less faultless.
Although this camera doesn't have Wi-Fi like the NEX-5R and NEX-6, it isn't especially quick to start up. But the problem here is the lens. In fact, the NEX-3N would no doubt have proved much speedier if didn't come with the 16-50mm OSS kit lens, as the camera spends its time waiting for the lens! The seemingly interminable 2.24 seconds it takes to start up are largely down to the motorised zoom lens taking its time to deploy. This ultimately makes for a step backwards compared with the previous model and makes the NEX-3N one of the slowest mirrorless cameras to start up.
So with its kit lens, the NEX-3N clearly isn't a lightning-fast camera. Although the autofocus performs consistently well in all conditions, it's still easily outdone by the most recent Nikon 1 and Olympus PEN cameras. And this is all the more infuriating since the camera body itself is actually quite responsive and seamless to use. In order to boost performances, NEX-3N users would clearly gain from kitting out their camera with a more responsive lens. Sony's new 20mm f/2.8 pancake lens, for example, should soon turn this camera into a speedy little snapper.
But with its 16-50mm OSS kit lens, the NEX-3N only manages to pull off two stars in this part of our review!
We've got used to seeing excellent results from Sony's NEX cameras in our ISO picture quality tests, and the good news is that this latest model doesn't let the side down. Using the same 16-Megapixel CMOS sensor seen in its higher-end counterparts, it comes as no surprise that the NEX-3N is on par with its relatives in terms of picture quality or that it easily dominates direct competitors. It may be time for entry-level SLRs and heavyweight expert compacts to start getting worried!
Image quality is excellent up to 800 ISO and the NEX-3N handles noise sufficiently well up to 3200 ISO. At this setting, 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) prints will still look fine. Plus, you can still get reasonable 4" x 6" (10 x 15 cm) prints at 6400 ISO, even if coloured noise is visible in large dark blocks of colour. But these impressive qualities and the 3N's huge potential is ultimately hindered by the 16-50 OSS lens, which struggles with the corners of the frame and only reaches a satisfactory level of sharpness at f/8. We already noticed sharpness and consistency issues with this lens when reviewing the NEX-6. In fact, we tested that camera with three different versions of the lens just to make sure we weren't mistaken (see the NEX-6 review for more information)!
Like all too many cameras, the Sony NEX-3N has an annoying tendency to under-expose the image in video mode in order to prevent blown-out highlights. And this really showed in our test videos, with the dark background looking blocked up and a certain lack of contrast made up for by quite heavy saturation. Apart from that, this hybrid compact shoots decent video in Full HD resolution at 25 frames per second. It focuses smoothly, moving subjects don't judder or glitch and there's hardly any aliasing.
But in video mode as in photo mode, the lens disappoints slightly. Although it's smooth to zoom, this lens can be annoyingly noisy, sounding like an asthmatic machine gun in the background of quieter scenes.