UPDATE: 02/11/2011: with our initial test model we measured a battery life of just 230 photos (RAW + JPeg). However, we've now tested a second NEX-7 which had a much better battery life of 340 photos. In light of this, we've given the NEX-7 the fifth star it so dearly deserved.
The NEX-7 is Sony's first interchangeable lens compact aimed at expert-level users. On paper, it seems to tick all the right boxes in its quest to win over advanced photographers, with a compact body, an electronic viewfinder, a large-format 24-Megapixel sensor, a tilt screen and a customisable interface. All that certainly looks great, but how does the NEX-7 shape up in practice?
HandlingThe NEX-7 is an attractive camera that doesn't disappoint when you pick it up. Build quality is excellent and Sony has clearly picked prime materials for its advanced mirrorless camera. This new interchangeable lens compact is bulkier than the other cameras in the NEX series (NEX-5N, NEX-C3 etc.) but it's also more comfortable to hold and easier to grip. The textured rubber grip handle feels nice to grab onto and all of the thumb wheels, dials, buttons and other controls have been built and assembled with care. The only part that seems a touch fragile is the pop-up flash, but it didn't prove problematic during our tests.
The NEX-7 interface can be intimidating and quite confusing the first few times you use the camera. Although it does have plenty of classic controls such as buttons, switches and a settings control wheel that regular photographers will find reassuring and handy for adjusting various setting directly, there are also two thumb dials on the top of the camera which don't have any markings on them. These two thumb dials and the settings wheel actually change function in relation to the camera's mode. This is a feature Sony calls its 'Tri-Navi' interface (see inset).
The first time you use the NEX-7, you'll need to spend a bit of time setting up the interface in relation to your needs and preferences. That may sound like a pain, but it's worth it in the long run, as once you get used to finding your way around the Tri-Navi interface it can really save you time and hassle, as you don't have to plough your way through the menus to alter your most frequently used settings. You'll also be pleased to hear that there's a video record button and a switch for moving between the autofocus mode and automatic exposure lock.
The vertical-tilt LCD has a sharp 921,000-dot definition and reproduces colours with reasonable accuracy (deltaE = 4.3). That said, the colour temperature is verging on crazy, peaking at around 10,000 K! However, onscreen images are smooth and fluid, and still hold up very well in low light. The electronic viewfinder is lifted straight out of the Alpha 77, although the eye relief is a slightly reduced 23 mm here compared with 27 mm in Sony's SLT. Note that for those of you who wear glasses, the NEX-7 viewfinder won't be very comfortable to use. Otherwise, it has all the same advantages and disadvantages of the Alpha 77 electronic viewfinder. It's really very sharp and precise (100% coverage, high resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels) and it's nice and bright in low light, even if fast movements do sometimes glitch and judder. Plus, when the brightness of a scene changes abruptly (e.g. when moving from a brightly lit scene to a dark scene and vice versa), it does take the viewfinder just a little bit too long to catch up.
The battery life of 340 photos is in line with Sony's tech specs. It's still a little bit tight for a whole weekend away but all in all it's acceptable.
ResponsivenessThe NEX-7 is a responsive piece of kit, taking around a second to start up. What's more, the autofocus works in under a second in all lighting conditions.
The continuous shooting modes match Sony's tech specs, shooting at over 10 fps (with the autofocus and exposure metering blocked for the first few frames) and around 3.5 fps with subject tracking.
Picture QualityThe 24-Megapixel APS-C sensor is another thing this camera has in common with the Alpha 77. Here, though, the sensor is used in slightly different conditions, as the NEX-7 doesn't have the semi-transparent mirror used Sony's SLT. So with a little more light hitting the sensor, this compact should offer even better performances!
However, we didn't notice any real difference in our test shots. The NEX-7 keeps electronic noise under control extremely well up to 800 ISO, and the first hints of picture quality starting to degrade only begin to appear at 1600 ISO (on shots viewed at 100% size). At 3200 ISO, smoothing is more noticeable, but the slight graininess still isn't really a problem. In fact, you can push on up to 6400 ISO without too much damage for smaller prints, and we even managed an acceptable 4" x 6" print (10 x 15 cm) at 16000 ISO, which is really quite surprising!
With such a high density of photodiodes, the NEX-7 sensor will need a lens with an excellent optical resolution to get the best out of its potential. Unfortunately, our NEX-7 came with the same 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens that we've already seen struggling to hold it together with Sony's other NEX cameras. Clearly, then, it doesn't do any better with the NEX-7. While the middle of the frame is acceptable (from f/4), the edges of the image really show up the weakness of the lens, with highly visible blurring. These optical defect are all the more visible at telephoto settings (55 mm).
VideoThe NEX-7 has a very good video mode, recording 1080 HD video at 50p, 50i and 25p, although there's still no sign of a 720p mode. Plus, you'll need to post-edit on a computer to get the 24 fps cinema-standard framerate.
Picture quality is very good, with noise kept under control nicely and a smooth, if slightly slow, autofocus. Sound quality is OK, but nothing more. However, there's a mini-jack socket on hand for hooking up an external stereo mic. Note that you can't take a still photo while filming videos in this camera.
- Incredibly sharp, precise electronic viewfinder
- Good general responsiveness / Built-in flash
- Nice design and handling / Customisable interface
- Noise handled very well up to 6400 ISO
- Good 1080 HD video mode
- No built-in mechanical stabilisation
- You'll need a top-notch lens to make the most of those 24 Megapixels!
- Coninuous shooting with AF a bit slow (3.5 fps)
- Can't take a still photo while filming video / Noisy shutter
- Proprietary accessories hot-shoe / Still not many lenses available
Sony's new NEX-7 is a very well-designed expert-level camera with a customisable interface, a high-def electronic viewfinder and an excellent build and finish. However, Sony's NEX lenses aren't good enough to get the best out of the 24-Megapixel sensor.