Aside from the stand-out NEX-7, Sony's previous interchangeable lens compacts have all had the same basic problem—no built-in flash—which means you have to hook up an external accessory supplied each time you want a bit of extra light. However, the NEX-F3 changes all that, with a new pop-up flash built into the top of the camera. Otherwise, its tech specs are pretty similar to the NEX-C3 and NEX-5N.
On first contact, the NEX-F3 is a little surprising for regular NEX users. It clearly has a similar design to Sony's other NEX cameras, particularly the NEX-5N with its square grip handle, but there's a noticeable new ridge on the top part of the camera. Could it be ... ? Yes, that's right, a mid-range NEX has finally been treated to a built-in flash! But to make room for this pop-up flash, Sony has had to make the camera body taller, so the NEX-F3 doesn't quite have the same ultra-compact, almost squat design as previous NEX cameras. Otherwise, the NEX-F3 is easy to keep hold of and the nice, deep grip handle keeps it stable and well-balanced. However, its height and general balance feel closer to a Samsung NX200 than to previous Sony NEX cameras.
The tilt screen is slightly different in this model too. It can now be flipped up into a fully vertical position on the top of the camera thanks to two arms that extend out from the camera body. However, it can only be tilted about 15° downwards, which makes it less practical than previous NEX screens for shooting over the top of an obstacle. Then again, most people probably take more self-portrait photos than shots over the top of crowds, so this change is likely to please the majority of users.
The display is slightly better calibrated than those seen in previous models, although the difference in quality isn't immediately obvious. The visible cold overtone remains and colour fidelity could still be better (average Delta E = 4.2).
The interface is the same as in other consumer NEX cameras. It's therefore simple and effective in Auto mode, and users of the PSAM modes will no doubt head straight for the customisable keys for fast access to selected favourite settings like ISO, white balance, exposure lock and more.
The NEX-F3 has no real problems in this field. Only the start-up time, at over a second and a half, is a little disappointing. Otherwise, this camera is on par with its predecessors, with an autofocus that works in around half a second in good light and which still works in under a second when the light starts to fade. Against the clock, the NEX-F3 seems a bit speedier than the NEX-C3, but the difference is so slight that this could be down to a slightly better lens.
The burst mode shoots over 5 frames per second, but is limited to 6 RAW shots and slows down after the 15th Jpeg. That's not too much of a problem though, as anyone looking to shoot sports photos isn't likely to use using an interchangeable lens compact—Sony has full-sized Alpha SLRs for that.
No surprises here. This mirrorless camera uses a set of tried and tested electronics, with a sensor that's already been seen (although sometimes with a few minor variations) in the NEX-C3, NEX-5N, and plenty of Sony, Nikon and Pentax SLRs.
So instead of repeating ourselves, we thought we'd focus on how the quality of a lens can affect picture quality in our ISO tests.
Sony's Jpeg images are fairly heavily processed, using smoothing, digital noise removal techniques and sharpness accentuation. However, these techniques work much better on shots that are perfectly detailed in the first place. Here, the shot at 3200 ISO doesn't look quite as good as the same shot taken with the NEX-5N. The 200 ISO shot shows us that the NEX-5N we tested was supplied with a decent 18-55 mm lens, in the centre of the frame in any case. The drop in quality between 200 ISO and 3200 ISO therefore remains quite limited in that model. This basically allows us to assume that with a decent lens, the NEX-F3 would have done just as good a job as the NEX-5N.
Otherwise, as usual, shots are usable up to 3200 ISO without a second thought, and even pictures taken at 6400 ISO can be used to make 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) prints without losing too much quality.
This just goes to show that Sony's 18-55 mm lens varies in quality from one model to another. The one we got with the NEX-F3 proved better than the one Sony gave us with the NEX-C3, but it isn't as good as the one we got with the NEX-5N. Ultimately, it's good enough for making 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) prints, but it doesn't get the best out of the camera's 16 Megapixels.
The NEX-C3 was the only one of Sony's NEX cameras not to film Full HD video. The F3 puts things right, upping resolution to 1080p at 25 fps (note that the NEX-5N films at 50 fps).
Sharpness levels are good, video noise is kept in check and the dynamic range is good enough to render light, bright parts of the image well. Sound quality is nice too, with a good stereo effect and good general fidelity. However, any noises from the camera are unfortunately picked up in the background—when you zoom with the 18-55 mm kit lens, you can hear the lens ring moving.