Sony's mighty NEX aspirations

Will the NEX-7 be the dream camera compact enthusiasts have been hoping for?

Most die-hard camera gearheads have been following the progress of Sony's Alpha NEX-7, hoping that it will offer all the bells and whistles they want in the "right" size. That means big enough to accommodate a large sensor, EVF, great lens, and full manual controls, but still be small enough to fit in a pocket. I'm glad I don't have to build that camera, because science has yet to develop such TARDIS-like technology.

Related link
• Read all of Sony's Alpha announcements

Still, it seems as if Sony is attempting to try with the NEX-7. It's got an innovative two-dial system that takes the predominantly screen-based NEX operation and moves a chunk of it back to the hardware controls, where enthusiasts want it. For this class of camera, the NEX-7 has almost everything: built-in flash, OLED EVF, large sensor (unfortunately packed tightly with pixels), tilting LCD, and relatively serious video features.

Of course, all that costs. As a result, in my opinion it competes less with other compact ILCs and mostly with the equally pricey Fujifilm FinePix X100. Here's the competitive picture:

  Fujifilm FinePix X100 Olympus E-P3 Sony Alpha NEX-7
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3 megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 24.3-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
23.6 x 15.8mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 2.0x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/12,800 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 16,000
Continuous shooting 5fps
10 JPEG/8 raw
3fps
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
3fps
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optical
90 percent coverage/
EVF
1, 440,000 dots 0.47x
Optional 0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.09x/.73x
Autofocus 49-area
Contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 30-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 60 min 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 256 zones 324 area 1,200 zones
Flash Yes Yes Yes
Image stabilization None Sensor shift Optical
Video 720/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 2.8-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 330 shots 350 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.0 x 2.9 x 2.1 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7
Body operating weight (ounces) 15.8 13.0 12 (est)
Mfr. price n/a n/a $1,199.99 (body only)
$1,195.95 (built-in 35mm lens) $899.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $1,349.00 (with 18-55mm lens)
n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens) n/a
Ship date March 2011 August 2011 November 2011

If you compare features, it's no contest: for the price, the X100 is laughably underpowered in that respect. But it also delivers the best photo quality in its class, and that's really where the NEX-7 will have to at least match it. Given that the X100 has half the pixels, it will really be a testament to Sony's sensor prowess if it can do that. But I'm really looking forward to taking it for a spin and seeing how far it gets.

Though not nearly as newsworthy, the more prosaic NEX-5N looks like the camera many will settle for when they find the NEX-7 out of their budget. The NEX-5 was a decent camera, and Sony's fixed a lot of our quibbles with it: it now takes an add-on EVF, has the improved NEX interface that's in the C3, and offers some updated video features. But it also takes the new A-mount adapter, and that should make shooters who just want a decent body on which to hang their expensive Zeiss glass reallyhappy. For the lensless masses looking for their first ILC, though, the options look like this:

  Olympus E-PL3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Sony Alpha NEX-5N
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 16.1-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 25,600
Continuous shooting 4.1fps
n/a
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
3.8fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3fps
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional None Optional
Autofocus 35-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync 60-1/4,000 sec; 1/160 sec x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 324 area 144 zone 1,200 zones
Flash Included optional Yes Included optional
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical
Video 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 1080/60i/50i @ 17 Mbps
720/60p @17 Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Mono Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch tilting
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 320 shots 430 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.5 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 11 (est) 9.3 9 (est)
Mfr. price n/a $499.95 (body only, est) $599.99 (body only)
$699.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
$699.99 (est, with 17mm lens) $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) n/a
Ship date September 2011 July 2011 September 2011

Insofar as features are concerned, both cameras certainly show promise in their respective segments. But my big reservation about the NEX series is size: the bodies are obviously compact, but the lenses, except for the pancake primes, are relatively large. I don't think that's much of a problem for the potential NEX-7 buyer, who's less likely to expect a single lens to fulfill all needs and who's willing to sacrifice a little compactness in exchange for flexibility. But the 5N, like the C3, is another story; Sony needs some lightweight, compact E-mount zoom lenses for its mainstream models.

Furthermore, though Sony is rolling out several new E-mount lenses and some really well-done accessories, the fact remains that Micro Four Thirds-mount options are far outstripping them. Having access to the A-mount catalog is a nice perk, and if I had an investment in A-mount lenses I'd be really excited by these models. But no matter how great the bodies might be, for someone buying into a new system it's not quite the no-brainer that most folks would like it to be.

 

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