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 X100Olympus E-P3Sony Alpha NEX-7
Sensor (effective resolution)12.3 megapixel CMOS12.3-megapixel Live MOS24.3-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
23.6 x 15.8mm17.3mm x 13mm23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier1.5x2.0x1.5x
Sensitivity rangeISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 6400/12,800 (expanded)ISO 200 - ISO 12,800ISO 100 - ISO 16,000
Continuous shooting5fps
10 JPEG/8 raw
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
90 percent coverage/
1, 440,000 dots 0.47x
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
Contrast AF
35-area contrast AF25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed30-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 60 min60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering256 zones324 area1,200 zones
Image stabilizationNoneSensor shiftOptical
Video720/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13MbpsAVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
AudioStereoStereo; mic inputStereo; mic input
LCD size2.8-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating)300 shots330 shots350 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD)5.0 x 2.9 x 2.14.8 x 2.7 x 1.44.8 x 2.8 x 1.7
Body operating weight (ounces)15.813.012 (est)
Mfr. pricen/an/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 dateMarch 2011August 2011November 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-PL3Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3Sony Alpha NEX-5N
Sensor (effective resolution)12.3-megapixel Live MOS12.1-megapixel Live MOS16.1-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm17.3 x 13.0mm23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier2.0x2.0x1.5x
Sensitivity rangeISO 200 - ISO 12,800ISO 100 - ISO 6,400ISO 100 - ISO 25,600
Continuous shooting4.1fps
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
Autofocus35-area contrast AF23-area contrast AF25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync60-1/4,000 sec; 1/160 sec x-sync30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering324 area144 zone1,200 zones
FlashIncluded optionalYesIncluded optional
Image stabilizationSensor shiftOpticalOptical
Video1080/60i 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
AudioStereo; mic inputMonoStereo; mic input
LCD size3-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 shots430 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD)4.3 x 2.5 x 1.54.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body operating weight (ounces)11 (est)9.39 (est)
Mfr. pricen/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 dateSeptember 2011July 2011September 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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