The next step in the battle of the interchangeable lens compact cameras is Sony's new NEX system. We took the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 out for a spin to see how these snappers measured up.

What's NEX?

NEX is a sub-brand of Sony's Alpha range of dSLRs. The APS-C sensor in NEX cameras is bigger than the sensor in Olympus and Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds cameras, and the same size as that found in Samsung NX cameras. Like those cameras, the system is based on the traditional dSLR method of swapping lenses on to a camera body. No nutso Ricoh GXR-style reinventing the wheel here.

NEX

The NEX-5 is the 14.2-megapixel top-end model. The NEX-3 is a junior version of the NEX-5, which shoots MPEG-4 720p video instead of 1080i, but has the same sensor. The only physical difference is that the NEX-3 is made of polycarbonate plastic instead of metal, but it doesn't feel at all plasticky. It comes in silver, red or black. As you can see from our photo, it's near-impossible to tell the NEX-5, pictured left, from the NEX-3, on the right.

NEX-ray specs

Neither has image stabilisation in-body, as assorted features are sacrificed in the name of slimness. There are plenty of other features, however. Both cameras go up to ISO 12,800 for low-light shooting.

They have a couple of functions which take multiple images at different settings, known as bracketing, and combine them automatically to make a perfect shot. A dynamic range bracketing feature captures three images: underexposed, overexposed, and a normally exposed shot. The camera saves a picture combining the three -- and the averagely exposed snap just in case. We found this worked pretty well, retaining detail in areas of high-contrast photos such as washed-out skies against dark land.

Anti-motion blur captures six images and merges them all into one, keeping the sharpest bits.

NEX-generation landscapes

NEX boasts sweep panorama, a feature found in Sony's Cyber-shot compacts. This lets you capture a landscape by sweeping the camera round in one smooth motion, making one extra-wide picture. The panorama feature on Sony's Cyber-shot compacts actually records a video as you sweep the camera round, and grabs frames to create your panorama.

NEX, by contrast, captures lots of pictures in its sweep, so it's at much higher resolution and is able to cope with a greater dynamic range. The standard setting sweeps up to 149 degrees and creates a 15.2-megapixel final image. Wide setting turns up to 226 degrees for a 23-megapixel image.

3D sweep panorama records two slightly different versions of the wide image as you move the camera across a landscape. These can then be displayed in 3D on a Sony Bravia 3D telly or via a PS3 -- in theory any 3D TV will work, but of course Sony says results will vary. This will be enabled in July when a firmware update turns the 3D feature on.

Taking control

The biggest departure is the controls. At the back of the camera, the controls have been stripped down to a scroll wheel and two soft keys. The bottom soft key gives you access to 80 screens of shooting tips. The top soft key is a menu button, and the options vary depending on what mode you're in.

The click and scroll wheel corresponds with an onscreen wheel to cycle through options. In most modes, pressing the centre of the wheel calls up the background defocus function. This previews the way your picture will look when you alter the depth of field, for that lovely SLR-style blurred background.

It's a simple control system -- almost too simple at first. It's easy to use for everyday snapping, but any more advanced functions require some delving into menus.

But enough gabbing -- let's see NEX in action. Click 'Continue' for our photos of the NEX-3 and NEX-5's features, lenses, and of course the all-important price.

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Here's the HDMI connection.
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NEX uses a brand new E-mount lens format. Inside the camera is an anti-dust system to protect the exposed sensor.
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The 16mm F2.8 pancake lens, pictured right, is super-tiny, but at the cost of built-in image stabilisation. It comes in a kit with either the NEX-3 or NEX-5 body. The 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 lens, pictured left, does include built-in image stabilisation. It comes in a kit with either body. An 18-200mm F3.5-6.3 zoom lens, with image stabilisation built in, will be available with the NEX-5 only.
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The NEX-5's magnesium alloy body comes in black or silver. Sony reckons NEX is thinner and lighter than any other camera system. It's very light indeed, and with the pancake lens on, it'll juuuust about squeeze into a trouser pocket.
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An adaptor lets you add full-sized A-series lenses to your NEX camera -- but they won't autofocus, so you'll have to get used to manually focusing if you want to use your older, larger lenses. Third-party lenses such as Tamron and Sigma aren't compatible. Other lens options include an ultra-wide converter, pictured here, and a fish-eye converter, both of which bayonet directly on to the pancake lens and cost around £120.
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NEX captures 7 frames per second, with the focus locked, or 2.3fps if the camera needs to refocus between shots. NEX uses video contrast-detection autofocus, with 25 focus points and on-sensor live view autofocus. Dynamic manual focus lets you tweak the autofocus by twisting the lens, with the help of a 6x enlargement on the screen.
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At the top of the camera is a concealed accessory shoe, flanked by stereo microphone pick-ups.
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The NEX models don't have a built-in flash or viewfinder. They can be plugged into the accessory shoe at the top -- which does mean you can't have both at the same time. On the plus side, the flash comes free with the camera.
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Simply pull the flash up to activate it.
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Here's the flash folded away when not in use. The optical viewfinder costs around £130. There are no plans for an electronic model yet. A stereo mic, which also plugs into the shoe at the top, costs around £100.
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The NEX-5 films AVCHD 1080i video. Kick off recording with this dedicated movie button. Above that is the image playback button, which offers a histogram and EXIF data for your snaps.
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The 921,000 76mm (3-inch) articulated screen folds out, to 80 degrees upward...
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...and 45 degrees down.
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NEX supports Sony's own Memory Stick or SD, SDHC and SDXC cards.
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The NEX-5 with 18-55mm lens costs £550-£600. The NEX-3 with 18-55mm lens costs £450-500. They will be available in early to mid-June.
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