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Sony's small Alpha NEX-C3 (hands-on)

Sony's new entry-level interchangeable-lens camera delivers some nice enhancements in a more compact body. The company also plans new lenses and accessories, as well as a firmware update to bring a couple of new capabilities to existing NEX models.

Now playing: Watch this: Sony Alpha NEX-C3

In August, Sony plans to replace its Alpha NEX-3 interchangeable-lens camera with the smaller, but not tremendously different, NEX-C3. Now in its second generation, the NEX line has proven to be popular; I generally liked the NEX-5 (we never reviewed the NEX-3) thanks to excellent photo quality and an attractive, compact design, though I still think the line is a bit expensive for people seeking to upgrade from a point and shoot. Sony also announced a replacement model in its SLT lineup, the Alpha SLT-A35.

Overall, I enjoy shooting with the NEX-C3. It's thinner than its predecessor, with the same width and height, but because anything other than a small prime lens tends to overwhelm the tiny body, you generally have to hold the camera in your left hand under the lens. Because it's so narrow, it's a bit difficult to hold and shoot single handed, despite the small grip.

Sony didn't, um, overwhelm the C3 with new features. There's a new Photo Creativity interface in its intelligent auto mode, which provides friendlier ways of accessing advanced settings, such as background defocus, color vividness, and brightness, that we've seen in a lot of cameras. Sony also adds Picture Effects, with the same sort of filters we're used to seeing from other cameras, including selective-color R, Y, G or B; toy camera (vignetting); and posterizing, pop art (vivid color), and retro (faded). You can layer the effects together before shooting, which is nice, but you can't adjust the quality or intensity of the effects like you can with Olympus' models, and I found the results rather ho-hum. It also pulls in the Soft Skin effect from the Cybershots.

Since I've always found the NEX interface a bit cumbersome and too menu-driven, I was pleased to see that Sony had added the ability to customize the buttons for quicker access to settings like ISO sensitivity, metering mode, and autofocus mode. To me, that makes a huge difference in usability. And Sony makes a tweak that addresses one of my pet peeves about cameras: when a setting is grayed out, it never tells you why. With the C3, you select it and up pops an explanation. The camera also adds peaking (edge highlighting), which makes manual focusing a lot easier. This next generation still doesn't have a built-in flash, but it ships with the same small add-on flash that uses the proprietary connector. The add-on microphone uses the same connector, but there's still no add-on EVF.

Additionally, it retains almost all the features of its predecessor, including multishot modes like Auto HDR, Handheld Twilight, and Sweep panorama. The most notable change here is the video support; it actually drops to 720p MPEG-4 recording from the NEX-3's faux HD of 1,440x1,080 pixels. That doesn't bother me so much. The video quality is fine for typical consumer recording, although the continuous autofocus gets distracted a little more than I like during capture.

Here's how the C3 compares with its competitors and predecessors:

  Olympus E-PL2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Samsung NX100 Sony Alpha NEX-3 Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Sony Alpha NEX-5
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-
megapixel Live MOS
megapixel Live MOS
megapixel CMOS
megapixel Exmor CMOS
megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
megapixel Exmor CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 3fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
(7fps with fixed exposure)
18 JPEG/ 6 raw
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
(7fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
Optional Electronic
Optional plug-in EVF
201,000 dots
(98 percent coverage)
None None None
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/2000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes; 1/160 x-sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync
Metering 324 area 144 zone 247 segment 40 segment 49 zone 40 segment
Flash Yes Yes No Included optional Included optional Included optional
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video 720p Motion JPEG AVI 1080/60i/50i @ 17, 13 Mbps
720/60p @17, 13 Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/ 30p H.264 MPEG-4 720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 1080/60i AVCHD
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo Mono Stereo Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
921,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 280 shots 300 shots 420 shots 330 shots 400 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.5 x 2.8 x 1.6 4.4 x 2.7 x 1.3 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.9 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 12.7 11 12.2 10.5 (est) 10.7 10.2 (without flash); 10.9 (with flash)
Mfr. Price n/a $499.95 (body only, est.) n/a n/a n/a n/a
$599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $499.99 (est, with 20-50mm f3.5-5.6 i-Function lens) $599.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
$799.00 (est, with 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses) $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) $599.00 (with 50-200mm lens) $549.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens) $599.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens) $649.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date January 2011 January 2011 October 2010 July 2010 August 2011 July 2010

As for photo quality, the C3 incorporates an unnecessarily higher resolution sensor than both the earlier models, bumping from about 14 megapixels to 16. It's not, however, the same 16-megapixel sensor that's in older models like the A55, and Sony claims it has improved noise performance. At least the photo quality doesn't suffer from the resolution increase, and given the different sensors in the C3 and the NEX-5, the photos look surprisingly similar, even at high ISOs. Overall, the JPEG photo quality is quite good, though the noise reduction introduces some hot pixels at about ISO 1,600. Final judgments on the photo quality will have to wait until I can process the raw files, but I think JPEG shooters should be pretty happy.

Its performance is pretty good as well, almost identical to the NEX-5, which was a pretty zippy camera. Plus it's got improved battery life.

The NEX-5 will be a year old in September, and I suspect Sony delayed shipping the C3 for a few months until it's ready to announce a replacement for that model. Because based on my preliminary testing, the C3 is a cheaper, but similar enough option that it would cannibalize the sales of the older model before Sony's ready. On the other hand, unless you really want the thinner body or 1080/60i video, there's no real reason to wait for it to ship either. The wild card is the potential NEX-5 replacement, and whether it will be just a slight upgrade over the C3, or a significantly different animal altogether. I'll be back with a complete review soon.

In addition to the camera, Sony also announced a 30mm f3.5 E-mount macro lens that can focus down to just under an inch and a higher-powered, but still camera-powered, bounce-capable add-on flash than the one that ships with it (GN20 as opposed to GN7). The lens is scheduled to ship in October for $249.99 and the flash in August for $149.99.

And lest all you current NEXxies feel left out, Sony plans to issue a firmware upgrade June 20 to add the Picture Effect feature and peaking for manual focus. Definitely worth it for the latter. You'll be able to download the firmware from