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The camera market is saturated with mirrorless models—there are lots of them out there. And there are even a few $500 budget models. But budget models with an APS-C sized sensor (that's the same size used in entry level DSLRs) for under $500? These gems are few and far between.
Sony's NEX-3N is one of those gems—and a sort of oddity in the mirrorless camera realm. The NEX-3N has the features of a more advanced camera with interchangeable lenses, manual modes and RAW shooting, but the usability and controls are clearly designed for the point-and-shoot user, most notably in the inclusion of a zoom toogle.
The key with buying a budget camera is to find a model that made the right sacrifices—in other words, a camera that cut features like wi-fi but didn't cut back on image quality. Did Sony make the right design choices in order to get that price tag under $500? The NEX-3N isn't the fastest mirrorless or the most versatile or the most feature packed—but it does offer the most value for the models we've tested in 2013.
Sony NEX-3N: Body and Design
While the NEX-3N houses a DSLR-sized sensor, the design of the NEX-3N is closer to a point-and-shoot both for its compact size and control scheme. But first, the size. There are a few more compact mirrorless options, but both of them have significantly smaller sensors. The fact that Sony has managed to put an APS-C sensor inside a camera that's just 1 3/8 inch deep is quite impressive, plus the camera only weighs 7.4 ounces. A nice but small grip pad at the front makes the camera comfortable to hold, despite its small size. The kit lens is fairly short (it adds less than 1.5” to the body), so it will also store well.
Point-and-shoot users making the step up will appreciate the familiar zoom toggle at the top of the camera, though DSLR would probably prefer the space be used for an extra control wheel. There is not just one, and not just two, but three ways to zoom on the NEX-3N; the zoom toggle at the top, the lens ring and a slider on the lens. I only found myself using two while out shooting, the toggle and the lens ring; I didn't notice any difference between using the slider or the toggle and frankly forgot it was even there. When shooting video, however, the toggle/slider is nice because you can keep the speed consistent. The toggle also allows for shooting and zooming with one hand, which is rather nice.
The control buttons also more closely resemble point-and-shoots. There are just three, unlabeled on the camera itself but labeled on the screen, which allows one button to have multiple functions (I didn't really find myself missing the extra buttons my DSLR would have). The menu arrows also double as shortcuts (which are labeled) for things like burst mode and ISO and a control wheel for adjusting the various settings. The screen, however, does a decent job of noting what the function of each particular button in each particular mode. The camera is easy to learn how to use.
The back of the Sony NEX-3 also has a dedicated movie button and one to pop up the flash (which tends to stick and needs to be pressed hard). What it doesn't have is a playback button. I'd be embarrassed to admit how much time I spent trying to figure out how to bring up the images I had taken. I'll save you some time—it's on the top of the camera. Strange, but it works and is easy to reach with the same finger you use on the shutter.
The biggest perk in the NEX-3N's design is the tilting LCD screen—it's really an unexpected bonus for the price point. And while many titling LCDs are designed in such a way that they can't be flipped 180 degrees, the screen on the NEX-3N can be flipped up for selfies. While the screen is bright, it's difficult to see in bright sunlight, however, and there's no viewfinder.
User Experience and Performance: Sony NEX-3N
The Sony NEX-3N is a solid performer for the budget price tag. Along with manual modes and a variety of scene modes, the NEX-3N has both superior auto and intelligent auto. Sony says the superior mode helps reduce noise, and images taken with the superior auto did seem to have low noise levels, even in poor indoor lighting. A few of the scene modes are also designed to help in challenging shots, including night scene and handheld twilight. The popular sweep panorama mode is also included and works well. Sony also added a handful of digital filters, including the popular selective color and retro look.
The speed of the NEX-3N isn't anything to brag about, but it is in no way bad either. Start-up and image recall are both quick and there wasn't a long autofocus delay. The burst mode, however, is only four frames per second. When recording in RAW plus JPEG, the burst mode only takes two shots at a time. After using the burst when recording RAW, we also noticed that we had to focus and then refocus before taking another shot right away.
And while being a budget model means having fewer modes in some areas, Sony included a few unique shooting modes that significantly improve the usability. Along with the usual self timer, there's a timer that takes three shots (because someone is always blinking in group photos that you want to jump in on). There's also a bracket mode that takes three shots at different exposure values, which is nice for both tricky shots and editing for HDR later on. The bracket mode takes a little longer to process, but the camera is ready to take another shot right away.
The flash also packs plenty of power and adequately lit up indoor subjects that were across the room. The button to pop-up the flash seemed to stick a little, but once up performed just fine.
The NEX-3 has fewer ISO settings than most cameras we've seen this year, but the range goes all the way up to 16,000 and is adequate.
The most impressive thing about the NEX-3's performance is the features for the price. There are a few minor things like the slower burst mode and fewer ISO options, but it's performance didn't scream “budget” like so many inexpensive cameras.
Image Quality: Sony NEX-3N
The small quirks in design and usability are easy to gloss over once you see the images from that large APS-C sensor in the NEX-3N—I wasn't wowed by this camera until I took a look at the images on my computer. The images are very detailed, the edges are sharp and the colors are generally accurate.
Extreme lighting conditions on both ends of the spectrum create a slight issue for the NEX-3N, however. Taking outdoor images on a bright, cloudless day, there were some inconsistencies in exposure. In programmed auto, images taken from nearly identical standpoints had very different exposures. The NEX-3N tends to overexpose in bright light (on automated settings) and loses a bit of detail in the shadow. The kit lens, with an aperture of f3.5 at the smallest, isn't as great as the large sensor in the body, but is typical for most budget lenses.
But, the available settings on the NEX-3N were able to adjust the exposure inconsistencies and I was happy with most of the images, particularly in the detail and the accuracy of all the colors. Macro shots also had a surprisingly nice depth of field, despite the slower lens. Compared to other $500 interchangeable lens cameras, the NEX-3N produces solid, detailed photos.
The NEX-3 certainly isn't the fastest or most versatile mirrorless on the market—but it is the most budget-friendly APS-C sensor camera. Designing a budget camera is about finding the right balance—and Sony made all the right choices to get the desired price without making huge cuts on image quality. The emphasis on the Sony NEX-3N is the large sensor and that shows in the images.
Sony isn't the only manufacturer to come up with a budget friendly mirrorless with a large sensor. Where does the NEX-3N stand compared to similar models? Most APS-C budget cameras are at least $100 more. Samsung makes a few models that also have wi-fi, but are closer to the $600 price point. Fujifilm's budget mirrorless, the X-A1, is also worth a look, but again, is about $100 more. The only competitor with a similar price is actually Sony themselves—last year's NEX-5N is now under $500 since the newer model has been released. If you can still find the NEX-5N, it has the same large sensor but has a 10fps burst, wi-fi and touchscreen.
The Sony NEX-3N is an excellent budget mirrorless. Ideal consumers for this camera would be beginners, point-and-shoot users looking to make the step up or someone just looking for a family camera with above average performance.