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Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Ken McMahon, October 2011
 
   
 

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 verdict

The Alpha NEX-C3 is the first of Sony's second generation mirrorless ILC, or 'compact system cameras'. Appearing a little more than a year after the first NEX models, the NEX-C3 is smaller than both the NEX-3 and NEX-5 that preceded it and the pixel count is increased by 2 Megapixels to 16.2. Its fastest continuous shooting speed is a spry 5.5 frames per second, slower than the 7fps quoted for its predecessors, though in our tests the gap was much narrower, the C3 performing faster than the quoted rate and the NEX-3/5 slower.

The NEX-C3's best quality video mode is 720p at 30fps, so if you want full HD resolutions and AVCHD encoding you'l need to look at the new NEX-5N or 7, or possibly the older NEX-5. Aside from the smaller, lighter body, other new features include new results-based Photo Creativity modes, Picture Effects and an improved custom menu for quick access to frequently used controls in PASM modes.

   
 

 

Compared to Panasonic Lumix GF3

     
 
 
     
     

The biggest advantage the NEX-C3 has over the Lumix GF3 and, for that matter, any micro Four Thirds body is its larger sensor size. As well as providing an additional 4 megapixels resolution over the GF3, the NEX-C3 also benefits from superior low-light performance. The NEX-C3 not only outshines the GF3 at higher sensitivity settings, its composite low light modes goes a step further, providing better quality results than you can get with a single-shot exposure mode. In our outdoor test, however, there wasn't much between the Lumix GF3 and NEX-C3 in terms of quality.

The NEX-C3's screen is articulated which means you can flip it up and shoot from the waist (or down for overhead shots) and with 921k dots has finer resolution than the GF3's fixed screen. In its favour the GF3 screen is touch sensitive and if you spend more time shooting stills than video you may prefer its 3:2 proportions; the ability to pull-focus between subjects while filming by simply tapping them on-screen is also a key advantage for the GF3. If video is an important feature then you'll need to decide whether you'd rather shoot with the GF3's 1080i top quality video mode or settle for 720p on the NEX-C3's 16:9 screen.

After sensor size, the most likely deciding factor is handling and, as always, I'd recommend you try out both models before making a decision. The GF3 is surprisingly easy to operate in manual modes and Panasonic has struck a good balance between the screen and physical controls, though the the loss of the rear thumbwheel is a shame. The NEX-C3 has four customisable buttons and, in the absence of a shortcut menu like the GF3's Q Menu, it needs them, but if you prefer real buttons that you can assign your preferred functions to, it's hard to beat for speed and ease of use. And though the NEX-C3 lacks the lens catalogue on offer for micro Four Thirds bodies like the GF3 and olympus Pen E-PL3, features like peaking, which highlights in-focus detail when using manual focus lenses, look set to prove popular.

See my Panasonic Lumix GF3 review for more details.

 

Compared to Olympus Pen E-PL3

     
 
 
     

As with the GF3, the bigest difference between the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 and the Olympus Pen E-PL2 is sensor size and resolution. With a 4 megapixel advantage over the E-PL3 the NEX-C3 provides scope for bigger prints and aggressive cropping. Ordinarily the high sensor resolution would carry a cost in terms of noise and image quality, not so with the NEX-C3's larger APS-C sized sensor which outdoes the E-PL3 in terms of high ISO noise performance.

As for image quality generally, I thought the E-PL3 results were marginally superior to the NEX-C3, but the differences are more likely to be due to processing approaches rather than sensor output, which means if you're prepared to experiment with custom settings or shoot RAW, this isn't likely to be an issue.

What about Features and handling? The biggest difference here is the Pen E-PL3's built-in stabilisation, the arguments for against most people will be familiar with. The bottom line is the Pen has stabilisation whatever lens you're using, whereas if you want stabilisation on the NEX-C3, you need a stabilsed lens.

Both cameras provide a high degree of customisation, but the Pen E-PL3's mode dial is a positive advantage here, providing direct access to Shooting modes. That, and the E-PL3's Live Control shortcuts menu means you can customise without compromising in the way the NEX-C3's lack of physical controls forces you to. Finally, it's a small point, but if you do a lot of Flash Photography the NEX-C3's fiddly non-standard connector is a bit of an irritant and less useful than the E-PL3's conventional hotshoe.

See my Olympus E-PL3 review for more details.

 

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 final verdict

The Sony Alpha NEX-C3 is the first of the second generation NEX models. The big selling point of the NEX range is its sensor which is the same size as most DSLRs. It's significantly bigger than the Micro Four Thirds sensor used in the Panasonic Lumix GF3 and Olympus Pen E-PL2 and, if the new mirrorless ILC models appearing from Pentax and Nikon are anything to go by, Sony has the small camera with big sensor marketplace to itself for a while yet.

The NEX-C3's strengths are its low light performance, its size and the scope it provides for customisation of its soft buttons. Combine that with new features aimed at novice photographers - Photo Creativity mode and Picture Effects and, on the face of there's a lot to like for beginners looking to move several notches up from a compact. As a DSLR replacement, the prospect of compactness and convenience without having to compromise on sensor size is very attractive, and the handling and user interface have come a long way since the early NEX-3/5. But there's still room for improvement: for example it would be nice not to have to choose between direct access to shooting modes and a custom menu, or to have to hunt throught the inteminable setup menu to turn stabilisation off. That said, these are fairly minor handling issues that become less of an issue the more you get used to using the NEX-C3.

Everything else aside, the NEX-C3 is smaller, lighter,and more fully featured than the first generation NEX models. It provides increased sensor resolution at little or no cost to its excellent image quality and delivers improved handling both for compact upgraders and enthusiasts. All-in-all, more than enough to gain it our Highly Recommended award.



Good points
APS-C sensor with superb noise performance.
Aperture priority movie exposure mode.
Results-based Photo Creativity modes.
Improved Custom menu layout.

Bad points
Custom button replaces shooting mode.
Lacks 1080 AVCHD video.
No hotshoe - fiddly flash connector.
1600 ISO limit in iAuto mode.




Scores

(relative to 2011 ILCs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

17 / 20
18 / 20
16 / 20
18 / 20
17 / 20

86%


   

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