Sony A3000 hands-on: Cheap body, NEX lenses

Sony is pushing into new territory with the launch of the Sony A3000. But it's risky: this compact system camera lifts the Alpha brand name, but not the A-mount lenses. This is an Alpha with the E-mount from the NEX series. Confused yet?

The A3000 is all about affordability. Unlike similar-styled competitors such as the Panasonic Lumix GH3, Sony has opted for the entry-level, with a £370 price tag clearly reflecting that. It's designed to appeal to those who want an interchangeable lens system camera, but don't want to break the bank getting there.

The Sony A3000 has a body shape that reflects traditional DSLR style. There's a pronounced bump on the top to accommodate the flash and electronic viewfinder (EVF), and a sizeable handgrip to the right side. But it's Sony E-mount lens system that gives something that's closer, in physical appearance anyway, to the Panasonic Lumix G series.

The A3000's design makes for a camera that's more akin to a bridge camera than anything else; it has the feel of superzooom models of yesteryear and, if anything, that affordable price is most reflected in the feel of the camera in the hand. So there are some quality compromises you'll have to accommodate: it's light and plasticky, which is a polite way of saying it feels rather cheap.

The ergonomics are fairly sound, however, with the grip arguably making it easier to get a firmer hold than on Sony's super-skinny NEX models. The placement of the buttons, again, feels a little like a superzoom because of their tightly arranged positions. There's no sign of customisable Fn buttons, so despite this camera offering full manual controls via the mode dial on top, it feels lighter and more basic when it comes to accessing direct control.

Also on top is a hotshoe that's easily accommodated, thanks to the physical size. This will be of benefit to anyone wanting an accessory flash or microphone, ensuring expandability is no issue for this new series model.

Just under the hotshoe is the EVF, but it requires manual on/off operation rather than auto-detecting an approaching eye. That's something of a pain, as many cameras of this type - from rival DSLR-alike compact system cameras to super zoom bridge models - have an eye-level sensor and auto-on function. With the A3000 you'll have to hit the top-mounted button to switch from LCD to EVF and this just slows everything down. Even with our large (ahem) manly hands, it was something of a stretch to reach when gripping the camera.

As such we found the rear LCD to be more practical in use. At 3-inches in size and with a lowly 230k-dot resolution it does appear rather grainy and the lack of a tilt-angle mechanism is limiting. Still, this reflects the price point it of the A3000, but it continues to give the camera the feel of superzoom rather than "super CSC".

When it comes to image quality it's all new. There's a 20.1-megapixel APS-C sensor at the heart of the A3000 offering an ISO sensitivity up to 16,000, with the promise that the large sensor will give you results more akin to a DSLR or - perhaps more accurately - a Sony NEX model, given that the A3000 adopts the E-mount.

We didn't have the chance to assess the performance or take any snaps away with us, but we're certain that the success of the camera hangs on its ability to produce decent images. There's a lot that we're willing to overlook, but priced just £20 shy of the Sony NEX-3N, the A3000 needs to surpass the quality of NEX cameras to be an attractive prospect.

It's the E-mount on the front of the camera that may confound. We think it points to falling DSLR sales and Sony's desire to pull entry-level users into what will be its sustainable future system. There's not the same legacy with E-mount as there is with A-mount, but that's not to say there aren't plenty of options: E-mount is growing, right through from the relatively affordable Sony lenses to the far pricier Zeiss glass options.

The Sony A3000 will be available in September, and we'll bring you a full review as soon as we've had a final sample in to play with for an extended period of time.