(Pocket-lint) - Compact system cameras (CSC) have developed over the years and are now as much a part of the photographic tapestry as their DSLR cousins. It was only a matter of time before a high-end model would hit the shelves, and it’s Sony’s NEX-7 that takes that title.
Breaking the mould of the lower-spec NEX-series models, the NEX-7 has a built-in OLED electronic viewfinder and an APS-C sized sensor with a mahoosive 24.3-megapixel resolution. It’s also laden with more controls and dials than you could shake a stick at. But do all these components marry together to make the NEX-7 a winner, and will there be demand for a high-spec CSC that costs upward of a grand?
Faced front-on and the NEX-7 doesn’t look altogether different from the rest of the NEX family. Flip this baby round and it’s a whole different story: the NEX-7 features a dual thumbwheel-like set of controls to the rear. There’s an AF/MF & AEL switch and button added to the usual array of a rotational d-pad and twin function buttons. A built-in pop-up flash is discreetly tucked away on top, next to which is a Sony/Minolta hotshoe fitting. Next to this - and we’re almost out of physical space - and Sony’s managed to cram in a 100% field-of-view OLED electronic viewfinder.
Cramming is certainly the name of the game, and the NEX-7 feels somewhat busy because of this. The decision to place the one-touch movie button on a raised outer edge to the rear makes it a prime target for accidental pressing and, therefore, unwanted movie recording. The same can be said for the thumbwheel-like controls.
We say "thumbwheel-like", as they’re rather different to the sort of design you’d find on a DSLR camera; these are a far bulkier set of wheels. The decision to place them side by side feels a little strange in use, plus they’re loose and therefore very easy to knock and accidentally during shooting which leads to unwanted exposure compensation adjustment and lots of frustration.
The d-pad can have its left, right and centre buttons customised to suit your needs that, in addition to the two other function buttons, is an essential to get the most out of the camera. Still no sign of a mode dial though which, frankly, is sheer insanity as the in-camera virtual menus, as with the 5N and C3, is as baffling as ever.
The NEX-7’s been bold by strapping all manner of controls to the body, but hasn’t made much use of the camera’s front and this makes the design feel busied to its detriment - simply because it’s too easy to knock dials and buttons in use when you don’t want to.
Pinched from the excellent Sony SLT-A77 the NEX-7 is the first CSC to grace an electronic viewfinder as good as this. Sure there are other models with 1.44m-dot EVFs, but Sony’s 2.4m-dot OLED viewfinder blows those out the water. And then some.
Now, an electronic viewfinder isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s good to see here. Most CSC cameras either rely on an external viewfinder or leave it to the screen to handle. What Sony’s implemented as an alternative is the best on the market bar none.
The OLED viewfnder has a 1.09x magnification which means the screen is large to the eye, and the fluid playback from the panel is great in good light. Low light, on the other hand, isn’t the NEX-7’s best friend but it still does an acceptable job. The progressive scan helps to eradicate image tearing when panning, though the current refresh rate isn’t quite good enough to cancel out all ghosting.
In no time at all you’ll be accustomed to the viewfinder, though its placement to the very edge of the camera body does feel a little strange at first (though it’s essential in order to continue to access the thumbwheel controls).
To complement the viewfinder, the NEX-7 also features a 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD that’s mounted on a tilt-angle bracket for vertical adjustment. The screen itself is rather contrasty which can make detail and exposure assessment a little tricky from time to time.
The same sensor as found in the Sony Alpha SLT-A77 means a massive 24.3-megapixel resolution is at your disposal. That makes the NEX-7 the highest resolution CSC on the market by a long way. But do we really need all those megapixels? In the same manner as the SLT-A77, cramming - that’s what the NEX-7’s good at - so many pixels onto a relatively small sensor surface area can have a negative impact on signal quality. It’s testament to the Sony engineering team that this doesn’t become an issue, however, as the NEX-7’s image quality is superb.
One thing the NEX-7 lacks, that the SLT-A77 does have, is a translucent mirror (or a mirror of any kind) and so this should deliver around a third a stop of light more to the CSC’s sensor and therefore go easier on the processing. However this made little difference to our results that, even at the highest ISO settings, were indistinguishable from SLT and CSC. From ISO 100-800 we were very happy with the NEX-7’s results, and while low light work up at 1600 does reveal more image noise, the camera’s still able to maintain good colour and detail. Then there’s a sharper jump into processing issues from ISO 3200 and above that cause detail to diminish and colour to dull, which we’ll put down to the highly populated sensor. The NEX-7, like the SLT-A77, won’t win top prize for best low light performance, though to keep things in context the top ISO 16,000 setting is still more than usable.
Though we do have to ask, how much better would have image quality have been if the sensor was an 18-megapixel resolution version?
Bells and whistles
For a premium CSC you’d expect bags of high-end features, and the NEX-7 doesn’t disappoint on this front.
The camera’s 10fps burst mode isn’t as impressive as the SLT-A77’s due to the lack of continuous autofocus ability at this speed, but being able to reel off a batch of Raw files without issue is a satisfying experience. The NEX-7’s 1080p HD movie mode is equally impressive, offering a huge 28Mbps data rate in AVCHD capture and full manual control during recording. It’s the king of CSCs for movie capture.
The built in flash is also great to have, but it’s the inclusion of a hotshoe that really sets the NEX-7 apart from its lower-class siblings. The Sony Smart Accessory Terminal is (thankfully) nowhere to be seen, with the standard Sony/Minolta hotshoe instead, meaning, not only can you add a more powerful flash but also control external flashguns using wireless control.
But where the NEX-7 comes short is with its focusing system. Fine though it is, the systems from most of its competitors (Olympus PEN, Panasonic G, Nikon 1 and Samsung NX) better the Sony's in terms of speed and precision. This is a disappointment when forking our over a grand for a high-spec product and will need to be Sony’s next big area of focus (yes, yes we did just write that). Like we say, it’s really not too bad, but the desire for something extra special just isn’t met here.
However, it’s not just the speed that’s an issue: focusing in low light scenarios frequently fools you into thinking focus has been acquired even when the final image’s focus is slightly off the mark.
Some blame can be put towards the 18-55mm lens that’s just as basic as that found on the front of the £420 NEX-C3. It’s a serviceable enough lens, but it doesn’t seem to match up with what the NEX-7 should be all about. Where’s the wide aperture and premium optical quality? There are other options in the pipeline, such as the 50mm f/1.8 prime, but Sony needs a larger variety of lenses to choose from to make the NEX-7 a more attractive prospect.
The NEX-7 ticks some very big boxes. It’s got the electronic viewfinder department wrapped up and tied off with a big bow, the movie mode is great and the 10fps burst mode is an attractive option. Image quality is impressive, even more so when considering the huge 24.3-megapixel resolution that the camera delivers.
But there are shortcomings: the design feels busy and somewhat crammed together, plus no mode dial and questionable controls placement can cause accidental mode adjustments when you don’t expect it.
Is the world ready for a high-end CSC? Well, maybe. There’s a lot of good in the NEX-7 and it’s far better than its NEX-C3 and NEX-5N siblings, but the 7’s focusing system is weak compared to its main CSC rivals. Put the £1129 price in context and in light of the general lack of E-mount lenses and the NEX-7 might have been better placed to arrive a little later in the release schedule. It’s got some big pluses, but those are, in part, countered by the mentioned downsides and the fact the far better Sony A77 isn’t a whole lot more cash.