Sony's announcement of revised firmware for the NEX mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras was easily missed amongst all of the excitement of Photokina 2010. Version 03 brings extensive revisions, including the ability to set the aperture when recording movies and the enabling of autofocus when using SAM and SSM Alpha-mount lenses via the adapter. But, perhaps most importantly, it addresses some of the major criticisms of the user interface made by reviewers and users alike. We've had a bit of a chance to use the latest firmware so thought we would publish our initial thoughts, ahead of revising the camera review. The review itself is in the process of being updated and will be re-published with updated scoring as soon as firmware 03 becomes publicly available.

Firmware 03 first impressions

The first thing to be done is to congratulate Sony for being willing to accept that its product could be improved and make such wide-ranging and significant changes (which isn't a simple or common undertaking for a company of Sony's size). Having shot with the latest firmware for over a week, it's apparent that the company has listened closely to what users and reviewers have been saying, and has corrected many of the camera's shortcomings.

User interface changes

The NEX cameras are primarily aimed at users wanting DSLR image quality but point-and-shoot ease-of-use and, for that audience, the latest firmware makes no real difference. The tendency of the cameras to overexpose slightly in iAuto mode remains, as does the limitation of only being able to use up to ISO 1600 along with the inability to use the multi-shot noise reduction and high dynamic range modes. It's a shame to see that the Auto+ mode from the more recent SLT cameras (that automatically uses multi-shot modes if necessary), hasn't been introduced. With all that said, however, it wasn't the iAuto mode we found particularly problematic - it was the more user-controlled PASM modes.

The PASM modes of the NEX could be hugely frustrating to use. Most reviews (and many user comments), highlighted the manifold problems with the user interface when used in the PASM modes - the difference between the final conclusions were often a matter of how willing the reviewer or user was to overlook the flaws. So it's great to be able to say that the majority of drawbacks have been successfully addressed.

The biggest problem previously was that setting anything more involved than exposure compensation (including basic features such as ISO and white balance) required delving into the NEX's heavily partitioned menu system. This has been resolved with the ability to customize two of the soft-buttons on the back of the camera. The difference this makes is remarkable - choose your settings carefully and it's very rare for you to have to enter the menu system, instantly improving the user experience significantly.

The central and lower buttons (known as 'soft' keys because they are not hard-coded with a specific function), can now be customized.

The lower button is called soft key B and the central one is soft key C.
Soft key B can be set be set to any of ten functions. This includes key functions such as ISO, White Balance and MF Assist (magnified live view).

You can't, however, use it to switch from autofocus to manual or between JPEG and RAW.
Soft key C (the central button) can either be customized or used for its default purpose: jumping to the virtual mode dial.

Switching it to 'Custom' has the advantage that the virtual mode dial is always a consistent number of steps away.
Up to three functions from a list of seven can be assigned to the center button.

There's also a 'Not Set' option that means you only need to cycle through the options you actually want while shooting.
In use, the chosen settings are quick and easy to access - press the central button then left or right to switch between functions.
When selecting within these settings, the lower button lets you change options (if that setting has them).

Again this reduces the amount of time you have to spend navigating menus, reducing distractions from shooting.
There are a couple of omissions - there's no Exposure- or Focus-Lock option, which can cause exposure problems if you focus-and-recompose.

There's also no option to switch from RAW to JPEG, so you can still be confronted by error messages if you want to shoot an HDR image.

There are a couple of omissions that may affect some users, depending on their shooting habits (anyone how likes to focus and recompose is likely to be disappointed that they can't lock exposure or focus independently), but for most keen photographers the experience is likely to be a great improvement. Providing easy access to settings such as ISO immediately reduces the need to use the menu system, meaning fewer distractions from the business of shooting.

On the subject of the menus, two small changes have been made that make them slightly more pleasant to use: the first is that they now loop from the last item to the first or vice versa (so it's much quicker to get to options at the bottom of a menu). This in itself is a nice change but it's improved still further by a new setting to remember the last option you used in each section of the menu, and use that as the start point for navigation in that section. Again this small change makes a big difference - it means you don't have to hunt for the settings you change most often.

One small setting change makes the menus behave much more pleasantly - set Menu Start to 'Previous' rather than 'Top' and you'll always find yourself arriving back in a menu where you last left it.

The final change to the user interface brought by Firmware 03 is a revision to manual focus assist (magnified live view). It's another change that makes the shooting experience faster and less intrusive. The latest firmware remembers where you'd chosen to zoom in and will revert to that point next time it's engaged. This means, if you're using manual focus lenses on the NEX, you can focus on, for instance, your subject's eye and be sure that you can do the same again a moment later, rather than having to reposition your magnified area first (while your model gets bored).

The camera now remembers where you last chose to magnify in MF Assist mode. This is true regardless of whether you're using an e-mount lens in manual focus mode or a non-native lens via an adapter.

It's a small change but one that makes fine focusing much, much faster when trying to focus on an off-center point. For instance it's now much quicker to confirm and fine-tune focus if you want to take more than one portrait shot (you don't have to expect your subject to wait as you re-position the magnified portion).

Throughout our review we tried to make clear how impressed we were with the physical design of the NEX cameras (particularly the NEX-5) and with the image quality, which is very good indeed (and not just 'for a camera of that size'). However, we found the user interface interfered enough when shooting that it became an interruption to the photographic experience to an extent that was inexcusable. However, this update addresses the vast majority of our concerns, to the point that we would now quite happily recommend the NEX cameras to enthusiast users. The update doesn't suddenly make everything perfect but it does leave them no more flawed than their competitors.

We said at the time that we didn't think many changes were required to make the NEX significantly better and this update proves that point perfectly. Firmware 03 changes the status of the PASM modes from feeling like an afterthought to being a well-thought-out and integrated shooting method. This firmware update hasn't just been rushed-out to address criticisms - it's seems very carefully considered. Overall, its fair to say that the update recasts the NEXs from being potentially good cameras let down by bizarre user interface design to being two of the best mirrorless models you can buy (particularly for enthusiast users). The review and scoring will be updated to reflect this as soon as the firmware becomes publicly available.

Suggested settings

After extended use by several people in the office, these would be our suggested settings. Obviously the exact option you chose will depend on your shooting style and needs but we believe most enthusiast photographers will find these a good place to start:

Soft Key B (lower button) • MF Assist. Because the lower button reverts back to area selection in AF area selection mode, we'd suggest MF Assist, rather than ISO, since it's impossible to need MF Assist and AF area selection at the same time.
Soft Key C (center button) • ISO is pretty much essential, since it gives you direct control over sensitivity and allows easy access to the settings above 1600 that Auto ISO won't use.

Beyond that, although there are seven other options, we found ourselves mainly using two of the following three:
• White Balance
• Autofocus Area (for easy switching to an off-center AF point, given the previously mentioned drawbacks of focusing and recomposing)
• DRO/Auto HDR (the full capabilities of these modes are only available when shooting JPEG only, but they're nice features to be able to control and have easy access to).

Other Firmware 03 changes

Because our biggest criticisms of the NEX cameras were based on their user interface, that has been the focus of our time spent with the camera so far. These improvements aren't the only changes that have been made. There's also the ability to preset the aperture for movie shooting - whichever aperture you've selected in M or A mode, or via iAuto mode's defocus control system is maintained during shooting (though can't be adjusted).

Although not technically part of Firmware 03 (it's a separate firmware update for the LA-EA1 Alpha mount lens adapter), Sony has also unlocked the ability of the adapter to autofocus Alpha-mount lenses with built-in autofocus motors (those with the SSM and SAM designation). We'll be writing more about this when we've had a chance to test with a wider range of lenses.