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Conclusion - Pros

  • Three dial interface offers extensive fingertip control
  • Superb build quality
  • Excellent 2.4 million-dot OLED EVF in compact, slimline body
  • 920K dot tilting rear screen
  • Very high-resolution 24MP CMOS sensor with impressive high-ISO performance
  • Exceptionally 'deep' feature set including Auto HDR and Sweep Panorama
  • Seamlessly-integrated movie mode with full manual control
  • Class-leading video resolution
  • Fast and responsive operation
  • Class-leading continuous shooting performance
  • Live View maintained during continuous shooting (at 3.75 fps)
  • Huge degree of control customization available

Conclusion - Cons

  • Out-of-camera JPEGs don't show off the 24MP sensor to its best extent
  • Auto ISO limited to maximum of 1600
  • Top-plate dials indistinguishable by touch (most problematic when using EVF)
  • Mystifying default control setup (e.g. easier to change JPEG sharpness than flash mode)
  • No custom settings memories
  • EVF proximity sensor can keep camera 'awake' and rapidly drain battery
  • Movie button prone to accidental activation
  • Limited autoexposure bracketing options
  • Menu system disorganized and confusing
  • Additional dials poorly-integrated into existing NEX interface (e.g. in playback mode)
  • Somewhat incoherent controls (functions behave differently depending on how they're accessed)
  • Unnecessarily complicated to navigate between stills and movie playback modes
  • No built-in wireless flash control (needs accessory flash)
  • No touchscreen (e.g. for touch focus point selection)

Overall conclusion

When the NEX-7 was first announced, it looked as though Sony had gathered together a set of enthusiasts' wish lists and built a camera to exceed them all. From the compact 'rangefinder style' body with its built-in electronic viewfinder, through the high resolution sensor offering 24MP stills and Full HD 60p video, to the triple-control-dial interface, it ticked all the right boxes on paper. There's little doubt that the NEX-7 is one of the most exciting cameras of 2011.

In the flesh, it lives up to almost all of that initial promise. The EVF is excellent, stills image and video quality both superb, and the handling is remarkably good for such a small camera. The use of three dials to control each of the main exposure parameters makes so much sense that it seems odd no-one's done it quite like this before. The fact that these dials can also be used to change a wide range of other settings, cycled through by pressing a button on the top plate, borders on genius. In fact the NEX-7 is so good in so many respects that any criticism almost feels like nit-picking. It's not perfect, but then again no camera is, and its imperfections can generally be overcome.

Image Quality

The NEX-7's image quality is difficult to fault. The 24MP sensor is capable of recording huge amounts of detail (just as long as your lens can deliver it), while also offering excellent high ISO performance for low light work, with quite useable results up to ISO 6400. In this regard it does visibly better than the SLT-A77 we reviewed recently that shares the same sensor, but diverts a substantial fraction of the incoming light to its autofocus sensor. It's no stretch to say that, at its best, the NEX-7 offers the finest still image quality of any APS-C camera, bar none.

The metering system is generally reliable, and tends to protect highlights from blowing out reasonably effectively; auto white balance works pretty well too. Because the camera attempts to preview both exposure and white balance as accurately as possible in the Live View display, it's also easy enough to spot when the camera is getting things wrong and adjust accordingly.

We have some reservations about Sony's JPEG processing, which is somewhat destructive of fine, low-contrast detail. This comes as a result of both slightly-unsubtle, relatively wide-radius sharpening and enthusiastic noise reduction, even at low ISOs. With so many pixels to play with, though, there's still plenty of detail in the JPEGs - but if you want to extract the best the camera can offer, you'll definitely need to shoot RAW.

Sony now offers in-camera compensation for lens aberrations, namely chromatic aberration, vignetting and distortion, which generally works pretty well. The former two are turned on by default; we'd enable Distortion Compensation too for JPEG work. Any corrections that are enabled in-camera are also applied by Sony's Image Data Converter to its RAW conversions, but somewhat unexpectedly vignetting compensation also affects Adobe Camera Raw. This indicates that it's applied before the RAW file is written, so RAW shooters may prefer to turn it off.

Handling

For such a small camera, the NEX-7's handling is remarkably good. The use of three dials to control the main exposure parameters, with the rear dial essentially dedicated to ISO and the right dial to exposure compensation, makes it extremely fluid to shoot with. A single press of the top plate 'navigation' button calls up a screen that allows you to move the AF point wherever in the frame you want, and pressing again cycles through a range of other parameters, which are highly user-definable. It's a system that works exceptionally well.

The NEX-7 sits nicely in your hand too, with its deceptively-simple deep, squared-off grip. This allows you to carry the camera around comfortably and securely in one hand, which is practically unique for this body style. The various controls are all well-placed within easy reach of your right hand, and easy to reach even with the camera to your eye. The only caveat here is that the two top-plate dials are indistinguishable by touch alone, making it easy to change the wrong parameter by mistake. It's also worth noting that for better or worse, unlike other similar cameras (including the NEX-5N), the NEX-7 lacks a touchscreen control.

However while the hardware is impressive, not for the first time a NEX is slightly let down by its firmware. Once you delve beneath the top-level controls, you'll find the same firmware as on previous models practically in its entirety, and this isn't necessarily a good thing. It means that many functions can be controlled in three different ways - from the menus, soft keys, or control dials - and behave differently in each. And you won't want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary in the menu system, which we've never found to be a paragon of usability.

We're also surprised by the camera's out-of-the-box setup, which prioritizes dial-led control of JPEG-processing parameters - Dynamic Range Optimization, Creative Style and White Balance - while leaving certain key camera controls lurking in the menu system (such as Metering and Flash Modes). Meanwhile the lower soft key somewhat pointlessly duplicates the first option on the triple-dial-control (Focus Settings). If you mainly shoot RAW and want direct control over as many camera settings as possible, you'll probably find the NEX-7's default setup infuriating.

Fortunately, though, the camera is immensely configurable, and if you spend some time studying the manual and working out which functions you want to place where, the chances are you can set it up to suit your way of working. Because the NEX-7 uses a highly modal control system, with the soft keys and dials unlabeled and their current functions displayed on-screen, making radical changes to the camera's setup doesn't have any negative effect on usability. So once you've configured it to your satisfaction, the NEX-7 becomes a pleasure to use.

Special note has to be made also of how well-integrated movie mode is into the overall shooting experience. Unlike most similar cameras, there's really no distinction made between the two, and the NEX-7 will honour all of your settings in any exposure mode - even if you change them while recording. However we do find the red movie button to be somewhat exposed, and easily activated accidentally. Given how pleasant the NEX-7 is to use as a movie camera, it is a real shame that the playback of movie files (where video and still image files are reviewed separately, rather than chronologically in the order captured) is managed so poorly.

The Final Word

The NEX-7 is, without doubt, something of a technological triumph for Sony. It manages to fit a huge amount into a small camera, yet does so with barely a false move - at least in terms of the hardware. We're not great fans of its firmware though, particularly its default control setup, and suspect many users will want to reconfigure it extensively. But once that's done, there's little doubt that the NEX-7 is one of the most capable cameras around, and in terms of out-and-out image quality it's probably the best APS-C camera yet, regardless of size.

If there's a problem for the NEX-7, though, it's the ambition of launching such a sophisticated, high-end enthusiast camera into a relatively undeveloped system. Once you look beyond the camera body to the lenses you'll want to use with it, your options are - at launch at least - rather limited. There's the Carl Zeiss Sonnar E 24mm F1.8, which is without doubt a fine lens, but is larger than the kit zoom and costs almost as much as the camera again. The E 50mm F1.8 OSS looks promising on paper, but we haven't had a chance to use one yet. Otherwise you're looking at lenses with unambitious maximum apertures arguably better-suited to lower-end cameras. Indeed walking around with the NEX-7 and the 18-55mm kit zoom feels a bit like driving a supercar in a suburban speed limit - you're fully aware of its vast potential, but can't take full advantage of it.

Even if you have the money to shell out for the NEX-7 and 24mm F1.8, there's also little doubt you'll get better value elsewhere - at least in terms of building a flexible system to work with now. For example, for the same price you could buy the Olympus PEN E-P3 with EVF, 20mm F1.7 and 45mm F1.8 lenses, and have plenty of change to spare. The sensor's not as good, but the lenses give you more creative options.

If you own Alpha mount lenses you can use these on the on the NEX-7 with the LA-EA2 adapter to fill in the gaps in the E range. But this comes at the cost of additional bulk when compact size is one of the NEX-7's main attractions; arguably you may as well buy an SLT-A65 instead, for a lot less money. You can also use a vary array of other lenses via appropriate adapters - but without autofocus or image stabilization. Of course if you're happy to run with what Sony offers now, and wait for additional lenses to appear, then the NEX-7 really can't be beaten.

So overall the NEX-7 is an amazing piece of hardware, and although its firmware feels rather cobbled-together, once you have the camera set up to your liking it's a joy to shoot with and delivers excellent results. So despite our reservations about how it fits into the E system as a whole, taken on its own merits the NEX-7 is an exceptional camera, and a worthy winner of our top award.

Sony Alpha NEX-7
Category: Mid Range Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
Enthusiasts looking for a small-bodied camera with exceptional image quality for both stills and video
Not so good for
Less-experienced users, or anyone looking to build an extensive system around the camera
Overall score
81%
The NEX-7 packs an awful lot of features into its small body, including an excellent 24MP APS-C sensor and large high resolution electronic viewfinder. Its three dial interface and extensive customizability makes for excellent handling, although its default setup leaves something to be desired. The biggest drawback (at launch) is the relatively undeveloped system, and lack of top-quality E-mount lenses to get the most out of it.

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

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