Sony's taking a different approach to the consumer interchangeable lens market with the A3000, essentially a 20.1MP APS-C mirrorless camera that uses the same E-mount as the Sony NEX line, yet which has the look and feel of a traditional SLR. Though not the first manufacturer to take this approach, Sony is the first to achieve the low starting price point of $399 for both lens and body. However, to achieve that price point the company had to choose lower quality components for the LCD and electronic viewfinder (EVF).

While small mirrorless cameras have caught on in much of the world, adoption is quite low in the US, with most consumers preferring more substantial-looking cameras like Rebel-class and mid-range SLRs. If they're going to spend several hundred dollars, the reasoning seems to be that most want something that looks like a professional camera. Superficially, the Sony A3000 is rather like the now-discontinued Panasonic G10, a low-priced mirrorless with an EVF and an LCD on the back, designed to ape, if not directly challenge Canon's Rebel and Nikon's D3000-series SLRs.

Sony A3000 key features

  • 20.1MP Exmor APS-C HD CMOS sensor
  • Compatible with Sony E-mount lenses and A-mount with optional adaptor
  • 1080 60i video
  • Built-in stereo microphones
  • Optical Steady Shot stabilization
  • 25-point Contrast-detect AF
  • 3-inch, 230K LCD
  • ISO 100-16,000 for stills, 100-3200 for video
  • 1/4000 to 30 second shutter speeds, bulb
  • Sweep panorama
  • Shooting tips, Intelligent Auto, other novice modes
  • HDMI out

From the front, the A3000 sells itself well, with handsome design and black spatter paint. The standard 18-55mm kit lens seems just a little small though, on the comparitively fulsome body. The grip is ample, and one could almost imagine a pentamirror fitting behind that Sony logo (though of course there isn't one).

However, the illusion falls apart when you pick up the A3000. While the feel of the grip is indeed substantial, the rest of the camera looks and feels hollow from the back. Its appearance also screams low-budget, with few controls. The LCD is more coarse than we're used to seeing these days, with disappointingly low 230,400-dot resolution; its 3-inch size amplifies the effect. The small EVF is also disappointing, and what appears to be a rubber pad around the outside is actually hard plastic, a hazard to glasses-wearers. Those who liked the menus of the NEX system cameras will feel right at home with the A3000's menu; those who did not will carry on hating. 

Perhaps the most glaring miscue is that there's no infrared proximity sensor to switch between the LCD and EVF. Instead you have to press a button on the top of the A3000, one that's difficult to reach over the Mode dial with your hand on the grip. A small thing, but for a camera that is designed to appeal to customers on the showroom floor of Best Buy and Costco, it'll likely fail the first test everyone will naturally put to the camera when they pick it up and look through the viewfinder - expecting it to perform like an SLR, they'll wonder why the finder is black.

Our concern is that while it was designed to appeal to those who want the perception of professional quality offered by the SLRs of other manufacturers (Sony openly admitted as much to us), despite its appearance the A3000 fails in two key ways: it neither feels like an SLR nor does it function entirely like an SLR either. And as potential buyers move down the counter trying the various other cameras on display, we think they'll notice the difference.

Of course, this is the enthusiast perspective. Naturally, a lot of people will look no further than the pricetag. This is a $400 interchangeable lens camera. It has a 20.1MP sensor. It captures 1080 60i movies with built-in stereo mics. Those specs are hard to argue with. And the A3000 has so many of the features that make Sony NEX cameras appealing, but packaged in an SLR-like body. For those willing to live with the low-res EVF and LCD, the Sony A3000 is undoubtedly a bargain. It enters a price range appropriate for older kids wanting a better camera, a smartphone upgrader, as well as simple impulse buys, gifts and anyone wanting a decent sensor and interchangeable lenses without spending a fortune.

Kit options and pricing

Expected to retail for $400, the Sony A3000 and 18-55mm kit lens will ship in early September 2013.