Design & Handling

The Alpha NEX-F3 is a compact mirrorless camera made mostly of composite (AKA plastic) materials. Despite all that plastic, the F3 is well put-together. The camera is easy to hold with one hand (unless you've got a large lens attached), though there's little room for the fingers on our right hand, which end up sitting on buttons or the rear dial. In addition, the movie recording button is harder to press than one would expect. The NEX-C3 is very much a menu-driven camera (hence the lack of direct buttons), and I'll touch more on its interface later in the review.

The F3 has a more rectangular body than its predecessor, and the shutter release button has been moved on top of the grip, whose design has also changed. The F3 is a small camera but fits nicely in the hand and balances well with the kit 18-55mm lens.

The NEX-F3 sports a 16.2 Megapixel APS-C size sensor, which is as large as you'll find in a mirrorless camera. As I mentioned in the intro to this review, this sensor is newer than the one in the NEX-C3, and is shared by Sony's SLT-A37 Translucent Mirror D-SLR. All mirrorless cameras have a high likelihood of having dust collect on its sensor, as there's something in-between it and the elements. Sony uses an ultrasonic dust removal system to literally shake dust away. That said, historically I've had more trouble with dust on the NEX cameras than on ILCs made by other manufacturers.

All lenses have a 1.5X crop factor, so the 18 - 55 kit lens is equivalent to 27 - 82.5 mm. To release an attached lens, simply press the button to the lower-left of the mount. On the opposite side of the camera is the F3's articulated LCD screen. Although not fully articulated, the fold-out-and-up design allows for considerable versatility when framing, although something I don't like about the new display is that you can only tilt it downward by 13 degrees, as opposed to 45 degrees on the NEX-C3. That makes it pretty hard to shoot with the camera above you.

Being a mirrorless camera, you'll be using the LCD or optional electronic viewfinder for composing your photos on the NEX-F3. The 'live view' implementation on the NEX-F3 is excellent, though the widescreen LCD isn't really suited to 4:3 photography. What you will get is a bright and fluid view of the scene, super-fast autofocus, a live histogram, your choice of grid lines, and the ability to enlarge the for accurate manual focusing. Another handy feature for manual focusing is called focus peaking. This feature sharpens the edges of the part of your photo that's in-focus. You can choose the 'intensity' of the peaking feature, as well as the color used. As I mentioned earlier, the LCD has just average visibility outdoors. In low light, the screen brightens up fairly well, so you can see what you're trying to photograph.

The 'view' in live view, with histogram
The custom (shortcut) menu in action

Unfortunately, using the NEX-F3 isn't as pleasant as it should be, due to its clunky user interface. As with every NEX model (save for the NEX-7), the interface on the NEX-F3 is totally menu-driven. There are very few direct buttons and no physical mode dial, meaning that you'll be diving into the menu to change just about every setting. Sony thankfully lets you create a shortcut menu (which can hold up to five settings), which is activated by the center button on the four-way controller. While the shortcut menu saves some time, adjusting settings on the NEX-F3 still takes longer than it should.

The only mode dial on the NEX-F3 is this virtual one

The bottom line here is that you really need to get your hands on the NEX-F3 in order to decide if the interface is something you can work with. I personally find it very frustrating to use (in case you hadn't noticed), but others may not mind.

Now let's take a look at how the NEX-F3 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:
Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Nikon 1 J1 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 12.7 cu in. 234 g
Olympus E-PL3 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.5 in. 16.1 cu in. 265 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 4.6 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 19.9 cu in. 272 g
Pentax K-01 4.8 x 3.1 x 2.3 in. 34.2 cu in. 479 g
Samsung NX210 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 16.1 cu in. 222 g
Sony Alpha NEX-F3 4.6 x 2.6 x 1.7 in. 20.3 cu in. 255 g

Ignoring the giant, SLR-sized Pentax for a second, you'll see that the NEX-F3 is one of the bulkier cameras in this group. The only way you're going to get it into your jeans pocket is with the 16mm pancake lens attached - otherwise it's riding over your shoulder or in a camera bag.