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When you put the NEX-C3 and NEX-F3 side-by-side, one thing is immediately apparent: the F3 has put on a few pounds over the winter. The F3's grip protrudes slightly further than the C3, better accommodating the hand, especially when using longer zoom lenses. The change also results in a repositioning of the shutter release button, with it now shaped in a way that better aligns with your index finger while shooting.

Beyond that, the NEX-F3 is very similar to previous NEX cameras. It features unlabeled soft keys alongside the rear articulated LCD, with the function for the keys called out on the screen itself. In addition, there's a rear scroll wheel that is your primary method of interacting with the camera. The camera's LCD screen has also undergone some changes, with the ability to now swing until it faces all the way forward, toward your subject.

Beyond those small changes, the NEX-F3 fits right in alongside its NEX peers, with a modern, sleek design. It doesn't have the plush feel or built-in electronic viewfinder of the NEX-7, but it certainly should give those shopping for the NEX-5N some pause.

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The menu on the NEX-F3 is exactly as it is on other NEX cameras. There's one main page that has access to the shooting modes, camera settings, video settings, setup, and brightness/color. The brightness/color page is the most interesting, but it's the most confusing as well, as it has several functions that are not really related to either brightness or color. All in all it's like any camera menu system—not perfect, but you get used to it quickly. If you are used to the NEX menu already, though, you'll feel right at home with the F3.

The Sony NEX-F3 is quite easy to use, similar to previous NEX cameras. The camera features the usual list of shooting tips right in the menu, alongside the new superior auto+ mode that is designed to aid beginners. While the menu itself isn't as organized as on other Sony cameras, it's legible and rather simple to learn.

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The one hitch with all NEX cameras that may hold up beginners is the unlabeled keys. With the camera off, you'd be hard pressed to figure out what anything on the camera does. Once you learn to look on the screen for the corresponding key labels, it's a pretty easy system. In addition, Sony also uses some simpler terminology and symbols for describing key functions. For example, aperture control is labeled as "defocus control", describing the effect that a large aperture has when shooting with the camera's APS-C image sensor.

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The NEX-F3 is just slightly larger than the NEX-C3, with the most obvious difference being the greater protrusion of the grip. The camera itself, though, is quite small. If you separate the lens from the body, (or use the Sony pancake lens) it's possible to keep the F3 in a very small bag for travel. It's certainly among the smallest cameras you can carry that has a full APS-C image sensor, though it has traded a bit of size in order to enhance handling compared to the NEX-C3.

The NEX-F3 doesn't feature a traditional physical mode dial, instead using an on-screen mode menu. In that menu you'll find the typical manual, program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority, intelligent auto, scene, and superior auto+ modes.

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For beginners, there are three main automatic modes that they can stick to without feeling overwhelmed with too much control. The program auto is basic, evening brightness across the scene. The intelligent auto mode takes a little more control over the shot. The superior auto+ is a new addition, functioning as the intelligent auto mode but using the information about the scene to pick an appropriate scene mode instead of just evening the scene out.

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The Sony NEX-F3 movie mode is a little more robust than what was found on the NEX-C3, with the ability to shoot 1080/60i video as well as 1080/24p against the C3's 1080/30p video. The F3 also has the option of recording in AVCHD or .MP4 video, as opposed to the sole .MP4 option on the C3. The NEX-F3 doesn't feature a mic input, but it does feature the ability to record in all the standard shooting modes, including manual and shutter/aperture priority modes. That gives you a significant level of control, even if you're stuck using the camera's built-in stereo microphone for audio unless you buy a separate accessory that plugs into the top port.

The Sony NEX-F3 shoots at the same rate as the C3, according to Sony. By their measurements the speed priority drive mode allows for 5.5FPS shooting, while the camera otherwise fires off at around 2.5FPS in continuous mode. In addition, there are also options for single shooting and self-timer options.

The NEX-F3 has a pretty standard set of playback options, though very little has changed relative to the NEX-C3. The only real difference between it and the C3 is the level of magnification that is possible when examining a single image. The F3 allows you to magnify an image by up to 13x, along with the option to zoom out and view a grid of many images that you've taken to quickly scroll through a set. There's not much in the way of editing built into the camera, though the usual file management (delete, protect, etc.) functions are included.

The Sony NEX-F3 maxes out at 16.1-megapixels of resolution, with the largest standard image possible being a 4912x3264 size. There are also 8.4- and 4-megapixel 3:2 options available, with the ability to record in JPEG, RAW, or RAW+JPEG. If you want a wider screen shot, you can shoot in a cropped 16:9 version of the other resolutions, or go for Sony's Sweep Panorama mode, which lets you hold the shutter button down while sweeping across a scene to capture a panorama.

The NEX-F3, like all the NEX cameras, utilizes contrast-detection autofocus using the camera's image sensor. This makes it a little slower than some of its competition, but it has the ability to focus on one of 25 areas, or use a multi-area AF. You can also use manual focus if you wish, with manual focus peaking. The focus isn't changed much from the C3, though the addition of subject tracking and face priority with registration do aid things in that department. Overall we thought the focus speed was typical of the NEX system, in that it is acceptable in bright light, but lags behind the newer Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras.

The NEX-F3 meters using the image sensor itself, so the generational upgrade there has allowed it to move from a 49-zone metering system in the C3 to a 1200-zone system. The system is sensitive from 0-20EV at ISO 100 (or the equivalent, as the sensor's native range begins at ISO 200), with the standard center-weighted, spot, and multi-segmented metering modes.

You utilize the metering system in most of the camera's modes, though you can alter shutter speed, ISO, or aperture if you wish in several of the priority and manual control modes. While aperture is lens-dependent, shutter speed can be set anywhere from 30 seconds up to 1/4000th of a second.

The new sensor on the NEX-F3 has an ISO range that is slightly different from the C3, extending from ISO 200-16000. That's 1/3rd of a stop above the 12800 max on the NEX-C3, though beginning the range at 200 will likely limit maximum dynamic range somewhat. You can set ISO manually in most program modes, though the automatic ISO can be relied on in most situations, as well.

The NEX-F3 has the same white balance setup as the NEX-C3, with manual and custom measurement in addition to several presets and custom kelvin temperature entry. The presets are all the typical settings, including daylight, cloudy, shade, fluorescent, incandescent, and flash. The C3 allows for for micro adjustment of any of these presets, with a 15-step ABGM scale available.

As with all Sony NEX cameras, the NEX-F3 relies on in-lens stabilization, rather than the sensor-shift stabilization systems that are in current Alpha DSLR cameras. This system moves a lens element to counteract any movement detected by the system, within certain parameters. As it's dependent on what lens you buy with the F3, Sony hasn't published claims about its efficacy, though we'll test it when we get a production-level F3 in for a full run.

The Sony NEX-F3 includes some basic color settings, as well as a few picture effects that are a little more creative. The modes in the camera include posterization, pop color, retro photo, partial color, high contrast monochrome, toy camera, soft high-key, soft focus, HDR painting, and miniature, with several variations on each.

The Sony NEX-F3 uses Sony E-mount lenses, rather than the Alpha lenses found on full-sized DSLRs. The NEX system is uniquely advantaged in its ability to utilize adapters for nearly every major lens system on the market. While most of these adapters are third party, Sony does advertise this capability, making several adapters for their own Alpha lenses to be attached.

The sensor itself is a newer generation Exmor sensor, with an effective resolution of 16.1 megapixels. It has a slightly different ISO range from the NEX-C3, extending from 200-16000, as opposed to the C3's 100-12800 range.

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The rear monitor on the NEX-F3 is a 3-inch, 921k-dot display with Sony's Tru-Black technology. It's the same unit as found on the C3, offering a high resolution that renders crisp text and fine details well. The LCD sits on an articulated hinge that extends up and outward from the body. It doesn't match the 45 degree downward tilt of the C3, but it can now go 180 degrees forward, facing toward your subject (and flipping the display appropriately).

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The NEX-F3 doesn't feature a viewfinder built into the camera, though Sony does make an optional electronic viewfinder that can be attached via the smart accessory terminal on the top of the camera. This does preclude using certain other accessories, though, such as the optional external microphone.

The NEX-F3 also now has a built-in flash unit, similar to the one found in the NEX-7. It extends up and out from the body, loaded by a mechanical spring in the camera. The flash has a power rating of 6 meters at ISO 100, though that's a little shorter than the external flash that came with the NEX-C3. If you want to add an external flash you still can, though the camera only has a smart accessory terminal and not a full hot shoe.

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There aren't a ton of input/output options on the NEX-F3, with just a standard micro-USB and mini-HDMI port on the left side of the body behind some plastic flaps. On top is the aforementioned smart accessory terminal, with its main purpose being the use of the optional electronic viewfinder. The camera lacks a 3.5mm mic input, though the optional external microphone can be used if needed.

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The NEX-F3 uses the same NP-FW50 battery as the C3 (and most of Sony's current lineup), though they squeezed another 70 shots out of it. All told (by CIPA standards) the battery now achieves 470 shots per charge, though it now has the ability to charge via USB, instead of just in an external cradle.

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The Sony NEX-F3 uses both MemoryStick Pro Duo and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards, with a dedicated slot on the bottom of the camera. The slot sits beside the battery compartment, with the tripod mount slide over to the opposite edge of the camera. The placement of the memory card slot will likely not be reachable when the camera is on a plate, however.

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The Sony NEX-F3 replaces the Sony NEX-C3 as the entry-level model in the company's line of compact mirrorless system cameras. While it's entry-level, the F3 has quite a bit of punch to it, with 5.5FPS continuous shooting, a maximum ISO speed of 16000, and the ability to record full 1080/60i video.

The main change between the C3 and the F3 (in addition to the token upgrade to sensor and processor) has been the design of the body. While not radical, the F3 has a much more pronounced grip, aiding handling by putting the shutter button at an easier angle to press.

While a small increase in thickness may seem miniscule, it represents a pretty radical design shift for Sony's NEX system, which seemed bent on being the slimmest compact system camera when it debuted. The F3 kicks that marketing-friendly goal out, instead settling for improving the overall functionality and design of the camera.

In shooting with the NEX-F3, it's hard to believe that it's the bottom of Sony's barrel. It doesn't feel chintzy, but rather nice and compact. It's quite responsive, with solid autofocus accuracy when light is good. The menu system is also still nice, especially for beginners, though more advanced users might find its simplicity frustrating.

The formula for the NEX-C3 (and subsequently now the NEX-F3) isn't complicated: just make a good compact camera with an APS-C sensor, make it cheap, and have it perform reasonable well in most categories. The F3 builds on the C3's success, with subtle improvements that should aid the overall experience.

We'll have to get the NEX-F3 into our labs for a full report before we can claim that it's better than its predecessor, but we enjoyed our time with the camera. With a new image sensor, improved handling, and some usability upgrades, we're interested to see how it does in our full rubric of tests.

Meet the tester

TJ Donegan

TJ Donegan

Executive Editor

@TJDonegan

TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.

See all of TJ Donegan's reviews

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