We put the Sony NEX-F3 up against its predecessor, the critical darling NEX-C3.
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The Sony line of NEX cameras really began to stretch its legs in the second generation, with the addition of the NEX-C3, the NEX-5N, and the NEX-7 in 2011. All three were very capable cameras that filled specific niches. The NEX-F3 is the first third-generation NEX camera, replacing the C3—widely considered to be the best entry-level system camera on the market.
The NEX-C3 (full review available here) was popular for its small size, large image sensor (NEX cameras all share APS-C size sensors, the same size you find in full-size DSLRs), and great performance for a small price. The NEX-F3 (our full review now available) updates that with a larger grip, built-in flash, and a small uptick in shooting speed.
While the flash and shooting speed upgrades are welcome, it's the grip that really sets the NEX-F3 apart. If you're only going to use the kit lens or the small primes, such as Sony's 16mm pancake lens, then it's irrelevant. If you have large hands or are planning on using longer telephoto lenses or adapters for full-size DSLR lenses, then the grip improvements will be essential for supporting the camera and keeping photos sharp.
In testing, we found that the NEX-C3 and NEX-F3 actually perform quite similarly, though the NEX-F3 dials up many of the automatic image "enhancements" that don't always result in better pictures. As with all current Sony DSLRs, noise reduction can't be turned off on either model. However the "low" noise reduction setting on the NEX-F3 would pass for "high" (or in the C3's case, "auto") on just about any other camera, including the NEX-C3.
That level of noise reduction often results in ugly, smudged details in things that should be very fine, such as hair, grass, and leaves. Both cameras also greatly enhance edges by bumping up contrast, sometimes resulting in artificial haloing around subjects. The other major difference to keep in mind is the LCD screens, with the NEX-F3's LCD now able to tilt a full 180 degrees, facing toward your subject. The penalty for that is a reduced ability to angle the screen downward, so if you're shooting overhead the NEX-C3 is actually a better option.
We should note that these are still the best two entry-level interchangeable lens cameras we've tested for under $600. If you're just stepping up from a point-and-shoot or want a cheap alternative to a larger DSLR, then these are the way to go for now. A little more money will get you some better cameras, but for most people, these two cameras hit a size, performance, and price sweet spot that the rest of the market hasn't caught up to yet.
All together, there's no reason to upgrade directly from an NEX-C3 to the NEX-F3 for performance reasons. The larger grip on the NEX-F3 is great if you have larger hands or will be shoot with heavier lenses, but for most people we'd say either camera is fine. We should note that with the NEX-C3 still on the market for awhile, there are bound to be some discounts. All else being equal, the NEX-F3 is simply the better camera, but if you can get a deal on an NEX-C3, snap that up while it lasts.