The Sony Alpha NEX-7 finishes just behind the top-rated Olympus OM-D E-M5 (*Est. $1,100 with kit lens) in the compact interchangeable-lens category. Like the Olympus, it delivers impressive image quality -- approaching that of a big digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera -- in a smaller package. But the Sony's lack of lenses, weaker body and video-overheating problems relegate it to second place.
"I was loathe to return to the more conventional DSLR world after using it." Nobody calls the Sony NEX-7 pocketable, but it's certainly sleeker than a chunky DSLR. It's a bit more svelte than the Olympus OM-D E-M5 -- a little smaller than an index card, and 1.7 inches thick -- and fits very nicely in one hand, testers say. Like the Olympus, the Sony gets an excellent electronic viewfinder, plus a tilting 3-inch LCD screen. Unlike the Olympus, however, it's not a touch screen.
Extraordinarily well-thought-out physical controls make up for it, though. "Don't shoot with an NEX-7 unless you're prepared to buy one," says Dave Etchells at Imaging-Resource.com. He likens it to switching from film to digital -- it's that big a difference.
"It's hard to overstate just how big a breakthrough the Tri-Navi control system is," Etchells says. Three control dials -- two on top that allow you to control your most-used functions one-handed, plus another on the rear -- make it "extremely fluid to shoot with," agrees Andy Westlake at DPReview.com. You can customize pretty much every control, too, just like on the Olympus.
"The NEX- 7 is by far the most fluid camera we've used to date," Etchells says. "I was loathe to return to the more conventional DSLR world after using it."
Lots of reviews complain that the video-record button is too easy to hit by accident. Sony has released a firmware update that lets you turn off the video button.
Very good photos, but shooting video can overheat the camera. Images from the Sony NEX-7 impress experts, "easily rivalling even the DSLR competition," says Mark Goldstein at PhotographyBlog.com.
Unlike Micro Four Thirds rivals (like the Olympus OM-D E-M5), the Sony NEX-7 uses a bigger APS-C image sensor -- the same size you'll get on a compact-sensor DSLR. It's packed with more megapixels, too (24.3, versus 16.1 for the Olympus), so the Sony can capture extraordinarily fine detail, although its lenses can't always keep up (see Features).
Color is "very appealing," says Etchells at Imaging-Resource.com, and low-light performance equals "the top tier of APS-C SLRs." Etchells gets a good 5-by-7-inch print at a hefty ISO 12,800. The Olympus outdoes this in a later test, though, cranking out a nice 5-by-7 at its max ISO 25,600.
Speed-wise, the Sony largely matches the Olympus. "The NEX-7 is overall a fast, responsive camera -- it very rarely leaves you waiting during normal operation," says Westlake at DPReview.com. It can shoot up to 10 frames per second (fps), but that's with autofocus locked and no live view feed (3.7 fps with live view). Autofocus is generally fast, although not as searingly quick as the Olympus. It slows down in low light, Westlake and Goldstein both notice.
Video looks very good at full 1080p HD, Westlake and Etchells say. Unfortunately, plenty of owners report than the NEX-7 overheats and shuts down after shooting a few minutes of video. Sony's website admits this is a problem, but it doesn't offer a fix -- just tells owners to turn off their cameras and let them cool down whenever it happens.
Battery life is rated at 430 shots per charge.
Sturdy, but not weather-sealed. Although it's not weather-sealed like the splashproof, dustproof Olympus OM-D E-M5, experts say the Sony NEX-7 seems sturdy. "The feeling is very solid and high quality," Imaging-Resource.com says.
"The NEX-7's build quality is excellent," says Westlake at DPReview.com. "The metal-shelled body feels solid with no flexing or creaks, and the handgrip is covered with a thick rubberized coating. The three control dials and most of the buttons are crafted from metal, giving a real quality feel."
The NEX-7's built-in flash pops up on a hinged stalk -- "think of a micro version of a scissor lift," one Amazon.com reviewer describes it -- that lets you flip the flash upward to bounce it off the ceiling, giving a more flattering light. A few owners say the stalk seems flimsy, though.
Lenses are lacking. "Optics are really the weakest link" for the Sony NEX-7, Imaging-Resource.com says. Other experts agree. As of this update, its native E-mount lens range consists of five primes and four zooms (besides the kit zoom), and critics aren't terribly impressed with most of them. Aside from a stellar Carl Zeiss 24 mm prime (*Est. $1,100) that costs almost as much as the camera, they're "small maximum aperture lenses arguably more suited to the 'compact camera upgrader' market targeted by the cheaper models in the NEX range," says Westlake at DPReview.com.
You could spend $200 to $400 for an adapter to use chunky A-mount or SLR lenses, but that defeats the purpose of a compact camera, reviews point out. Otherwise, "the NEX-7 packs an awful lot of features into its small body," Westlake says. A few are par for the class: The NEX-7 can shoot RAW and JPEG files (giving you maximum editing control) and offers plenty of special effects to make your photo look like a miniature, monochrome, retro photo, etc.
A few of the Sony's features can be found on other cameras, but Sony does them better, Imaging-Resource.com says. Sweep Panorama produces a cleanly stitched panoramic shot. Handheld Twilight and Auto High Dynamic Range combine several different exposures to create a better-exposed shot in challenging light. Like the rival Olympus OM-D E-M5, the Sony can shoot in 3D.
Unlike the Olympus, the Sony NEX-7 has a built-in jack for an external microphone (the Olympus' costs $90 extra) and a pop-up flash (the Olympus comes with a small external flash).
Review Credibility: Excellent Outstanding image quality, handling and features earn the Sony NEX-7 a rare Gold Award here. It does have some flaws, though: Few lenses are available, and the firmware feels "cobbled together."
Review: Sony NEX-7 In-Depth Review, Andy Westlake, December 2011
Review Credibility: Excellent Imaging-Resource.com reviews fewer point-and-shoot cameras than other sources, but its incredibly detailed reviews of advanced cameras like the Sony NEX-7 are unsurpassed. Experts here are thoroughly impressed with the Sony NEX-7's "breakthrough" user interface, best-of-breed electronic viewfinder and "some of the best images we've ever seen from an APS-C camera." In fact, Dave Etchells says, "The Sony NEX-7 is my new favorite camera."
Review: Sony Alpha NEX-7, Dave Etchells, Mike Tomkins, Zig Weidelich and Shawn Barnett, Jan. 19, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Few cameras win a 5-star Essential award here, but the Sony NEX-7 manages it. Mark Goldstein notes the dearth of lenses, but superb image quality and usability make it a "stunning camera."
Review: Sony NEX-7 Review, Mark Goldstein, Jan. 4, 2012
Review Credibility: Good Here, Sony addresses user reports that the NEX-7 shuts down after recording just a few minutes of video. Sony says it's because the camera gets too hot, and users should turn off the camera and let it cool down.
Review: The Camera Turns Off By Itself After Recording Movies For a Short Amount of Time, Editors of Sony.com, Dec. 13, 2012
Review Credibility: Fair Most owners here praise the Sony NEX-7 for its superb images and portable body. However, a good number rate it mediocre or lower. Two common complaints are the lack of lenses and the fact that the camera heats up and shuts down after shooting just a few minutes of video.
Review: Sony NEX-7 24.3 MP Compact Interchangeable Lens Camera with 18-55mm Lens, Contributors to Amazon.com, As of February 2013
Review Credibility: Fair With over 150 owner reviews posted, the Sony NEX-7 maintains a very high 4.6-star rating (out of 5). Still, several note the same problems as Amazon.com users do: few lenses and overheating video.
Review: Sony Alpha NEX-7 Digital Camera with 18-55mm Lens (Black), Contributors to BHPhotoVideo.com, As of February 2013