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The Alpha NEX-7 is Sony's mirrorless flagship, topping their NEX line of system cameras. It features a 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor, a 10-frame-per-second continuous shooting mode, a built-in XGA OLED viewfinder, a tilting 3-inch rear LCD, and a unique "Tri-Navi" control setup.
With all its bells and whistles, the NEX-7 offers a level of control seldom seen in this segment of the market. Therefore, it sits comfortably atop many enthusiast's wish lists. The NEX-7 is kitted with Sony's standard E-mount 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, and currently comes in black for an MSRP of $1399. That's a lot of pocket change, so this Sony will definitely need to step up the image quality to make it worthwhile.
Picking up the Sony Alpha NEX-7, it's immediately apparent that Sony has spared no expense. The grip is plush, with contours that align extraordinarily well with the hand. Where smaller NEX cameras pair small, awkward grips with the system's DSLR-sized lenses, the larger body of the NEX-7 allows for more precise handling, even with longer telephoto optics. The protruding rear thumb rest helps too, offering enough purchase to allow single-handed control with even the 55-210mm lens attached.
The Sony NEX-7's external design provides just about everything you could ask for in a compact mirrorless body: an electronic viewfinder, three control dials, customizable controls, a built-in flash, a full hot shoe, a tilting rear LCD, interchangeable lenses, and a large grip. The largely unlabeled, fully dynamic control setup takes some getting used to (each button and dial has its function called out on the rear LCD, rather than painted or etched onto the body), but with the abundance of manual controls you've got everything you need to perfect exposure.
The viewfinder is a 0.5-inch XGA OLED monitor with a resolution of 2359k dots. That's a massive number, but in practice the monitor doesn't offer a huge improvement over some other EVFs we've seen. Still, given the design constraints of a compact mirrorless body, it's perfectly acceptable. And unlike most viewfinders, it's fully integrated into the shape of the body, just as with Fuji's X-Pro 1 and X100.
One puzzling aspect of the NEX-7's design is the menu system, which is exactly the same as on previous NEX cameras. The problem is that the NEX-7 seems designed to appeal to a much more advanced user than the NEX-3 or NEX-5. Yet for some unfathomable reason Sony assumes that NEX-7 users would rather slog through a dumbed-down point-and-shoot-level interface. While the ability to customize some quick menus and keys provides some relief, Sony really should have designed a menu more in line with what's found on their Alpha-series professional cameras, leaving the simpler NEX look to simpler NEX cameras.
Looking at the NEX-7, you're struck with visions of Sony's designers gathered around a table and feverishly drawing up an unlikely wishlist of features: electronic viewfinder, built-in flash, articulating LCD, high-resolution APS-C sensor, multiple control dials, full hot shoe, dedicated mic input, HDMI and standard USB ports, and a big grip. Miraculously, the NEX-7 ticks off all these boxes, offering the most complete package of any compact mirrorless camera we've seen. Better yet, they've managed to do it in a body that's only slightly larger than our previous favorite, the Olympus PEN E-P3.
It's hard to ignore Sony's accomplishment here, especially when the gorgeous external design is paired with a high-resolution 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. The NEX-7 can also fire off shots at 10 frames per second with an electronic first curtain shutter, which is not only more responsive but also allows the camera to be dead quiet when necessary. The NEX-7 also benefits from 1080/60p video, though only in AVCHD 2.0, which can be a bit of a pain to work with. Oh, and did we mention the focus peaking? The list just goes on and on.
The Sony NEX-7 employs the now-familiar E-mount, which has a limited but growing number of first-party lenses available. The range covers everything from the 18-55mm kit lens to a 24mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss prime, as well as a 30mm macro, telephoto zoom, and a couple portrait lenses. While Sony has yet to fully flesh out their system with the kind of high-end lenses that Panasonic, Olympus, and even Samsung have introduced to their mirrorless lineups, the NEX-7 can use both Sony-produced and third-party lens adapters to attach lenses from practically any legacy mount. Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Leica, Pentax... the list is near endless. The best of the bunch is probably the LA-EA2 Sony adapter, which uses their translucent SLT technology to provide phase detection autofocus for any Sony A-mount lens.
The Sony NEX-7 pairs its 24.3-megapixel sensor with a BIONZ image processor to provide generally excellent image quality and up to 10 frames per second in continuous shooting. Unfortunately, it comes kitted with a rather lackluster 18-55mm E-mount lens that doesn't do the sensor justice.
In our lab testing we found the NEX-7's greatest asset was its ability to handle noise, with shots all the way up to ISO 16000 looking better than we've seen from other mirrorless cameras. In the lab, the NEX-7 also demonstrated remarkable color accuracy and greater dynamic range than previous NEX models. The one area where we saw disappointing results was resolution, where the NEX-7 lagged a bit behind some of the competition due to its mediocre kit lens.
The NEX-7 proved to be extremely responsive, rattling off 10 shots per second in our continuous shooting test. While we don't test response time in an official capacity, we observed that the electronic first curtain shutter greatly reduced shutter lag in everyday shooting. Video also looked great, with Sony getting the most out of the 1080/60p capability offered here. But we'd caution you to completely ignore the 1080/60i and MPEG-4 modes, as they are significantly worse.
Prior to the NEX-7, every mirrorless camera was an exercise in compromise; smaller size meant a lack of deep control and diminished image quality. The NEX-7 manages to get rid of most of the tradeoffs, building off the design philosophy of earlier NEX cameras but squeezing in just about every piece of hardware you could ask for.
That isn't to say that the NEX-7 is perfect. Its focus system is still slow compared to similarly priced DSLRs (including those from Sony) and its 18-55mm kit lens has poor edge sharpness and distortion issues across the zoom range. The menu, instead of aiming to please NEX-7 users, is re-purposed from outdated, entry-level NEX models. Given that the camera (with lens) comes at a MSRP of $1349, the 18-55mm kit is a disappointment too. Practically every other camera kit in that price range offers a better lens, and it's a shame NEX-7 users are shortchanged, given how good this camera can be with better glass.
In terms of all-around performance, though, the NEX-7 is quite simply the best mirrorless camera we have tested to date. Its combination of control, image quality, responsiveness, video capability, color accuracy, dynamic range, hardware features, and superb handling make it the kind of camera any photographer—professional or amateur—should love to have in their bag.
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