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Sony NEX-F3 preview: entry-level APS-C shooter adds pop-up flash, comfy grip, and 1080p video for $599.99

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Last month, we heard that Sony had a redesigned entry-level NEX camera on the way, and the leak was spot-on: today, the company's introducing the NEX-F3.

Gallery Photo: Sony NEX-F3 hands-on pictures
Gallery Photo: Sony NEX-F3 hands-on pictures

Last month, we heard that Sony had a redesigned entry-level NEX camera on the way, and the leak was spot-on: today, the company's introducing the NEX-F3. It's a $599.99 interchangable lens shooter with a 16.1 megapixel APS-C sensor, the pop-up flash previously only available on the pricy NEX-7, a brand-new 180-degree tilting LCD screen for self-portraits, 1080p24 video recording, and plenty of internal upgrades. In other words, it's a feature-packed replacement for the NEX-C3, which Sony is phasing out immediately.

We spent an afternoon shooting with the camera, and we discovered it's actually far more akin to the excellent NEX-5N than its forebear, right down to the vertical power switch and sizable new grip. It doesn't come with an external charger for the battery, though you can buy one if you want: rather, it charges over Micro USB, which Sony says will take perhaps about five hours with a 1.5 amp charger. In fact, except for the build and a few features which stay exclusive to the higher-end 5N, it's not very inferior camera as far as the specs go. While there's no touchscreen, it can't record 1080p video at 60 frames per second like the 5N, and it shoots a bit slower in general, it's much the same everywhere else, including the 3-inch, 921k LCD screen, 1/4000 shutter speed, 16,000 max ISO, and accessory hotshoe.You can attach the same external EVF as other NEX models.

Compare this: NEX-F3 vs. NEX-C3 vs. NEX-5N and more!

We took a whole bunch of pictures with a production model, and here they are, including shots with three different lenses and some ISO samples. Noise seems to be controlled well through ISO 1600, but ramps up significantly after ISO 3200. Not bad for the price, not bad at all.

While there's no touchscreen on the NEX-F3, the 180-degree tilt lets it perform a pretty neat trick: when you flip it up all the way, it engages "Mirror Mode," which lets you frame a self-portrait that's reversed just as if you were in front of a mirror. Once you take the image, though, the image flips the other way, so the text on your clothing should be as legible as it is in reality. You can take a look at the feature at the end of our video below. Speaking of video, 1080p24 footage looked pretty crisp and clear. We filmed the first half of this video of Sony's new Alpha SLT-A37 with the NEX-F3, and the second half using the SLT-A37 to show off the NEX-F3 itself.

Though the menu-driven software of the NEX series is mostly unintutive as ever if you want to tweak settings, some of the biggest innovations are actually in software this time around: like Sony's latest Alpha translucent mirror cameras, the NEX-F3 has a host of 15 filters and 11 modes, including some pretty nifty-sounding ones: auto portrait framing uses the Rule of Thirds to frame your subject with a theoretically pleasing crop, and the company's proprietary By Pixel Super Resolution will then interpolate the picture data to generate a full, 16-megapixel resolution crop by "filling in" the missing pixels according to an internal database. We weren't able to try that one, but Sony uses the same interpolation technique to provide a 2x digital zoom that appears far clearer than most others (called Clear Image Zoom) and it worked fairly well in conjunction with our lens zoom.

Speaking of lenses, Sony's introducing a new superzoom: the SEL18200LE is a 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 lens with optical stabilization, priced at a hefty $849.99. We gave it a try, and for the amount of range it provides, it looks and feels quite good. It's well-built, zooms smoothly (though with a bit of effort) and images seemed a good bit sharper than with the 18-55mm kit lens in our very brief experience, though we didn't get to test it methodically. Sony already had a 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS lens, mind you, but this one's a bit lighter, smaller, and painted black.

After a couple hours shooting with the NEX-F3, half in full auto to experience the ease of use and half tweaking settings to see how good pictures could be, it definitely seems like a great way to move up from point-and-shoot photography. That 18-200mm lens is a bit out of reach, but the 18-55mm kit lens is a nice start. The biggest question is whether the NEX-5N, priced only $50 higher at the moment, is a better option. At that kind of minimal price difference, we expect the 5N will also get replaced before long. The NEX-F3 should ship in silver, white, and black this June, with the 18-200mm lens arriving in July.