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Sony trickles down high-end guts to latest compact mirrorless, the Alpha 5100

Sony has unveiled a new mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, the Alpha 5100, a highly compact ILC (Sony touts it’s one of the world’s smallest). Slotted between the A5000 and A6000 (two cameras we love), the A5100 is the evolution of the NEX 5T, another DT-recommended camera that will be replaced (the A5100 also phases out the NEX name that distinguished Sony’s compact system cameras, or CSCs).

While the A5100 and A5000 target the same customers – entry-level users stepping up from a compact point-and-shoot or smartphone, as well as those moving from entry-level DSLRs – and share a similar form-factor, the A5100 has several higher-end featured trickled down from the midrange A6000. Besides using the same 24-megapixel APS-C sensor and Bionz X image processor as its bigger brother, the A5100 has the same hybrid autofocus system that uses both contrast-detection and phase-detection points to achieve focusing speeds as fast as 0.07 seconds (the NEX-5T also utilized hybrid autofocus, but it has fewer phase detection points). The camera also supports Eye AF and Lock-on AF (two functions trickled down from the A7/A7R flagship full-frame cameras), Flexible Spot AF area, and AF-A mode (auto switching between AF-C and AF-S). ISO remains the same at a max of 25,600. However, it does have a slower continuous shooting speed of 6 frames per second (versus the 11 fps in the A6000 and 10 fps in the NEX-5T), but has a higher max frame per burst (at JPEG Fine L setting). The sensor’s gapless on-chip lens design is optimized for corners, Sony says, allowing for very even light distribution from corner to corner and giving you sharper image results. The A5100 retains the 3-inch, 921k-pixel, selfie-friendly 180-degree-tilting touchscreen LCD – which both the A5000 and A6000 lack – and Sony has added a built-in flash.

If you like shooting movies, the A5100 has some features that will interest you. Besides Full HD 1080 recording at 60p, the A5100 also records in the XAVC S format. This codec allows you to record a higher data rate (50 Mbps) with compression that retains high video quality. Plus, the camera can record AVCHD or XAVC S along with a lower-res MP4 video at the same time, to the same card. (If you plan to do this or use the higher codecs, get yourself a good quality high-speed SD card.) Thanks to the Bionz X processor, “the camera is able to read, process and output data from all of the sensor’s pixels during video recording, ensuring that it produces the highest quality video possible by eliminating aliasing, moire, and false color artifacts,” Sony says. There’s also a zebra function if your filmmaking know-how is a bit more advanced.

The A5100 has Wi-Fi/NFC for the typical smartphone pairing for wireless photo transfers and remote view and shutter, but it also supports Sony’s downloadable PlayMemories Camera Apps, including the new My Best Portrait app. Being that this is a selfie-friendly camera, the grip has been optimized for self-portraits, as well. The camera comes in white or black, and will sell for $700 with a 16-50mm motorized zoom kit lens, or, if you are stepping up from the A5000, NEX-5T, or any previous Sony E-mount CSC, you can get the body for $550; both cameras hit stores in September 2014. There are also new cases and a remote shutter, all optional, that accompany the camera.

Although we haven’t had a chance to try the A5100 in person, judging from recent Sony cameras we have tested, we are going to come out and say that this will probably be another winner. We gave the A6000 an Editor’s Choice, and the A5000 our Recommended seal of approval; since the A5100 borrows the best from both and it’s a step-up from the well-liked NEX-5T, we’re sure we’ll give this camera high marks. Of course, final judgment will come after we’ve taken this small compact ILC for a spin.