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Sony Alpha NEX-5 Review

sony alpha nex 5 review camera
Sony Alpha NEX-5
“Once you pick up the Sony NEX-5, you’ll quickly realize you have photography’s future in your hands.”
Pros
  • Truly compact and lightweight
  • Rich, accurate colors
  • Very good 1080i videos
  • Superior 3-inch adjustable screen
Cons
  • Very noisy at highest ISOs
  • Limited lens selection
  • Would like color-coordinated attachments
  • Even more of a slam-dunk if it were cheaper

Introduction

Sony hinted at this camera in February and we couldn’t wait to use it. What is “it”? A small, lightweight camera with the large imaging sensors found in DSLRs as well as interchangeable lens capability. Not only that, the new Sony NEX-5 shoots AVCHD 1080i video without the focusing hassles of bulkier DSLRs, has a 7 fps burst mode and will even take 3D-ready Sweep Panorama images. How cool is that? We didn’t really know until we took it out of the box and started shooting…

Features and Design

Due in July, the NEX-5 is the “world’s smallest interchangeable lens camera,” according to Sony. Having recently reviewed the Olympus PEN E-PL1—another small non-DSLR with a large sensor that lets you swap lenses—we have to say the Sony simply blew our minds. It’s not just small but incredibly tiny and lightweight. Think of a digicam, put a small interchangeable lens on the front of it and that’ll give you an idea of what the NEX-5 is all about. The PEN looks and feels practically obese in comparison. We were amazed as were many of the press who got a sneak preview of the camera. One of the key reasons the NEX-5 and similar cameras from Panasonic, Olympus and Samsung are so compact is the fact they do no have bulky mirror box assemblies. Although this reduces size, it impacts focusing speed which we’ll discuss in the Performance section. Note: Sony will also sell the NEX-3 for around $100 less. Most of the specs are the same but it takes 720p videos and has a plastic body, not the magnesium alloy and Full HD of the more expensive model.

We won’t bore you with comparisons to Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the PEN and traditional DSLRs. Just realize the NEX-5 is really, really small, measuring 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 14 ounces with flash and 16mm pancake lens attached, around 18 ounces with the 18-55mm zoom. You gotta check it out to see why almost everyone is so jazzed about this new camera.

Given the ultra compact size you won’t see much on the front other than the lens, grip with a nice textured finish, lens release button, AF Assist lamp and several low-key logos. The NEX-5 and NEX-3 feature new E-mount lenses. Just as we complained about the PEN, there aren’t many options here compared to the 60-plus of true DSLRs from Canon and Nikon. Sony did say a new 18-200mm would be available this fall. And just as with the Olympus, the LA-EA1 adaptor ($200) lets you use glass from the company’s DSLRs but you lose autofocus capability making the entire exercise moot for casual shooters. Since the NEX-5 uses an APS HD sensor, the digital factor is 1.5x, like Canon DSLRs, so multiply that number and you get the true 35mm equivalent i.e. the 16mm pancake lens is actually a nice 24mm wide-angle.

One note on aesthetics: The optional lens rings are brushed aluminum which made it a bit jarring on the black body. The supplied flash is also silver colored but a bit more muted. With everything attached, especially the 18-55mm zoom, the camera looks awkward. This would be less of the case with a silver-bodied version (also available). Perhaps Sony could offer all black lenses as well as a black flash? Just a suggestion…

On the top of the NEX-5 are stereo mics, playback button, a decidedly retro on/off switch and the shutter button on the angled grip. Also here is the Smart Accessory Terminal for the supplied flash. Since the body is so small, there really wasn’t anywhere to place an in-body flash. When screwed into position, it angles up to prevent vignetting. This port can also be used to attach a more accurate optional stereo mic to complement the AVCHD videos. But then you lose the flash so as with every camera there are tradeoffs.

The back of the NEX-5 is dominated by an excellent 3-inch variable-angle LCD screen that moves up 80 degrees and down 45 so you can easily hold the camera overhead or shoot at arms’ length looking downward. It uses Sony’s Xtra Fine LCD with TruBlack technology so there are no issues even in direct sunlight. A light sensor on the monitor keeps things under control. To the right of the screen are two soft keys, a red Movie button and a jog wheel with a center set button. The four points of the dial give access to the flash, exposure compensation, burst/self-timer and display. The functions of the soft keys change, depending on the mode you choose.

Hidden in the left of the body are two compartments for USB and mini HDMI outs. The bottom of the Made In Thailand NEX-5 has a metal tripod mount and battery/card compartment. You can use Memory Stick Pro Duo or SD cards. This model accepts the newest Pro-HG Duo and SDXC media but no matter which type you choose, make sure it’s hefty (4+GB) and high-speed.

What’s In The Box

The camera, the lens of your choice, a lithium ion battery rated a decent 330 shots, plug-in charger, USB cable, attachable flash and CD-ROM. The disk has Picture Motion Browser ver. 4.3.01, Image Data Converter SR 3.1 and Image Data Lightbox software for developing RAW files and handling photos.

Performance and Use

Minutes after this one arrived, the battery was charging and we were checking out the owner’s manual PDF (yes, we read manuals). Let’s get some of the specs out of the way before getting into the shooting experience and final results. Since the NEX-5 has a 14.2-megapixel APS HD CMOS sensor, it captures 4592×3056 pixel photos as JPEG Fine, RAW files (or both). The basic burst mode is 2.3 frames per second which is slower than the PEN and every DSLR (which are usually 4 fps or better). It’s a bit disappointing until you realize the camera has a Speed Priority mode which grabs 7 fps. It also has a very rapid DSLR-like shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second, twice as quick as the PEN. ISO ranges from 200-12,800 another spec usually found on the much larger and bulkier DSLRs. But you get the idea—there are very few compromises with this camera for those looking for photo tweaks.

The sensor/processor combo also enables AVCHD video recording at a very good 17 Mbps, not the best the format is capable of (24 Mbps) but still light years away from most digital cameras.

Since this is a brand new class of camera for Sony, the company tossed out the old menu system like those found on Cyber-shots and alpha DSLRs. It’s much more user-friendly and a breeze to use. Since this camera is designed for more casual users than traditional aperture-crazed shutterbugs, it has a help system that explains each feature. Fortunately for those who know a bit about photography, this can be disabled so you can speed through your adjustments. Here’s an example of the new menu showing how the camera is targeted to non-photo geeks. Rather than expecting people to know that by changing f/stops you can blur the background, the NEX-5 has a Background Defocus Control—which even works in auto—that lets you blur the background by turning the jog wheel. Olympus tried to do something similar with its PEN but Sony did the job right for newbies.

The NEX-5 can be used as a point-and-shoot with Intelligent Auto but has the wide range of adjustments DSLR users expect including full manual. Naturally you can change any parameter you’d like. We started off in iAuto then used other options including scene modes in the JPEG Fine and RAW+JPEG settings.

Because this camera has the Exmor chip, it can do a number of tricks which we liked so much in the TX7. These include Hand-held Twilight, Anti-motion Blur, Auto HDR and Sweep Panorama. Because the sensor/processor is so fast, it can stitch images together quite rapidly.

As for the 3D Sweep Panorama, our review sample couldn’t do it simply because the firmware upgrade isn’t available. Sony states it should be ready in July. Once in place—and if you have a 3D-capable HDTV, you’ll be able to experience three-dimensional panoramas using glasses, of course. We saw some examples during the press preview and they were quite impressive. This is another feature that puts the NEX-5 way ahead of the competition.

Now that you’ve read what the camera theoretically can do, let’s see how it actually performed. We took a wide variety of shots indoors and out, doing the same for videos. We’re happy to say the NEX-5 has a nice feel with logically positioned controls. Unlike some DSLRs, it’ll be the rare bird that can’t use this one right away. We liked the new menu system and found it legible and simple to follow. We do wish ISO weren’t so buried (it takes two screens) to reach but no camera is perfect. The NEX-5 is very responsive thanks to 25 focus points. Although it uses Contrast AF like all mirror-less cameras the camera has a decent burst mode of 2.3 frames per second. If you want to shoot faster, just move to Speed Priority and it jumps to 7 fps, far better than most DSLRs. To take advantage of this, definitely use the fastest rated card you can afford. We opted for 4GB Class 6 SDHC media.

After downloading the images and videos, it was time to examine them closely on a monitor, make 8×10 prints and check out the clips on a 50-inch plasma via HDMI. Although we had wished we had the NEX-5 with us on our trip to New Orleans with the PEN and other digicams, there were plenty of colorful subjects to capture. And capture them, it did. Colors are extremely accurate as blooming rhododendrons speckled with raindrops looked as real as can be, The same held true for colorful still-lifes bathed in sunshine. Not to wax too poetic but you’ll be very happy with the results. We did most of shooting with the 16mm pancake lens as we prefer a wide-angle view. We used the 3x 18-55mm zoom as well and the photos were sharp and life-like.

As for noise, the camera was solid to ISO 1600 with 3200 and 6400 quite useable for 8×10 prints but we’d still try to keep it 1600 or less. The 12,800 setting was a mess at that size although you might get away with a 4×6. But stepping back, our test subject was light years ahead of 99 percent of the cameras available.

The movies were very good, far better than the more common 720p. Again colors were spot on with none of the “jelly” effect of DSLR video. And focusing was not an issue. Still the NEX-5 is not a total replacement for a top-notch 2010 camcorder such as the new $999 JVC Everio GZ-HM1 (we shot similar scenes with both to compare). This state-of-the-art videomaker records at 24 Mbps versus 17 for the Sony and the difference on the 50-inch screen is very noticeable—and so is the impact on your wallet. Our search for the perfect two-in-one device continues. Perhaps the nex-gen NEX cameras will move up to 24 Mbps? This is not to take away what the current camera can do, just our wishes for something even better in the future.

Sample footage has been compressed for web.


Conclusion

At one point, Sony was synonymous with innovation. The company lost its way a little and Apple—among others—kicked its butt. Apple with its iPad and iPhone still drives a good chunk of the electronics business, but with gear like the NEX-5 and TX7 Sony is once again dominating digital imaging – by far. The new alpha NEX-5 is truly a breakthrough and even if you’re not in the market to spend over $600 for a camera, you should play with it at a local store. Once you pick up the NEX-5, you’ll quickly realize you have photography’s future in your hands.

Highs:

  • Truly compact and lightweight
  • Rich, accurate colors
  • Very good 1080i videos
  • Superior 3-inch adjustable screen

Lows:

  • Very noisy at highest ISOs
  • Limited lens selection
  • Would like color-coordinated attachments
  • Even more of a slam-dunk if it were cheaper

Editors' Recommendations