Sony Alpha NEX-5 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Sony Alpha NEX-5, along with its little brother (the NEX-3), marks Sony's entry into the compact interchangeable lens camera market. Most of these cameras have been geared toward the enthusiast, with exception of the Olympus E-PL1. Sony's two NEX cameras are clearly designed for people who are familiar with point-and-shoot cameras: they have attractive menus and screens, shooting tips, and lots of automatic features. While that's great for the entry-level crowd, enthusiasts like things like shortcut menus and direct buttons. The initial release of the camera had a very frustrating, totally menu-driven interface, but the new customizable soft buttons added via a firmware update has made things a lot easier (though I still want that shortcut menu). Now that the interface has been taken care of, I can recommend the NEX-5, thanks to its combination of compact size (until you attach a lens, that is), very good photo quality, impressive feature set, snappy performance, and Full HD movie mode.

The NEX-5 is a super-compact interchangeable lens camera that could easily be mistaken for a $300 point-and-shoot, especially if it has its 16 mm pancake lens attached. The body is so small that the NEX-5 looks a little awkward when you put a larger lens on it, reminiscent of the DSC-F707/F717 from years ago. The camera's small size also compromises its usability: there's no mode dial, the grip is small (and slipper), buttons are scarce, and there's little room for your fingers (which can block the microphone or smudge the LCD with ease). This minimalist design also forces you to use the NEX's attractive, but somewhat clunky menu system for nearly everything. The NEX cameras use the new Sony E-mount, for which three lenses are currently available: a 16 mm pancake lens (I wish it was more like 20 mm), a standard 18 - 55 IS, and a huge 18 - 200 mm IS travel zoom. The pancake lens has the ability to accept optional wide-angle and fisheye conversion lenses. If you want to use classic Alpha-mount lenses, you can do so after purchasing a $200 adapter, though note that only lenses with SAM or SSM motors will support autofocus. Unlike Sony's digital SLRs, the NEX cameras do not have sensor-shift image stabilization, instead relying on the lens to supply that feature.

On the back of the camera is an absolutely gorgeous 3-inch, articulating LCD display, with which you'll be composing all of your photos. The screen has over 921,000 pixels, so everything is razor-sharp. The screen uses Sony's new TruBlack technology, which allows for excellent outdoor visibility. The camera does not have an electronic viewfinder, though an optical viewfinder (that is designed to work with the pancake lens) can be attached to the Smart Accessory Terminal on the top of the camera. Speaking of this terminal, this is where you'll attach a small flash that Sony throws in the box with the camera. The flash isn't terribly powerful (it has a guide number of 7 meters at ISO 100) and redeye was a problem. If you're not going to built a flash into the camera, at least put on a standard hot shoe! This accessory shoe is also where you'll attach the optional external microphone, which will dramatically improve the audio quality in your movies.

Sony has totally done an excellent job of recreating the point-and-shoot experience on an interchangeable lens camera, so people upgrading from a Cyber-shot to a NEX can do so with ease. The camera has an Intelligent Auto mode which can select a scene mode for you, well-implemented face and smile detection, descriptions of every menu item, and context-sensitive Shooting Tips that help you take better photos. Apparently Sony doesn't think that people using iAuto mode want to adjust the exposure compensation, as that feature is locked out. The cool Sweep Panorama feature lets you create a huge panoramic image simply by panning the camera from one side to another -- and it can even create 3D panoramas, if you have one of those fancy new TVs. A feature I really grew to like is Auto HDR, which combines a trio of exposures into a photo with greatly improved dynamic range. There's also the "old" D-Range Optimizer feature, which can brighten shadows when there's a strong backlight. The camera's CMOS sensor allows for many more tricks, including the anti-motion blur and handheld twilight features, both of which combine six exposures into one, with the aim of getting a sharp photo. While the first one works, the second one isn't as great as it sounds in the marketing material. The playback mode is very basic, with no editing features at all, which is surprising on this consumer-targeted camera.

Enthusiasts will find the NEX-5's manual controls to be a bit limited. The basic manual controls are all here; you can adjust the aperture, shutter speed, white balance, and focus. However, there's no Program Shift or WB bracketing, and custom functions are very limited. Thankfully you can now change the function of two of the cameras "soft buttons", with one of them letting you quickly access three of your favorite options (ISO, white balance, etc). The NEX-5 supports the RAW format (though it's not available with some of the cool features I just mentioned), and decent editing software is included.

The NEX-5 has a pretty nice movie mode, though keeping with the camera's theme, it's mostly point-and-shoot. The NEX-5 can record Full HD video (1080/60i) with digital stereo sound for up to 29 minutes, using the AVCHD codec. Lower resolutions (1440 x 1080 and 1280 x 720) use the easier-to-edit MPEG-4 format. The camera can focusing continuously without making a sound, and if you're using a lens with image stabilization, that's active as well. The bad news is that there are no manual controls in movie mode, unless you count exposure compensation.

Camera performance is excellent in nearly all respects. The NEX-5 starts up in just over a second (if yours does not, make sure you're running the newest firmware), and the camera focuses very quickly, with respectable low light performance. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were very brief, even if you're shooting RAW or using the flash. The NEX-5 has two continuous shooting modes: a regular one that can take nine RAW or an unlimited number of JPEGs at around 2.6 frames/sec, or a "speed priority" mode that takes seven and fifteen shots (respectively) at over 7.5 frames/sec. Live view cameras love to drink batteries, and the NEX-5 will last for 330 shots per charge, which is below average for this class. On a related note, the charger included with the camera is very slow, taking over four hours to charge the NP-FW50 battery.

If there's one area in which the NEX-5 really exceeded my expectations, it's photo quality. It arguably has the best photo quality of any interchangeable lens camera, especially at high ISOs. It has an accurate metering system, though there will occasionally be some highlight clipping. Colors were pleasing, and images had a very smooth (some may say soft) appearance. The camera does not show visible noise until the highest ISOs, and even then, it's not that bad. While I wouldn't recommend it for everyday shooting, you can take a photo at ISO 12,800 and get away with it on the NEX-5 (though I'd shoot RAW to get the best possible quality). The only real issues regarding image quality are related to things that you attach to the camera. Both of the lenses I tested have corner blurriness and pretty strong distortion (of two different types). The small external flash that comes with the camera stays close to the lens, which results in moderate redeye (and there's no removal tool in playback mode to fix it). Something else, that's purely anecdotal, is that I had more problems with dust getting on the sensor on the NEX-5 than on other ILCs that I've tested (and owned).

Now that Sony has worked out a lot of the initial quibbles that reviewers (this one included) had with the NEX-5, it's become a camera that's much more pleasant to use. It offers a compact body (though the lenses are giant), great photo quality, a ton of fun features, full manual controls, a beautiful LCD, and a Full HD movie mode, all with an attractive (though sometimes tedious) user interface. While I'd still recommend trying one in person to see what you think about its user interface, Sony's efforts to improve the NEX-5 have paid off, with the camera now earning my recommendation.

What I liked:

  • Excellent image quality, especially at high sensitivities
  • Ultra-compact body with interchangeable lenses (though see below)
  • Beautiful, high resolution, articulating 3" LCD; very good outdoor visibility
  • Well-implemented live view with fast 25-point AF system
  • Decent set of manual controls; RAW format supported, good editor included
  • Responsive performance in all areas; fast "speed priority" continuous mode
  • Beginners will enjoy auto scene selection, menu help, shooting tips, and attractive menus
  • Handy Auto HDR feature dramatically improves dynamic range
  • Super-cool Sweep Panorama feature will impress your friends, works in 3D
  • Nice face and smile detection
  • Records Full HD video (1080/60i) with digital stereo sound, continuous AF, and image stabilization if you have it
  • Optional external mic, optical viewfinder, and conversion lenses (the last two are only for the pancake lens)
  • HDMI port

What I didn't care for:

  • Ultra-compact body means no mode dial, few buttons, and lots of things to block with your fingers
  • No built-in flash; included external flash not powerful, has redeye issues; no support for standard external flashes
  • Not as many manual controls (e.g. Program Shift, WB bracketing, exposure control in movie mode) or customizable features as other cameras in this class and price range
  • While user interface has improved with firmware updates, a real shortcut menu would've been nice
  • Dust on sensor was a problem with my camera
  • Kit lenses have strong distortion; wish 16 mm pancake lens wasn't quite so wide
  • Bare bones playback mode; no redeye correction tool; photos and movies cannot be viewed at the same time
  • Limited lens selection (though this will improve over time)
  • No composite video output (HDMI only)
  • Slow battery charger included
  • Full manual on CD-ROM, not terribly detailed

If it's a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera you're after, then you should also look at the Olympus E-PL2, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2, and Samsung NX10. If you want your optical viewfinder back, you may want to look at these three compact D-SLRs: the Canon EOS Rebel T2i, Nikon D5000, and Pentax K-r.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the NEX-5 and its competitors before you buy.

Photo Gallery

Check out the NEX-5's photo quality in our gallery!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.