DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony alpha NEX-5 Review
by Jim Keenan -  5/26/2010

The joint development of the Micro Four Thirds system by Olympus and Panasonic allowed them to be first in the market with mirrorless, interchangeable-lens compact digitals that offer DSLR-like image quality in sub-DSLR size camera bodies. Olympus announced their E-P1 in mid June 2009; Panasonic their GF1 in early September. The partners had this niche to themselves for the rest of 2009 and into the second quarter of 2010, but now there is competition looming.

Sony alpha NEX 5


Samsung has just introduced their NX10 and Sony has thrown their hat into the ring with the recently announced NEX-3 and alpha NEX-5, due in the market this July. Barely a week after the Sony announcement, an NEX-5 found its way to my door. The ink was hardly dry on my review of Samsung's NX10, so the opportunity to shoot the newest entries into the class back-to-back (along with the GF1 back in October 2009) has given me hands-on time with three of the four players in the field.

While Samsung drifted from the rectangular, boxy body shape that characterizes the Olympus and Panasonic cameras, Sony has embraced their concept with a vengeance. The NEX-5 press release calls it (and the NEX-3) the "world's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens digital cameras." Even so, the NEX-5 packs a 14.2 megapixel Sony APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor that results in a 1.5x crop factor (35mm equivalent) for any lenses mounted on the camera. One benefit of that sensor resolution is the ability to crop images fairly aggressively if necessary while still retaining sufficient data for quality photo enlargements. This shot cropped to 8 x 12 inch size still has 228 dots per inch and will produce a good quality print.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Original

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Cropped

Sony will launch the camera with 16mm pancake and 18-55mm zoom lenses available; an 18-200mm zoom is due later in the year. The NEX cameras carry the "Alpha" designation (like the DSLR line), but the NEX lens mount is an "E" mount, not the "A" mount found on the big Sonys. An adaptor for "A" mount lenses is due in July, but will not support autofocus.

Sony alpha NEX 5

The NEX-5 has a 3.0-inch articulating monitor, can shoot 1080i HD video in the AVCHD format and provides automatic and full manual controls as well as JPEG and RAW shooting capabilities. There's face detection, smile shutter technology, Sony's Bionz processor and compatibility with Sony Memory Stick Pro Duo or SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media. Sony provides a compact clip-on flash and flash case with each camera, as well as battery and charger, USB cable, CD-ROM software, shoulder strap, instruction manual and the 16 or 18-55mm lens depending on the kit chosen.

It's small, it's light and it's the newest in this fight - let's see just what the NEX-5 brings to the arena.


BUILD AND DESIGN
The NEX-5's rectangular body is a magnesium alloy (NEX-3 is composite) and will be available in silver or black versions. Our review sample was black and looked and felt well built - it measured out at about 4.37 x 2.32 x 1.5 inches. By way of comparison, Panasonic's GF1 came in at about 4.69 x 2.8 x 1.43 inches, so Sony has really done their homework in getting small with their entries in this class. Sony provided both the 16mm and 18-55mm zoom that will be the initial offerings with the camera for this review, and both lenses featured brushed aluminum barrels and steel lens mounts that combined with the NEX-5 to produce a very solid feeling combination. Here's what those focal lengths look like:

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
16mm

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
18mm

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
55mm

Ergonomics and Controls
The rectangular body of the NEX-5 features a built-up handgrip in the right front of the camera body - my fingers were resting against the lens barrel with either the 16mm or the 18-55 zoom onboard. Folks with large fingers should definitely try the camera to see if they can live with the clearance before taking one home. A slight bulge on the camera bottom allows the tripod receptacle to clear the lens barrel for mounting on a tripod (and Sony warns that a tripod screw less than 7/32 of an inch must be used to affix the camera). The shooting finger falls naturally across the shutter button, but the camera's small size means the middle pad of the finger wants to lie on the button itself, rather than the finger tip.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Again, folks with big hands will want to give the camera a good checkout to see if the size is a concern. Following the lead of the Olympus E-P1, the NEX-5 lacks a built-in flash. The provided flash mounts to the camera top via an accessory port, and there is an optional viewfinder that can mount to this port as well, just not at the same time. Ditto for a compact stereo microphone.

The camera itself is short on external controls - the power switch, replay, shutter and dedicated movie capture buttons adorn the top of the body, with two soft keys (buttons) and a control wheel on the back. The three controls on the camera back are the ones you'll use for camera setting selections and changes.

Sony alpha NEX 5

Menus and Modes
The NEX-5 has six primary menus - shoot mode, camera, image size, brightness/color, playback and setup. Within each menu are various sub-menus offering settings and options. About midway through the setup menu is the "help guide display" setting which is off by default. I'd recommend enabling it until you get familiar with the camera - I found it useful when accessing the primary menus, as it provides a brief list of the main settings in that particular menu as well as descriptions of each sub-menu item when you designate them.

The menus are generally intuitive, but the soft keys and the control wheel took a little extra getting used to - the screen next to these controls will show the function of each control at any particular time, but the function can vary depending on shooting mode. For example, in the manual shooting modes (P, A, S, M) the upper soft key selects "menu," the control wheel handles shooting mode settings and the lower soft key offers "shooting tips."

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Switch shooting mode to the fully automatic "intelligent auto" and the soft keys remain the same but the control wheel now handles "background defocus."

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Press the "menu" soft key from either screen and you get the six main menu screens - the top soft key becomes the "back" key, the control wheel is used to select the menu choice and the bottom soft key is disabled.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

With the "help display guide" enabled, you'll get an overlaid panel that briefly (and generally) explains what each major menu section involves. Here's the guide entry for the "brightness/color" menu.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Entering the Brightness/Color menu gets us this first page, on which we've scrolled down to the DRO/HDR setting.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Selecting DRO/HDR then gets us this screen, which shows that the camera is set for auto HDR with a 2 E.V. exposure differential.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Also note the functions assigned to the soft keys on this screen - the top key is "cancel" and the bottom key is "option". Compare this to the previous screen, where the top key was "back" and the bottom key was unassigned - you have to keep an eye on the keys and the control wheel since the functions can change from screen to screen. In this case, we decide to hit "option", which gives us this screen:

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

With the HDR icon highlighted, we can scroll the control wheel through six manually set levels of exposure difference as well as an auto setting. Due to its small size and relatively sparse set of external controls, the NEX cameras have adopted this somewhat unconventional method of shifting control functions based on the camera's context at any particular moment, and I found some areas not very intuitive at first. The user's manual was helpful in getting me past the difficult parts and should probably be carried with you in the field the first few times out, particularly if you plan to shoot manual modes and alter settings as you go.

After a few run-throughs, things began to make more sense, but the NEX-5 was one of the more difficult compacts I've run across in trying to figure out operations initially. The camera is just menu-intensive when it comes to changing shooting settings, and manual shooters are more apt to be impacted by this than the full auto folks.

One gripe on the menu layout - "format" is found in the setup menu, but you have to scroll through 12 shooting settings and 16 main settings to get to it. How about moving it to the head of the shooting setting list? Camera settings are likely to be changed relatively infrequently compared to formatting, so here's my vote make it more readily accessible.

Shooting modes include automatic and scene-specific options, along with a nifty sweep panorama mode and the manual exposure controls more experienced users will tend to gravitate to.

Display/Viewfinder
The NEX-5's 3.0-inch LCD monitor is of 921,000-dot composition and adjustable for five levels of illumination manually, as well as auto and sunny weather settings. Sunny weather sets the monitor level automatically according to outside light levels and is quite bright; it also seems to draw down the camera battery quite rapidly. Even with the sunny weather setting the monitor can be difficult to use in some bright outdoor conditions, but it proved to be one of the better performers for image composition outdoors.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

The monitor can be moved away from the camera body and tilted upwards through about 80 degrees of rotation; approximately 45 degrees of tilt is available downward. Sony does not specify an area of coverage for the monitor, but it appears quite close to 100%.

There is an optional viewfinder available that mounts onto the camera via the accessory port. The all-glass lenses of the viewfinder consist of 4 groups and 5 elements. Area of coverage is not specified.

PERFORMANCE
With the compact interchangeable-lens class cameras mounting sensors sized like those in a DSLR, image quality has been the least of their worries. Autofocus and shutter performance has in general been OK, but not quite up to DSLR standards. Does the NEX-5 break any new ground in this regard?

Shooting Performance
The NEX-5 powered up fairly quickly, and I was able to get off a first shot in about 2 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 2 seconds as well. Continuous rates worked out to 2.6 frames per second (fps), but there's a speed priority continuous setting that managed 7 fps using focus and exposure from the first capture for all subsequent photos in the sequence.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon Rebel T2i 0.02
Olympus E-PL1 0.03
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 0.05
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon Rebel T2i 0.18
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 0.32
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Olympus E-PL1 0.84

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Canon Rebel T2i 170 3.7 fps
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 17 3.3 fps
Olympus E-PL1 14 3.1 fps
Sony alpha NEX-5 2.6 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Shutter lag came in at 0.05 seconds - same as the Samsung, slower than the Panasonic and Olympus competition. AF acquisition at 0.39 seconds trailed the Panasonic by about 0.07 seconds but was faster than Samsung and Olympus. AF acquisition times predictably lengthened in dim lighting conditions.

Sony alpha NEX 5

The NEX-5 flash has a guide number of 7 at 100 ISO, and even at the camera's baseline 200 ISO sensitivity range will be limited. Recycle times with a fully charged battery and partial discharges ran about 2 seconds in normally lit conditions - the camera was pretty much ready to shoot flash again as soon as the focus icon came back on screen. Shots designed to produce full discharges (minimum aperture, telephoto and dimmer conditions) ran a bit over 5 seconds.

Sony lists a battery life of about 330 images using a CIPA standard, and my experience suggests the camera will approach that figure with careful power management and using the monitor at auto brightness settings. With the monitor set to the "sunny weather" illumination level, battery life seemed greatly reduced.

Lens Performance
First off, Sony advised us that the 16mm pancake lens provided for our review was a pre-production sample and image quality might not be representative of production units. That's probably not a bad thing based on our results with the 16 - it displayed what appeared to be some mild moustache distortion on horizontal lines, and sort of a pincushion distortion at the vertical edges. The lens was fairly sharp generally, with some softening in the edges and corners and perhaps a bit of light falloff as well, but it was the geometric distortions of the lines that really stuck out.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
16mm

The 18-55 was more traditional, displaying barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion at telephoto. Edges and corners were a bit soft at both ends, but image quality overall was certainly on a par with similar kit lenses on other cameras I've reviewed. A little chromic aberration (purple fringing) was present if you looked long and hard at extreme magnifications (400x), but the lens did a very good job overall in this regard.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
18mm Wide Angle

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
55mm Telephoto

While Sony builds image stabilization into their DSLR camera bodies, the NEX models don't have room for that system. The 18-55 and 18-200 zoom lenses are stabilized, and stabilization is enabled and disabled by camera menu. Sony recommends disabling stabilization for tripod work. In addition to the "A" mount lens adaptor that permits the use of a range of Sony and legacy Minolta glass in manual focus mode only, there are ultra wide and fisheye converters that provide 12mm and curvi-linear distortion effects respectively.

Video Quality
The NEX-5 captures true 1080i HD video in the AVCHD format that my 64 bit Vista platform didn't want anything to do with, so I had to settle for the 1440 x 1080 MP4 resolution. The camera has a CMOS sensor, but rolling shutter effect is muted in all but the most exaggerated panning speeds. The dedicated movie capture button is handy, but the big news is the camera does auto focus and exposure continuously while recording.

Audio recording is on by default but may be disabled; the built-in microphone has some susceptibility to wind noise but there is no wind cut feature and lens/camera noise may be recorded as well. Video quality was very good and the auto focus/exposure worked as advertised - very easy camera for video capture work.

Image Quality
Default images out of the NEX-5 were very pleasing in terms of image quality and color accuracy. Sharpness may have been right on the edge of being not quite enough to suit my taste initially, but that would vary from shot to shot. Anyway, there's plenty of settings for image manipulation in the manual modes so I can't imagine anyone not being able to come up with some combination that meets their needs. Sony's color palette is called "creative style" and offers five color and one black and white shooting option.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Standard
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Vivid
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Portrait
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Landscape
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sunset
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Black and white

Like many digitals these days, the NEX-5 offers settings designed to expand the camera's apparent dynamic range - the dynamic range optimizer (DRO) and auto high dynamic range (HDR). DRO "analyzes the contrast of light and shadow between the subject and the background, producing an image with optimal brightness and gradation," according to Sony. The DRO default is auto, but you can also manually set strength levels from 1 to 5 for image enhancement. Here's a shot with DRO disabled, the same shot on auto and at levels 1, 3 and 5.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO Off
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO Auto
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO 1
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO 3
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
DRO 5

HDR shoots "three images with different exposures, and then overlays the bright area of the under exposed image and the dark area of the over exposed image to create an image with rich gradation." With HDR enabled you can again use an auto setting, or manually choose from 6 levels of exposure difference. Here's the shot with no HDR, and then HDR auto and levels 2, 4 and 6.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR Off
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Auto HDR
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR 2
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR 4
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
HDR 6

Files are output at 350 dots per inch so your shots are print-ready right out of the camera.

Multi metering did a good job overall with average scenes but could lose some highlights in high contrast situations, a not-uncommon performance. Center-weighted and spot metering options are available. Auto white balance was also good overall, but shot warm in the studio under incandescent light. There are six preset, two custom and one color temperature options available in addition to auto.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Finally, the NEX-5 has the easiest stitch image option I've come across. The sweep panorama shooting mode captures images of up to 226 degrees horizontally or 151 degrees vertically. By comparison, the 16mm and 18-55 zoom lenses have fields of view of 83 and 76 degrees, respectively. More important than the field of view is the ease with which the NEX-5 makes the capture.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

You select the sweep shooting mode then slowly pan across the field of view while holding the shutter button down. When the camera quits capture it automatically processes the image. Minimal user involvement is required and you won't have to manually position subsequent shots onto earlier ones to form the panorama as with most other cameras.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image

Sony is planning firmware updates for this July that will provide a 3D panorama capture capability that may be viewed on a line of 3D televisions Sony will be announcing around the same time.

Sony's noise performance seems to be about par for the class. Images at ISO 200 and 400 are quite clean and hard to tell apart, with some noise becoming apparent at 800. ISO 1600 and 3200 are clearly impacted but certainly usable for small images.

Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 200
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 400
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 800
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 1600
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 3200
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 6400
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 12800
Sony NEX 5 Test Image
ISO 12800, 100% crop

ISO 6400 and 12800 are small image options but settings of last resort for any sort of print enlargements. I thought that the Samsung NX10 held its own with the Panasonic GF1 through 400 ISO and then possibly fell a little bit behind at the 800 through 3200 sensitivities. My sense is the Sony is a little better than the Samsung at 1600 and 3200, so overall the NEX-5 is solidly in the mix with the class competition, but differentiating the brands on the basis of ISO performance alone provides no clear cut winner.

Additional Sample Images
Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image
Sony NEX 5 Test Image Sony NEX 5 Test Image

CONCLUSIONS
Sony's NEX-5 (and NEX-3) interchangeable lens compact digitals are the latest additions to a class that has only recently seen competition arrive to contest sales with the class founders. The NEX-5 comes in with competitive ISO and image quality performance, and while a bit light on lenses for its introduction, the arrival of the stabilized 18-200mm zoom later this year will give the camera a decent focal range with the "E" mount glass. An adaptor for Sony and Minolta "A' mount lenses is due in July and will provide a wide selection of manual focus lens options, albeit without stabilization.


Video quality is good, and the one-button capture combined with auto focus and exposure during video capture gives the NEX-5 the edge over the other guys in the video arena. The AVCHD format that provides the true HD video may require some software to be viewed on your existing equipment. The camera should appeal to a wide spectrum of users as it provides an automatic shooting menu including specific scenes along with full manual controls for more advanced image capture. RAW, JPEG and RAW/JPEG shooting formats are available.

The camera's menu system, particularly in the manual shooting modes, takes a little getting used to, and settings are a bit labor intensive as everything has to go through internal menus. Shutter lag is just enough to be noticeable (and tie for worst in the class). Battery life at 330 images is OK, but not great. The field is getting more crowded with competitors and Sony didn't make it any easier on potential purchasers by adding a very capable camera to the mix.

Pros:

Cons: