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Sony NEX-5R Review: Classy, Compact and Connected
by Chris Gampat -  2/25/2013

The Sony NEX-5R is the successor to the NEX-5N, which turned lots of heads and drew the attention of many to the NEX camera system. The camera was small enough and shot video footage that was satisfactory for the BBC to use for a web series. The company stated that it was actually a pleasure to work with. Consumers and reviewers all agreed and thought that its high ISO performance and revamped autofocusing was quite brilliant. Sony recently built on the successful model with the release of the 5R--unfortunately though most of the spotlight seems to have been stolen by the NEX-6 instead. With its more affordable price than the NEX-7 (the current flagship of the system), excellent sensor, direct dial controls, and built in electronic viewfinder, how can you turn it down?

Overview
The NEX-5R instead is being targeted at a different level of advanced enthusiast. If the NEX 6 is for those with a bit more in their coffers, then the 5R is the budget friendly version for the person that will absolutely never use a flash or any sort of hot shoe accessory. We came to this conclusion after observing the fact that the 5R still retains the older NEX style proprietary hot shoe.

The NEX-5R houses a brand new 16.1 MP sensor developed with Hybrid AF (the ability to use by Phase Detection and Contrast Detection autofocusing) and better high ISO results in mind. The 5R retains the flip-up screen that its predecessor had, but this time it also slides up and down a bit more for a better view in compromising angles. It also still includes HD video recording at 60i, 60p (which looks beautiful when slowed down) and 24p. But perhaps the biggest change has to do with the inclusion of built-in Wi-Fi and upgradable Sony Play Memory apps.

The NEX-5R can wirelessly transfer videos or photos to a mobile device (Android or iOS). Using its own Ad Hoc router, your device will connect to the camera and the units will talk to each other. Sound familiar? This technology was first incorporated into Eye-Fi Pro X2 cards--but Sony's interface is simpler to use and should provide consumers with a much more seamless workflow.

Build and Design
When looking at the NEX-5R, one doesn't see a major evolution from the NEX-5 and 5N; though the differences are indeed there on the outside. New to the 5 series are two dials: one is for aperture control while the other is for shutter control. What this means in practice is that you'll have less buttons to press when it comes to exposure control--and an overall smoother experience.

Since the NEX-5R is one of the smaller NEX series camera bodies, it is also best used with smaller lenses such as the native NEX lenses, Sigma's 30 and 19mm f2.8 lenses, and some from SLR Magic. If one were to mount a Rokinon Cinema lens (like the 24mm T1.5) they'd have a bit of an ergonomic nightmare in their hands. With that said, it would be best to use a tripod.

Don't want to use a tripod? There is an alternative. The back LCD screen flips up and slides a bit--so you can comfortably shoot (or film) from the hip in order to record stable footage. As a reminder of the rule of thumb: the closer the camera is to your body, the more stable it is.

In long term practice of over a month, there are still some weird design choices that were made by Sony. For example, the playback button is on top of the camera--traditionally a user can find it on the back. Also, the company opted to stick to their old NEX hot shoe design vs the new multi-shoe interface that they're seeming to push more (very much so to the joy of the industry.) Perhaps it may have cannibalized the NEX-6 a bit too much for their own liking.

Ergonomics and Controls
Sony's NEX-5R tries to emphasize simplicity while giving the user the right amount of power that most people would probably use or at least move up to after some time. With that said, the front of the camera is very minimal with not much besides the lens release, AF assist lamp, and an infrared trigger around the grip.

The top of the camera is the home to the major controls. Here you'll find the shutter release with on/off switch around it, an exposure control dial, video record button, and the playback button. Towards the middle and left you'll find microphones and the old hot shoe.

From here we move onto the back of the camera. Sony made the smart ergonomic choice of putting all of the hard controls on the right of the camera. Here you'll find two soft keys, a control dial with direct access to certain controls, and a thumb grip. To the left of all this is where you'll be greeted by a very large LCD screen. This is a touchscreen, and much can be controlled from this hub. Our version's screen wasn't as responsive as I've seen others.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find the tripod port and a door that houses the battery and SD card.

Lastly, the left of the camera hides the ports: HDMI out and USB. And above this is the WiFi branding--signifying that the camera has WiFi connectivity built in.

Menus and Modes
To operate most functions on the NEX-5R, you'll need to enter their menu system. When the series was first announced, this was a pain for many users--but buttons came and they were a near godsend. With the NEX-5R, the user will have more direct access to every menu after the menu button is pressed. The reason for this is because of the touchscreen interface. Here you'll find:

But there are also menus within the Shoot Mode

Display/Viewfinder
The Sony NEX-5R has a 3 inch LCD screen with 921,600 dots of resolution. This screen is vibrant, crisp, beautiful, and very well detailed. It comes in handy when recording video footage or using manual lenses--especially when combined with Sony's focus peaking mode. An electronic viewfinder can be used if the user wishes.

We've tested our unit against other NEX-5R units and concluded that our unit had problems with the screen's sensitivity toward the center. Luckily, Sony's NEX cameras have an option to calibrate the screens. Unfortunately, this didn't work. When we received the unit, we called Sony to investigate. After a factory reset, the problem was solved a little bit, but not much. Other NEX-5R cameras were still more responsive than our unit.

In order to do most of the operations, we often opted for the hard keys instead. When it came to focusing performance, we often needed to touch and hold the screen down in order for the camera to focus and snap a photo. With other cameras, this isn't so.

Performance
The Sony NEX-5R has overall excellent performance for autofocusing (issues aside), responsiveness, and image quality--though they're still not up to Olympus's autofocusing performance. The fact that the touchscreen was added in as an upgrade over the NEX-5N and it potentially makes operation even quicker. The Olympus EPM2 still bests it in both autofocus performance and responsiveness while Sony wins on image quality.

When it came to Wi-Fi connectivity performance, we tested it with an HTC One S and an iPad mini. Time and time again, the iPad mini proved to have a more reliable transmission ability. After that, the images were then edited in Snapseed and sent to the web. It was nearly a seamless experience and one that was much simpler than using something like an Eye-Fi card.

Lens Performance
We tested this camera with three lenses: Sony's 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 (which comes with the camera) 35mm f1.8 OSS, and the Rokinon 24mm T1.5 (a cinema lens designed for videography.) 

Sony's kit lens is sharp, contrasty, and fast to focus. For a kit lens, it is really amongst one of the best that we've seen and tested. We used it with an external flash at one point and were able to resolve lots of detail due to the specular highlights. However, the sharpness was all across the frame and we've seen that the lens is very much so worth the money on the wide end. When it came to the telephoto end, we've seen sharper results. Our only other complaints had to do with distortion--but one needs to expect it with kit lenses.

Sony's 35mm f1.8 OSS was good, but nowhere as good as the company's 24mm f1.8 or 50mm f1.8 OSS. Granted, the 35mm isn't branded as being a Zeiss lens (nor is the 50mm) but we had very high expectations for the lens. It wasn't as sharp as we expected--however it kept down distortion, color fringing, and aberrations very well.

The Rokinon 24mm T1.5 is a T-Stop lens designed to be used for cinematic reasons. Ergonomically speaking, it is best to use this lens when the camera is mounted on a tripod or a video rig of some sort. This is because of the all manual controls and the overall giant size of the lens--which by far dwarfs the camera.



Video Quality
The Sony NEX 5R records video at 24p or 60p. It also offers full manual control over the exposure when recording (which can be very important.) The quality of Sony's video from their NEX series of cameras have always been quite good and the 5R is no exception. 

During our testing period, we also partnered the camera up with an IndiePro EVF. In order to make this work, we needed to connect it to the camera via an HDMI cable. To our delight, the camera was able to output the monitor at 1080p--which made recording footage much more simple. 

If you want to do anything besides casual video, we recommend trying to get all of the settings correct the first time in the camera. When we brought the footage into Adobe Premiere Elements, color grading introduced noise artifacts that weren't there to start with. However, the footage from the camera is quite good as it is when the Vivid mode is selected.


Image Quality
Sony's NEX line of cameras have consistently provided better image quality than Micro Four Thirds cameras but not as good photos as Fujifilm X series. The 5R is no exception--proving to still be a happy middle ground. For the best results, we often set our unit to the Vivid color mode and tried to shoot as wide open as possible to get some beautiful bokeh. Otherwise, images from the NEX sensor can tend to be a bit more flat than we'd like. When set to Vivid though, the images look like the old Kodak Ektachrome--which was quite a look!

The high ISO images that we shot retained lots of detail and managed to keep the noise levels down up to 6400. Anything beyond that was just painful to look at. When it came to editing the raw files, Sony's NEX 5R produced images that were easy to manipulate to get the look that we wanted. Indeed, very little was needed to be done to the images to start with--so Adobe Lightroom 4 is more than enough for most users' needs.



Something that must be commended is Sony's ability to white balance an image very well. To date, Sony's white balancing algorithms are some of the best there are.

Additional Sample Images


Conclusion
Sony's NEX-5R is overall quite a minor update to the old NEX-5N--but the changes that are there really count. The WiFi transmission feature is really quite cool for photographers, journalists or enthusiasts that need to shoot and share on the spot. The new sensor renders not only spectacular color but also excellent high iso results. On top of this, Sony decided to add in more ergonomic exposure controls.

On the downside though, our unit's touchscreen wasn't the most responsive and the camera retains the old Sony NEX hot shoe vs the newer multi-interface shoe. On other units though, the screen was snappy and responsive--rivaling that of even Olympus's!

Sony's autofocusing performance still isn't able to touch that of Micro Four Thirds cameras, and at this point we're not exactly sure why.

For the best imaging results, we found that users should stick to prime lenses. Not only are they consistently sharper but they can also offer you the bokehlicious images that everyone wants.

So who is this for? Many people I personally know have bought one as their video camera/camcorder. The predecessor was used by the BBC--so why not? Indeed, it has excellent video capabilities. But it can also capture spectacular images with the right lenses. Many people can use this camera and grow with it due to the ergonomic controls for exposure added in. In the end though, enthusiasts and those looking for more power from an interchangeable lens camera should look closely at the 5R.

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