In recent years, we've seen a huge push from Sony in the camera market. The company has introduced some great system cameras (like the A7S, A77 II, and NEX-7), and it's had legendary results in the point-and-shoot category. The Cyber-shot RX10 is the current cock of the walk, but others before it have topped our rankings.
Earlier this year, Sony brought the A6000 to the table, which stood up to many DSLRs even though it's the size of most point-and-shoots. A month ago, Sony decided to add another camera to its Alpha series, announcing the Sony Alpha A5100 (MSRP $549.99). The A5100 is aimed to be the final replacement of the NEX series by replacing the NEX-5T–which won our Best Value Mirrorless award last year and is casting a big shadow.
The A5100 borrows its sensor from the A6000, while improving upon that camera's lack of a touchscreen—a combo that could fill a nice niche for people looking to ditch the smartphone and get into portable system cameras.
We had a chance to get our grubby hands all over the A5100 front and center at the Sony booth at Photokina 2014.
Design & Usability
Does size matter?
Once we got the A5100 in our hands, we noticed one thing first: This camera is tiny. For those upgrading from the NEX-5T, you might notice that the A5100 is slightly taller, but this is still a camera that's basically the size of a smartphone with a big lens attached.
Due to the small size, handling can be a bit tricky for people with large hands—just as it was for the camera's predecessor. I found it difficult to hold, with a shallow grip and extremely small thumb rest. Luckily, it's light enough that this isn't a deal breaker, just not the most comfortable feel.
The rear is nearly identical to the NEX-5T, with one noticeable addition: Sony has added a "?" button to explain what the different modes do. This won't be necessary for people already shooting with Sony cameras, but it will certainly come in handy as people upgrade to or buy this outright as an entry-level camera.
In the relatively spartan landscape of the A5100, you'll find only a few buttons, including one in the center of the directional pad that can be set as a function button. We recommend setting it to be your mode selector, as there is, unfortunately, no mode dial on the A5100.
Like its NEX-5T predecessor, the A5100 forgoes the electronic viewfinder (EVF) in favor of a smaller size. It definitely feels a bit awkward to shoot with a large lens mount and no EVF, but you'll have to upgrade to an A6000 if you want that particular convenience. Making up for the lack of a viewfinder, Sony did give the A5100 the same 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD as the A6000... and even made it touchscreen for increased utility.
The shutter release is a bit gummy when half-pressed, with a hard click upon activation. The zoom toggle is attached to the shutter and, as the models we handled both had prime lenses, we couldn't really test the zooming throttle. We did, however, enable the digital zoom (which goes up to 4x) and found it extremely slow. Combined with the loss of quality in digital zoom, we would never recommend turning it on unless absolutely necessary.
Speaking of quality, the A5100 shares the same 24MP APS-C sensor and runs on one of Sony's BIONZ X image processors. It also carries over the A6000's extremely fast, 179-point phase-detection AF sensor, but it doesn't inherit the 11fps speed, topping out at just 6fps.
Video performance has actually been stepped up quite a bit since the NEX-5T. You get Full HD 1080/60p at 50Mbps, with an option for either AVCHD or XAVC. XAVC is a far better compression option, and relatively new, so you won't find it on any of the A5100's sibling models. The camera also offers MP4, but only at 1440x1080/30p.
All told, the A5100 technically has the edge over the A5000 and A6000 when it comes to video capabilities, but none of these cameras have mic jacks, so audio is going to need to be recorded separately if you don't want to use the built-in mic.
Par for the Sony course
The A5100 has all the features you've come to expect from a Sony camera. Sony made sure you had the option to share your images quickly with both WiFi and NFC (near field communication). You can use WiFi to share images quickly or use your phone as a remote.
The camera has nine different scene modes that will help you get the right settings for the shot you want. You can choose settings for: portrait, sports action, macro, landscape, sunset, night scene, hand-held twilight, night portrait, and anti-motion blur.
After you get the image you want, you can use 10 different effects for your still photos—posterization, pop color, retro photo, partial color, high contrast monochrome, HDR painting, rich-tone monochrome, miniature, watercolor, and illustration–in order to make them more unique. You can also use posterization, pop color, retro photo, partial color, high contrast monochrome, toy camera, and soft high-key for post-production in-camera hipsterfication of your videos.
Something for all the selfie enthusiasts out there to get excited about is the return of "Smile Shutter" on the A5100. Coupled with the flip-up LCD screen, perfectly framed selfies are only a smile away.
Bidding a fond farewell to see what's... NEX-t?
With the A5100, we finally say goodbye to Sony's beloved NEX system. The rebranding brings Sony's mirrorless lineup into the same family as its SLRs, in a move that we hope will help consumers understand the merits of compact system cameras.
As for the A5100 itself, it takes the successful NEX-5T formula and adds some new internal enhancements to bring it inline with the current Alpha mirrorless cameras. With some slightly better video options and a well-functioning touchscreen, the A5100 might even have a small edge over its siblings.
In the current lineup, the A5100 gives you a performance boost over the A5000 and the benefits of a touchscreen and smaller body compared to the A6000. If you want 11fps and an EVF, though, you'll want to stick to the more expensive model.
If you're looking to step up to an interchangeable lens system for the first time, then the A5100 is certainly a great start, with a mix of manual and auto controls. It's even more inviting to new users since Sony threw in a tip button to explain what everything does.
Though we haven't done any official lab testing, the focusing is extremely fast and the quality of images looks outstanding. Since it's compatible with the E-mount, you'll have plenty of lens variety and even a few Zeiss lenses. You won't find much better in the mirrorless game at this price point. It's available now for $699 with a 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 PZ kit lens.
With the final transition of NEX to Alpha complete, Sony has an even stronger lineup than it did a year ago. If the company finds a way offer an option as affordable as last year's NEX-5T, the new Alpha series is poised to repeat its performance in our Best of Year awards this year.