cameras

Sony Alpha NEX-5N Review

The Sony's NEX-5N packs high-end performance in a small body.

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Introduction

The Sony NEX-5N is the update to one of Sony's first NEX cameras, the NEX-5. At first glance the camera does not seem much different from its predecessor, but (figuratively) look under the hood and you'll realize the NEX-5N is a different beast entirely.

The new sensor in the 5N puts it squarely next to mid-range DSLRs like the Nikon D5100 and the Canon T3i, but with a smaller body and significantly faster shot-to-shot time. Sony has also added touchscreen functionality to their rear, articulated LCD. Add it all up and you get one of the most intriguing cameras on the market today. It's available in black, silver, and red with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

Design & Usability

The NEX-5N handles well for a camera of its size, and we love its sleek, modern design, but we'd prefer a physical mode dial and a standard hot shoe.

The NEX-5N has a massive image sensor compared to compact cameras, but this poses one problem: full-size DSLR sensors mean (generally) full-size DSLR lenses, and those hinder portability considerably. This Sony has a substantial grip though, which accommodates lenses well. It also saves space by omitting a built-in flash, providing a thin mount (NEX compatible only) and its own flash unit instead. Menu interactions are facilitated by either physical buttons or with a 3-inch, 921k-dot resolution LCD touchscreen that doubles as a tilting viewfinder. We particularly appreciate that touch-control is a secondary function, instead of a primary one.

Sony's E-mount makes this camera compatible with nearly every lens you can imagine.

Some users will doubtless long for a physical mode dial, which manifests virtually on an in-camera menu instead. The menu looks great though, with bright symbols and clean text that pop off the screen. Options are well organized by tabs, but excessive scrolling tends to hamper navigation. The 5N uses the same dual-button contextual design as the NEX-5, NEX-3, and NEX-C3, with an additional control wheel on the back that doubles as a four-way directional pad. Sony's E-mount makes this camera compatible with nearly every lens you can think of, and in combination with the APS-C image sensor, enthusiast heads will surely turn. Be aware though, that the NEX-5N isn't as focused on deep manual controls and physical dials. The combination of automatic shooting modes, on-screen guides, and in-camera shooting tips seem rather geared toward the novice.

Features

Sony has packed the NEX-5N with their usual bag of tricks, yet excellent hardware bumps everything up a notch. This is an enthusiast-level camera with a novice level of control.

For now, consumers can't expect SLR performance to fit in their pockets, but things are at least heading in the right direction. That's where the shrinking NEX-5N excels. Some manual bells and whistles are missing, but this model still has a full measure of manual exposure controls, allowing adjustments to dynamic range, ISO, white balance, focus type, and focusing area as well. Unfortunately, most of these controls are in sub-menus, so in order to streamline the manual experience, advanced shooters should assign multiple functions to a "custom" menu, accessed by a center softkey on the rear control dial.

Never fear, newbies, the 5N includes a variety of automatic modes as well, and many creative scene modes, like macro and sunset. The fun doesn't end there—digital picture effect filters, 11 altogether, spruce up images with selections like retro photo and soft focus, and there are five color modes too. There are barely any in-camera editing options on the 5N, but burst modes are very speedy and video mode is reliable.

The high level of performance is a real bargain in this compact, (relatively) inexpensive camera body.

The most exciting features come in the form of hardware though, like the sensor, which is borrowed from such stalwarts as the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K-5. The NEX-5N's large sensor is the same size as those in many DSLRs, so this high level of performance is a real bargain in this compact, (relatively) inexpensive camera body. The kit lens is a standard 18-55mm lens with a large, textured zoom ring, but some kits offer a 16mm pancake prime as well, which is great for traveling due to its compact size. The N5 maxes at 16 megapixels and supports lossless RAW.

Performance

The image quality on the NEX-5N is, without reservation, excellent.

We found the image quality of the NEX-5N to be quite superb, with great color accuracy, wonderful dynamic range, and impressive noise performance. The 16-megapixel image sensor is leaps and bounds ahead of the Sony NEX-5. The idea of a mirrorless camera with a sensor this large, the idea of this kind of dynamic range and high ISO performance in a smaller camera, has had people salivating for years, and finally it's here to satisfy the market's appetite. In low light, the NEX-5N can lock focus and render images without overwhelming noise levels and users will be able to capture shots at a blistering 10 frames per second, in full resolution. This puts the NEX-5N up with the fastest mirrorless cameras on the market (though a far cry from the Nikon 1's 60fps).

The NEX-5N offers one of the best performance to price ratios on the market right now.

As for areas that need improvement, we were dismayed by the performance of the 18-55mm kit lens, which occasionally caused small distortions to appear—this camera can do much, much better. Additionally, the otherwise excellent video quality was plagued at times by visually distracting errors. All things considered though, the NEX-5N offers one of the best performance to price ratios on the market right now.

Conclusion

Sony's NEX-5N packs high-end performance in a small body.

Put the Sony NEX-5N and its predecessor, the NEX-5, next to each other and you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Changes are few and far between. Once you compare shots though, it's clear that the NEX-5N is making good on Sony's latest promises. The 5N is just about everything the NEX system aspired to be: DSLR image quality in a compact mirrorless body. The 5N's 16-megapixel sensor provides fantastic image quality, and this Sony's shot-to-shot time puts it among the faster cameras under $1000. Still, the NEX-5N doesn't erase all the complaints that were levied at earlier versions; it's still got a very large lens mount and an awkwardly small body; its lack of control dials don't appeal to enthusiast photographers; it still costs more than your average, entry-level DSLR.

This is a mid-level DSLR, boiled down and poured into an affordable body.

Nevertheless, stack up the considerable performance gains, the enjoyable user interface, and the approachable, modern design, and the complaints feel minor in comparison. We were seriously impressed by the NEX-5N's combination of low light capability, speedy shooting, and fast-twitch responsiveness—in several weeks of shooting, in all sorts of conditions, we were never once frustrated by the camera's performance. This is a mid-level DSLR, boiled down and poured into an affordable body that any novice would feel comfortable shooting with. Enthusiasts who want complete control may find better options with Panasonic's GX1 or the Olympus E-P3, but the Sony NEX-5N performs well enough to be most anyone's main camera.

When you can pack this kind of performance into a body this small, it's hard to not be impressed. We're not ready to label the NEX-5N as the best compact mirrorless camera we've seen (the E-P3's bright light image quality is still amazing), but it has become part of the conversation. We're very excited to see what the NEX will do next.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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