Cameras

Sony NEX-5 Digital Camera Review

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Introduction

The Alpha NEX-5 looks like the combination of an SLR lens and a point and shoot camera, and handles like one too, with many of the advantages of an SLR without the bulk. We found that the performance of the camera was disappointing, though, with oversaturated color and soft images.

Design

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Sides Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

In the Box

Box Photo
  • NEX-5 camera body with body cap
  • 18-55mm lens
  • NP-FW50 rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Battery charger BC-VW1
  • USB cable
  • Shoulder strap
  • Flash with flash case

Lens & Sensor

The 16mm fixed focal length lens and 18-55mm zoom are included in the two kit configurations, and are the only lenses available at launch. An 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 will ship later this year -- so far, that's all she wrote.

The NEX-5 is the second mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera to arrive with a standard APS-C format sensor (the Samsung NX10 was the first). These designs contrast with the mirrorless Micro Four Thirds system cameras, which use a sensor roughly 30% smaller for the sake of compact design. The problem with this sensor shrinkage is increased noise: both the NEX-5 and the NX10 produced images with far lower image noise than the multiple Micro Four Thirds cameras we've tested (including the Olympus E-PL1 and Panasonic GF1 used for comparison purposes in this review).

Viewfinder

If you think the option to shoot with the camera held up to your eye is important, this is not your camera. Not only is there no built-in viewfinder, there's no accessory electronic viewfinder available; your only option is a $200 fixed-focus optical viewfinder accessory, which isn't much better than no options at all. This contrasts with the Samsung NX10, which comes with a built-in electronic viewfinder (though not a very good one), and the Olympus E-PL1 and Panasonic GF1, which have connectors for optional EVFs (though these are $200+ add-ons).

Display(s)

The NEX-5 has one of the most beautiful LCD displays we've ever seen on a digital camera, a 3-inch wide-screen display with 921,600-pixel resolution. The company says it adopted a technology called 'TruBlack,' first employed in its digital picture frames, to increase contrast and make colors pop. Based on what we're seeing here, we hope this type of screen becomes a standard feature in Sony's line.

The widescreen orientation is particularly geared toward high-def movie playback, in 16:9 format. Standard still images don't fill the screen; the left side is used instead to display labels for the three multipurpose control buttons and the control wheel, both in shooting and playback mode.

The LCD is articulated in an unusual way, with a hinge along the top edge that lets you pull the screen away from the camera body, then pivot it down for shooting with the camera held overhead, or up for low-angle shooting. We find it more useful when an LCD is hinged along the edge, so it can be folded out to the side of and flipped forward for self-portraits. Still, the NEX-5 system is much better than nothing, particularly when trying to see over a crowd.

LCD brightness is adjusted automatically by default, but there are also two user overrides. You can adjust the brightness up or down by two steps in each direction, or choose Sunny Weather to max out the brightness for outdoor shooting. We still feel that the lack of an eye-level viewfinder is a substantial negative when considering the NEX-5. We have to give Sony credit, though: even standing outdoors in bright sun at noon, we were still able to line up a shot on the LCD, in situations where lesser screens would be all but worthless.

Secondary Display

High-end SLRs often have a second monochrome LCD on top, for reading camera settings from above. The NEX-5 doesn't have this feature.

Secondary Display Photo

The mono LCD display is small and disappointing.

Flash

There's no built-in flash here, but at least Sony includes a small accessory HVL-F7S flash unit with the camera. The flash is only 1 7/16 x 15/16 x 1 11/16 inches (35.9 x 23.8 x 42.7mm) and weighs about 0.8 oz. (20.4g) -- truly pocket-size even if you favor tight jeans, and complete with a protective case. In practice, though, you may decide that the smart move is simply to attach the flash and leave it in place. Rather than a standard hot shoe, the flash is screwed into a proprietary accessory connector located under a protective flap on top of the camera. It doesn't require extraordinary manual dexterity, but at the same time it's not an operation you'll want to undertake on the spur of the moment, when you're about to miss a shot for lack of light. The flash folds down flat on top of the camera, adding only about half an inch to the height of the camera. It won't shoot in the position, though; you have to raise it up, as shown in the photo below. And no, despite the fact that the strobe is on a pivoting bracket, you can't use it as a bounce flash, since it snaps into a single predetermined spot, facing forward,

Not that you'd get much bang for your buck if you could bounce this little flash. Sony gives the flash range as 3.3 to 8.2 feet (1 to 2.5m) with an f/2.8 aperture setting, at ISO 200. In practice, it does a reasonable job in dimly lit indoor environments, with less of a central hot spot than we expected. As an outdoor fill flash, it's not going to provide a lot of help, though.

The flash can be set to auto, fill flash (fires with every shot), slow sync (flashes to catch foreground subject in dark setting, with a slow shutter speed to capture the dark background) and rear sync (fires just as the shutter is closing, creating a trailing light image for moving subjects). Red-eye reduction is also available as a separate setting.

Flash exposure compensation is available in a ±2 EV range, in 0.3 EV increments.

Flash Photo

The flash emitter pops up from the top of the body via a mechanical release.

Connectivity

There are two separate compartments on the left side of the camera, one for an industry-standard USB data cable (included), the other for a mini HDMI jack (not included). As with the Sony A550, the camera cannot output standard-def video at all. It's not just that the cable isn't included: it isn't available. Apparently high-def TV manufacturer Sony has decided that pandering to the needs of the lower-res rabble isn't important. We beg to differ, and consider this a significant oversight.

On the other hand, when connected via HDMI to an HDTV that supports Sony Bravia Sync, you can use the TV remote to control photo and movie playback.

There is also an expansion port on top of the camera, used to connect the included flash unit or the optional external stereo mic ($130).

Battery

According to Sony, you should get about 330 shots per battery charge, but that seems generous based on our shooting experience. At least you'll have a precise read on the remaining power level as you shoot; the LCD display includes a power percentage readout, in addition to the familiar disappearing icon. Sony estimates it will take about three hours to recharge a fully depleted battery.

Battery Photo

Memory

The Sony NEX-5 accepts all three flavors of SD card, including the new high-capacity SDXC format, along with the company's proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo and Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo media.

Memory Photo

The K2000 accepts inexpensive, easy to find SD cards.

Media Photo

Image Quality

Sharpness

Image sharpness wasn't low enough to raise red flags about the camera, but it certainly wasn't impressive. In fact, only the Sony A550 posted lower sharpness results among the comparison cameras. More on how we test sharpness.

Image Stabilization

Unlike Sony SLRs, the compact NEX cameras do not have in-camera image stabilization systems, relying instead on stabilized lenses. When we tested the kit 18-55mm zoom, though, we found it was much less effective than the in-camera stabilization we tested in the Sony A550. In fact, when the camera was shaken fairly aggressively, there was only a slight sharpness improvement at two shutter speeds, with no significant difference at all at 1/60 second or slower, where stabilization is most needed. With a lower shake intensity, there were minor improvements when shooting at 1/125 second and again at 1/15 second, but overall this new lens-based stabilization system made very little difference.

Color

Color accuracy is a problem for the Sony NEX-5, notably when it comes to saturation. It seems the camera was preset for those who like overblown Kodachrome color, with every color mode oversaturated by at least 10%, and most at about 125%. Fortunately, if you prefer more natural results, you can go in and make adjustments to the color mode settings. More on how we test color.

Of the five available color modes, standard proved most accurate when it comes to reproducing colors, though the saturation came in at 110%. Skin tones are handled well in this mode, along with sky blue, greens and purple. Reds were considerably off-hue, though, along with cyan and other blue tones.

The chart below includes actual-size crops from our color test shots for the NEX-5 and four comparison cameras.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

The Sony NEX-5 scored lower than all but the Samsung NX10 Much of the difference is due to oversaturation problems rather than inaccurate color values.

Color Modes

As with Sony SLRs, the NEX-5 comes with six preset Creative Styles, which control color reproduction along with contrast, saturation and sharpness. Contrast and sharpness can be manually adjusted in a ±3 setting range for all six modes; saturation adjustment is available in all but the black and white mode.

Vivid, landscape and sunset modes all pump up the saturation levels to around 125% for dramatic effect. Portrait comes in at a somewhat gentler 113%, but you're still going to see some unnatural blush in your subject's cheeks if you shoot with this mode at its default setting.

The chart below shows samples of each color mode (except black and white). You'll also find real-world sample shots in all six modes in the Picture Effects section of this review.

White Balance

While it's far from the worst we've seen, the NEX-5 did not perform well in our white balance testing, which goes hand in hand with its poor color accuracy results. We test under three different lighting conditions (tungsten, daylight and fluorescent), using the automatic white balance system and then taking a manual white balance. There was no single test that skewed the results here. Instead, results were generally mediocre across the board.

Automatic White Balance ()

The results when shooting under daylight using auto white balance weren't bad, but the problem with overly warm incandescent shots will be readily apparent.

Custom White Balance ()

Taking a custom white balance reading produced much better images than the auto setting when shooting under incandescent lights -- definitely worth taking the extra few moments for a manual reading. Under daylight and fluorescent lighting, though, we didn't find the level of accuracy we expect when using a custom white balance setting: both were slightly less accurate than the auto setting.

With the Panasonic GF1 scoring exceptionally well here and the Olympus E-PL1 particularly poorly, the Sony NEX-5 results are still south of acceptable.

White Balance Options

The NEX-5 has six white balance presets. The presets can be manually adjusted, with three steps toward redder reproduction and three steps toward blue.

Taking a custom white balance reading is easy; choose the setting option in the menu, point at a white or gray surface and press the shutter button.

There are two more ways to enter a white balance setting; enter a color temperature value in degrees Kelvin, or choose a virtual Color Compensation filter, selecting one of nine values for either green or magenta. With a live on-screen preview as you make these adjustments, you don't need to be a hardcore techie to find them useful.

Long Exposure

Our long exposure testing takes into account both image noise and color accuracy results when shooting at slow shutter speeds. The Sony NEX-5 performed reasonably well in the image noise testing, but its color accuracy problems carried over when the lights were turned down low, producing a middle-of-the-road overall score for this section. Both of the Micro Four Thirds cameras in our comparison group scored lower, based on poor image noise performance. Both of the other APS-C-format cameras scored higher overall. The Samsung had higher color error than the Sony but much lower noise. The two Sony cameras were about even when it comes to color error, while the A550 noise performance falls between the NX10 and the NEX-5. More on how we test long exposure.

Color error was slightly higher when long exposure noise reduction processing was turned on. In terms of doing its appointed job, though, the long exposure noise reduction had virtually no effect. Best bet: just turn it off.

If you're planning to shoot the creatures of the night, there are better choices than the NEX-5, but performance is acceptable in this area.

Noise Reduction

Like the Sony A550, the NEX-5 doesn't offer the same level of control we find on most manufacturers' SLRs, which let you turn off high ISO noise reduction processing altogether. The NEX-5 has two settings: weak (the lower level of processing) and auto (the higher level). In our lab testing, there really isn't a lot of difference between the two, even at the highest ISO settings. The potential problem with high ISO noise reduction processing is the loss of fine image detail. In our test photos, though, we found little evidence of this. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

The NEX-5 offers ISO settings from 200 to 12800. When using Auto ISO, the setting tops out at ISO 1600.

The chart below shows same-size crops taken from our still life photos, which are shot in program mode with automatic white balance, with noise reduction turned off. These images are not used in our actual scoring, which is based on photographing a standardized test chart.

Dynamic Range

The NEX-5 handles high-contrast scenes very nicely, holding on to details in both bright and shadowed areas better than most cameras. In fact, only the Sony A550 offered a hair's breadth superior performance, and none of the other comparison cameras came close.

The NEX-5 starts out with a very respectable range of nearly 8 stops at the lowest ISO 200 setting. The drop as ISOs increase is gradual; even at ISO 3200 we still measured a dynamic range over 5 EV, a very strong result.

As shown below, the NEX-5 has the widest dynamic range at ISO 200 among cameras in our test group. More on how we test dynamic range.

Sony clearly understands dynamic range optimization. While they use very different hardware, the two Sony models are the clear leaders in this category.

Noise Reduction

Like the Sony A550, the NEX-5 doesn't offer the same level of control we find on most manufacturers' SLRs, which let you turn off high ISO noise reduction processing altogether. The NEX-5 has two settings: weak (the lower level of processing) and auto (the higher level). In our lab testing, there really isn't a lot of difference between the two, even at the highest ISO settings. The potential problem with high ISO noise reduction processing is the loss of fine image detail. In our test photos, though, we found little evidence of this. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

The NEX-5 offers ISO settings from 200 to 12800. When using Auto ISO, the setting tops out at ISO 1600.

The chart below shows same-size crops taken from our still life photos, which are shot in program mode with automatic white balance, with noise reduction turned off. These images are not used in our actual scoring, which is based on photographing a standardized test chart.

Focus Performance

A key concern when evaluating mirrorless cameras versus SLRs is autofocus speed. A key reason to include a mirror in an SLR is to bounce light to a dedicated autofocus sensor that uses fast phase detect technology. Without a mirror, autofocus is based on data taken directly from the image sensor itself, evaluating different lens positions to figure out which setting offers the highest contrast (which equals the sharpest focus).

We have yet to find a mirrorless model that can match the autofocus performance of even an inexpensive SLR. The Sony NEX cameras come surprisingly close, though, and that's a key competitive advantage, particularly against the Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras, which even after a recent firmware upgrade are the slowest of the bunch.

The NEX-5 offers two focus modes: Single shot, where the camera focuses and maintains focus while shutter is half-way pressed, and continuous autofocus, where the camera continues to adjust focus as long as the shutter is pressed half-way.

The camera can be set to autofocus, manual focus or what's called 'direct manual focus,' which uses autofocus and then allows manual adjustment while the shutter button is depressed halfway.

There are three focus area options:

** **Multi* - Camera chooses from 25 AF areas.

** **Center* - Only the center focus point is used.
** **Flexible Spot* - User selects the AF point to be used by moving the four-way controller.

When shooting in Intelligent Auto mode, apertures can be adjusted without dealing with that messy technical term. The 'background defocus' screen is accessed by pushing the middle control wheel button. Turning the wheel in this mode lets the user adjust background sharpness, on a scale from Crisp to Defocus. There's no information presented to help users learn the aperture control concept, but the on-screen display does offer live depth of field preview, so you can see the effect as you turn the wheel.

The front lamp next to the hand grip functions as a self-timer indicator, and also as a bright, effective autofocus illuminator.

The face detect capability, which recognizes up to eight individuals, is based on the Sony point-and-shoot system. In addition to standard face detect, you get child-priority and adult-priority modes, which are self-explanatory. There's also a Smile Shutter function; after pushing the shutter, the camera waits until it detects a smiling face before taking the picture (if everyone's feeling morose that day, you can just press the shutter a second time to take a shot). And depending on the level of jolly you desire, there are three sensitivity settings for the smile shutter feature; Big Smile, Normal Smile and Slight Smile.

Long Exposure

Our long exposure testing takes into account both image noise and color accuracy results when shooting at slow shutter speeds. The Sony NEX-5 performed reasonably well in the image noise testing, but its color accuracy problems carried over when the lights were turned down low, producing a middle-of-the-road overall score for this section. Both of the Micro Four Thirds cameras in our comparison group scored lower, based on poor image noise performance. Both of the other APS-C-format cameras scored higher overall. The Samsung had higher color error than the Sony but much lower noise. The two Sony cameras were about even when it comes to color error, while the A550 noise performance falls between the NX10 and the NEX-5. More on how we test long exposure.

Color error was slightly higher when long exposure noise reduction processing was turned on. In terms of doing its appointed job, though, the long exposure noise reduction had virtually no effect. Best bet: just turn it off.

If you're planning to shoot the creatures of the night, there are better choices than the NEX-5, but performance is acceptable in this area.

Video: Low Light Sensitivity

The Sony NEX-5 surprised us with a solid performance on our low light sensitivity test. The camera needed 11 lux of light to hit 50 IRE on our waveform monitor, which is less than half the amount of light required by many video-capable DSLRs to reach the same levels. We have seen some consumer camcorders and high-end video-DSLRs with better low light sensitivity than the NEX-5, but this is still a very good performance from the camera.

Chromatic Aberration

This is color fringing caused by the lens refracting different frequencies of light by differing amounts. The NEX-5 with the 18-55 zoom did exhibit noticeable chromatic aberration, particularly at the widest and midrange zoom settings. At full telephoto, the problem was barely noticeable, though.

Shooting at the widest angle, chromatic aberration is readily visible across all aperture settings. Sharpness holds up better, at least until the lens is fully stopped down.

Color fringing is still an issue at 36mm (halfway through the zoom range), though the center of the image stays relatively clean and sharp except at the smallest aperture settings.

At the maximum zoom setting, the color fringing problem is under control, and sharpness holds up pretty well, especially in the center of the lens. The maximum sharpness readings for the lens come at the 18mm setting in the center of the lens with the aperture wide open, with 2102 lw/ph horizontal and 2288 vertical, but at 55mm we still find readings over 2000 lw/ph smack dab in the middle.

Distortion

We shoot our resolution tests using the camera's kit lens; in this case, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 with built-in stabilization (which is turned off for test shooting). With interchangeable lens cameras, we don't include distortion results in the camera's section score, but we do evaluate the kit lens performance. In this case, distortion levels are significant across the zoom range, with 3.66% barreling at the widest lens setting, 2.46% pincushioning in the midrange and 1.32% pincushioning at the maximum zoom.

Motion

In the Sony NEX-5's Full HD mode the camcorder records video with a 60i frame rate. There's also a 1440 x 1080 recording mode that uses a 30p frame rate (and MP4 compression). This frame rate offers slower, less fluid motion than the 60i setting, but overall the NEX-5 delivered one of the better motion performances of the video-capable DSLRs we compared it to. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Artifacting was definitely noticeable in the NEX-5's motion video, but it wasn't as prominent as what we saw from the other cameras shown below. The NEX-5's Full HD record mode has a 17Mbps bitrate and uses AVCHD compression, which is a system identical to what Sony utilizes on many of its consumer camcorders. While the video captured by the camera was generally low in the artifacting department, it did show lots of blur and trailing—particularly in the two rotating pinwheels in our motion test setup.

We thought the E-PL1's motion video looked smooth, but there was more artifacting than we'd hoped to see. There was also a lot of blur and trailing present in the motion video recorded with the camera. The E-PL1 records all video using a 30p frame rate.

The Panasonic GF1 has two options for recording 720p HD video—one captures video using a 30p frame rate, while the other records at 60p (although the sensor output is still 30p). We had problems working with the 60p footage, as it appeared to play back at double speed on our computer. We think this problem had something to do with compatibility issues between Panasonic's AVCHD Lite codec and our media play back software.

The Samsung NX10 also uses a 30p frame rate to record HD video, and we found the camera produced lots of blur and trailing in our test. The camera also had a very noticeable rolling shutter effect that added a wobble to footage whenever we quickly panned the camera from side-to-side.

Video Sharpness

The Sony NEX-5 is the only camera in this testing set that can record a 1920 x 1080 (Full HD) video image. The other models all top out with 1280 x 720 recording (still HD, just not 1080p). Needless to say, this gave the Sony NEX-5 a big advantage when it came to our video sharpness testing because the camera literally captures a larger, more resolute image than the competition (there are plenty of other video-capable DSLRs that record 1080p, but most of them are not as compact as the NEX-5). The Sony NEX-5 measured a horizontal sharpness of 700 lw/ph and a vertical sharpness of 650 lw/ph—both of which are significantly better than what we saw from the Olympus E-PL1, Panasonic GF1, and Samsung NX10. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

Low Light Sensitivity

The Sony NEX-5 surprised us with a solid performance on our low light sensitivity test. The camera needed 11 lux of light to hit 50 IRE on our waveform monitor, which is less than half the amount of light required by many video-capable DSLRs to reach the same levels. We have seen some consumer camcorders and high-end video-DSLRs with better low light sensitivity than the NEX-5, but this is still a very good performance from the camera.

Usability

Buttons & Dials

The NEX-5 takes a minimalist approach to buttons and dials, relying more heavily on the menu system than most SLRs. This keeps down clutter, and allows for a smaller camera design. It also slows you down dramatically when you want to access several basic shooting controls, a continuing annoyance even after you've learned how the control scheme works.

On top of the camera, there's the shutter button, a separate rotating power switch, and a button to access playback mode.

The Sony NEX-5 menu system is certainly one of the best looking we've seen, taking full advantage of a beautiful 921,000-dot screen by using photographic icons and page backdrops, along with nice clear text. Unfortunately, pretty took precendence over practical when designing this newly minted scheme.

There are two basic problems: convenience and organization.

There are six submenus in all, as listed below. And when looking for a setting, you need an abstract mental leap or a very good memory to figure out which setting is tucked away where. There's a Brightness/Color submenu with settings for exposure (exposure and flash comp, ISO, dynamic range adjustment) and color (white balance, creative style). The high dynamic range option is tucked away here, rather than included as a shooting mode, like other multi-shot features.

The Camera submenu is a catch-all for focus settings, drive mode, smile shutter, panorama and a few others. Noise reduction, image stabilization and movie audio controls, which we figure are shooting settings, are wedged into the lengthy Setup menu, along with date, time and location, display customization and whether or not you want the camera to beep.

And as the final coup de grace, the menus are several screens long, so you have to scroll down to the bottom to find out whether or not you're in the right submenu. The relatively stodgy Sony SLR menu system will never win a beauty pageant, but at least they let us get from from here to there efficiently.

Instruction Manual

The NEX-5 comes with two forms of documentation, a printed Instruction Manual and a disc-based Handbook. For most users, the manual will deliver all the information they need, and does it in a clearly written, logically organized way. Unlike some manuals, which require you to jump from here to there to find related information, this manual follows along in the way you're likely to use the camera: set it up, take pictures, play back pictures, transfer them to a computer and use the provided software. The table of contents works well, the index less so (no entry for 'sound' or 'audio,' for example, and nothing for 'image stabilization'); overall, a solid effort.

Handling

The NEX-5 is a nicely designed piece of gear that feels good in your hands. The body measures 4 3/8 x 2 3/8 x 1 9/16 inches (35.9 x 23.8 x 42.7mm) and weighs 8.1 ounces (20.4g), which makes it the smallest interchangeable lens camera on the market, by a skinch. Of course, Olympus offers a collapsible zoom lens, which shortens the camera depth considerably, but it's worth remembering that the NEX-5 has a full APS-C sensor, significantly larger than the Micro Four Thirds sensor used by Olympus and company, yet Sony has managed to deliver it in a smaller body. In fact, with the 16mm fixed-focus lens attached, it will fit into a large jacket pocket or handbag.

Handling Photo 1

The right side doesn't provide a lot of clearance between the grip and the lens, but your large-handed reviewer got used to it after a few hours. The back thumb rest is textured and well positioned, which together with the small size makes this a good choice for one-handed shooters. And we like the way Sony positioned the one-touch video record button on its own angled surface; easy to find in a hurry, very unlikely to be pressed accidentally.

Handling Photo 2
Handling Photo 3

Buttons & Dials

The NEX-5 takes a minimalist approach to buttons and dials, relying more heavily on the menu system than most SLRs. This keeps down clutter, and allows for a smaller camera design. It also slows you down dramatically when you want to access several basic shooting controls, a continuing annoyance even after you've learned how the control scheme works.

On top of the camera, there's the shutter button, a separate rotating power switch, and a button to access playback mode.

Buttons Photo 1

On the angled plane between the back and the top is the dedicated movie recording button. We like the option to start recording video on the spur of the moment, without having to meddle with mode dials or menu choices. And the button is well placed, easy to find in an instant but not in a spot where you're likely to press it accidentally.

On the back, there's a combination control wheel / four-way controller. The wheel is used to adjust settings, browse images during playback and navigate through the menu system. The four-way controller is also used for navigation, but while shooting the top, bottom, left and right clicks are mapped to access display adjustment, exposure compensation, drive mode/self-timer and flash mode respectively.

For everything else, you have to open the main menu and hunt for your options. Want to change the ISO setting, autofocus mode, white balance, or metering pattern? You'll need to bring up the menu, navigate to the relevant sub-menu, find the setting within the submenu, bring up the list of available settings, navigate to the one you wanted.... ooops, missed the shot. Say you have the camera set to the standard Creative Style and want to switch to vivid. We count thirteen clicks along the way... and that's if you know where you're going.

The other key element in the control scheme are three 'soft' buttons, meaning their function varies depending on where you are in the system. The current action on offer is explained with on-screen labels.

One soft button is located in the center of the control wheel, the others to the top left and bottom left of the wheel. When you're shooting, the top button takes you to the menu system, the middle one accesses your shooting mode options, and the bottom one brings up an on-screen display of shooting tips. We have nothing against providing consumers with info about taking better photos. At the very least, though, we would have made that last button customizable, so you could access key shooting controls more easily. We would gladly have traded quick access to ISO settings or metering patterns for easy navigation to a 100-word essay on freezing subject motion.

Buttons Photo 2

Display(s)

The NEX-5 has one of the most beautiful LCD displays we've ever seen on a digital camera, a 3-inch wide-screen display with 921,600-pixel resolution. The company says it adopted a technology called 'TruBlack,' first employed in its digital picture frames, to increase contrast and make colors pop. Based on what we're seeing here, we hope this type of screen becomes a standard feature in Sony's line.

The widescreen orientation is particularly geared toward high-def movie playback, in 16:9 format. Standard still images don't fill the screen; the left side is used instead to display labels for the three multipurpose control buttons and the control wheel, both in shooting and playback mode.

The LCD is articulated in an unusual way, with a hinge along the top edge that lets you pull the screen away from the camera body, then pivot it down for shooting with the camera held overhead, or up for low-angle shooting. We find it more useful when an LCD is hinged along the edge, so it can be folded out to the side of and flipped forward for self-portraits. Still, the NEX-5 system is much better than nothing, particularly when trying to see over a crowd.

LCD brightness is adjusted automatically by default, but there are also two user overrides. You can adjust the brightness up or down by two steps in each direction, or choose Sunny Weather to max out the brightness for outdoor shooting. We still feel that the lack of an eye-level viewfinder is a substantial negative when considering the NEX-5. We have to give Sony credit, though: even standing outdoors in bright sun at noon, we were still able to line up a shot on the LCD, in situations where lesser screens would be all but worthless.

Secondary Display

High-end SLRs often have a second monochrome LCD on top, for reading camera settings from above. The NEX-5 doesn't have this feature.

Secondary Display Photo

The mono LCD display is small and disappointing.

Viewfinder

If you think the option to shoot with the camera held up to your eye is important, this is not your camera. Not only is there no built-in viewfinder, there's no accessory electronic viewfinder available; your only option is a $200 fixed-focus optical viewfinder accessory, which isn't much better than no options at all. This contrasts with the Samsung NX10, which comes with a built-in electronic viewfinder (though not a very good one), and the Olympus E-PL1 and Panasonic GF1, which have connectors for optional EVFs (though these are $200+ add-ons).

Image Stabilization

Unlike Sony SLRs, the compact NEX cameras do not have in-camera image stabilization systems, relying instead on stabilized lenses. When we tested the kit 18-55mm zoom, though, we found it was much less effective than the in-camera stabilization we tested in the Sony A550. In fact, when the camera was shaken fairly aggressively, there was only a slight sharpness improvement at two shutter speeds, with no significant difference at all at 1/60 second or slower, where stabilization is most needed. With a lower shake intensity, there were minor improvements when shooting at 1/125 second and again at 1/15 second, but overall this new lens-based stabilization system made very little difference.

Shooting Modes

There is no mode dial on the NEX-5. Instead, a picture of a mode dial is shown on screen, and you turn the control wheel to choose a shooting mode.

The camera offers a single, scene-recognition-based full auto mode, along with the PASM controls we expect on an SLR and a few special-purpose options, as outlined below and in the Scene Modes section. There is no separate mode for video recording; you can press the dedicated movie button at any time and start shooting, which is convenient.

Unlike most SLRs, the NEX-5 does not have a program shift option that lets you adjust the shutter speed and aperture together, maintaining the same overall exposure. Program shift is very useful when you want to quickly adjust for fast action or get a deeper focus area; its absence here is surprising.

Sony's sweep panorama lets you easily and automatically create impressive panoramic images. You hold down the shutter button and pan the camera horizontally or vertically to cover the desired area. The camera shoots dozens of images as you move, then automatically combines them into a single panoramic photo when you release the shutter.

There are two size settings, standard and wide, with different resolutions depending on whether you're shooting a horizontal or vertical panorama:

Horizontal panorama: standard size 8192 x 1856, wide 12416 x 1856

Vertical panorama: standard size 8192 x 1856, wide 2160 x 5536

The most notable flaw in the sweep panorama system is dealing with movement in the frame. Sony offers a more advanced system, called Intelligent Sweep Panorama, in some of its CMOS-based compact cameras (such as the DSC-TX7), which cope better with moving subjects. The NEX-5, though, relies on the original click, pan, click, pan, etc technology.

One late addition here is a 3D Panorama mode that is added by updating the firmware to the version 2 that is available from Sony. This requires a 3D HDTV to view, though, so we were unable to test it at the time this review was written.

Focus

A key concern when evaluating mirrorless cameras versus SLRs is autofocus speed. A key reason to include a mirror in an SLR is to bounce light to a dedicated autofocus sensor that uses fast phase detect technology. Without a mirror, autofocus is based on data taken directly from the image sensor itself, evaluating different lens positions to figure out which setting offers the highest contrast (which equals the sharpest focus).

We have yet to find a mirrorless model that can match the autofocus performance of even an inexpensive SLR. The Sony NEX cameras come surprisingly close, though, and that's a key competitive advantage, particularly against the Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras, which even after a recent firmware upgrade are the slowest of the bunch.

The NEX-5 offers two focus modes: Single shot, where the camera focuses and maintains focus while shutter is half-way pressed, and continuous autofocus, where the camera continues to adjust focus as long as the shutter is pressed half-way.

The camera can be set to autofocus, manual focus or what's called 'direct manual focus,' which uses autofocus and then allows manual adjustment while the shutter button is depressed halfway.

There are three focus area options:

** **Multi* - Camera chooses from 25 AF areas.

** **Center* - Only the center focus point is used.
** **Flexible Spot* - User selects the AF point to be used by moving the four-way controller.

When shooting in Intelligent Auto mode, apertures can be adjusted without dealing with that messy technical term. The 'background defocus' screen is accessed by pushing the middle control wheel button. Turning the wheel in this mode lets the user adjust background sharpness, on a scale from Crisp to Defocus. There's no information presented to help users learn the aperture control concept, but the on-screen display does offer live depth of field preview, so you can see the effect as you turn the wheel.

The front lamp next to the hand grip functions as a self-timer indicator, and also as a bright, effective autofocus illuminator.

The face detect capability, which recognizes up to eight individuals, is based on the Sony point-and-shoot system. In addition to standard face detect, you get child-priority and adult-priority modes, which are self-explanatory. There's also a Smile Shutter function; after pushing the shutter, the camera waits until it detects a smiling face before taking the picture (if everyone's feeling morose that day, you can just press the shutter a second time to take a shot). And depending on the level of jolly you desire, there are three sensitivity settings for the smile shutter feature; Big Smile, Normal Smile and Slight Smile.

The manual focus assist works beautifully. When you turn the focus ring, the on-screen image is automatically magnified to allow critical focusing precision. Touching the shutter button returns the display to standard view. Of course, if you prefer, you can turn off the manual assist function. Unfortunately, the manual focus assist isn't available for movie recording.

A quick word of praise for the manual focus control on the kit 18-55mm lens is called for here. Unlike so many kit lenses, which have loose, sloppy manual control, the ring here is silky smooth, with just the right amount of tension to allow careful movement.

Recording Options

The NEX-5 has a maximum resolution of 14 megapixels and a minimum of 2.9 megapixels -- if you're thinking about emailing images to friends and family, you'll need to resize using your computer first. There are two aspect ratio choices, 3:2 and widescreen 16:9, each with three size options as listed below.

There are two JPEG compression settings, Fine and Standard. RAW and RAW+JPEG are also supported. When shooting RAW+JPEG, the file size is set to Large, compression to Fine.

Speed and Timing

There are two high-speed shooting modes. The speed-priority continuous setting autofocuses and sets exposure before the first frame, then shoots at up to 7 frames per second at that focus setting. The standard continuous advance setting, which attempts to adjust focus and exposure as needed between shots, maxes out at 2.3 images per second.

In our testing, the NEX-5 delivered as promised. In our lab shooting full-resolution JPEGs in speed priority mode, we got just over 7 shots per second (7.07, to be precise), with about 20 shots before shooting slowed to clear the buffer.

In the standard continuous advance setting, we again did slightly better than advertised, with 2.6 shots per second.

The self-timer is more flexible than most. You have standard 2-second and 10-second delay options, but there is also a custom self-timer mode that lets you shoot either 3 or 5 images automatically after a 10-second delay.

The NEX-5 will work with Sony's optional RMT-DSLR1 Wireless Remote Commander ($30).

Focus Speed

A key concern when evaluating mirrorless cameras versus SLRs is autofocus speed. A key reason to include a mirror in an SLR is to bounce light to a dedicated autofocus sensor that uses fast phase detect technology. Without a mirror, autofocus is based on data taken directly from the image sensor itself, evaluating different lens positions to figure out which setting offers the highest contrast (which equals the sharpest focus).

We have yet to find a mirrorless model that can match the autofocus performance of even an inexpensive SLR. The Sony NEX cameras come surprisingly close, though, and that's a key competitive advantage, particularly against the Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras, which even after a recent firmware upgrade are the slowest of the bunch.

The NEX-5 offers two focus modes: Single shot, where the camera focuses and maintains focus while shutter is half-way pressed, and continuous autofocus, where the camera continues to adjust focus as long as the shutter is pressed half-way.

The camera can be set to autofocus, manual focus or what's called 'direct manual focus,' which uses autofocus and then allows manual adjustment while the shutter button is depressed halfway.

There are three focus area options:

** **Multi* - Camera chooses from 25 AF areas.

** **Center* - Only the center focus point is used.
** **Flexible Spot* - User selects the AF point to be used by moving the four-way controller.

When shooting in Intelligent Auto mode, apertures can be adjusted without dealing with that messy technical term. The 'background defocus' screen is accessed by pushing the middle control wheel button. Turning the wheel in this mode lets the user adjust background sharpness, on a scale from Crisp to Defocus. There's no information presented to help users learn the aperture control concept, but the on-screen display does offer live depth of field preview, so you can see the effect as you turn the wheel.

The front lamp next to the hand grip functions as a self-timer indicator, and also as a bright, effective autofocus illuminator.

The face detect capability, which recognizes up to eight individuals, is based on the Sony point-and-shoot system. In addition to standard face detect, you get child-priority and adult-priority modes, which are self-explanatory. There's also a Smile Shutter function; after pushing the shutter, the camera waits until it detects a smiling face before taking the picture (if everyone's feeling morose that day, you can just press the shutter a second time to take a shot). And depending on the level of jolly you desire, there are three sensitivity settings for the smile shutter feature; Big Smile, Normal Smile and Slight Smile.

The manual focus assist works beautifully. When you turn the focus ring, the on-screen image is automatically magnified to allow critical focusing precision. Touching the shutter button returns the display to standard view. Of course, if you prefer, you can turn off the manual assist function. Unfortunately, the manual focus assist isn't available for movie recording.

A quick word of praise for the manual focus control on the kit 18-55mm lens is called for here. Unlike so many kit lenses, which have loose, sloppy manual control, the ring here is silky smooth, with just the right amount of tension to allow careful movement.

Features

Recording Options

The Sony NEX-5 has three quality settings for recording video. It's Full HD 1920 x 1080 option is the only one on the camera that uses the AVCHD compression system (the same compression used on Sony's HD consumer camcorders). The other two options, one of which records HD video at a 1440 x 1080 resolution, utilize the MP4 codec for compressing video. The AVCHD Full HD option records video using a 60i frame rate, while the other two record modes capture video at 30p. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

Auto Controls

When recording video, the Sony NEX-5 functions with entirely automated controls, albeit with a few exceptions. You can adjust exposure and white balance manually, and you can also set some color modes (called Creative Style in the menu).

The autofocus on the NEX-5 is probably the best we've ever seen from a video-capable DSLR. It works fairly quickly, it functions during recording—without the need to press any kind of button—and it is the quietest system we've seen on a DSLR. Basically, the autofocus works similarly to what you'd see on a consumer camcorder. Since many video-DSLRs don't even have a live autofocus system in video mode, this is a pleasant surprise that definitely gives something to make the NEX-5 stand out amongst the crowd.

Zoom

Optical zoom is controlled on the NEX-5 using the large lens ring on the camera. The amount of zoom available depends on what lens you have mounted, but the kit lens we used in our testing is an 18mm - 55mm lens, which translates to a roughly 3x optical zoom.

Focus

As we mentioned before, the NEX-5's autofocus system works very well. You can also adjust focus manually using the lens ring during or prior to recording. This system works well if you're trying to play around with depth of field or do any kind of focus trickery, but for regular shooting the autofocus should handle things adequately.

Exposure Controls

Exposure is the only manual control that can be set in video mode on the NEX-5. You can set it during recording or prior to recording, and you do so using the small dial on the back of the camera.

Shutter speed and aperture can be set on the camera, but once you begin recording video the NEX-5 reverts to automatic control. We wish the camera would make this fact more obvious because many users may think they are setting shutter speed or aperture for their videos, but in reality they are doing nothing.

Other Controls

There is no ISO control in video mode on the camera, but there are some color modes (called Creative Style) that can be used for video recording. Examples of these color modes are shown in the Video: Color section of this review. The camera's full range of white balance controls and image stabilization settings can also be applied for video recording.

Audio Features

The built-in microphone on the Sony NEX-5 records stereo audio, which is signified by the two small slits on the top of the camera labeled with an 'L' and an 'R' (for left and right audio channels). As with most DSLRs that record audio, the NEX-5's built-in mic picks up plenty of extraneous operational noise, although the camera is quieter than most DSLRs. The placement of the microphone on the top of the camera is mostly out of the way from wandering fingers, but you may accidentally rub the microphone depending on the way you like to grip the NEX-5.

The camera doesn't have any audio features other than an option to turn sound recording on or off. There's no audio inputs on the NEX-5 either. See the table below for full audio feature details.

Mic Photo

In the Box

Box Photo
  • NEX-5 camera body with body cap
  • 18-55mm lens
  • NP-FW50 rechargeable Li-ion battery
  • Battery charger BC-VW1
  • USB cable
  • Shoulder strap
  • Flash with flash case

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