Hands-On: Sony Alpha NEX-5 Interchangeable-Lens Camera

Eagerly anticipated ever since Sony floated its wood-block concept designs at the PMA show in February, Sony's Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3 have finally arrived. Its debut models are the smallest entrants to date, and are aggressively priced given their features.

The cameras are nearly identical, differing only in two ways. They have slightly different body designs, with the higher-end NEX-5 composed of magnesium alloy, and the NEX-5 offers full HD AVCHD video recording. For those perks you pay about $US100 more. Both cameras come in kits with either an 18-55mm ($US299.99 standalone) or 16mm pancake prime lens ($US249.99 standalone). We received a production-level NEX-5 just before launch, which gave us time to test it and get some shooting done before announcement - you'll be able to get yours in July. The full review with more testing experience and ratings for that model should follow relatively soon. (Read about the NEX-3.)

Sony Alpha NEX-5 photo samples:


Both visually and by the numbers, the NEX-5 delivers excellent noise performance for its class. Photos are pretty clean up through ISO 800, and you don't start to see significant softness until ISO 1600.

Photo credit: Matthew Fitzgerald/CNET

Noise, ISO 6400

Sony has really gotten its act together on the noise-reduction algorithms; these are some of the best high ISO sensitivity images I've seen from a Sony camera, even the dSLRs. (1/50 sec, f4.5, evaluative metering, AWB, standard Creative Style, 18-55mm lens at 42mm)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Handheld Twilight mode

Though the HHT photos look a little softer than their straight high-ISO equivalents (the EXIF data reports this at ISO 1250), you can see how clean this looks. Still, HHT takes too long to shoot and record the photo to use it for anything but static scenes; good performance at high ISO sensitivities is not obsolete.

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Distortion, 18-55mm lens

At its widest angle, the 18-55mm kit lens displays some of the worst barrel distortion we've seen for a non-snapshot camera in a while. Goodbye, straight lines. (1/100, f9, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Distortion, 18-55mm lens Even the narrow end of the kit lens displays pincushion distortion, which we rarely see. (1/100, f10, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Distortion, 18-55mm lens

Even the narrow end of the kit lens displays pincushion distortion, which we rarely see. (1/100, f10, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Distortion, 16mm lens

As you'd expect from a prime, the distortion characteristics are much better than the kit zoom. It looks pretty good, actually, although I think there's a bit of vignetting in the lower left corner. (1/100, f10, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Fringing, 18-55mm lens

Because of its distortion issues, the lens displays some chromatic aberration, even on not-so-high-contrast edges. (1/100, f5, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)

I wanted to shoot this in Auto HDR, but couldn't figure out where the setting was until I went back to the manual. Turns out it's one of the DRO settings. Silly me for not guessing that.

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Lens bokeh, 18-55mm lens

Bokeh, or the quality of out-of-focus details, makes a big difference in lens quality. Though the lens has a 7-blade aperture, I was surprised at how polygonal some of the out-of-focus highlights looked. (1/800, f8, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Sharpness, 18-55mm lens

The lens does have nice center sharpness, and the camera's processing maintains a natural look without oversharpening. (1/250, f7.1, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, Standard Creative Style)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET


A combination of the default Creative Style, with its unknown adjustments and an overly cool automatic white balance in sunlight, unfortunately shifts deep pinks, greens and purples. Still, if you don't care about accuracy, the colours are mostly pleasing and saturated.

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Creative Styles

These are your only real color style options, and none are quite right. I also had some problems with metering consistency. (1/100 sec, f6.3/7.1, ISO 200, spot metering, AWB, 18-55mm lens at 55mm)

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Sweep Panorama

This remains a fun feature, though not without its bugs. The detail level is a lot better than from the point-and-shoot models (right), but it still has a problem dealing with things moving through the scene (left). Thank you random stranger in the park.

Photo credit: Lori Grunin/CNET

Overall, the photo quality is really good, and the camera has a very nice noise profile and dynamic range for its price class. But there are caveats. For one, it has the same unfortunate issues with Sony's Creative Styles that all the company's dSLRs do: the default renders inaccurate colours, which isn't helped by the overly cool automatic white balance, and there's no natural Creative Style option. Not even in the bundled raw software. Also, though the 18-55 kit lens is pretty sharp, it has some of the worst distortion I've seen on a non-point-and-shoot camera of late. That includes barrel distortion at the 18mm end and pincushion at the 55mm end. As a result, not only are lines curved, but there's some fringing around the edges of the scene.

Video is sharp and the lenses are really quiet, both for zooming and focusing, but you have practically no controls beyond a background defocus scroll. For instance, it wouldn't let me spot meter a backlit subject; instead, I had to crank the exposure compensation all the way up, guessing based on a hard-to-gauge display. While it has built-in stereo mics that are reasonably separated physically, the audio sounds a bit tinny. And the camera really needs a wind filter.

The camera feels fairly fast, though the autofocus system tends to be inconsistent. Most of the time it's quite decisive, but occasionally hunts for no reason that I can figure out. Like most cameras without an optical viewfinder, for burst shooting you're stuck with point-and-pray. It also feels like it takes forever to start up. That's borne out by our testing, which puts it at about 1.7 seconds - slower than all but Olympus' models. At 0.4 second, it has the least shot lag of its class in good light, though Panasonic bests its 0.8-second time to focus and shoot in dim light by about 0.2 second. We clocked its burst rate with autofocus at 2.6 frames per second; we don't test the rate without AF, which Sony specs at 7fps.

The new all-aluminium Sony E-mount lenses dominate the the NEX-5's body, and they feel great, with a smooth rotation for both zoom and manual focus. The 18-55 feels a bit large for the compact body, and I suspect the 18-200mm lens ($US799.99, expected this spring) will really overwhelm it. You should also keep in mind that unlike the Alpha DSLRs, which have image stabilisation built into the camera, the NEX models use optical stabilisation in order to achieve the smaller body sizes. Sony will be offering an adaptor for using non E-mount Sony lenses with the NEX models, but as with most competitors the adapters don't support autofocus. And those huge, heavy Sony lenses really will overwhelm these tiny bodies.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 photos


The NEX-5 is so small that it gets visually overwhelmed even by its 18-55mm kit lens. Still, it feels balanced in your hands while shooting.

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

Tiltable LCD

The tiltable LCD is a really nice feature to have, though it doesn't make up for the lack of an electronic viewfinder option.

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

Top controls

A dedicated movie record button is an essential control for any camera that shoots video. As you can see, there isn't much in the way of controls on top of the camera.

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET


The NEX-5 has a stereo mic with more physical separation than most.

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET


The NEX-5 has a slightly larger grip than the NEX-3, and it's just large enough to feel comfortable, but a little insecure for one-handed shooting because of the limited places on the back for your thumb.

The flash comes off, and also tucks down flat on top of the camera.

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

It's all lens

Sony developed a new mount system, the E-mount, for its NEX series. The company will offer an adapter for using its standard lenses, but won't support autofocus for them (as is common).

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

Back controls

Though there are a few hardwired controls on the back, the bulk of the camera's operation uses a combination of the two blank buttons and the context-sensitive menu system.

There's not a lot of room on the back for a thumbrest; I frequently found my thumb sliding left to land on that top button.

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

Contextual controls

If you look at the right side of the LCD, you can get a sense of how the contextual controls work. Pressing the indicated button will bring up the virual mode dial, while scrolling the wheel will adjust aperture size. Notice how you get both a numeric aperture readout as well as the iconic closer-farther indicator. Also notice how low the battery's getting; the camera has pretty lame battery life.

Don't worry, you can make this display a lot less cluttered.

Photo credit: Sarah Tew/CNET

The camera itself is pretty well designed and easy to grip and shoot. It doesn't have a built-in flash, but does ship with a small add-on flash that uses a proprietary connector. Sony will also have an add-on microphone. Sony makes the same mistake as Olympus did with the E-P1 and forgoes an electronic viewfinder; though the company doesn't say it supports one, I'm hoping that accessory connector can be retrofitted for it. There is a direct-view optical viewfinder designed to work with the 16mm prime lens, but that's not a sufficient substitute. And while the large LCD is certainly nice and high resolution, with a brighter backlight than that on the A550 dSLR, I still had some issues viewing it in bright sunlight.

The interface has a few fixed buttons, such as drive mode and exposure compensation, while the rest are contextual, depending upon camera mode. Overall, this scheme works pretty well, but there are some irritating quirks to the menu system. For instance, you can't scroll backwards to get from the first entry in a menu to the last. And because the contextual interface requires you use the menus, you're in there all the time if you want to change shooting settings such as metering or ISO sensitivity. Also, while I generally like the scroll wheel's operation, when using it for the virtual mode dial I kept flying past my target.

The NEX-5 carries over a lot of the features from Sony's point and shoots. Though it doesn't use the Exmor-R back-illuminated sensor, the new 14MP sensor is fast enough to support features like sweep panorama, which dynamically stitches together a burst of shots into a 23mp panorama; handheld twilight mode, which automatically combines 6 shots to optimise the dynamic range in low light; and a 3-shot AutoHDR mode. The Handheld Twilight does very well with low-light images. It's not practical in every situation, though, because it still has to process the buffered images, which take a while to save. And while the sweep panorama still suffers from some unavoidable artefacts, such as Picasso-like pieces of people walking through the scene, it does capture enough detail that it doesn't look so bad when you zoom in. In July, Sony will be releasing a firmware update that can process the sweep panorama shots into stereoscopic 3D images for playback on a supporting TV.

Here's how the NEX-5 stacks up to its main competitors:

More than any other interchangeable-lens camera I've seen, the Sony NEX-5 seems optimised for the point-and-shoot upgrader; not necessarily because it's easier to use than any other or that it's priced particularly low, but because it's full of constraints that will probably bother enthusiasts a lot more than snapshooters. That's a pity, because the video quality, noise profile and performance are really appealing. Still, Sony has hit a lot of the right notes for that more mainstream crowd, a lot more than anyone else, with its compact size and a user interface that's got a relatively high discoverability quotient, albeit not terribly efficient to actually use. If it had an EVF option, an artefact-free basic zoom lens, better colour options and white balance, and a well-thought-out menu system, it would probably be the no-brainer choice we've been waiting for. As it stands, it's just a strong contender.

This story originally appeared on CNET

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