Given Sony likes to be at forefront of new technology, it’s no surprise it has introduced a mirror-less camera sharing ‘Alpha’ branding with its digital SLRs. The NEX-5 is closer in size to a compact, yet retains large APS CMOS sensor plus lens swapping ability.
The surprise is that Sony’s late to the party. Panasonic and Olympus arrived first with their Micro Four Thirds system in 2008, giving us the DSLR-styled ‘G’ cameras and retro ‘Pen’ models respectively. These likewise promised DSLR quality from smaller format and were well received.
The 14.2 effective megapixel NEX-5 also hits stores after the similarly named yet SLR-shaped NX10 from Samsung, and the innovative yet similarly blocky-in-appearance Ricoh GXR, announced at the end of 2009 and which uniquely boasted a lens and sensor could both be swapped.
Compared to such revolutionary thinking, the Sony is in danger of coming across as underwhelming. It’s OK to play catch up, but ideally you need a product that betters predecessors. So, for around £600 with 18-55mmm equivalent zoom, is the NEX-5 it?
For starters the NEX-5 offers one of the highest resolutions in its class, at 14.2 effective megapixels bettering Olympus and Panasonic’s offerings and matching that of the Samsung NX10. Size matters, of course, and constructed from lightweight magnesium Sony also makes the claim that the NEX-5 is the smallest interchangeable lens camera out there, at just 24.2mm in depth excluding grip and mount. However, with a kit lens attached it’s still too much of a squeeze for even a jacket pocket. A small flashgun comes included, clipping on via accessory port above the lens mount.
Shooting modes are selected with a swivel of a loose-feel dial to the right of the angle-adjustable backplate LCD. While this falls under the thumb readily enough, summoning up a virtual dial on screen as it does so, it feels more fiddly than a physical mode dial – or even a selection button.
Still, shooting options are legibly presented on screen as large button-like icons, their size prompting the thought that the NEX-5 must incorporate a touch screen. But it doesn’t. A shame, as this might have given it a point of difference over competitors, excepting Panasonic’s G2 which already boasts limited touch panel operability.
Perhaps the most unique among the NEX-5’s shooting modes is the Sweep Panorama feature – borrowed from Sony's Cyber-shots. As with that series, the user pans with the camera in the direction of the indicated arrow, the unit rapidly firing off a series of shots and stitching them together in camera. Effective and fun, this seems to work less well in low light or if the user pans too quickly – which will result in an error message.
Though the image appears flat on your PC, Sony claims it can be enjoyed in 3D via its new Bravia TVs via mini HDMI output. Otherwise it’s downloading the contents of removable SD/SDHC card to your PC – compatibility helpfully offered here alongside Memory Stick – via USB port.
Full HD 1080i movie recording also features, with stereo sound and auto focus ability in this mode. Another advantage here is that the NEX-5 is compatible with existing Alpha DSLR lenses, though an adapter is required and the resulting ‘top heavy’ combination will inevitably be bulkier than you might wish.
The warmly saturated colours reminded us of the stunning performance of Panasonic’s G-series, with a soft sheen to images rather than an overtly digital crispness. It’s not a leap forward in quality however, and the NEX-5 sees Sony competently getting up to speed rather than offering any real innovation.