Pro quality shots from a compact camera chassis: that's the pitch for the Sony NEX-5R, its maker's third mid range compact system camera, coming after 2010's Sony NEX-5 and the outwardly similar NEX-5N upgrade.
Aimed at 'intermediate' users, the Sony NEX-5R's resolution has remained the same this time around at 16.1 megapixels, and again it's from an APS-C sized sensor that's as physically large as those found in Sony's digital SLRs.
Among other benefits – such as a big sensor generally providing better image quality - this means that existing Sony Alpha 'A' mount lenses can be shared with the NEX-5R via an adapter.
A dedicated 'E' mount lens was provided with our review sample, boasting a focal range of 18-55mm the equivalent of 27-82.5mm on a 35mm film camera – the sort of 3x zoom we more typically get bundled with an entry-level DSLR.
Unlike rival Olympus' Pen range or Panasonic's G series, where a smaller sensor allows for smaller lenses too, the lens screwed onto the front of the flat bodied NEX-5R again makes it appear 'front heavy'. As with its predecessors the NEX-5R's almost utilitarian styling lacks the impact of competitors in the design department.
However it does feature a practical handgrip enabling a firm grip for one-handed shooting with kit lens attached.
So what's new? Well, along with its simultaneously released NEX-6 big brother (which adds a hotshoe for accessory flash plus a viewfinder), the NEX-5R is the first in the Sony compact system camera (CSC) range to feature Wi-Fi built in.
In that respect it's now a closer match for the likes of the Samsung NX1000, NX20 and NX210, which also feature a large APS-C sensor and wireless connectivity, plus the ability to hook up with tablets or smartphones.
However those competing models trump the Sony on paper at least by featuring a 20.3 megapixel resolution; it seems Sony wants to keep clear water between this mid-range model and its still current 24.3MP semi pro NEX-7 flagship – in our opinion probably the best ever CSC to date.
Further benefits of the NEX-5R are compatibility with a newly launched family of downloadable Sony 'apps', plus a tilting screen that is, for the first time in the range, also a touch screen. Current pricing is a slightly steep £669 with lens as described. So is it worth it?
Sony NEX-5R: Controls
Though the camera may have a newly added touch screen, the control layout is immediately familiar from previous NEX generations, complete with a scroll wheel and unmarked 'soft' or function keys at the back – the purpose of which becomes apparent when the adjacent screen is in use.
On the top plate we get the shutter release button located on the forward slope of the handgrip where it falls readily under the forefinger, next to an actual 'Fn' (Function) button. Just behind these sit dedicated buttons for image playback and video recording.
There isn't a built-in flash here – instead a compact clip-on variety is provided out of the box – nor a time-saving shooting mode wheel to avoid the problem that has plagued previous generations of NEX; namely that the user has to tab through various screens to arrive at the settings they want.
As a concession of sorts we do however get an unmarked command/control wheel top right of the top plate, a thumb flick of which does much the same trick as a rotation of the scroll wheel at the back – namely powers through stored images and settings faster than simply tabbing through one at a time.
It can also be used to select shutter speed and aperture values on the fly. To us, the top plate wheel is also more ergonomically positioned than the back alternative, as your thumb naturally presses against it when gripping the camera in your right hand.
Sony NEX-5R: Screen
As with the DSLR-styled Sony A37 camera, which features the same 16.1MP sensor as this NEX and is actually cheaper, again we get a tilting LCD at the rear for both shot composition and review.
Three inches in size, of widescreen ratio and offering an impressively sharp 921,600 dots resolution this screen cannot be flipped out parallel to the body as on a camcorder, but can be angled up or down to help with otherwise tricky low or high perspective shots. There's also the option to tilt it upwards through its maximum arc so that it's facing your subject – or you as photographer, should you want to squeeze into a group shot.
The additional selling point this time around is that it's now a touch screen too – something we've requested in past NEX reviews, so we can't have been alone in this desire to be able to prod the on-screen icons that previously seemed to be begging for such a treatment.
In addition Sony adds the functionality that we've seen on Olympus and Panasonic rivals, in that a screen tap will also bias a subject within a small portion of the frame and subsequently fire the shutter, should you want it to.
Sony NEX-5R: Battery
The Sony NEX-5R is powered by a NP-FW50 rechargeable lithium ion cell which is stored in the base of the camera's handgrip; the same battery as supplied with Sony's A37 'SLT' camera.
This again sits alongside the dual-use SD/Sony Memory Stick slot – the latter being trickier to insert, as it wiggles about in the wider slot as you attempt to push it into place. The battery is charged within the camera itself rather than being removed and charged via separate mains adapter and plug.
This obviously means that the camera is in use every time you want to recharge the spent cell – so unfortunately you can't leave a spare charging while you take the camera out.
Here the camera sucks more juice from the battery when compared to the larger A37 – managing 'just' a maximum 330 shots from a full charge instead of 500. That said, this still matches a typical performance from a competing compact system camera – Samsung's wireless NX1000 manages around 320 pictures for example – so we've no complaints.
Sony NEX-5R: Image quality
A half squeeze of the shutter release button and the NEX-5R is swift to find focus, its myriad AF points illuminated in green with a bleep of confirmation that we're free to press down fully and take the shot. The angle adjustable screen is a real boon and certainly worth having – no more straining to see what you're shooting when holding the camera at arm's length.
We'd have liked it more if it had just a tad more flexibility, in terms of being able to swing it out parallel to the body so as to 'shoot around corners', but a side catch to enable it to do this would inevitably have added marginal bulk.
The touch screen facility does improve operation, allowing focus to be directed to a portion of the frame without actually re-positioning the camera each time plus this and the shot being taken can be achieved with a single finger press. In playback we simply had to tap the image to enlarge it.
As with any Sony camera the way colours are rendered is warm and subject flattering straight out of the camera. Though for us detail might not have been as razor sharp as a comparative image from a DSLR or Sony SLT camera using larger glass, bugbears such as pixel fringing were kept well under control and exposures are even across the frame, even when dealing with trickier lighting conditions.
We were also impressed with the way the AF responded when shooting video. The camera adjusts almost imperceptibly so the image smoothly and gradually – yet rapidly – comes into focus as you twist the lens barrel to zoom in or out. There's not the sudden jump from a blurred frame to a sharp one that you get from certain competing brands.
Couple this with stereo microphones inset on the top plate and some of the fastest frame rates in the business, plus a dedicated button meaning that video recording is a one touch process, and you'll go home happy.
Sony NEX-5R: Verdict
The 16.1-megapixel effective resolution, APS-C sensor incorporating NEX-5R isn't the cheapest option for anyone upgrading from a compact camera for more professional results. It's £169 more than the DSLR-styled Sony A37, which features the same size image sensor, sterling stills image quality, Full HD video and also comes with an adjustable screen.
So we're paying a slight premium with the NEX-5R for the more compact, lighter dimensions – the body will fit into a baggy pocket if you remove the lens (bulkier than the actual camera body) – plus wireless connection. The latter will come in handy though if you're a regular tablet or smartphone user, and is very much the way the camera market is going.
There is, however, also a lot of competition for this camera, not only from Samsung and its wireless equipped and grammatically similar NX range, but also from compact interchangeable lens alternatives from Olympus, Panasonic, Nikon, Canon, and to a lesser extent Fuji and Pentax.
On the plus side the Sony NEX-5R is one of the most compact cameras to feature a sensor of this size – more compact even than Samsung's NX1000, so if size, or lack of it, is as important as being able to print large, detailed images, then the NEX-5R has got to be worth checking out despite the premium price.
Sony NEX-5R release date: Available now
Sony NEX-5R price: £669 with 18-55mm E-mount zoom on test