Sony is claiming the 'world's smallest and lightest' tag for its latest CSC, launched just prior to the Samsung NX Mini. Does smaller always mean better?
If you're thinking that the Sony A5000 looks very like a Sony NEX model, such as the Sony NEX-3N or Sony NEX-5T, you'd be correct. Except that its manufacturer has ditched 'NEX' in order to standardise its use of the Alpha brand across both DSLR and compact system cameras.
So, while a short while ago this would have been a new NEX camera, it's now the newest Alpha, with a further Sony A6000 just announced and waiting in the wings to join it. Got it?
Naming conventions aside, what shouldn't confuse is who this 20.1 effective megapixel APS-C sensor camera equipped with Wi-Fi and NFC is aimed at; namely those looking to step up from ordinary point and shoot cameras and smartphones. It even has a tilting backscreen for inevitable selfies.
Helping keep a slimmer profile for the camera overall and to enable it to be slipped into a jacket pocket even with lens attached, our review sample was supplied with a 16-50mm Power Zoom lens; by which we mean one with which you toggle in or out via a side-mounted switch, rather than manually via a turn of the wrist.
It's also self-retracting, which means camera and lens combined maintain the slimmest possible profile when not actually being used.
Although the Samsung NX Mini model has since been announced, on launch Sony was trumpeting the A5000 as the world's smallest and lightest of its type at a body-only 210g (compared to the Samsung's 158g without battery).
With lens attached the Sony is hardly as light a mobile phone however, yet less cumbersome perhaps than attaching a 'smart lens' like the Sony QX10 to your mobile. Plus, let's not forget both lens and sensor here are streets ahead of the majority of portable cameras. The A5000 even finds room for a built-in flash, which not always the case with the smallest interchangeable lens models.
Sony A5000: Controls
The Alpha-branded A5000 borrows the minimalist layout and flat fronted, slightly unfinished looking design from its NEX forbears. For example without the lens it looks rather utilitarian, compared with the Olympus Pen E-P5 and Fujifilm X-E1 rivals, while being not quite as friendly at first glance as a Panasonic Lumix GM1 or Samsung NX300, the latter of which shares a large APS-C sized sensor with the A5000.
The only curve to the Sony's body is provided by a handgrip with rubberised surface, around which we were able to curve our two middle fingers.
Controls on the camera's top plate are sparse, with the admittedly useful pop-up flash and button for manually raising it sitting where we might otherwise find a vacant hotshoe for attaching a flashgun or external viewfinder on a more expensive model. A lot of the smaller compact system cameras hardly bother with a grip at all, so this is a welcome addition.
Over at the right hand edge – if viewing the camera from the back – and sitting atop the handgrip are an ergonomically placed shutter release button encircled by the on/off switch, plus a lever for operating the zoom.
Familiar to anyone who has used a compact digital camera, this provides an alternative to otherwise using the slider switch on the side of the special Power Zoom's lens barrel, which can be operated with the left hand while gripping the camera in the right.
Just behind this top plate cluster of controls sits a dedicated video record button, conveniently allowing for operation via the nail of your thumb.
Flick the switch to on and the A5000 takes around three seconds to power up from cold whilst the camera communicates with the lens and it automatically extends to its widest setting.
On the back plate, familiar operational buttons resemble those we'd expect to find on most on non-interchangeable lens point and shoot cameras. Thus we get the likes of menu, playback and delete buttons, plus a multi directional control pad encircled by a scroll wheel for faster selection of menu settings and captured images than simply tabbing through a shot or a setting one at a time.
Thankfully, around its edge this pad also allows swift access to ISO settings, the camera's drive modes, the adjustment of exposure plus the alteration of display settings. So once again we didn't have to wade through menu screens to find the essentials.
And in effect, any newcomer can just simply point and shoot – thanks to the likes of Sony's image adjusting 'Superior Auto' mode – to get consistent and reliable results; working their way up to investigate more creative options later.
Sony A5000: Screen
You may be able to tilt the 3-inch widescreen aspect ratio LCD upwards here so that it, like the lens, faces whatever is in front of the camera. But the A5000 misses an operational trick in that it doesn't provide a touch screen.
As this is the entry-level consumer model in the Alpha CSC range we don't get any eye-level viewfinder nor any means of attaching one either. The pop-up flash is located here where a vacant hotshoe for accessory flash or electronic viewfinder might otherwise be found.
Happily then, LCD resolution, while not quite matching up to higher priced models is itself fair at 460,800 dots. Pictures look great on the back screen and quality is sufficient to enable the user to be able to tell whether the shots are in focus or not, which is what we'd expect at this level.
While if you're fond of selfies or shooting close to the ground, the tilting screen is useful, the fact that it flips upwards rather than down means that if holding the camera over the heads of a crowd and trying to see what's on the screen, it's no more use than a fixed screen. Just something to bear in mind on a practical note.
Sony A5000: Battery
A rechargeable lithium ion battery slots into the base of the A5000's handgrip, where it sits alone, the familiar card compartment having moved from its usual adjacent position to a new home under the flap at the side that also protects the Sony's output and power ports.
As there is no standalone mains charger provided, one of these slots is utilised to charge the battery in-camera. This undertaken using a combination of USB lead, adapter and mains plug.
What is impressive however is a CIPA quantified 420 shots from a full charge. This number puts most other compact system cameras in the shade for power consumption – particularly ones at the entry level end of the pricing spectrum – the average more usually being 260-300 images prior to conking out.
Sony A5000: Picture quality
This being a Sony camera, when it comes to stills we're given a choice of 3:2 image aspect ratio at full resolution rather than the more common 4:3 ratio of most digital cameras – so the image is slightly elongated rather than being almost square.
The alternative is 16:9 widescreen at reduced 17MP resolution as the camera is effectively producing a cropped image. But by paying around £400 we get also the ability to shoot maximum quality unprocessed 20.1 megapixel Raw files alongside the common compressed JPEG, or both file formats alongside the other.
Factor in an APS-C sized sensor, the same size as those found in the majority of consumer digital SLRs, plus a Sony lens and we've no complaints about image quality for a camera of this size.
The advantage of an electronically operated, as opposed to manual, zoom when shooting video is that the transitions between wide angle and telephoto setting – or vice versa – are much smoother than most of us could achieve if we were manually twisting the lens barrel by hand.
While the Power Zoom supplied is not completely soundless, it is what most of us would describe as 'whisper quiet'.
The fact you're not using fingers to make manual adjustments also means that the built-in stereo microphone on the top plate aren't picking up that movement in quieter locations, as they would if you were making manual adjustments. So whether you're shooting stills or video with the A5000, with our set up on test there proved to be few compromises.
Sony A5000: Verdict
OK, so there might not be particularly revolutionary about the 20.1 effective megapixel A5000 to set it apart from its NEX branded forebears, apart from it being the smallest and lightest of its kind on launch, and offering bang up to date wireless connectivity options.
With lens attached the A5000 is too big for the trouser or top pocket and is still a squeeze in a side jacket pocket.
But start using the camera and all that is largely by the by; this is another competent and consistent Sony compact system camera that anyone looking to make their first forays into achieving better pictures would be wise to check out. And at a suggested £419 including Power Zoom lens on test it offers very fair value too.
Sony A5000 release date: Out now
Sony A5000 price: £419