Sony Alpha NEX-5 review: Sony Alpha NEX-5

3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Excellent high-ISO-sensitivity photo quality; quiet, fast lenses good for shooting video and comfortable for manual focus; compact, with a nice physical design and control layout; large, tilting LCD.

The Bad No EVF option; frequently annoying user interface; unusual amount of distortion on 18-55mm kit lens; no neutral image color settings.

The Bottom Line For a lot of people, the excellent high-sensitivity photo quality, competitive performance, and an ultracompact body will likely outweigh the Sony Alpha NEX-5's quirks and operational annoyances.

7.7 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Image quality 8.0

Eagerly anticipated ever since Sony floated its wood-block concept designs at the PMA show in February 2010, Sony's debut interchangeable-lens models, the Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3 are the smallest entrants to date, with a lot to appeal to both enthusiasts and snapshooters--and a bit that annoys, as well.

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 compared to the NEX-3's polycarbonate body, and the NEX-5 offers full HD AVCHD video recording. For those perks you pay about $100 more. Both cameras come in kits with either an 18-55mm ($299.99 standalone) or 16mm pancake prime lens ($249.99 standalone).

  Sony Alpha NEX-3 Sony Alpha NEX-5
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS
23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm
Color depth n/a n/a
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 1.5x
Continuous shooting 2.3 fps
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
2.3 fps
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
Viewfinder None None
Autofocus 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF
Metering 40 segment 40 segment
Shutter 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync
Flash Yes Yes
LCD 3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Image stabilization Optical Optical
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1440x1080/30p H.264 MPEG-4 1080/60i AVCHD
Audio I/O Mic Mic
Battery life (CIPA rating) 330 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body weight with battery and card (ounces) 10 (est) 10.2 (without flash); 10.9 (with flash)
Mfr. Price n/a n/a
$599.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
$549.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens) $649.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens)

The new all-aluminum Sony E-mount lenses dominate 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 ($799.99, expected this fall) will really overwhelm it. You should also keep in mind that unlike the Alpha DSLRs, which have image stabilization built into the camera, the NEX models use optical stabilization in order to achieve the smaller body sizes, and you won't find it in all the lenses. Sony will be offering an adapter 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.

The camera itself is pretty well-designed and easy to grip and shoot. It doesn't have a built-in flash, but it 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 the 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 backward to get from the first entry in a menu to the last; if you format cards frequently, you'll realize what a major pain this is. And because the contextual interface requires that 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 keep flying past my target. There's no AE/AF lock button, either; if you never use it, you won't miss it, but I do and I did.

Though the camera has an entire built-in guide providing shooting tips--as well as instructions on how to find the relevant controls-- they don't seem context-sensitive at all.

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 14-megapixel 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 six shots to optimize the dynamic range in low light; and a three-shot Auto HDR 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 artifacts, 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 2010, Sony will be releasing a firmware update that can process the sweep panorama shots into stereoscopic 3D images for playback on a supporting TV.) In a change from previous implementations, the NEX-5's Auto HDR saves an unblended version of the image as well as the three-shot-combined one. The Auto HDR version is lower contrast and a bit softer, but it manages to extract a lot of detail out of the highlights and shadows. It also has the typical Smile Shutter and Smile detection and face detection autofocus. Given the solid noise profile, it's kind of disappointing that the camera only supports up to +/- 2 stops for exposure bracketing.

  Sony Alpha NEX-5 Samsung NX10 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 Olympus E-P1 Olympus E-P2
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2- megapixel Exmor CMOS 14.6- megapixel CMOS 12.1- megapixel Live MOS 12.1- megapixel Live MOS 12.3- megapixel Live MOS 12.1- megapixel Live MOS
23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.4mm x 15.5mm (est) 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm
Color depth n/a n/a n/a n/a 12 bits 12 bits
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 1.5x 2x 2x 2x 2x
Continuous shooting 2.3 fps
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
3.0 fps
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
3.0 fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3.2 fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
3.0 fps
n/a JPEG/ 10 raw
3.0 fps
12 JPEG/ 10 raw
Viewfinder None EVF
VGA/921,000 dots
0.86x magnification
Optional EVF EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.7x magnification
None Plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x magnification
Autofocus 25-point contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF 11-area contrast AF
Metering 40 segment 247 segment 144 zone 144 zone 324 area 324 area
Shutter 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes
Flash Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
LCD 3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
614,000 dots
3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch articulated touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
3-inch fixed
230,000 dots
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1080/60i AVCHD 720p H.264 MPEG-4 720p AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG MOV 720p AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG MOV 720p Motion JPEG AVI 720p Motion JPEG AVI
Audio I/O Mic n/a None Mic, headphone None Mic
Battery life (CIPA rating) 330 shots 400 shots 350 shots 370 shots 300 shots 300 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 4.8 x 3.4 x 1.6 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.9 x 3.3 x 2.9 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4
Body weight with battery and card (ounces) 10.2 (without flash); 10.9 (with flash) 14 (est) 12.2 13.1 13.9 13.8; 14.9 (with EVF)
Mfr. Price n/a n/a n/a n/a
est. $599.95 (body only)
n/a
$699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens) est. $699.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens) $899.95 (with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$799.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $1,099.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens)
$649.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens) n/a $899.95 (with 20mm f1.7 lens) n/a $899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)
$1,099.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens)

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