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

The camera feels fairly fast, though the autofocus system tends to be inconsistent. Most of the time it's quite decisive, but occasionally it hunts for no reason that I can figure out. And in continuous autofocus mode it pulses annoyingly; it doesn't seem to affect focus speed or accuracy, however. And I'm not sure what I think about a focus shortcut it takes in low light: regardless of AF area setting, when the AF illuminator has to kick in the camera automatically expands the focus area to a wide area of the entire scene.

It does feel 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, however, 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. But like most cameras without an optical viewfinder, for burst shooting you're stuck with point-and-pray, anyway.

Overall, the photo quality is really good, and the camera has one of the best noise profiles in its price class, dSLRs included. Photos are pretty clean up through ISO 800, and you don't start to see significant softness until ISO 1,600, which you won't notice in a lot of scenes. At higher sensitivities like ISO 3,200 and 6,400, images may look soft, but the "grain" appearance is attractive rather than intrusive in reasonable light and there's only a moderate amount of clipping in the shadows (and some harsher luminance noise patterns) in low light.

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 relatively inaccurate colors, which isn't helped by the overly cool automatic white balance, and there's no accurate-color 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. 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.

More than any other interchangeable-lens camera I've seen, the Sony Alpha NEX-5 seems optimized for the point-and-shoot upgrader; not necessarily because it's easier to use, faster or priced better than any other, but because it's full of constraints and automation 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 has, with its compact size and a user interface that's got a relatively high discoverability quotient, albeit one that's not terribly efficient to use. If it had an EVF option, an artifact-free basic zoom lens, better color 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.

Shooting speed
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Sony Alpha NEX-5
1.7 
0.9 
0.9 
0.8 
0.4 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2
0.9 
0.8 
0.7 
0.6 
0.5 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10
0.7 
0.7 
0.7 
0.6 
0.5 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
0.8 
0.9 
0.7 
0.6 
0.5 
Samsung NX10
0.8 
1.2 
1 
0.7 
0.5 
Olympus E-PL1
1.8 
2.1 
1.9 
1.4 
0.9 

Typical continuous-shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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