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Sony Alpha NEX-5N review:

Sony Alpha NEX-5N

I keep waffling on the interface, one of the hallmarks of the NEX series. It consists of a combination of onscreen menus and context-sensitive buttons, along with a back dial and a movie record button that you operate with your thumb. The 5N introduces a hybrid touch interface, which lets you perform operations via either the screen or the hardware. I'm not crazy about the touch-screen implementation; the screen feels too small for some of the areas you need to press, and it takes multiple touches for some things to register, so ultimately it's not faster or more intuitive to use than the buttons. On the other hand, it does make useful features like touch focus possible. I wish it were possible to disable the touch interface and just enable touch focus, and I wish the camera had touch exposure. Overall, though, I think Panasonic's touch-screen interface works better.

The Custom button (bottom screen) can be configured to pull up a quick-menu selection of up to four options, including ISO sensitivity, white balance, and image quality. They're mirrored on the screen so that you can use them via touch.

When I reviewed the C3, I was happy with the changes Sony had made to streamline the camera's operation. But I occasionally found shooting with the 5N annoying, even after customizing the buttons appropriately. In part, I think it's because the dial has a tendency to move to easily, and I end up flying past the setting I want. I also find the location of some of the settings I use semi-frequently a bit arbitrary, and get annoyed when I have to go digging for them. Your shooting experience with the 5N will rely on how much work you put in beforehand to map some of the soft keys to your needs, but in order to change them significantly you have to forego direct access to the virtual mode dial.

Ultimately, I rated the design and interface highly, but I think whether or not you like it will depend upon your previous shooting experiences: point-and-shoot upgraders will probably like it a lot, but dSLR shooters going compact will likely feel more friction. You definitely should try it out before you buy.

  Olympus E-PL3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Sony Alpha NEX-5N
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 16.1-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 25,600
Continuous shooting 4.1 fps
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
3 fps
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional None Optional
Autofocus 35-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4000 FP sync 60-1/4000 sec; 1/160 sec x-sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 324 area 144 zone 1200 zone
Flash Included optional Yes Included optional
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical
Video 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 1080/60i/50i @ 17 Mbps
720/60p @17 Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Mono Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch tilting
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 320 shots 430 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.5 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 11 (est) 9.3 9.3 (without flash)
Mfr. Price n/a $499.95 (body only, est) $599.99 (body only)
$699.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
$699.99 (est, with 17mm lens) $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) n/a
Ship date September 2011 July 2011 September 2011

In addition to the aforementioned capabilities, the camera offers a broad, functional feature set that includes full manual control while shooting video; Sony's various multishot modes, like Auto HDR and Sweep Panorama; tracking autofocus; and peaking (highlighted edge display) in manual focus. That's along with a handful of special effects, color modes, and the usual face-recognition-based autofocus assists.

The NEX-5 was a decent camera, and Sony's fixed a lot of our quibbles with it. Plus it takes the new A-mount adapter, and that should make shooters who just want a decent body on which to hang their expensive Zeiss glass really happy.

I don't know that I can recommend the NEX-5N as the best option for point-and-shoot upgraders; for that the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 offers the more familiar interface and performance worth stepping up to. And I think the body itself might be too small for some people looking for a dSLR alternative, and for some of those folks a hardware mode dial or traditional hot shoe can be a deal killer. But it's a solid camera with extremely good video quality and capabilities for its class, and though its performance isn't best in class, it's certainly good enough. I only suggest that you try before you buy because it feels and operates differently than what you may be used to, and if you're not comfortable with it, it's hard to get good images from even the best camera.

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