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|
|Sensitivity range||ISO 200 - ISO 12,800||ISO 200 - ISO 12,800|
|Continuous shooting||2.3 fps|
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
|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|
|LCD||3-inch tilting |
|3-inch tilting |
|Video (max resolution at 30fps)||1440x1080/30p H.264 MPEG-4||1080/60i AVCHD|
|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)|
|$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||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|
|Continuous shooting||2.3 fps|
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
n/a JPEG/ 10 raw
12 JPEG/ 10 raw
|None||Plug-in articulating EVF|
|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|
|LCD||3-inch tilting |
|3-inch fixed AMOLED|
|3-inch articulated touch screen|
|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)|
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.
(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