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

The Good A small-bodied interchangeable-lens model with excellent video, the Sony Alpha NEX-5N also offers some nice features, including a tilting LCD, EVF port, and a hybrid touch-screen/traditional interface.

The Bad The user interface won't be to everyone's taste, and the body feels almost too small for the typical E-mount zoom lenses.

The Bottom Line An especially good option for people who want a relatively inexpensive ILC for shooting video, the Sony Alpha NEX-5N's photo quality's about the same as its cheaper sibling's.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

Slipping into Sony's compact Alpha interchangeable-lens camera line between the not-much-cheaper NEX-C3 and seriously equipped but substantially more expensive NEX-7, the Sony Alpha NEX-5N's solid quality, performance, and features offer surprisingly good value for the money.

The NEX-5N is capable of shooting some very nice photos, and has an excellent noise profile for its price class. JPEGs look clean and artifact-free as high as ISO 400, with a little smearing from noise suppression starting to appear at ISO 800. But even as high as ISO 1600 detail on the main subject looks pretty clean (artifacts do appear on peripheral areas). It will be interesting to see how well the raw version stands up and if there's some latitude to be gained there once the codec is available. Overall, the camera's noise profile and images look very much like the C3's although the choices in the program exposure mode seem to be 1/3-stop darker. But there was even sufficient dynamic range to recover detail on the horribly blown out flash photos produced by the optional bundled flash. The colors are good--accurate and not overly saturated--and it doesn't blow out detail on saturated reds.

If I sound hesitant to call the photos excellent, that's because I think the camera takes a hit on sharpness. Perhaps the kit lens could use some better coatings to improve clarity and brightness, though I shot with the 18-200mm lens as well (which performed better).

Video looks very good, with bright, saturated colors, relatively sharp edges, and with no rolling shutter or moiré, rock solid in 60p. You can see some compression artifacts on especially busy scenes (like splashing water in front of trees or bushes) which may affect editing--it looks fine played back on a display or large-screen TV--but detail and dynamic range are better than many of Sony's similarly priced camcorders. The autofocus works quickly and quietly while shooting video as well.

There have also been reports on the Web about a mystery clicking noise and overheating potential. I did hear the clicking, but unlike others I could hear it when I moved the camera near my ear--it sounds like one of the controls is just perceptibly loose on the inside, plus it's quite easy to hit them while you're gripping the camera in your right hand. (Update 9/19/11--Sony has confirmed the phenomenon exists, but has no further information about how many units have been affected, its cause or possible cure.) As for overheating, I shot up to the full possible clip length indoors--for legal reasons, it (like all cameras) maxes out at just under 30 minutes--but the camera felt quite warm when it stopped, so in hotter conditions it could very well overheat at shorter intervals. How important that is to you depends upon what you plan to shoot.

  Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Sony Alpha NEX-5 Sony Alpha NEX-5N Sony Alpha NEX-7
Sensor (effective resolution) 16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS 16.1-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS 24.3-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 25,600 ISO 100 - ISO 16,000
Continuous shooting 2.5 fps
18 JPEG/6 raw
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
2.3 fps
unlimited JPEG/8 raw
(7fps with fixed exposure)
3 fps
10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
3 fps
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
magnification/ effective magnification
None None Optional 0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100 % coverage
Autofocus 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF 25-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x- sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 49 zone 40 segment 1200 zone 1200 zone
Flash Included optional Included optional Included optional Yes
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video 720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 1080/60i AVCHD AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 400 shots 330 shots 430 shots 350 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.9 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7
Body operating weight (ounces) 10.7 10.2 (without flash); 10.9 (with flash) 9.3 (without flash) 12 (est)
Mfr. price n/a n/a $599.99 (body only) $1,199.99 (body only)
$599.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,349.00 (with 18-55mm lens)
$549.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens) n/a n/a n/a
Ship date August 2011 July 2010 September 2011 November 2011

Performance was solid but a bit disappointing given how fast its competitors are getting (in the chart, the E-P3 is a proxy for the E-PL3, which is supposed to have similar performance but which we haven't yet tested). It takes 1.2 seconds to power on and shoot, which isn't bad but is relatively slow. For single shots it does match competitors, with a time of 0.3 second to focus and shoot in good light and 0.6 second in poorer conditions. The camera stumbles on image processing, though, taking about a second for two sequential shots, increasing a bit to 1.3 seconds with the flash. And it gets noticeably slower at high ISO sensitivities, briefly throwing up a "processing..." message. It can burst at about 3.3fps, which is sufficient for occasionally shooting kids and pets, as long as they're not moving too fast.

One of my biggest problems was the LCD, which gets really difficult to view in direct sunlight; the ability to tilt it helps, but there are some angles that I wanted to shoot where I couldn't effectively position it because of the light. I highly recommend getting the new add-on EVF if you buy this camera (although I haven't tested it, so I can't vouch for any other issues it may have).

The 5N uses the typical NEX design. Though the thin body sports a relatively large grip, it's not very comfortable to hold single-handed because of the minimal free space for your thumb. Even supporting the lens with my left hand, the body feels just a little too small for me, and my hands aren't that large. So that's an important aspect to try before you buy. But it feels solidly built, with sufficiently large controls.