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

Sony Alpha NEX-5N

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
9 min read

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.


Sony Alpha NEX-5N

The Good

A small-bodied interchangeable-lens model with excellent video, the <b>Sony Alpha NEX-5N</b> 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.

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.

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.


Sony Alpha NEX-5N

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Image quality 8