Sony Alpha NEX-5R review: When it's good, it's very, very good

The Good Sony Alpha NEX-5R delivers excellent photo quality, even in dimmer light, and provides more physical controls than some of its predecessors for a more streamlined shooting design.

The Bad The wireless connectivity and apps "ecosystem" implementations are far less than this camera deserves.

The Bottom Line It's a great camera choice for high-quality stills and a streamlined shooting design under $800, but the Sony Alpha NEX-5R falls short when it comes to sharing your shots online.

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

Setting its sights on a "new" set of photographers -- people who want to replace their low-end dSLRs with something a lot more compact -- Sony's evolved the midrange Alpha NEX-5N into the more control-friendly and connected NEX-5R. With a new sensor and redesigned autofocus system that combines phase detection and contrast technologies; built-in Wi-Fi with support for downloadable apps via Sony's PlayMemories service; and some new physical controls to reduce reliance on the somewhat cumbersome NEX menu but with a few additions to its touch-screen repertoire, this really is a major upgrade over its predecessor. And for the most part, it delivers on its promise, with excellent photo quality and a design that's enjoyable to use.

Image quality
The 5R's photo quality rates as excellent, though not significantly more excellent than the 5N's despite a new sensor. ISO 12800 JPEGs look a little better from the 5R -- keep in mind that "better" does not imply "usable" -- but otherwise they're comparable. Overall, they seem great up through ISO 800 and good up through ISO 3200; I even managed a decent print from an ISO 6400 shot, though if you look closely you can see artifacts. Shooting raw helps with exposure adjustments, and there's a reasonable amount of recoverable data in the shadows and highlights, but it's hard to improve on the noise reduction or Sony's processing.

Default color rendering looks good, although the auto white balance is a little inconsistent and sensitive to small changes in composition or illumination. As far as I can tell, though it pumps up the saturation a bit, the default Creative Style doesn't boost the contrast to the point where you lose detail. It has a fairly broad tonal range; I could recover all but severely blown-out highlights and shadows.

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ISO 800
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Video looks good too, especially the low-light video. All of it's subject to some aliasing and moiré -- most visible in the low-light footage -- but the respectable tonal range and low noise levels in the dim and dark stand out for this price class. As with the rest of the NEX series, the autofocus works well during video capture; it's quiet, quick, and accurate.

Note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures we will not be posting comparative performance charts.

Although both Olympus and Panasonic have managed to deliver excellent autofocus speed without needing to resort to a dual-focus technology system, Canon, Nikon, and now Sony have approached the problem by melding the phase-detection AF system used by dSLRs with the contrast AF system typically used by point-and-shoot cameras; phase detection is fast and better in low light, while contrast AF is typically more accurate. Like Canon, Sony has created a new image sensor that incorporates phase-detection sensors. It theoretically autoselects between the two technologies, using the phase detection for coarse subject location and distance and contrast to refine the focus. The camera's default, however, is to leave the phase-detection disabled.

The 5R performs a bit better than the 5N; that is, sufficiently fast but not exceptionally speedy. One of the challenges of timing the camera is the shutter button, which requires a more delicate touch than many models. If you press too hard or too fast, it won't fire. As long as you can acclimate, it doesn't pose any problems in practice. But if you're an adrenaline-fueled shutter jabber, you're in for some frustration.

At about 1.7 seconds to power on, focus, and shoot, the camera rates as average for this class. Time to expose, focus, and shoot in bright light runs about 0.4 second, increasing to about 0.8 second in dim light. With the phase-detection AF enabled the shot lag drops to 0.2 second in good light, but seems to rise to almost a full second in dim light. I suspect that's due to the overhead of two systems working in conjunction. The camera automatically expands the focus area to the entire scene when it's dim or dark, but the phase-detection area is limited to approximately the middle third of the scene; I think there's some conflict that they need to work out.

It takes roughly 0.6 second to capture two sequential JPEGs or raws. That also rises slightly with the phase-detection AF enabled, to about 0.7 second. There's no penalty for shooting raw here, though raw+JPEG slows the camera with I'm-not-ready-yet messages.

Continuous-shooting performance is all over the map, though typically with autofocus enabled it achieves about 3.5 frames per second for either raw or JPEG. However, once you complete a raw burst it takes a while to save out the buffer to the card. In Speed Priority continuous mode, which fixes exposure, performance seems to range from roughly 8fps to 10fps, and it starts to slow at about 18 shots. Despite its seeming burst speed, however, I find the NEX-5R (and many cameras like it) frustrating to use in this way because the camera/LCD can't refresh fast enough for you to following what's happening. You simply point it in a direction, hold down the shutter, and pray you get something good.

Furthermore, the LCD is difficult to view in direct sunlight. You can try boosting the brightness, but as it is the battery drains a lot faster than I'd like. It's possible that it can obtain the rated duration of 430 shots, but it seemed to drop quite rapidly during field testing.

Design and features
Over time, Sony has been refining the NEX user experience, and I think the 5R's design changes help quite a bit; I enjoyed shooting with the 5R more than with any NEX model thus far other than the NEX-7. That said, it does have some irritating aspects.

It has the same basic design as the NEX-5N (including the unfortunate lack of a built-in flash) but incorporates some of the direct-access controls of the NEX-7. The new control wheel and function button on the top of the camera make it far more streamlined to use for those of us who get annoyed by the limitations of the lower-end NEX design -- you can surface a few things via direct-access controls but there are always a handful of settings that you force you into the menu system -- and the additional function key reduces that pain. It brings up six user-selectable quick-access shooting functions such as white balance, metering, focus options, and shooting effects. Unfortunately, there still aren't enough control options. I always ended up sacrificing some direct-access option that I need for another that I need more. For example, the only way to get an autoexposure lock button is to reprogram the Wi-Fi connection button, which defeats the purpose of easy photo uploads.

Now a function button brings up a traditional quick-access menu for frequently used settings, rather than forcing you into the menus. Sarah Tew/CNET