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

The NEX-5R is great for taking photos, not so much for sharing them.

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Lori Grunin
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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
10 min read

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.

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7.8

Sony Alpha NEX-5R

The Good

<b>Sony Alpha NEX-5R</b> 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.

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.

Sony Alpha NEX-5R photo samples

See all photos

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.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 3200

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.

Performance
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

Sony has also added a few new touch-screen operations: touch shutter, touch tracking, and touch background defocus. (One might say that these are basic touch-screen capabilities in a camera and should have been there in the previous model.) I wish they were individually configurable, though. Your choices are touch on or touch off, which means that in order to keep it from repeatedly changing the fixed center focus area when I touched the screen, I had to turn off all of the touch capabilities of the camera. Why doesn't the fixed center focus area option override touch focus? It took Panasonic a few generations to get this right but it finally did.

The camera includes the self-portrait mode that was rolled out in the NEX-F3, but the NEX-5R's LCD can tilt down as well as flip up. The next feature it needs to add is customized distortion control so that the self-portraits don't make you look like a balloon head at wide angles, or magically stretch your arms.

  Canon EOS M Nikon 1 J2 Sony Alpha NEX-F3 Sony Alpha NEX-5R Sony Alpha NEX-6
Sensor (effective resolution) 18MP hybrid CMOS 10MP CMOS 16.1MP Exmor HD CMOS 16.1MP Exmor HD CMOS 16.1MP Exmor HD CMOS
22.3 x 14.9mm 13.2 x 8.8mm 23.5 x 15.6mm 23.5 x 15.6mm 23.5 x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 2.7x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 12800/ 25600 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 16000 ISO 100 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 25600
Continuous shooting

4.3fps
(est)

5fps
n/a
(60fps with fixed AF and electronic shutter)
2.5 fps
6 raw/18 JPEG
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
3fps
11 raw/15 JPEG
(10fps with fixed exposure)
3fps
11 raw/15 JPEG
(10fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder None None None Optional OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.09x/0.73x
Autofocus multipoint center phase-detection AF; 31-point contrast AF 73-point
phase detection, 135-area contrast AF
25-point contrast AF 99-point phase detection, 25-area contrast AF 99-point phase detection, 25-area contrast AF
AF sensitivity range n/a n/a 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV
Shutter speed 30 - 1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/200 flash sync 1/3 - 1/16,000; bulb; 1/60 sec. x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 flash sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec. x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec. x-sync
Metering n/a n/a 1,200 zones 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Metering range n/a n/a 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV
Flash Optional
$149.99
Yes Yes Included optional Yes
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/50p 1080/60i/ 30p, 720/ 60p H.264 MPEG-4 QuickTime MOV AVCHD
1080/60i @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440x1,080/ 30p @ 12Mbps
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/ 24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440x1,080/ 30p @ 12Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/ 24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440x1,080/ 30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Stereo Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch articulated touch screen
1.04 megapixels
3-inch fixed 460,000 dots/
3-inch fixed 920,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting touch screen
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting touch screen
921,600 dots
Wireless connection None None None Wi-Fi Wi-Fi
Battery life (CIPA rating) 230 shots 230 shots 470 shots 430 shots 270 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.3 x 2.6 x 1.3 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.2 4.6 x 2.6 x 1.6 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 10.5 (est) 9.7 11.1 9.7 (without flash) 10.1 (est)
Mfr. price n/a n/a n/a $599.99 (body only) $849.99 (body only)
$799 (with 22mm lens) $649.95 (with 10-30mm lens) $549 (with 18-55mm lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $999.99 (with 15-60mm PZ lens)
n/a $899.95 (with 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses) n/a n/a n/a
Ship date October 2012 September 2012 June 2012 October 2012 October 2012

(I had no room in the chart for the 5R's predecessor, the 5N, but the only spec differences are in the autofocus system and wireless support.)

The less time you have to spend in NEX menus the better. On the surface, they seem so straightforward. But in order to make the top-level icons accessible and friendly, everything's jammed unevenly into the level below. The image size menu has 7 options under it, the camera menu has 17, and the setup menu has 69. Plus, with all the usual combinations of limitations -- things that are unavailable when raw's enabled, in some AF modes, and so on -- it's impossible to figure out why something's grayed out. I know peaking works only with manual focus, but why can't I turn it on and set the color without having to change my focus mode so that it's ready to go when I do jump into manual? (To be fair, it's not just Sony that has this problem. Repeatedly wading through that 69-option menu was just the last straw.)

Sony rolls out Wi-Fi support with this model, along with Android and iOS apps: Direct Upload for connecting to hot spots and mobile devices and Smart Remote Control for using your mobile device as a secondary LCD display. The connectivity comes in conjunction with support for proprietary in-camera apps. Rather than using a third-party API like Android, Sony currently plans to be the only source of these apps, which are distributed through the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN).

To me, this is strike one: none of the basic wireless apps come on the camera, and in order to download them you have to create an SEN account. If you're currently a PlayStation subscriber, then it's no biggie. But I'm not, and I object to creating Yet Another Unnecessary Account just so Sony can try to lure me into its redundant and unoriginal PlayMemories service for syncing, and so it can squeeze me like a data sponge. Compounding that, the SEN EULA includes a mandatory binding arbitration (MBA) clause, and gives Sony the right to remotely delete any apps you buy license. Strike two. (Stuff like this may be becoming more common, but that doesn't mean we have to sit around and baaaa.)

Several aspects of Sony's wireless implementation aren't quite baked. For instance, the in-camera browser doesn't resize the PlayMemories log-in screen... Sarah Tew/CNET

...and some of the connection error messages are garbled English. (iPad error)

Sony currently offers two free apps in addition to the connectivity apps. The first, Picture Effect+, has two extra filters (watercolor and illustration) that are excluded from the built-in effects choices. So in addition to mostly duplicating an in-camera feature, and operating more slowly through the apps interface, Sony removed the filters that it included on the NEX-F3. Strike three. If you're still interested, it also offers a free Photo Retouch app, and currently two paid apps, Bracket Pro and Multi Frame NR (noise reduction).

The direct upload options are pretty lame: Facebook or PlayMemories. Even Canon's mediocre Canon Image Gateway allows you to set up pipes to other services, if you're willing to grant it a piece of your privacy pie. PlayMemories doesn't act as a sharing hub, just a syncing hub among all your Sony devices. So, as with Canon's options, the best solution is to copy the photos you want to share to your phone or tablet and upload them that way. And despite what looks like a built-in browser, there's no way to connect to access points that require passing through terms-of-service screens.

While the touch screen works well enough for shooting and other typical camera operations, the onscreen keyboard is frustrating to use, unresponsive, and subject to fat-finger errors. Smart Remote isn't that smart -- you can't change settings, and can only view a few -- but that's pretty typical. However, it does capture a local low-resolution version on the device in addition to saving the shot in the camera.

For a complete accounting of the NEX-5R's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Conclusion
Despite a seeming plethora of caveats, ultimately I like the 5R a lot; top-of-the-line photo quality and respectably streamlined shooting design go a long way to make up for the irritants. And if you're a Sony fanboy/girl with a PlayStation, Xperia smartphone, or other Sony-connected device, then the wireless implementation makes some sense.

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7.8

Sony Alpha NEX-5R

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Image quality 8
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