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

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


(60fps with fixed AF and electronic shutter)
2.5 fps
6 raw/18 JPEG
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
11 raw/15 JPEG
(10fps with fixed exposure)
11 raw/15 JPEG
(10fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder None None None Optional OLED EVF
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
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
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.

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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