The NEX-5 is Sony's answer to Micro Four Thirds and other mini-sized interchangeable lens cameras. Sony has certainly put a lot of effort into ensuring it stands out from its contemporaries: when paired with its excellent 16mm F/2.8 pancake it is the smallest, lightest, camera in its class but it packs in a full size APS-C sensor - the same 14.2-megapixel Exmor R sensor you'll find in the Sony A550, in fact.
That translates into beautifully noise-free shots at low light - Sony claims its snaps feature less noise at ISO 200 (the NEX-5's lowest ISO setting) than its rivals do at ISO 100 - and having pixel-peeped at some ISO 1600 snaps and struggled to find any real evidence of noise (or over-destructive noise reduction at work) we're very impressed with the NEX-5's low light skills.
The large sensor also allows you to achieve a shorter depth of field at the same focal lengths and aperture settings as a Micro Four Thirds camera, which means backgrounds can be more defocused and less distracting - useful for portraits and macro shots.
The Sony NEX-5 also offers an impressive range of special shooting modes, allowing you to take fuss-free panoramic shots with Sweep Panorama, an ultra-rapid burst of seven shots in a second, tripod-less low light shots with Handheld Twilight, and in-camera HDR shots with detail in both bright and dark areas of the image.
To pick out a highlight, Sweep Panorama has taken on a whole new level of quality from the versions seen on the Sony HX5V and HX1. While those cameras took a video recording while you swept them in an arc, then picked out still frames and stitched them together, the Sony NEX-5 takes actual photos. That means its panoramas boast an incredible level of detail, clocking up at 8192 x 1856 pixels. Most of our test panoramas stitched together perfectly, although there was the occasional hiccup.
The NEX-5 and its mate the NEX-3 are also the first Sony Alpha-branded cameras to support HD video (Sony confirmed that it will be bringing this to future DSLRs), and it can record sharp, noise-free 1080i footage in the full AVCHD format, or MPEG4 should you wish.
The camera isn't packed with buttons and dials, as Sony has decided to keep things as clean and simple as possible. The back and top plates are largely button-free apart from the essentials, although there is a dedicated on/off button for video recording. The backplate has a control wheel that also clicks up, down, left and right, and has a button in its centre, and there two soft keys, one above and one below the wheel.
The wheel and soft keys are used to control almost every aspect of the camera setup, from the mode dial (which is on-screen) to the flash, ISO, exposure compensation and more. We're not huge fans of having to dig through on-screen menus on cameras, but the NEX-5's is a fairly good one - the graphics are clear and after the initial getting-to-know-you we found ourselves skipping to the relevant menu screen with ease.
Flaps on the side open up to reveal a standard Mini-USB port and a mini HDMI out for connection to your computer and HDTV respectively. The flap at the bottom holds a battery and features slots for both SD (and SDHC and SDXC) and Memory Stick cards.
The screen itself is crisp, bright and non-reflective, and can be tilted upwards or downwards to help you frame shots from unusual angles. We found it reasonably easy to frame shots, but there will be an optical viewfinder (matched to the 16mm lens) available if you can't live without one - there are as yet no plans for an electronic viewfinder.
The NEX-5 sits nicely in the hand no matter which of the two lenses we fitted - we used both the 16mm pancake and 18-55mm standard zoom (there's also a 70-200mm, but this wasn't available to try) and both lock to the E-mount with beautiful precision and sturdiness. These lenses aren't cheap - the 16mm alone will set you back around £200 - but they feel like premium quality glass, focus silently and swiftly and are finished in elegant brushed aluminium.
Fitted with the 16mm, the NEX-5 could well be the best camera for its size in the world, at least in terms of image quality. The 18-55mm makes things quite a bit bigger and heavier, but the image quality remains excellent. We'll be getting one in for a full review shortly, so check back for the definitive verdict soon.