Sony Alpha NEX-5 hybrid camera review

Sony's NEX-5 is the first of two new hybrid camera models from Sony, offering a large-size APS HD CMOS sensor capable of 1080i HD movie capture and high quality images to the heady heights of ISO 12,800. Will it revolutionise the hybrid camera market?

The hybrid camera market continues to hot up, with Sony the latest manufacturer to dip its wick into this market. Its first offering is the NEX-5 (joint released with the mightily similar, slightly lower spec NEX-3), a compact-like hybrid model that is the first to showcase the company's new 14.2-megapixel APS HD CMOS sensor. Image stabilisation is performed by the lenses.

As the "HD" in the title hints at, this means that 1080i HD movie can be captured at 60fps in addition to high quality stills from ISO 200 through to a whopping ISO 12,800.

The overall look of the NEX-5 has riled a variety of opinions. The main body section of the camera is tiny, much like a compact, yet the 18-55mm lens is fairly large due to coverage required for the camera's sensor. The 16mm lens is more in keeping with the overall small design, though not everyone will chose this fixed-lens option. The new E-mount lenses still need to cover a large sensor size, hence their relative size when put side-by-side with a Micro Four Thirds hybrid camera (which have sensors one-third smaller).

Whether the balance of body size to sensor size is sensible is for debate, yet one thing is clear - Sony hasn't followed the DSLR-like designs that all the other hybrid manufacturers continue to push (like Samsung's NX10 or the Panasonic Lumix G2), so the NEX looks to offer a different approach. In use this certainly rings true, the feel is very much like a compact that is rapidly responsive - its Quick AF Live View system provides fast and accurate autofocus that is as good as the next best offering out there and leaves your average compact camera in the dust.

The only real qualm when shooting is just how "tucked away" all the options are. Point and shoot is a breeze, but go to change options - such as the ISO setting - and a variety of button presses and menu scrolls later will eventually reveal what you're after. It can become a frustration as there are no user-assignable buttons to make quick-access to those key settings and when first turning the camera on it takes over a second before its ready for use (compared to the competition that's too slow for rapid use).

Adjusting for exposure compensation and burst mode - which can shoot up to a super-fast 7 frames per second - is fine as these are fixed on the d-pad found on the rear, but a standard command dial lacks from the top and the three main buttons to the rear only allow for menu access and entry into the Help Guide.

This walkthrough guide mode is helpful for beginners to recognise what functions do and how to use the camera to get the best shot, yet once it's done-with it feels like it should be a feature to then sit in the background. It's possible that Sony could add more control through firmware updates at a later date, but for the time being it's a case of make do.

On the NEX-5's rear is a 3-inch tilt-angle TruBlack LCD screen that can tilt 45 degrees vertically to face down or 80 degrees to face upward for shots above and below eye level. This is certainly of benefit as the NEX-5's body is the smallest interchangeable lens camera available to market, meaning there's no room for a viewfinder, electronic or optical.

There is an accessory port to the top which can be used to screw on the flash unit (included), and there is the option to buy a fixed 16mm optical viewfinder accessory (sold separately) to occupy this space, though at the expense of not using other accessories simultaneously. As per its DSLR system, Sony doesn't use an open-standard hotshoe design, which helps to earmark all accessory purchases to be brand-specific. The port itself is, however, very small, so screwing on the flash unit is unnecessarily fiddly and time consuming.

The HD movie capture is a fairly hot topic as far as Sony products are concerned too. Capable of 1080i capture at 60fps, its claim of Full HD is true in terms of final resolution, yet capture is interlaced, not progressive. This can cause "tearing" where fast moving subjects are concerned, though 60 fields per second (i.e., 30 fully resolved 'frames' per second) is rapid and fluid to the eye, so certainly looks good. For those more interested in progressive capture a 720p option at 30fps capture is also available (some HD buffs will argue this is actually a better option). Check out the 1080 video sample on YouTube.

The NEX-5's AVCHD capture is top notch and, although it can be seen on camera or synched up to an HDTV, will need processing to be utilised on a computer. The other option is recording in Motion-JPEG, a slightly lower quality and larger file size system that is captured at 1440 x 1080 and then upscaled to be output at 1920 x 1080i. All the technicality brushed to one side and the bottom line is this: the movie mode is really rather good, it is quick to access thanks to a one-touch button on the rear and, with a little creative lens use, can provide some wonderfully shallow depth-of-field shots.

As Sony's prowess in the imaging market continues to grow, so does the abundance of features which it can pick from its range of products. The NEX-5 is fortunate to collect Sweep Panorama, Hand-held Twilight and Auto HDR modes among other Scene and Creative Styles modes.

Sweep Panorama allows for the real time live movement of the camera through 180 degree to snap and auto-stitch a panorama. Its effective, though the shutter-based system of the NEX-5 means somewhere around 30 images will be rattled off which can make a fair bit of racket. Just be sure that a little noise isn't going to garner unwanted attention! Come this July, Sony also promises a 3D firmware update that will allow for 3D panoramas to be shot and, assuming the relevant display technology, seen in three dimensions. Just how good this will be remains to be seen, but with the 3D market currently sky-rocketing, it's certainly another medal to tag to the trophy, so to speak.

Hand-held Twilight shoots a number of quick-succession shots and auto-combines the relevant elements of each to, as the name suggests, make for better night/twilight shots when there's no a tripod around. Images won't always work out 100%, though results can be very good indeed when in the right conditions.

Auto HDR, a little like Hand-held Twilight, also captures multiple frames to expose for shadow and highlight detail, then auto-combining in-camera for an HDR-like shot. It's good fun as it can be used handheld, though isn't without its errors, won't always perfectly match up the multiple images and doesn't allow enough user-control to the post-adjustment, which is half the fun of HDR work anyway. 

As well as the NEX-5, its "little brother" the NEX-3 is also a viable alternative. The two key differences are that the NEX-5 has a magnesium alloy body and 1080i AVCHD movie capture compared to the NEX-3's plastic body and 720p M-JPEG (MP4, not AVCHD) movie capture.

The £550-600 asking price for the NEX-5 with either the 16mm or 18-55mm kit lens firmly locks it into competition against the other hybrid manufacturers, but if money's super-tight then the NEX-3 may seem like a suitable alternative that's more in-line with the bottom estimate but certainly sees Sony positioning itself squarely and fairly against the competition out there.

When it comes to image quality, the NEX-5 really stands apart from competitor models. In terms of image noise, ISO 200-800 are exceptionally clean, with a slight colour noise presence creeping in progressively thereafter but having no profoundly negative impact as far as ISO 3200. ISO 6400-12,800 show more considerable signs of detail loss due to noise reduction, yet are both of a good enough quality to use, no qualms about it.

The 18-55mm kit lens is also impressively sharp, a trait which we hope is carried through with the 16mm F/2.8 and forthcoming 18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 tele-zoom.

Thanks to the large sensor size and not overly-populated resolution, it seems Sony has grasped an excellent balance in providing crisp, punchy, large images that pack in colour and maintain consistently well-measured auto white balance.

Those looking to capture RAW files will be pleased that Sony's ARW format is featured, which can be shot on its own or simultaneously with JPEG. Currently Sony's own software (included in the box) will read the files, and a future update from the relevant third party software developers will arrive in due course.

Overall the NEX-5 has the image quality box well and truly checked. 

Verdict

The NEX-5 is likely to have a polar split of opinion: on the one hand it is ultra compact (yet the lenses are rather chunky to match the sensor format) meaning it's easy for get-up-and-go point-and-shoot photography using the intelligent Auto mode; on the other hand its full manual controls are tricky to access quickly which may frustrate more advanced users. 

While the latter issue could be solved with the addition of a few more quick-access or function buttons, doing so would change the very nature of what this camera is - and with Panasonic, Samsung and Olympus all producing very DSLR-like hybrid cameras already, the Sony NEX-5 offers something unique (Pansonic's GF1 and the Olympus E-PL1 are the closest design matches). In so doing, its design isn't necessarily going to suit everyone, there's no electronic viewfinder (only an optional 16mm optical viewfinder accessory can be purchased separately) and its form of use is rather much like an advanced compact.

However, whether its design is a love it or loathe it affair, the NEX-5 really wins where it matters. Firstly its contrast-detection Quick AF Live View system is pretty much as good as they get. It's not as advanced as a DSLR, yet it is miles beyond what a compact camera could offer. Secondly the image quality is exceptional, certainly class-leading when lined up against its competition and would hands-down give a lot of DSLR cameras a serious run for their money - even ISO 12,800 produces useable image quality.

Despite its occasional blips, Sony-only accessory fitting and an irksomely slow start up time, the NEX-5 otherwise feels fresh, new and exciting. When more E-mount lenses see the light of day this certainly looks to be a true winner.