(Pocket-lint) - The NEX-5R is the product of Sony's continuing refinement of its compact system cameras. We're already fans of the interchangeable lens series, and found the previous NEX-5N model to be a little star in the image quality department, but a little behind in the performance stakes.
Enter the NEX-5R and, although both the body size and the 16-megapixel APS-C sensor are the same as its predecessor, the camera now includes sensor-level pixels dedicated for a faster and more advanced autofocus, while the design has been tinkered with to include a thumbwheel control.
The only way is up: is an additional thumbwheel enough to make the NEX-5R the new standard for affordable compact system cameras, or has its re-worked design introduced new issues?
The 5R can't claim the title of smallest compact system camera - that's afforded to the too-small Pentax Q - but just like its predecessor we think the Sony has carved out the right balance between small and sensible.
Controls are exactly what lacked from earlier models in the NEX-series. As much as we were fond of the original NEX-5, there was too much focus on accessing controls via a virtual interface in that model. It was slow, didn't always make a load of sense and it was the biggest issue we had when the series was introduced.
The NEX-5R has gone another step towards rectifying that, thanks to the inclusion of a new rear thumbwheel and a programmable, one-touch function (Fn) button on top of the camera by the shutter button.
There are indeed more advanced models in the series such as the NEX-6 and NEX-7 which have a greater abundance of on-body controls including a mode dial and hotshoe for expandability - but then they're pricier and aimed at a different audience.
That still feels like the NEX-5R's omission: there's no physical mode dial and so there's no escape from - at least to some degree - diving into that menu system on occasion. It's not that it's awfully bad by any means, it just takes some getting used to as it's different from most typical camera menu set-ups.
There is a virtual mode dial which goes some way to compensate and the function button loads up a five-strong programmable list of settings on the rear screen which, as with the "quick menu" style controls of competitor models, makes lighter work of accessing those most common settings.
Despite the small size the 5R has a 3-inch touchscreen LCD, but goes one better than its predecessors by including a more varied tilt-angle bracket which can fold all the way forward - ideal for self shots and the like. Even if it's not used much for that particular purpose, the bracket avoids adding excess bulk which is otherwise typical of such a system.
But sunlight is the screen's enemy and with no viewfinder option this can be an occasional bother. It's all part and parcel of such a screen-only design and, much like near competitors in this regard, sunshine shooting isn't always ideal because of reflections.
One comment we had when we reviewed the NEX-5N was that it wasn't quite up to scratch with its competitors when it came to autofocus speed. The 5R's new sensor-based hybrid autofocus system goes some way to improving this, so it's a step in the right direction, yet contextually it's still not quite as snappy as some of the more recent competitors.
In the period since the NEX-5R was announced the likes of the Panasonic Lumix GF6 have also shown face, and the latter betters not only in speed but versatility thanks to the likes of pinpoint autofocus.
The NEX's main shortcoming is in low light where the specific focus area often surrenders to a broad green rectangle which covers the majority of the scene as if to say, "I think there's focus". This lack of accurate focus feedback doesn't mean the shot will be out of focus, it's just that the feedback removes some of that more-detailed control.
NEX adopters aren't going to cry and moan about the camera's lack of ability though - we've fondly found that the camera's been happy to pick out dark, limited contrast subjects so long as there's enough light for the occasion.
Just like its predecessor the 5R also offers a 10 frames per second "Speed Priority" burst shooting mode. Focus and exposure are fixed in this mode (based on the first shot), like the older NEX, but the 5R has a more significant buffer that can rattle off a greater number of shots - we were snapping nine raw & JPEG "fine" quality shots before it could snap no more, and the camera was available within two seconds after the final shot, even if it did take an additional 15 seconds or so for the buffer to fully clear. Still, that is a fair improvement and a lot of data to be channelling in a single burst.
The 5R is also the first NEX to introduce Wi-Fi connectivity to share images direct from the camera. The PlayMemories app is also the hub which opens up an app-based download service to provide additional in-camera functions. Some are free, while others are not. For our money we're not sold on the idea - such in-camera features should be part and parcel of what's included in the box and why use PlayMemories when there are so many other ways to share already out there? Wi-Fi is also a faff to sync and was intermittent in its success with the sample model we had in for review. All manufacturers have a lot of work to do to improve their camera-based Wi-Fi ease of use. It might be an occasional use thing, but, for us, it's not the key selling point by any means.
Clarity is key
Sony's not tried to play any super-high-resolution tricks with the 5R, instead resting on the same core 16-megapixel sensor as its predecessor. And we're still pleased as punch with the resulting image quality.
READ: Sony NEX-5N review
With an extensive sensitivity range from ISO 100 through to ISO 25,600 we wouldn't recommend using the very highest ISO sensitivities on account of image noise, but even up to ISO 3200 we'd put the NEX up there among the class-leading compact system cameras. It's impressive stuff.
However, the gap has been narrowed between the Sony's larger APS-C sensor and the Micro Four Thirds competition, largely thanks to the introduction of the 16-megapixel sensor with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 in 2011. Since then a variety of Panasonic and Olympus models - think Olympus E-PL5, E-PM2 or Panasonic Lumix GF6 and G6 - have taken this sensor on board, so despite sensor size differences - the Sony is the larger - the quality jump has been lessened between the two formats.
The majority of our test was undertaken using the fixed 35mm f/1.8 lens which, despite not being available as a kit option, yields some excellent and sharp results. We've handled the 16-50mm manual zoom lens previously, which is available bundled with the body for around £529, and though it might not have the biting sharpness at the wider-angle settings, t's a decent 24-74mm equivalent kit that proves a good all-rounder.
From stills to moving images, the NEX-5 also offers up great quality movie capture at 1080p50 - just like the earlier 5N model.
On paper the NEX-5R may not sound all too different from its 5N predecessor in the core areas, and in many ways it's not. But the addition of a thumbwheel and function button goes a long way to making it a better camera to use and, therefore, it's a big push forward for the series.
Image quality prevails, too, and although the competitive pack has closed the gap in this department, the Sony is right up there among the very best of compact system cameras.
Despite the new on-body controls and dials the clunky menu system - which has acquired some improvements over time - still needs to be confronted from occasionally. Not the end of the world, but it's not the most logical access point we've used either.
Wi-Fi also isn't as smooth to access and use as we would like and we're not sold on the PlayMemories app concept either. Autofocus is a little slower than the likes of Panasonic's Lumix G-series competition and low-light use tends to lack pinpoint accuracy and feedback, but it's still capable enough to deliver results when it matters.
Overall Sony's made the right move here: a thumbwheel can go a long way and its addition takes the lower-spec NEX-series to a better place than before.