The NEX-5N arrives at a time when compact system camera manufacturers are all throwing many individual systems in the ring. We’ve seen "world’s smallest", "world’s lightest" and "world’s fastest" claims appear again and again in a bid to attract the most attention. The 5N, on the other hand, rests on its laurels - indeed it’s a carbon copy of the NEX-5 that came out some 12 months previous - by sidelining the claim game.
Sony is instead playing the image quality game. By popping a brand new 16.1-megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor into the 5N it should, on account of its use in other high-ranking DSLRs such as the Sony A580, make for gold-standard images. We take a look at what else is hot (or not) with the NEX-5N.
So, what’s new?
Anyone that’s paid attention to the NEX-series will see that the NEX-5N is identical to the NEX-5 on the outside, with the exception of that all-important "N" on its name badge.
It’s the inside where things jump up a notch: a new 16.1-megapixel APS-HD CMOS sensor is DSLR-sized and able to capture images from ISO 100-25,600. It’s great to see that Sony’s recent cap of ISO 200 as the lowest setting has been cut for this latest release, and the super-high ISO sensitivity will get low-light shooters eager to see what this machine is capable of achieving.
The answer: a lot. In our tests the NEX-5N’s images better those of its predecessor. And that’s saying something, as the NEX-5’s images were already top-drawer. Shoot from ISO 100-3200 with the freedom to know that shots will remain detailed, bar from some edge distortion issues owed to wide-angle lenses, and the 5N should open a whole new door for those demanding top quality in a small package.
RAW files are the way to work if you want that extra sharpness, plus they won’t correct for barrel distortion which means sharper frames throughout and more leeway when it comes to post-production.
The 5N is a small and light compact system camera, yet sizeable by comparison to some of the competition on account of its larger lenses.
Elsewhere the NEX team has stuck to its guns, for the most part. The menu system remains as jumbled and confused as its predecessor. It’s simple enough for a newbie, but those familiar with digital cameras will wonder why certain options are so deeply-buried within the menus.
There’s some respite, however, thanks to a series of customiseable buttons on the rear of the camera. The left, right and centre of the d-pad can be programmed along with the lower function button. This means bringing up the settings you want is only a button press away, though the lack of a full on-screen menu system with a wide variety of adjustable settings - at present it’s limited to five Custom positions - is something that ought to be rectified.
Perhaps Sony will issue a patch to re-think its menu system yet more, particularly in light of the LCD’s touchscreen ability that’s all but not used for most tasks. It’s not that it can’t be used - it works fine in iAuto to set the focus point or jump between images in playback - but the manual modes and movie setting seem to have forgotten to take advantage of it.
We don’t want to rubbish the design, though, because new users will pick up this camera and figure it out in no time at all, the in-camera help guide will see to that. Even users of other systems will figure out their differences in little time and grasp the Sony way of working. It’s just not, in our opinion, as intuitive as much of the competition.
The 5N has a headline-grabbing 10 frames per second burst mode but this is only available under "speed priority cont" mode that means both focus and exposure are fixed from the first shot. Plus when shooting RAW it’s not possible to capture more than four or five frames before the camera is rendered inoperable in order to chew through processing those files. Set the camera to its normal continuous shooting mode where it’s possible for exposure reassessment or the focus to be set to continuous AF and the speed is far reduced – you won’t even get a quarter of the “speed priority cont.” mode’s speed.
The 5N is capable when it comes to autofocus, but with the likes of the Panasonic Lumix G-series offering edge-to-edge focusing across the whole screen, touchscreen integration and a super-fast focusing speed. The Sony does lag behind by comparison and it’s also slow off the mark when switching the camera on, taking a couple of seconds to ready itself and show a well-exposed preview on the rear LCD.
One of the areas where the 5N truly excels is with movie capture. It’s got it all. 1080p50 recording at 28Mbps (that’s a data rate that exceeds most semi-pro camcorders, all from a budget camera) is the best available quality, though the camera does warn of Blu-ray incompatibility at this setting. Dipping this to the 17Mbps rate is one way around that, although if you're editing, and burning to Blu-ray later, the higher rate is likely to be preferable until you come to make your disc later on.
As well as a continuous autofocus system that’s super-smooth and accurate, the 5N also allows for focus point adjustment during recording and a half press of the shutter can override focus should it be needed.
Where things get extra special are with the full manual control on offer. Manual exposure, ISO and exposure compensation can all be set not only prior to recording, but during too. We can think of nothing better equipped for movie shooting at this level - it’s just a shame the 5N doesn’t have an external microphone port.
The NEX-5N has a collection of shooting modes including sweep panorama, 3D panorama, handheld twilight, dynamic range optimiser, auto HDR, plus creative styles and effects modes.
Sweep panorama allows for the real time live movement of the camera through 180 degrees to snap and auto-stitch a panorama. The 3D mode utilises the overlap from images as an effective way to produce an MPO file that can be played back on a 3D-capable TV. The panorama mode is effective, though the shutter-based system of the NEX-5N means it’s bloomin’ noisy as it rattles off a few dozen images. Expect to attract attention!
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-exposed and low-noise night time or twilight shot.
Auto HDR and dynamic range optimiser use multiple and single frame capture (respectively) to produce balanced exposures with extra exposure detail pushed in to both shadow and highlight areas.
The NEX-5N has two major things going for it: image quality and its HD movie mode. There’s no other compact system camera out there that can better the 5N’s images (except, perhaps, for the as-yet-untested NEX-7), though the distortion at wide-angle settings can make for edge softness issues.
As for the second point: the 1080p movie mode is exceptional in quality, control and performance terms. In fact we’d go as far as saying there’s no other CSC out there at this price point that’s as good in this department.
However where it excels in image quality results, the 5N may feel a little lacklustre in the performance department. It’s not bad, it’s just not advanced enough beyond the original NEX-5 - and in that period Olympus, Panasonic and Nikon have developed focusing systems that are far more impressive than the Sony’s. The slow start up time, too, makes the 5N feel a tad sluggish.
But for image obsessives looking for top quality, look no further: the NEX-5N outputs stunning shots. It’s a worthy step forward for the NEX system.
Additional product photos by Hunter Skipworth