In every geek's life, the time must come when he or she steps away from the pocket-friendly compact point-and-shooter and straps up with a hefty DSLR to do real photography with. Or such was the received wisdom until not too long ago. It's still the case that lenses, bound by the laws of physics, will protrude more than most of us want them to, but mirrorless Micro Four Thirds shooters from Olympus and Panasonic, along with Samsung's NX series, have shown that prosumer camera bodies don't always have to be that bulky. This is the stage upon which the NEX-5 enters, with Sony predictably aiming to outdo everyone using an ultraslim magnesium alloy body that delivers 1080p video and 14 megapixel stills. Join us after the break to see what we thought of the Japanese giant's latest product.
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Sony NEX-5 preview

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Sony NEX-5 versus Nikon D5000 (shot with another NEX-5)


Alright, let's get our uncensored gushing out of the way first. The NEX-5's body is beautifully built. That magnesium alloy construction really makes the camera feel like it can withstand a high velocity encounter with a brick wall. Not that Sony's reps would let us verify that hypothesis, the spoilsports. Seriously, if all you're after is one of the slickest and seemingly hardest wearing compact shooters around, just buy the NEX-5 and move on to figuring out what smartphone camp you wanna belong to.

But should you care for how this little camera actually handles and performs, read on. Although the back of the NEX-5 is mostly devoid of buttonry, the large and vibrant 3-inch LCD doesn't offer any touch functionality, which might surprise and disappoint users. The screen does ameliorate the situation by offering some degree of articulation. You can't swivel it left or right, but you can turn it vertically in order to use it to compose shots directly above or below your point of view . We didn't find it anywhere near as fluid or easy to maneuver as the screen on our D5000, but it'll do the job well enough for the more patient among you.

The circular control pad to the right of the display handles the bulk of the controls, and although Sony impresses with just how many control variations it can fit into the limited space, we're on the whole displeased with the inputs on offer. Not the hardware itself, as the keys are easy enough to reach and navigate, but there are simply far too many options for far too few buttons. That leads to the various parts of the control pad constantly changing what they do according to the menu or mode you're in, resulting in an inconsistent and frustrating experience. That's not exactly aided by a screen overlay menu that fails to convey important information in a useful or succinct manner. Aperture and shutter speed settings are shown in an unnecessarily stylized view at the bottom, and the user is generally left feeling like he's working against, rather than with, the NEX-5 when trying to achieve his desired result.

We shouldn't, however, overstate the UI critique -- we had only a limited time with the NEX-5, and we can say from experience that most cameras that offer such an advanced range of controls and adjustments tend to take some time to adapt to. These are complex pieces of equipment with a learning curve that's higher than the one you'd expect from things like phones, pocket camcorders, or mainstream point-and-shoot cams.

Where the NEX-5 shines, however, is in precisely the latter category of work: when you abandon (or finish, depending on your persistence) all your fiddling, and start taking some pictures. Time between shots was excellently quick for us, video processing also offered little in the way of delay, and the autofocus was similarly speedy in resolving what it needed to capture. It's just an effortless camera to use that never makes you feel like you're hanging around for the hardware to catch up with your creativity. If you want to view (and use) it as just a regular point-and-shooter with some premier hardware inside it, the NEX-5 will reward you by fulfilling your expectations in full. Start-up times weren't particularly stellar, mind you, so if you wanna catch moments the instant they happen, you might prefer to keep the NEX-5 on or just find a faster-booting shooter.

And now to the all-important image quality. We have to first reiterate our proviso that our time with the NEX-5 was limited, and add to it the fact that we were in a poorly lit environment which will hardly represent the best possible results with this camera. On the other hand, it should certainly provide a representative real world usage scenario for you to judge from. Looking at our results in the gallery below, you'll see some pretty lucid, well exposed, and richly saturated images. And if 800 pixels was a sufficient width for all photos ever taken, this camera would walk away with our golden unicorn prize and never have another worry in the world.

But they're not, and we have to report with a heavy heart that full-sized 14 megapixel pictures suffered from heavy noise-reducing blurring and a little sprinkling of extra noise that post-processing couldn't overcome. That's not to say that it's a terrible algorithm -- we were in fact happily surprised by how well the noise reduction avoids blotchiness and the complete obliteration of fine detail (it obliterates, but not entirely, you see), but the fact remains that when pushed to its maximum resolution in challenging conditions, the NEX-5 doesn't produce attractive pics. Anyhow, see what you think for yourself in the gallery below -- we've tried to include a few comparison shots to show the effect of using the flash as well.
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Sony NEX-5 sample images


In summary then, Sony has put together a stunning camera body, stuffed it with impressive hardware, allied it to a set of equally alluring lenses, and then handicapped the whole thing with a UI that wants to do DSLR duties with a pocket cam's control scheme. That's our biggest bone to pick with the NEX-5, though its rather steep price and apparent failure to perform to true pro shooter standards are also pretty high up there. All the same, we do like the NEX-5 and we're enjoying where this whole trend of "hybridizing" the DSLR and pocket camera market is going. Now bring on more lenses, lower prices, and a saner control scheme, and you'll have yourself a winner, Sony. Get 'er done.

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