By some accounts, Sony botched the NEX-F3. Positioned as the successor to the fantastic C3, it replaced that camera's slim profile with a bulkier build, but sacrificed basic display tilt functionality in favor of a front-facing model. Image quality was fine, but focusing speeds fell short. Fortunately, the company has redeemed itself with the $750 NEX-5R. The mirrorless camera you'll read about today represents everything a successful update should: performance has been improved all around, the touchscreen tilts in every which way and the design has changed only for the better.
It's also the first Sony mirrorless cam to feature WiFi, along with the company's new PlayMemories Camera Apps. Wireless connectivity is undoubtedly becoming a popular addition in higher-end models, but that doesn't mean it's a feature users are demanding. With Samsung's upcoming Galaxy Camera, connectivity -- 4G in particular -- makes perfect sense, but how does that web experience transfer to a tiny 3-inch touchscreen? And does it detract from usability overall? Join us past the break for a closer look at this very capable 16.1-megapixel interchangeable lens camera.
Sony's third-generation NEX-5 delivers excellent performance for a manageable price.
The NEX series has maintained a basic form factor since its inception -- oversized lens nearly flush with the camera's left, a pronounced grip on the opposite side -- and the tradition lives on today. The 5R retains some basic styling from the 5 and 5N that came before, in particular the slightly boxy design and textured plastic grip. But the NEX-7 has made an impression here as well, with that camera's power toggle, shutter release and front function button making an appearance, along with one of that flagship model's two top-mounted dials.
The shoulder strap mounts have also been moved up to match the 7's positioning, while the stereo microphones remain on top, flanking Sony's proprietary accessory port (which you'll use for mounting the bundled flash or the $350 OLED EVF). This top mic positioning is favorable for narration, but it's not ideal for interviews, where you'll likely want to add Sony's $130 microphone -- sadly, there's no 3.5mm input here, so you're stuck with the proprietary version, which fortunately offers decent performance without a lot of bulk.
The company has done away with the prominent model branding, opting instead to identify this flavor with a modest line of text just above the 3-inch, 921k-dot touchscreen. Just like its predecessor, the 5R can be operated entirely with hardware controls, with the touch functionality serving only to complement the interface, not to complicate it. The rear controls will be familiar to any NEX user, including a dial with a center selector and a four-position toggle, for direct access to drive mode, display, ISO and exposure compensation options.
There are also two variable buttons that change depending on the mode. By default, the top one launches the system menu while the bottom can be configured with one of 20 options, such as quality settings or white balance. The shutter release and power dials up top are joined by a playback and video record button -- the latter of which is a tad too difficult to press, particularly when shooting with the LCD facing up. Unlike the F3's relatively limited display, this model can flip 180 degrees to face forward without compromising upward and downward tilt functionality, pairing the enhanced range of motion we've enjoyed with previous-gen NEX models with a front-facing option that works well for self-portraits.
On the bottom of the camera is a combination battery/SDXC compartment -- unlike some other NEX models, the 5R's access panel is located far from the tripod socket, so you won't need to remove a mount before swapping SD cards. The battery is the same NP-FW50 pack that Sony has been including since day one, offering 1,080mAh of power. While you will be able to use older batteries and chargers, Sony has opted for micro-USB charging this time around, with a compact AC adapter packed in the box. The camera seemed to charge quickly using this method, and because of the industry-standard socket, you can juice up with everything from a laptop to a pocketable USB backup cell.
Next to the micro-USB slot, on the left side, you'll also find an HDMI port, just below a WiFi logo. Like other manufacturers, particularly Samsung, Sony has begun making a heavy push for wireless connectivity in its mirrorless line, with this 5R, and the NEX-6 a few weeks later. On the 5R, 802.11b/g compatibility lets you upload images to a smartphone, computer, compatible HDTV or directly to the web. You can also download specially designed PlayMemories Camera Apps directly from Sony, which we'll touch on a bit more in the UI section below.
Sony's managed to grow its user interface without making significant changes. That still means lots of digging in order to format cards or change the focusing mode, with major adjustments visible only at the top menu level. The good news here is that current NEX users should have no trouble configuring the camera without pulling out a manual. The biggest addition is an Application section -- for the first time, Sony is letting you add "apps" to the camera, though by no means is this an open invitation to collect and create. Direct Upload (to Facebook or Sony's site), Smart Remote Control and Picture Effect+ come preloaded, while Photo Retouch (free), Multi Frame NR ($5) and Bracket Pro ($5) are available for download. And that's it -- for now. Third-party developers won't be permitted to submit apps, so anything you see has been and will be created by Sony.
The camera's app store, if you can call it that, is largely web-based, with similar basic browsing functionality extending to the connection process as well. This means that you can log in to hotel or other public networks using a username or password, so it's possible to purchase WiFi access for your camera just as you would a laptop or smartphone. To connect, you'll tap your desired network, enter a password if applicable or log in to a web authorization form by tapping the tiny on-screen keyboard. It's hardly a speedy process, but it does work.
We were able to upload a photo to Facebook successfully from a hotel network and then add a caption, though typing even a short sentence was quite painful. By default, the photo is added to a new gallery labeled with the time it was shot, though you can also browse through your existing Facebook albums if you'd like to drop it somewhere else. We're not completely sold on the idea of direct camera uploads, since it hardly seems efficient for multiple images, but it is a possibility here -- and, like with the touchscreen functionality, the feature is there if you want to use it, but nearly invisible if you don't.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to test handset integration, including the Smart Remote Control and smartphone viewing functions. Both require that you install the free PlayMemories Mobile app for Android or iOS. At the time of publication, we were told that the current app version (2.0.2) was incompatible with Android versions above 4.1, along with iOS 6. A new app is on the way, but the current iteration did not allow us to connect to the camera successfully. We tested two NEX-5R cameras and multiple Android devices, including a Galaxy Note running 4.0.4, which was also unable to connect. Sony is aware of the issue and has confirmed that a fix is in the works.
You may have noticed the NEX-6's dedicated mode dial -- there isn't one here. Instead, you'll press a button to toggle a UI mode selector, which offers the usual variety of manual options, along with Sweep Panorama, Scene Selection, Intelligent Auto and Superior Auto, which brings a bit of magic into play to reduce blur and noise. We spent the majority of our time shooting in this latter mode to see just what the 5R is capable of, and how it responds to difficult lighting situations. We'll dive in a bit further down below, but we were quite pleased with this option, particularly when reviewing stills after a day of shooting.
Performance and battery life
It's not flawless, but the NEX-5R is one of the mirrorless category's brightest stars.
It's not flawless, but the NEX is certainly one of the mirrorless category's brightest stars. For starters, it snaps away at up to 10 frames per second, with full-resolution shots and phase-detection AF. You won't need to shoot this quickly in most situations, but this performance translates to other areas as well, such as the Multi-Frame Noise Reduction mode you can take advantage of while shooting in Superior Auto. Based on the current scene and exposure, the 5R may opt to engage this option, which fires off three consecutive frames and displays a merged image a second or two later. Because the camera can shoot so quickly, minor movements won't throw off the end result. We'd like to see Sony provide a bit more warning before firing the shutter multiple times, but there is a small on-screen indication that serves its purpose only if you don't miss it.
Focusing has also advanced several-fold -- in the past, we've often been less than thrilled with the NEX line's abilities in this department, but with the 5R, we consider our prayers answered. The new Fast Hybrid AF pairs 99 phase-detection and 25 contrast-detection focus points, delivering a system that can adjust very quickly and accurately, even in dim light.
We always prefer to shoot without the AF-assist light, so we flipped that off just as soon as we'd disabled the annoying menu beep. Even so, the camera did an excellent job bringing subjects into focus in nearly pitch-black conditions, even at the 18-55mm kit lens' maximum focal range. We've never seen performance like this from an NEX -- not even close. Olympus' OM-D E-M5 still takes first prize for speed, but the 5R's abilities are commendable, too.
We saw equally impressive improvements on the video front, especially when it came to focusing. In auto mode, you can tap your subject on the display, at which point the camera will maintain that target as it moves, assuming your position (or theirs) doesn't change dramatically. Tracking is nothing new, but past results have been mixed. Here, it works well -- you can get an idea of the responsiveness in the sample clip below. In manual modes, you can select the center focus point, which is generally our preference for filming hands-ons and reviews. If your subject moves or changes position, the 5R will adjust very quickly to match it. Like the 5N that came before it, this year's model offers 1080p captures at 60 and 24 frames per second in AVCHD mode. If you opt for MP4, the maximum resolution drops to 1,440 x 1,080 at 30 fps.
While you can't expect DSLR-like longevity, we've always been impressed with the NEX series' battery life. Sony has been using the same 1,080mAh pack since the very first model, and we've found it to perform well even after several years of use. Nonetheless, we used a brand-new cell with the 5R, and after a full charge, we were able to walk away with nearly 22 minutes of HD video and more than 550 still images, including several multi-frame captures in high-ISO noise-reduction mode shot over the course of a 24-hour period. We also spent plenty of time fiddling with settings and using WiFi features, so your shot count may actually surpass this.
Picture and video quality, even at higher ISO settings, was stellar. The camera's exposure was typically spot-on, and we never found a need to venture beyond the automatic white balance setting, with each shoot yielding accurate results. We've had some issues with past NEX models when shooting in tungsten or vapor light, but we were quite pleased with the images here. The ILC offers a sensitivity range of ISO 100-25,600, which has become standard among DSLRs and higher-end mirrorless models.
Noise-reduction techniques, such as multiple shot merges of nighttime scenes, and the camera's standard algorithm, work to successfully reduce noise without much compromise on sharpness at ISO 6400 and below. As you venture to 12,800 and 25,600, there's often substantial degradation, but both will work fine for web shooting or when you're in a bind. Let's take a look at some samples.
Waves batter the coastline as golfers explore a hillside course near Tanah Lot Temple in Bali. This f/11, 1/160-second exposure ensured sharp details throughout the frame with perfect exposure and accurate color balance.
Singapore's Changi Airport boasts a movie theater, swimming pool and this butterfly garden, captured with incredible clarity with a 1/160-second exposure at f/4.
An enormous variety of ants call Southeast Asia home, including this little fella at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The 5R's Superior Auto mode snagged all the action accurately with a 1/160-second exposure at f/5.6.
A jump to ISO 1250 guaranteed sharp details in a shady area of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, with a spot-on 1/160-second, f/5.6 exposure and very little noise.
Sure, we could have managed with a slower exposure in this static scene, but the camera's Superior Auto mode opted to bump the sensitivity up to ISO 2000 in order to minimize risk with a 1/160-second capture at f/4. Colors are perfectly accurate, despite the mixed light, and all the right details are plenty sharp.
In aperture-priority mode, we set the ISO to 3200 in order to capture the fast-moving monkeys in this shaded Indonesian forest. With a steady hand, a 1/80-second exposure at f/5 worked just fine for this family portrait.
Evening cityscapes can often present plenty of challenges for even the most advanced cameras, so we switched to aperture-priority mode and maxed out the kit lens at f/3.5. We were able to capture plenty of sharp details at 1/60-second and ISO 3200 without generating any nasty artifacts.
You wouldn't know it from the shot below, but this audience scene was incredibly dim -- we couldn't make out any details with the naked eye. Motion is partially to blame for the slightly blurry result with this 1/6-second exposure at f/5.6, but the ILC performed quite well regardless, with some of the noise likely removed during in-camera processing.
You'll probably recognize some familiar faces in our reel below. Since the 5R's dedicated video button lets you snag HD clips from within most shooting modes, capturing motion alongside stills was a breeze. Focusing performance was fantastic, as was exposure, color balance and sharpness in all of our sample footage. Even low-light results were excellent, with very little visible noise.
Like manufacturers in other markets, camera makers deal with massive price sensitivity. Some continue to churn out expensive models that offer little advantage over the competition, but Sony has understood the need to remain aggressive from the very beginning, and continues that tradition with the 5R. If you've already invested in the E-mount ecosystem and have a few lenses on hand, you can snag this latest model for $650 (body only), which, considering the advantages it offers over the $500 F3, makes it quite a deal. If you're more concerned about cost than performance and design, then the NEX-F3 is worth considering as well, or you can snag a used C3 for just over 300 bucks. If you can spare an extra two bills, the upcoming NEX-6 ($850 body only) will likely be the best option for advanced users, thanks to its built-in OLED electronic viewfinder, dedicated mode dial and full-size hot shoe.
Perhaps you're in the market for a Micro Four Thirds camera? The Olympus E-M5 is a close match for the NEX-5R, besting Sony's offering in terms of focusing performance. It's pricey, at $999 (body only), but two siblings just came off the assembly line -- the E-PL5 ($700) and E-PM2 ($600) -- both promising similar focus speed for a more manageable price. Panasonic's upcoming Lumix GH3 is also one to watch, especially for videographers.
We've followed Sony's NEX line closely, after seeing significant promise with the very first models -- the NEX-3 and NEX-5. This year's successors offer even more punch, and we're quite thrilled with the 5R. We're not convinced that the company's closed "app" approach is best for consumers, and the WiFi advantages have yet to be proven, but the focusing and shooting improvements alone make this compact ILC a winner. Sony has reinforced its commitment to the photography community with a very solid 2012 lineup, and anyone on the hunt for a market-leading camera should keep the NEX-5R near the top of their list.