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.