IRL: Sony's NEX-5N interchangeable lens camera and Mailplane 3

Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.

IRL: Sony's NEX-5N interchangeable lens camera and Mailplane 3

It's been a while (four months, actually) since we've featured a camera in "IRL," but today we're breaking that dry spell as we explain what it's like to live with Sony's NEX-5N. Meanwhile, Mailplane 3 is great for Gmail power users (or so says Darren), but you'll need to own a Mac -- and, you know, feel OK spending $25 for the update.

Sony NEX-5N

IRL Sony's NEX5N interchangeable lens camera and Mailplane 3

A good camera should feel like a sidearm -- a quick-draw shooter that you can easily carry with you. For me, that's the Sony NEX-5N.

Sony's choice of form factor goes a long way here. Like many NEX cameras, the 5N is small enough to easily chuck in a bag; with shorter lenses, it's also very light. I can shoot one-handed with ease. What really sells me on the 5N, though, is the touchscreen. While touch is no longer a rarity in the world of mirrorless cams, I'm still thankful for the feature every time I tap to focus on a tricky subject. The display is convenient enough that I'd rather buy the NEX-5R or future 5-series cameras, at least so long as the performance is up to par.

As it stands, the 5N is more than capable... most of the time, at least. The camera holds up well enough in low light when I'm shooting with wide apertures and high ISO levels (usually 1,600 or 3,200), but it's in bright light that it really shines. Colors pop without becoming lurid, which has made the 5N especially great for capturing flowers. The 18-55mm kit lens I most often use has its barrel distortion problems, but it's easily capable of brag-worthy photos with careful control. My real hangups with the 5N are its short (if tolerable) battery life and its sometimes pokey autofocusing. It often needs a recharge after a few hours of heavy use, and it's not great at adjusting to significant changes in subject distance.

You can't buy a fresh 5N in stores, so the real question is whether the camera is worth buying used versus a 5R or even the NEX-3N. In short: if you can get a kit for significantly less than the 3N's $500 asking price, go for it. You won't get the built-in flash of the 3N or the WiFi of the 5R, but you will get a reliable design that still claims advantages over Sony's entry-level NEX line. It's hard to think of a better way to get started with amateur photography.

-- Jon Fingas

Mailplane 3

IRL Sony NEX5N and MailPlane 3

It's quite possible I've overlooked this trend up until now, but it all hit home with the latest iteration of Mailplane. AgileBits is a software company best known for 1Password. It's a stellar program, but it's a wallet killer as well. You see, not only do you need to pay for various versions of 1Password for each platform that you use, but the latest version of the software isn't provided gratis. Much like Adobe's Creative Suite, app providers aren't exactly giving away new editions. This has historically been acceptable in the boxed software realm, but for whatever reason, apps have largely been updated for free.

Mailplane is yet another app that's maturing, but the new version most certainly isn't a courtesy update. The third version of the fanciful Gmail wrapper is even better than the prior one (which I gushed all over in an earlier IRL), but it'll cost you $25. The new version is sleeker and fully compatible with Gmail's new compose window, but it also adds a tabbed experience that enables you to open up numerous Gmail and Google Calendar accounts. (And yes, you can use keyboard shortcuts to hop between 'em, just as you can when cruising through Firefox tabs.)

I'm an unabashed Gmail power user, and Mailplane 3 feels like a worthwhile update. There's just something delightful about being able to Command + Tab to my Gmail or Google Calendar instance, versus sifting through untold tabs in a browser. There's also an option to kill all ads, which makes for an even more beautiful view. It's worth noting, however, that with this version Mailplane ceases to be compatible with Growl (a heralded OS X notification system), but it does work swimmingly with Apple's own Notification Center. I figured this change would bother me a lot more than it actually has. Give it a try if you're a Mac loyalist and swear by Gmail -- there's a 15-day free trial available, and all its features can be used during that window.

-- Darren Murph