Sony's Alpha NEX-5 bridges the gap between compact camera and digital SLR with some high-performance features  - UPDATED 18 NOV 2010

There’s a wholly new category of high-spec digital cameras appearing that’s really mixing up the photography market. Problem is, no-one’s really quite sure what to call them.

First to market was Olympus with its digital E-P1 PEN model, which promoted the ‘four-thirds’ name – in reality, a reference to the sensor size which is the same as an old 4/3in video camera tube.

Also known as a mirrorless camera - or compact system camera (CSC) by review sample supplier Jessops - the key point here is upmarket picture quality and manual versatility to rival professional DSLR cameras. But crucially, much smaller and lighter.

Even the lenses tend to be more compact, further encouraging you to take the camera to places that you wouldn’t want to lug an SLR.

And the all-important light sensor is large in size, when compared to the 1/2.5in types found in most compact digital cameras. At 17.3 x 13mm, the four-thirds sensor is almost ten times the area, which helps enormously with reducing grain and noise, and improving low-light sensitivity.

Besides four-thirds though, another popular sensor size – and one that’s larger again – is APS-C, named after ‘advanced sensor size - classic’. It’s often sized at around 23 x 15mm and it’s the type of sensor seen in most digital SLR cameras now.

It’s also the sensor type chosen by Sony for the Sony NEX-5 – its lightweight contender in this new in-betweener category.

The Sony NEX-5 has a light magnesium alloy body weighing just 299g, or 485g with the 18–55mm lens.

With that 18–55mm lens attached, it’s not quite as pocketable as a compact, but the Sony NEX-5 nevertheless remains a very portable camera. Optionally available is a more modest 16mm f2.8 pancake lens, as well as an 11x-zoom 18–200mm f3.5–6.3 lens.

There’s no separate viewfinder, so you must use the rear LCD display to frame your photos. That's fine most of the time, but srong daylight will have you shielding the display so you can see what you're shooting.

The same display also provides a graphical interface to control most of the camera’s functions. This includes the all-important mode dial - the PASM switch (Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority, Manual) - which must also be negotiated though a virtual picture on the screen, via a real multi-function dial on the camera's back.

Build quality of this Sony is fabulous, those real metal alloys seamlessly assembled. Taking a picture is a joy, thanks to good balance in the hand and a reassuring whirr-click as the shutter is released. There’s little shutter lag in shooting either, making it easy to capture what you see, as you see it.

Video mode works well, preserving your cinematography in high-definition 1920x1080 resolution, although sadly in interlaced 1080i format AVCHD rather than 1080p progressive scan. Sound recording is stereo, from two small mics on the top of the body.

Still images are shot as either JPEG or RAW, or both. The miniumum ISO of 200 may seem high, but we found pictures to be very smooth and noiseless. Even at elevated ISO settings of 1600 for low-light use, the Sony NEX-5 took clean images. You can ramp up to ISO 12,800, by which point you will see plenty of noise of course.

We also enjoyed the auto Sweep Panorama stitch mode, which created well-joined and very wide landscape shots, even knitting together seascapes quite convincingly.

Battery life is very good, able to shoot several hundred shots in a day and still have around one-third power remaining. And Sony has relented on its proprietary memory-card obstinacy, with the Sony NEX-5 supporting both SD/SDHC cards and Sony's own Memory Sticks.

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Sony's Alpha NEX-5 bridges the gap between compact camera and digital SLR with some high-performance features.

The Alpha NEX-5 embodies the out-of-the-box thinking that gadget fans often admire about Sony. This camera brings together features from both point-and-shoots and digital SLRs. Its high-performance features, which include the 14.2mp, APS-C CMOS sensor, a 25-point autofocus system, and a 7fps burst mode, go beyond the world of compact cameras.

Yet, the Sony Alpha NEX-5’s 285g body is so compact that the diameter of the 18-55mm E-mount lens barrel extends above the top plate. The camera's 3in LCD screen occupies most of the real estate on the back of the body, leaving just enough space for three buttons and a dial. And even though the NEX-5 is petite, it’s still comfortable to hold.

The LCD angles upward 80-degrees and downward 45-degrees. That means no matter which angle you want to hold the camera for shooting, you can adjust the screen to accommodate, which encourages you to shoot more creatively. Keep in mind that the Sony Alpha NEX-5 has no optical or electronic viewfinder, though an optional electric viewfinder can be bought separately.

The Sony Alpha NEX-5 has a total of six external buttons, including the shutter release. Sony pulls this off by using a clever menu system that’s graphical and easy to navigate. For example, instead of putting a physical mode dial on top of the camera, Sony creates a picture of one on the LCD that you can rotate using the multipurpose dial on the back. After about an hour of shooting, we were able to find all the settings we needed using this unique system.

The Sony Alpha NEX-5 performs like a digital SLR camera when it comes to image quality. Exposure, colour fidelity, sharpness, and image noise are impressive – it out-performed other interchangable-lens cameras in our lab’s subject image quality tests.

We decided to push the limits and take the Sony Alpha NEX-5 to a basketball game and shoot at ISO 1600 and 3200. The shots were solid with saturated colours and well-controlled image noise. Plus, shooting at 7fps enabled us to capture action that we would have missed with a compact camera. Raw capture is available too, but it limits burst mode to eight shots or five frames for Raw+JPEG.

In the Sony Alpha NEX-5 camera's Movie mode, both the video and the stereo audio quality are very good.

The Alpha NEX-5’s small body means that Sony had to opt for lens-based stabilisation instead of in-body. At the time of writing, a stabilised 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom and 16mm f/2.8 prime lens in the new E-mount were available. Both are quality optics that look handsome on the camera.

The Sony Alpha NEX-5 is an excellent camera for creatives upgrading from compacts who want to increase capability but not bulk.

Derrick Story, Digital Arts

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Sony Alpha NEX-5: Specs

  • Mirrorless interchangeable lens camera
  • 14.2 megapixel
  • 75mm LCD display
  • 18–55mm f3.5-5.6 lens kit
  • E mount lens
  • contrast AF focus
  • ISO 200–12,800
  • 25-point autofocus
  • removable flash unit (included)
  • JPEG, RAW (ARW2.1), RAW+JPEG
  • HDMI mini connector, USB 2.0
  • SD and Memory Stick Duo card slot
  • IR remote control
  • 7fps burst mode
  • video capture at 1920 x 1080i, AVCHD with stereo sound
  • APS-C (23.4 x 15.6mm) CMOS sensor
  • 111 x 59 x 38mm
  • 485g with lens
  • Mirrorless interchangeable lens camera
  • 14.2 megapixel
  • 75mm LCD display
  • 18–55mm f3.5-5.6 lens kit
  • E mount lens
  • contrast AF focus
  • ISO 200–12,800
  • 25-point autofocus
  • removable flash unit (included)
  • JPEG, RAW (ARW2.1), RAW+JPEG
  • HDMI mini connector, USB 2.0
  • SD and Memory Stick Duo card slot
  • IR remote control
  • 7fps burst mode
  • video capture at 1920 x 1080i, AVCHD with stereo sound
  • APS-C (23.4 x 15.6mm) CMOS sensor
  • 111 x 59 x 38mm
  • 485g with lens

OUR VERDICT

The Sony NEX-5 is a superb all-rounder - a real enthusiasts camera with delicious picture quality, and a camera that’s compact and lightweight enough for easy carrying. It makes picture-taking a joy, and can also be enjoyed by less experienced snappers and still get professional-looking results.

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