This time last year, Sony debuted the Alpha NEX-5N, and earned itself close to full marks in its CNET review. Keen to repeat the performance, it's followed up with the NEX-5R, which retains the 5N's headline specs, with E-mount lenses, an articulated screen and the same 16.1-megapixel resolution.
This time around though, it also boasts Wi-Fi for easy image uploads, phone-based remote control and even downloadable camera apps.
Specs and Build
Outwardly, little has changed. The body looks like it's fallen out of the same mould, and the kit lens still sports the close to de-facto 18-55mm range, equivalent to 27-82.5mm on a regular 35mm camera.
Maximum aperture at wide angle is F/3.5, and at full telephoto it's F/5.6, with minimum aperture ranging from F/22 to F/32 depending on the level of zoom -- a very decent range. Zooming is fully manual, although there's a powered lens if you prefer, and you can take focus in hand, too, with a manual focus ring at the front of the barrel.
It's not all about the hardware, though. The on-screen menus are colourful and inviting, and easy to find your way around. There are five display options ranging from the bare minimum of shooting data to a boggling array that includes pretty much every configurable setting you might want to know about. Mixed in among them is a built-in level, which shows not only when you're tilting the body up or down but left to right, too.
The 5R's bragging point is its built-in Wi-Fi, which allows you to play back your photos on an iPhone or Android device.
More interestingly, it also lets you download new features direct to the camera from the Sony PlayMemories site. These include several free options like the smart remote for taking photos from your phone -- which are then saved both in their full resolution to the camera's media card and in cut-down form to your phone's memory -- and a direct upload tool for sharing photos over the Internet.
The two most compelling features however -- Bracket Pro and Multi Frame Noise Reduction -- each cost £3.99. Bracket Pro lets you bracket photos by shutter speed, aperture,
focus or flash, and Multi Frame Noise Reduction, which features on the
high-end Alpha SLT cameras, lets you shoot several images in low
light which are then combined to create a high sensitivity equivalent
image with low noise.
Downloading a free application to the camera from the PlayMemories site lets you use your smart phone -- here, an iPhone -- to control the camera remotely. Sadly, you don't see any of the camera's shooting information replicated on the smart phone display.
Installing an app is easy, so long as you have a PlayMemories account, and it's done straight from the camera's LCD. I found connecting to a wireless hub to be more tricky though. I have three networks running at home and it took 10 minutes of entering passwords and trying different access points until I could get the NEX-5R to fix on any one of them. Once it had done so, however, things went smoothly and it maintained a steady fix on the signal.
I performed my tests using a mixture of intelligent auto and aperture priority modes and set the NEX-5R to record raw files with JPEG sidecars. I used the raw files for analysis after converting them to digital negatives using Adobe Lightroom's default import settings.
Even before downloading them, it was obvious from the LCD that the 5R produces punchy, impressive colours. Blue skies and green grass were very attractive and particularly enticing.
Differentiation between similar tones was clear, and the finished images were, on the whole, full of detail and texture.
In those frames where there was less detail to be brought out of the image, the 5R ably gradated similar tones for a smooth result. Take a look at the image below for an example of this. The largely featureless walls are smoothly graduated and it's easy to make out where the corner sits even without reference to the skirting.
It takes extreme contrasts easily in its stride, and shooting in raw meant I was able to recover a lot of detail in post-production that appeared at first sight to have been lost. For example, in the image below, the point of focus was the window at the centre of the frame. Because the camera metered for the light at this point the surrounding areas are far darker. Lifting the shadows in post-production however, without touching the highlights reveals the full detail of the walls and woodwork.
When examining the corners of the frame though, there was some falloff in the level of focus in comparison to that seen in the very centre. This is not unusual, and is caused by the degree to which the light must be bent to meet the sensor when entering the lens at that point.
In choosing to stick with a fairly conservative resolution on a generously proportioned sensor, Sony has ensured that the NEX-5R performs well in low light. The image below was shot with minimal overhead lighting, causing the camera to increase its sensitivity to ISO 3,200.
As you can see from the image, there is grain across the frame, but it is even and light and doesn't greatly disturb the underlying textures in the picture, so the bricks in the wall and the cabling running across the ceiling of the tunnel remain clear and true to the originals.
Maximum sensitivity stands at an impressive ISO 25,600, with compensation of +/-3.0EV in 0.3 stop steps. You can set compensation either by turning the thumbwheel or dragging a scale on the screen.
Still life test
I switched the NEX-5R to auto mode for the still life test so that it could make up its own mind on the best way to shoot a collection of everyday objects.
In each instance, it chose to open the aperture to f/4.0, which resulted in a very shallow depth of field. Objects towards the rear of the scene were thrown out of focus, leaving only those in the mid-frame sharp.
Even this, though, wasn't sufficient to prevent it from hiking the sensitivity under ambient light to ISO 2,000. This introduced the same level of noise as was evident in the dimly lit tunnel above, which meant that there was grain in the image, although not to an extent that it degraded the clarity of the finished shot.
Under studio lights it was able to reduce the sensitivity to ISO 100, thus eliminating the noise for a very clean result. With the flash it set the sensitivity at ISO 400. Again the result was largely free of grain, but the shadows behind the objects in the scene were fairly strong, and some white surfaces, such as the cup in the foreground, were lacking detail.
The NEX-5R records AVCHD and MP4 video. Maximum resolution is 1,920x1,080 pixels at 50fps when shooting AVCHD, and 1,440x1,080 pixels at 25fps when shooting MP4. You don't need to switch to a dedicated video mode to use it, either, thanks to the easy access movie button beside the thumbwheel.
I performed my tests on a fairly windy day, and it's fair to say that the NEX-5R had some trouble filtering out the sound of the wind despite the fact that the wind cut feature was active. The soundtrack was therefore compromised in much of my footage. However, beyond the wind it was still able to record accurate background noises.
It responded well to changes in the level of available light, but when shooting in low light it had some trouble finding focus when the position of objects in the frame changed considerably at short notice.
Sony NEX vs Samsung NX
The NEX-5R's most obvious competitor is the Samsung NX210. Both are compact interchangeable lens cameras, and they each have an APS-C-sized sensor and both sport Wi-Fi. Their 18-55mm kit lenses are of broadly similar size, but elsewhere there are several important differences.
The Sony is smaller with a more compact body, and although the grip isn't as scooped as that on the Samsung it feels more sturdy and comfortable to hold.
The Samsung has a higher resolution with 20.3 megapixels to the Sony's 16.1 megapixels, but once you start talking about the mid teens in terms of resolution, anything higher is nice to have but far from essential unless you anticipate performing some harsh crops in post-production.
Turn the cameras around, and the Sony is the clear winner. It has a touch-sensitive screen, which is also articulated to flip up and down to make shooting from unusual angles more convenient. Samsung claws back some points when it comes to easy accessibility of key features though, with a dedicated mode selector on the top, beside a finger wheel for dialling in adjustments.
The Sony has a thumbwheel in place of the finger wheel, which is easier and faster to use. To switch modes though you'll need to step into the menus, which means you can't, for example, switch as quickly between aperture and shutter priority on the Sony as you can on the Samsung. The Samsung also benefits from the company's i-Function lens system that puts the most commonly used functions, such as setting the aperture and shutter speed, scene mode and exposure compensation, on the manual focus ring at the front of the lens barrel.
The two are very closely matched, then, and picking between them will largely come down to a simple choice of aesthetics. While the i-Function lens is a major draw, the Sony's articulated screen is perhaps the stronger proposition, drawing me -- personally -- towards the NEX-5R.
The NEX-5R is one of those cameras that's great fun to use, and really encourages you to head out and take more shots. Build quality is excellent, the built-in features are great and although I'm not convinced by the idea of needing to download add-on camera apps, it's perfectly able without them and ready to go straight from the box.
It does have the edge on the Samsung NX210 -- just -- in terms of human interface and usability, and it boasts a wider range of native lenses, too. By the end of November there will be 11 E-mount lenses to choose from. The Samsung NX system currently comprises six lenses, plus three hoods and adaptors, the latter of which do open up access to Pentax K-mount accessories.
The NEX-5R is considerably more expensive at around £600 to £670, depending on where you shop -- a price that represents a 20 per cent hike on that of an NX210. That difference is significant, and may sway your hand when it comes to making a choice. If you can't run to the price of the Sony, then the Samsung won't disappoint. Take price out of the equation, though, and the NEX-5R just has the edge.