Interchangeable-lens compact cameras have opened up a whole new market, combining digital-SLR quality and controls with smaller, simpler bodies. Sony's NEX cameras are the latest arrivals, and, in terms of specs alone, they look like they should comfortably upstage their rivals. We tested the 14.2-megapixel NEX-5 to find out if it's as good as it looks.
The NEX-5 is available for around £550 with the 18-55mm kit lens. You can also get the NEX-5 with a 16mm fixed-focal-length pancake lens for around £50 less, or both the 16mm and the 18-55mm lenses for £80 more. The 16mm lens is tiny, but its 24mm equivalent focal length is rather wide for everyday use, so the 18-55mm lens looks like the best bet.
You won't believe how small this camera is. Even the bog-standard 18-55mm lens swamps it. It's hard to believe that Sony has managed to squeeze an SLR-sized APS-C sensor into a body barely more than 24mm thick. And that's even allowing for the fold-out, 75mm (3-inch) LCD display on the back.
The camera's beautifully made too. The cheaper NEX-3 has a plastic body, but the NEX-5 uses aluminium alloy for a classy, precision-engineered feel that carries through to the power switch on the top, the rotary controller on the back and the two context-sensitive keys above and below it. Even the lens feels great -- it's a million miles from the plasticky kit lenses you get with Sony's normal Alpha dSLRs.
Sony's also included the clever technologies developed in its Cyber-shot compact models, including the 'sweep panorama' mode, in which you just hold down the shutter button as you pan the camera. This mode makes something of a racket, but it stitches panoramas together seamlessly. The 'handheld twilight' mode combines a series of shots into a single, sharp image, and the auto high-dynamic-range mode combines three separate exposures to produce a single image with extra-high dynamic range.
Maybe the maximum ISO of 12,800 is a tad optimistic, but the NEX-5 is still exceptionally good at high ISOs, right up to ISO 3,200 and even ISO 6,400.
Sony's high-speed Bionz processor allows 7-frames-per-second continuous shooting. The NEX-5 can also shoot 1080i, high-definition movies with continuous autofocus, saving them in the AVCHD format.
Great though it is, the NEX-5 has some unexpected drawbacks. The main issue is the interface. Making everyday adjustments with the context-sensitive controls is a prolonged and disorientating business. Everything takes longer than you expect and you don't really know how you got there at the end of the process.
It's a pity that the movie mode doesn't have any manual exposure controls, and, while you can use Sony Alpha lenses with a special adaptor, the autofocus won't work. Also, the 18-55mm kit lens may look terrific and feel great to use, but it's not the best in the world. It's sharp enough, but it suffers from chromatic aberration and above-average distortion.
And what's the tiny, clip-on flash all about? It comes with the camera, but are you really going to carry it around in your pocket just so that you can clip it on when you need it? It's not like the world's got a pause button that you can press while you sort your camera out.
The Sony NEX-5 is more like a jumped-up compact camera than a scaled-down dSLR. The picture quality is in a different league to a compact, and features like the sweep-panorama mode and 7fps shooting are unique to this type of camera. But really it's set up for gadget-hungry newbies, and more experienced shooters could get very frustrated very quickly.
Edited by Charles Kloet