Sony Alpha NEX-5R review

The Sony Alpha NEX-5R is a small interchangeable-lens camera built around a big, excellent image sensor, but it's a tough sell when you consider the rest of Sony's NEX lineup, including our Editors' Choice, the less-expensive Alpha NEX-F3.
Photo of Sony Alpha NEX-5R

Sony’s NEX camera series has grown from two models to four, and the new Alpha NEX-5R ($749.99 direct with 18-55mm lens) now occupies a difficult position in the lineup. It costs $150 more than our Editors’ Choice entry-level compact interchangeable lens camera, the Alpha NEX-F3 , and for that money you get built-in Wi-Fi and a touch-screen display with a wider tilt range—but you lose the built-in flash. Entry-level shooters will find the NEX-F3 to be a better value, and enthusiasts are likely to be drawn to the NEX-6, a $1,000 camera that includes a compact kit lens, Wi-Fi, built-in EVF, flash, and a standard hot shoe. 

Design and Features
If you’ve held the previous-generation NEX-5N  , the 16-megapixel NEX-5R will feel immediately familiar. Its body is identical in size and footprint, although the control layout has been improved upon. The 5R measures 2.4 by 4.4 by 1.6 inches and weighs 9.7 ounces. The body houses a large APS-C image sensor, but it’s just barely bigger than the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5, a similar camera with a smaller Micro Four Thirds image sensor. The Olympus is 2.5 by 4.4 by 1.5 inches and is a bit heavier at 11.4 ounces.

We reviewed the camera with the standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (27-83mm equivalent) kit lens. It’s a bit large compared with the body, but is optically stabilized. If you’re a NEX upgrader who already has a lens, or plan to use the camera with vintage lenses, its focus peaking feature, which highlights in-focus parts of an image when autofocus is disabled, makes it well-suited for use with older lenses. (The camera can be had as a body-only for around $650.) Sony is also releasing a kit with the new compact 16-50mm power zoom lens that was introduced along with the NEX-6 for $800, but that won’t be available until January. We’ve previously knocked Sony NEX cameras for a limited lens library, but the company has continued to release new optics for the system—there’s now an ultra-wide zoom as well as a fast f/1.8 standard-angle lens.

The 3-inch touch-screen LCD has a stunning 921k-dot resolution. And it’s quite responsive to touch—you can swipe to scroll through photos, touch an area of your frame to focus and fire the camera, and use your finger to navigate through menus. The display is hinged, and can face all the way forward for self portraits. This is a feature that was introduced on the NEX-F3, but the hinge has been improved so that you do not lose the ability to tilt the screen down and shoot with the camera above your head.

There’s no hot shoe like on the NEX-6 or Olympus PEN E-PM2, but there is an accessory port. It can accommodate Sony’s external OLED FDAEV1S Electronic Viewfinder, the included add-on flash, Sony’s stereo microphone, or any other compatible accessory.

The controls are enhanced from the NEX-5N. The shutter release and On/Off switch have been combined into a single control, and a control wheel now occupies the space where the On/Off switch was on 5N. There’s also a new programmable Fn button to the right of the shutter. The Movie button has been moved, so it’s less likely to be accidentally triggered (it can also be disabled completely if desired), and the Play button is now on the top plate. The rear of the camera is identical—there are two function buttons, one of which is programmable, as well as a dial with four directional buttons. Unlike on the NEX-5N, these directional buttons can’t be reprogrammed—they’re locked into adjusting ISO, Exposure Compensation, Drive Mode, and the amount of information displayed on the LCD. 

Wi-Fi
The 5R is a Wi-Fi capable camera, which allows it to do a few things that most cameras can’t. The first, which is enabled by default, is the ability to transfer photos from the camera to your smartphone. You need to download the PlayMemories Mobile app for your iOS or Android device, and then launch the Wi-Fi sharing mode from the NEX-5R’s menu—by default this is assigned to the bottom programmable button on the rear of the 5R. The camera creates a Wi-Fi hotspot, and you need to connect to it from your phone or tablet—even if both the camera and your phone are logged on to your home network, you have to take this step. On one hand, this approach lets you transfer photos from camera to phone when you’re away from a hotspot, but it would be nice if the app would just work seamlessly when both devices were logged onto the same Wi-Fi network.

Apart from that extra step, transferring photos is painless. They show up as thumbnails on your phone, and you can select which ones you’d like to copy over and transfer them at the touch of a button. This works for any files—including Raw images—but photos are sized down to 1.7-megapixel JPG files prior to transfer. There is no option to transfer at a higher resolution.

The second Wi-Fi component is an app store. In order to access it you have to create an account with the Sony Entertainment Network—this can be done directly from the camera, and the touch-screen display makes entering your email address and creating a password a bit easier than navigating through a software keyboard with the camera’s control buttons. There are currently six applications available, four of which are free. That Sony has opted to charge for extra functionality on a $750 camera is a questionable choice.

The two paid apps—each priced at $4.99—are Bracket Pro and Multi Frame NR. The 5R supports exposure bracketing, which captures three images in sequence—one underexposed by 1/3 stop, one with correct exposure, and one overexposed by 1/3 stop. This can come in handy during difficult lighting situations, although the 1/3-stop increment isn’t drastic enough to support the same type of HDR image creation using software like Nik HDR Efex Pro or Adobe Photoshop. In-camera HDR imagery is possible, although the effect is not as dramatic. Bracket Pro steps in to change this—you can fire off a three-shot burst, each at a user-set shutter speed, which will allow you to vary exposure as much as you’d like—set the ISO and aperture manually, break out the tripod, and you can get as much exposure separation as you’d like for HDR creation. The app goes further than that, as it also allows you to bracket shots with different apertures for depth of field control, shoot at three different focus points, or shoot an image with and without the flash.

The second paid app, Multi Frame NR, promises to capture images with less noise by taking several short exposures and merging them to create a brighter image; this is a feature that has previously built into cameras like the Alpha 77 , and charging extra for it here seems like a step backwards.

Downloading the free apps is a no-brainer—though it’d be nice if they were pre-installed on the camera. The Smart Remote Control app lets you control the camera from your phone or tablet—again you’ll have to create a direct connection between the two. Shooting controls are minimal—you can fire the shutter and adjust the EV Compensation, but that’s it.

The Direct Upload app lets you post photos to PlayMemories Online or Facebook, but Twitter, Picasa, Flickr, and other popular sites are nowhere to be found—but at least it lets you choose between a 2-megapixel file size and a full-resolution upload. The lack of Twitter support is a major oversight—it’s built into the Wi-Fi functions of the similar Samsung NX1000  camera.

The Photo Retouch app lets you edit JPG photos directly from the camera. You can perform basic editing functions including adjusting the crop and rotation, changing image brightness, softening skin, or adjusting the color saturation of a photo. This is useful if you’d like to tweak a shot before uploading it to the web.

Finally, the Picture Effect+ app is sure to appeal to the Instagram crowd. Like the Art mode found on the Olympus PEN series, the app lets you apply a number of effects to your photos. These include a miniature mode, multiple black and white modes, toy camera emulation, and hyper-saturated pop art among others. If you’re the type who loves Photoshop filters or often uses camera phone apps to give your photos a retro look, this is one that you”ll spend a lot of time with.

The Wi-Fi support is hit and miss. There’s a lot of promise, but there are just a few things that are missing. The app store concept is great for over-the-air updates, but the additional cost for certain apps is off-putting. The Smart Remote Control app is a great idea, but basic tools like copying photos to your computer over Wi-Fi and posting images to Twitter are missing. The one good thing about the app store concept is that Sony is able to push updates to its software without having to resort to cumbersome firmware updates, time will tell if it uses this ability to fill in some of the gaps in functionality.

Performance and Conclusions
The NEX-5R is a fast camera. It starts and shoots in a respectable 1.3 seconds and can fire off a burst of 14 JPG or 10 Raw files at 9 frames per second in its Speed Priority mode—you can shoot longer in the standard Continuous Drive mode, which tops out at 3 frames per second. The shutter lag averages at 0.2-second, but it’s one of the few areas where the camera is inconsistent. For many of our test shots, the NEX locked onto focus immediately and fired in 0.1 second, but there were a few instances where it had a slightly hard time locking focus and took about 0.4 second to fire. The 5R shoots faster than the NEX-F3—it also starts and shoots in 1.3 seconds and records a 0.2-second shutter lag, but its Speed Priority mode is limited to 5 frames per second.

The included 18-55mm kit lens isn’t the most impressive performer we’ve seen, in Imatest, it was just shy of the 1,800 lines per picture height required for a sharp image. At its widest aperture the lens records 1,768 lines at 18mm, 1,631 lines at 35mm, and 1,564 lines at 55mm. Stopping down to f/5.6 improves the performance to 1,979 lines at 18mm and 1,862 lines at 35mm. The lens doesn’t open any wider than f/5.6 at 55mm, but stopping down to f/8 improves it score to 1,843 lines there. Distortion is an issue as well—at 18mm, barrel distortion is 3.1 percent, which is quite noticeable and makes straight lines appear to curve like the hoops of a barrel. At 35mm there’s 2.7 percent pincushion distortion, which makes lines curve inwards, and at 55mm there is a less noticeable 1.3 percent of pincushion distortion. The 14-42mm kit lens that Olympus bundles with its PEN series is a much better performer—it is sharp throughout its range without the need to stop the lens down, and there is very little distortion.

The image sensor and processor really shines at very high ISOs. The camera also manages to keep noise under 1.5 percent through an amazing ISO 12800, but it does so by applying some very heavy noise reduction to the JPG files. Images are much better at ISO 6400, though detail is still smeared away by noise reduction—the best course of action is to shoot Raw and apply desired noise reduction in Lightroom if you need to pump the sensitivity up that high. At ISO 3200 noise is very low and detail is well captured, even in JPG files. Even though it scores better on this test than the NEX-F3, the two cameras are actually on equal footing when you look at the Raw images and the level of detail in the JPG files—this is no surprise, as they share the same 16-megapixel image sensor.

Video is recorded in AVCHD format at up to 1080p60 quality, with 1080i60 and 1080p24 also supported. This is a step up from the video capabilities of the NEX-F3, which is limited to 1080i60 or 1080p24 capture. The quality is excellent—footage is sharp, colors are accurate, and motion is smooth. Autofocus works during recording just as it does for stills, and the even though the sound of the lens focusing can be heard on the soundtrack, it’s not overbearing. The dedicated Record button can be disabled via firmware, a reaction to user complaints about the ease of accidentally starting a video recording when shooting with the NEX-5N.

The camera has a standard micro USB port, which doubles as the input for the included AC adapter. You’ll have to charge the battery in-camera, which is a shame, as a second battery is a good idea for NEX shooters, especially those who plan on using the Wi-Fi extensively—it drains the battery rather quickly. There’s also a micro HDMI port to connect to an HDTV, and the memory card slot supports standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, as well as Memory Stick Pro Duo and Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo media.

Sony has positioned the NEX-5R in a difficult place. On its own, it’s a top-notch camera, but not a perfect one—it’s capable of recording excellent images in all kinds of light, but is saddled by a kit lens of middling quality and lacks the built-in flash found in all other current-generation NEX models. The NEX-5N appeals to users who want an add-on EVF—a feature that the previous entry-level NEX-C3  didn’t support—but now that EVF is also supported by the NEX-F3. This leaves Wi-Fi as the major differentiating feature, and it’s simply not a good enough implementation to justify the extra cost and lack of a flash. If you’re set on a Wi-Fi mirrorless camera, you’re better off buying the Samsung NX1000.

Casual shooters interested in a compact camera with excellent image quality are better served by the $600 NEX-F3, our Editors’ Choice winner, or the $700 Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5. If you’re an enthusiast looking for a compact interchangeable lens camera with a built-in EVF, consider the new NEX-6—priced at just under $1,000 with a compact zoom lens. We haven’t tested the NEX-6 yet, but it features the same imaging engine and Wi-Fi capabilities as the NEX-5R, but adds the EVF from the Sony Alpha NEX-7 , the pop-up flash from the NEX-F3, and an industry-standard hot shoe for external flashes and other accessories.

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Specifications
Dimensions 2.4 x 4.4 x 1.6 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, micro HDMI
Sensor Type CMOS
Megapixels 16 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.11 seconds
LCD dots 921600
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 1768
Touch Screen Yes
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
GPS No
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 1.3 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 27 mm
Weight 9.7 oz
Lens Mount Sony E
Video Resolution 1080i, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 16
Image Stabilization In-Lens
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 83 mm
Shutter Lag 0.2 seconds
Sensor Size 24 x 16 (APS-C) mm
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Sony Alpha NEX-5R is a small interchangeable-lens camera built around a big, excellent image sensor, but it's a tough sell when you consider the rest of Sony's NEX lineup, including our Editors' Choice, the less-expensive Alpha NEX-F3.
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