February 22, 2013

Sony NEX-5R Review

The Sony NEX-5R replaces the award-winning Sony NEX-5N - one of our top recommendations throughout 2012, thanks to its svelte magnesium alloy body and stunning photo and video quality. The outgoing 5N has had some strong competition to contend with, though. No other CSC at this price has beaten it for photo quality but the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 bettered it for performance, hands-on control and the quality and choice of compatible lenses.
The new Sony NEX-5R addresses many of the 5N's weaknesses without diminishing any of its strengths. There's a new Function button and command dial for quicker access to photographic settings. Pressing the button reveals six customisable functions, which can be picked from a list of 15. With ISO speed, drive mode and exposure compensation available separately via the navigation pad, there's little reason to visit the main menu in normal use.

Updated controls alone make the 5R superior to the 5N
The old 5N can be configured to provide a similar set of controls, but only by reassigning the centre button on the pad, thereby losing quick access to the shooting mode. On the 5R, the centre button brings up a virtual mode dial on the screen, which is adjusted by spinning the wheel on the back of the camera. It's not quite as effective as a dedicated physical mode dial but it's a big improvement on the 5N.
The 3in wide-aspect screen tilts up and down as before, but now it can tilt upwards by 180 degrees for self-portraits. Doing so automatically enables a three-second self-timer, so you have plenty of time to steady your arm and gurn before the shutter goes. Various other CSCs have articulated screens, but none are as petite as this one.

The new articulated screen is great for self portraits
Otherwise, the 5R and 5N are virtually indistinguishable, and that's fine by us. It's an extremely handsome camera, and surprisingly comfortable to hold and use considering its diminutive design. Our only lingering concern is the detachable flash unit, which isn't as tidy as an integrated flash and is likely to be left at home as a result. Then again, building a flash into the camera would inevitably make it bigger – as demonstrated by the Sony NEX-F3.
Sony has improved autofocus performance by incorporating phase-detect autofocus sensors into the main imaging sensor. It's an increasingly common technique, but as with previous examples, it only brings marginal improvements. Testing side by side with the 5N, we found that the average time between pressing the shutter button and taking a photo fell from 0.6 to 0.4 seconds in bright conditions. This improvement felt more significant than the numbers might suggest, though. This isn't the fastest CSC to focus but it's quick enough for it not to be a concern. Burst shooting with continuous autofocus remains slow at 1.3fps, though. Meanwhile, the new sensor appears to take its toll on battery life. The 5R and 5N use the same battery but its quoted life has fallen from 410 to 330 shots.
Start-up and shot-to-shot times are a little slower than on the 5N, taking 2.2 seconds to the first shot and 0.8 seconds between subsequent shots. These hardly count as bad results, though. One big improvement is that the 10fps burst rate now lasts for 13 frames before slowing to around 3fps. On the 5N it slowed after just four frames unless we delved into the Setup menu to switch off lens distortion correction first.

Wi-Fi control via an app is no longer a novelty, but it's still very handy
The Sony NEX-5R includes the Wi-Fi functions that we first saw in the Sony NEX-6. Having seen a glut of Wi-Fi cameras in the last couple of months, we're forced to conclude that this isn't our favourite implementation. Still, the ability to transfer a photo to an iPhone for instant online sharing is enough in itself to make this a valuable feature. The iOS app also has a remote shooting mode, complete with live view on the iPhone or iPad. Control over photographic settings in the app is extremely limited but it's perfect for group self-portraits. The equivalent Android app has been updated since we last tested it, but as before, it worked temperamentally on a Samsung phone and not at all on an HTC One V.
Wi-Fi also brings the ability to download apps (see www.sony.net/pmca for details). It's a novel idea but we're not particularly tempted to pay between £4 and £8 for functions such as advanced bracketing and time-lapse when other cameras include them for free. Then again, it's packed with advanced shooting modes out of the box, so the apps are just an extra that people can take or leave. Ultimately, these Wi-Fi functions are welcome, and will hopefully get even better over time.

The superior 16-50mm lens kit looks like a good idea, but at present you could bag a NEX-6 for similar money
Another significant change is the growing number of E Mount lenses, including two particularly fine examples. The 16-50mm lens (which is bundled with the NEX-6) is much smaller, lighter and sharper than the standard kit lens. The 35mm prime lens (part code SEL-35F18) is similarly small and light, has a useful 52mm equivalent focal length and excels in low light with its f1/.8 maximum aperture and optical stabilisation. They aren't cheap lenses, though, with the 35mm currently selling for around £380. The 16-50mm makes an excellent alternative to the standard 18-55mm kit lens, but buying it with the NEX-5R (known as the NEX-5RL kit) will set you back around £670. The NEX-6 currently costs around with the same lens, and is much more appealing with its fantastic viewfinder. It's worth checking the latest prices before you buy, though.
Photo and video quality appear to be virtually identical to the NEX-5N, but that's certainly not a criticism. We're delighted that Sony has stuck with a 16-megapixel sensor, which delivers plenty of detail and the lowest noise of any CSC.

The sensor has had no problem capturing details in the brightest and darkest parts of this scene - click to enlarge
The sensor is the same size as those used in SLRs and bigger than the ones in most other CSCs, and it excels for smooth, crisp details. Its size also helps to produce a shallow depth of field, blurring the background to draw the eye to the main subject. Focus from the 18-55mm kit lens deteriorates a little towards the edges of frames at wide apertures, but it's rarely a concern in practice.

JPEGs are crisp and detailed, but raw mode really shows what this camera is capable of - click to enlarge

There's a hint of noise in these skin tones at ISO 800, but indoor image quality is as good as we've seen from a CSC - click to enlarge
The video mode is one of the best around too, with sharp details, low noise and high quality soundtracks that aren't spoiled by whirring lens motors. Keen videographers will appreciate the choice of 25p, 25i or 50p frame rates, as well as full control over exposure settings.
The Sony NEX-F3, is currently available for around £350 and delivers the same photo and video quality. However, we reckon the Sony NEX-5R's smaller, smarter design, touchscreen, superior controls, faster performance and Wi-Fi functions are worth paying extra for. Other manufacturers have their work cut out to come up with a mid-price CSC that can top this one. 
Basic Specifications
Part Code
Review Date
20 Feb 2013
CCD effective megapixels
16.0 megapixels
CCD size
optional electronic
Viewfinder magnification, coverage
LCD screen size
LCD screen resolution
921,600 pixels
Articulated screen
Live view
Optical zoom
Zoom 35mm equivalent
Image stabilisation
optical, in kit lens
Maximum image resolution
File formats

Camera Controls
Exposure modes
program, shutter priority, aperture priority, manual
Shutter speed
30 to 1/4,000 seconds
Aperture range
f/3.5-22 (wide), f/5.6-32 (tele)
ISO range (at full resolution)
100 to 25600
Exposure compensation
+/-3 EV
White balance
auto, 9 presets with fine tuning, manual, Kelvin
Additional image controls
contrast, saturation, sharpness, noise reduction, dynamic range optimisation, soft skin effect, lens compensation (peripheral shading, chromatic aberration, distortion), AF micro adjust
Manual focus
Closest macro focus
Auto-focus modes
multi, centre, flexible spot, face detect, tracking
Metering modes
multi, centre-weighted, centre, face detect
auto, forced, suppressed, slow synchro, rear curtain, red-eye reduction
Drive modes
single, continuous, self-timer, AE bracket, HDR, panorama

Memory slot
SDXC and Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo
Mermory supplied
Battery type
Battery Life (tested)
330 shots
USB, mini HDMI, Wi-Fi
Body material
magnesium alloy
Lens mount
Sony E mount
Focal length multiplier
Kit lens model name
Sony SEL-1855
USB cable



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