Sony NEX-5R Review: A Great Camera with a Few Missing PiecesS

Over the last year, Sony's NEX cameras have been our favorite of the compact, mirrorless lot. They just handle so well. And on a small camera with big DSLR flexibility, the way you hold, adjust, and operate it makes a huge difference.

Sony's update to its middle-of-the-line NEX series, the NEX-5R, handles beautifully. And with a tweaked body design and a new, faster hybrid autofocus, it's an improvement on its predecessor, the NEX-5N. Should you spring for it?

What Is It?

A Wi-Fi enabled mirrorless camera a 16.1-megapixel APS-C (23.4 x 15.4 mm) sensor. It costs $750 with the 18-55mm kit lens.

Who's it For?

Advanced amateurs who want an interchangeable-lens camera with a DSLR image quality, in a compact size.

Design

The NEX-5R, like the 5N before it, has a slim body with a big grip on the right side and a tillable LCD touchscreen. The biggest additions are a function button and dial on the top panel. The included 18-55mm lens is twice as thick as the body.

Using It

The new function button and dial make handling the camera in fully-manual and priority modes quicker than ever. In low-light conditions, with the autofocus lamp turned off, then camera focuses nearly a second faster than older NEX cameras.

Sony NEX-5R Review: A Great Camera with a Few Missing PiecesS

The Best Part

So much easier to use than other cameras in this price range. The compact body, the touchscreen controls, the image stabilization, and the well-designed Wi-Fi—everything about it makes getting a great photo less difficult.

Tragic Flaw

To really take advantage of the camera, you have to get additional lenses and the viewfinder accessory. The lenses are expensive, and Sony's limited E-mount style means there aren't many to choose from. At $350, the viewfinder is just plain expensive—it alone is half the cost of the camera.

This Is Weird...

Having such a compact camera and such a ginormous lens is just an odd scale shift. It's like a pack of cards on top of a can of soda. The newly designed 16-50mm lens that will ship with the forthcoming NEX-6 should have a smaller, more proportional footprint.

Test Notes

  • We've tested the camera for a couple of weeks around the city. It's light enough that we could hardly notice the difference when we carried it around in a backpack with a MacBook Pro. It fits comfortably in a jacket pocket but not in your pants.
  • The new hybrid autofocus uses both contrast and phase detection to zero in on subjects faster and more accurately. We tested it against the focus on the NEX-7 and the NEX-F3 and it was noticeably quicker in very dark conditions.
  • True to its large sensor and the whole NEX line, the camera's image quality is very good. We were very impressed with the image sensor's performance at high-ISO. At ISO 3200 the images, were impressively noise-free. At 6400, they wer still sharp. It kind of falls apart at ISO 25600, though—you don't want to go that high.
  • Beyond the image processing excellence, the image stabilization at slow shutter speeds make low-light photography even easier. No more blur.
  • Using the camera's Wi-Fi radio we were able to directly connect the camera and transfer photos to both an iPhone 4 and an LG Optimus G in under a minute. This is key, because from there you can upload photos to Instagram using the phone's data plan without having to bother with hotspots, routers and the like.
  • The NEX-5R is the first Sony camera to support PlayMemories camera applications. Using Wi-Fi, you can connect the camera to the Sony Entertainment Network and download free apps like Picture Effect+, which offers you six filters you can add to images, and Photo Retouch, which lets you apply some standard photo editor adjustments directly from the camera.
  • There are also paid apps, which Sony will be adding from time to time. We tested the $5 Bracket Pro, which allows you much more control over the camera's built-in bracketing. (Bracketing means taking multiple identical photos with a slightly different exposure settings so you can choose the best of the lot later.) Bracket Pro is awesome. We hope the additional apps are this good.

Should You Buy It?

Sony NEX-5R Review: A Great Camera with a Few Missing PiecesS

It's a very good camera, and the new autofocus is noticeably faster than the AF system on previous NEX cameras. But it's changed the price situation on the whole NEX series—last year's NEX-5N with a lens now costs just $500. And, the excellent NEX-F3 is only $600. So are these improvements really worth it? Maybe—if that Wi-Fi jumps out at you as a must-have feature.

The improvement the camera really needs is a viewfinder. But with that costing you $350 as external accessory, you're getting into a different category of camera. If that's what you want, consider waiting for the new NEX-6—it will have a built-in viewfinder, and it should cost $1000 with a lens.

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Sony NEX—5R

• Price: $750 w/18-55mm lens
• Sensor: 16.1-megapixel, APS-C (23.4 x 15.4 mm)
• Max ISO: 25600
• Image: Up to 4912 x 2760 pixels
• Video: 1920 x 1080 24p/60i/60p
• Screen: 921,600 dot, 3-inch touch LCD
• Weight: 12.2 ounces w/lens and battery
Gizrank: 3.5