Sony NEX-5N review
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The Sony NEX-5 was our favourite camera of 2010. Its image quality was a true match for an SLR's, and its slim, stylish design, superb videos and innovative shooting modes added up to an outstanding package. The Sony NEX-5N is a subtle but inspired evolution of the NEX-5, keeping the best and addressing the worst of its predecessor.
Its slim magnesium alloy body looks extremely smart. The 3in wide-aspect screen with its sharp 921,600-dot resolution makes a reappearance, but this time it's touch sensitive. This isn't a huge timesaver in general operation as the physical buttons and dial are generally quicker to use, but it came into its element when moving the spot focus point or defining a moving subject to track. The physical controls remain fairly scant but it's possible to define up to seven functions for quick access. It retains its predecessor's wealth of advanced shooting modes, including automatic panorama stitching in both 2D and 3D, automatic HDR, combining of multiple exposures to reduce noise and lots of creative effects.
The resolution is up from 14 to 16 megapixels, and we're happy to report that this comes with no discernible detriment to noise levels. That places the NEX-5N way beyond rival compact system cameras (CSCs) and on a par with the best SLRs at this price for sensor quality. The ISO control goes up to 25,600, and delivered usable snaps at that top setting. The NEX-5's automatic mode failed to capitalise on its superb sensor, limiting ISO speeds to 1600, but the NEX-5N sensibly raises this to ISO 3200.
Videos are recorded in AVCHD format at 1080-25p, 1080-50i or 1080-50p. There's full control over the shutter speed, aperture and ISO speed, and track focus can be updated via the touchscreen while recording. Picture quality was outstanding, with sharp details, natural colours and low noise in gloomy conditions.
Video autofocus was fast, smooth and silent, but we did notice some clicks in the soundtrack. It appears that the orientation sensor is to blame, with subtle clicks that were audible in the room as we angled the camera up, down or to the side. However, we had to move it around pretty violently to induce these clicks while holding the camera level. There are videos on YouTube showing the problem to be much worse, though. Sony is offering a fix, although it only claims to reduce rather than eliminate the problem.
There's also the longstanding issue of Sony’s NEX and Alpha cameras overheating while recording. A warning icon appeared on screen after shooting for 20 minutes, but the camera kept recording for the full 30 minutes' maximum clip length. It might not last so long when recording in hotter climates, though.
Missing the point
So with slow focus, and not all that sharp when you eventually get there, what is to like about this camera?
Sure, studio stills exhibit great IQ. But great IQ is nothing without capturing the moment in the first instance. And most people are not taking studio stills.
Two seconds to focus is simply suicidal. People are going to have an album full of missed or blurry family shots. I know, I've been there. It's time camera manufacturer's looked to the dynamics and usability of cameras first, IQ after that. I'd far sooner capture spontaneous fleeting moments with pin-sharp focus and a bit of noise than have a pixel-perfect noise free shot of the back of someone's head, out of focus.
This might be a little cruel, but I suspect it is far easier for reviewers to quantify, categorise and rank cameras by measureable IQ metrics than by more mercurial measures of usability. How do you distill the 'success quotient' of a camera, and compare it against another? In long term use this quality bubbles to the surface, as you find you are able to make better, more pleasing pictures more of the time, or not. But IQ is only a small part of the whole.
But end on a good note - the first review I have read that does not qualify 3 inches as 'large' or 'small' when describing the screen - kudos. Three inches is three inces.
By dalerm on 18 Nov 2011
Thanks for this post - you make some excellent points. The bottom line for any camera is whether it takes good photos in practice, and I agree that autofocus speed and reliability are just as – if not more – important than noise levels.
We've given the NEX-5N a Best Buy award because it's the best compact system camera we've seen to date, but there's still room for improvement. I should point out that the two-second autofocus is the worst-case scenario, though. Indoors, it was typically one second. Panasonic's G-series cameras are faster to focus, and you make a compelling argument for the GF3 being the better camera, despite its noisy sensor. (Note that its price has come down since our review - http://www.expertreviews.co.uk/digital-cameras/128
5846/panasonic-lumix-dmc-gf3) However, because its Auto ISO mode is limited to ISO 800, it risks blurry shots in low light unless the user is confident enough to venture into manual settings – in which case they'd probably want a camera with more physical controls. I'd be tempted to wait to see if the GX1 brings the best of both worlds.
By Ben_Pitt on 18 Nov 2011
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