Design & Operation

The Sony NEX-5R is almost indistinguishable from its predecessor the NEX-5N, aside from some modifications to the control interface on the camera's top-plate. With its magnesium alloy shell, reassuring weight and solid rubber grip the camera gives a good impression of quality.

Like its predecessors the NEX-5R is only really 'compact' when paired with the E 16mm F2.8 Pancake lens. With the 18-55mm kit zoom attached, as pictured above, the camera is no longer pocketable, but arguably is a much more versatile lens/camera combination. Of course it's still much smaller than any DSLR.

In terms of button layout, the 5R is nearly identical to the NEX-5N, with the most notable change being the addition of a control dial and Fn-button on the camera's top-plate. The Fn-button gives you access to the customizable function menu and the dial lets you, depending on which shooting mode you are in, change aperture, shutter speed or both (Program Shift). As a consequence of the addition of these new controls, the position of the movie and playback buttons has slightly changed as well.

Although not immediately visible, another change relative to its predecessor is the hinging of the screen. On the new model the screen can be flipped up all the way as pictured below. The image then flips automatically which is a useful feature for framing self-portraits. And, unlike the NEX-F3 that also featured a flip-up screen, the NEX-5R's will also tilt down through 40 degrees, for overhead shooting.

The one (slight) caveat about this design is that it's not really compatible with the bolt-on flash unit, which blocks the screen when it's flipped-up.

Function-menu

Rather than having to rededicate the lower button on the back of the camera (as you had to on the NEX-5 and NEX-5N), the NEX-5R has a dedicated function button.

Press the Fn-button on the top of the camera to enter the NEX-5R's Function-menu. Here you have quick access to six shooting parameters which by default are AF/MF select, AF mode, AF Area Mode, White Balance, Metering mode and Picture Effect. However, the Function-menu is customizable and for each 'slot' you can choose out of the following 16 options:

Functions that can be assigned to the Fn menu
 • AF/MF select
 • AF mode
 • AF area
 • Face Detection
 • Smile Shutter
 • Auto Portrait Framing
 • Soft Skin effect
 • Image quality
 • ISO
 • WB
 • Metering Mode
 • DRO/Auto HDR
 • Picture Effect
 • Creative Style
 • Flash Mode
 • Not set

Control-dial

The dial on the NEX-5R's top plate is a new addition to the camera's control interface. Its function depends on the shooting mode you are in. It can also be used to move through menu options or through images in review mode. After pressing the exposure compensation button you can adjust the exposure by turning the dial. The functions of the two dials, top and rear, in each mode are listed below.

Mode
Top Dial Function
Rear Dial Function
Program Program Shift
Aperture Priority Aperture
Shutter Speed Priority Shutter Speed
Manual Aperture Shutter Speed
Panorama Panorama direction
Scene modes Cycles through scene modes Cycles through scene modes
Intelligent Auto
Superior Auto

The problem here is that Sony hasn't really taken the opportunity to turn the NEX-5R into a 'proper' two dial camera, and in all modes except Manual the top dial simply takes over the function that used to be controlled by the rear dial, leaving the latter woefully under-used. This is unfortunate - we can't help but feel that it would make far more sense for the rear dial to change exposure compensation directly in the PAS modes. Instead you have to press the 'down' key on the 4-way controller.

Applications and Wi-Fi connectivity

We've seen connectivity and data-exchange with smartphones appear on more and more digital cameras over the last few months and the NEX-5R is the first Sony NEX camera to offer these features. Installing the PlayMemories Mobile app on your iOS or Android device lets you transfer photos from the camera and view them on the screen of your mobile device. Once transferred they can of course also be shared via the social network of your choice or posted to image hosting websites.

The Sony also offers the possibility to install PlayMemories Camera Apps to expand the feature set of the NEX-5R. The choice of apps is fairly limited at the moment, but according to Sony more apps will be on the way soon:

  • Picture Effect allows you to apply a range of digital filter effects to your images
  • Direct upload lets you upload images to the PlayMemories Online service and Facebook via Wi-Fi
  • Smart Remote Control lets you use a smartphone as a remote viewfinder and trigger
  • Bracket pro brackets shutter speed, aperture, focus points and flash use
  • Multi-Frame NR combines several frames to reduce image noise in low light
  • Photo Retouch offers a range of in-camera editing tools

Hybrid AF

The NEX-5R is the first Sony to feature a Hybrid AF system. To achieve this, the company has become the fourth to adapt its imaging sensor to collect phase-difference information, from which the camera can ascertain not only the direction to move the lens to achieve focus, but also how far. This has a number of advantages over the contrast detection focus method traditionally used by compact and mirrorless cameras, which requires the lens to scan through its focus positions while the camera checks whether it is becoming more in or out of focus.

The ability to collect this depth information not only means that focus can be performed faster (because the camera can push the lens straight to the right place, rather than having to scan through its whole range), but also brings advantages for continuous focus and for focusing during movies. In movies, for instance, because the camera has a good understanding of depth, it should reduce the risk of the camera suddenly losing a moving subject and scanning off to infinity and back looking for it (and ruining your movie by doing so).

Sony's Hybrid AF system on the NEX-5R uses an array of 99 phase-detection points spread out across the center of the sensor. It covers a taller, slightly wider area than the system used by Canon in the EOS-M.

However, in common with the system Canon has implemented, the on-sensor phase detection isn't used as a standalone system (it's unlikely to have the fidelity that the dedicated sensors used in DSLRs have), so it's used in combination with conventional contrast detection. As such the phase detection information is used to drive the lens near to the in-focus position, then contrast detection is used to scan for the optimal focus point, to fine-tune the focus. Following our rather disappointing experiences with Canon's implementation in the EOS 650D, we are hoping Sony will come closer to realizing the promise of this approach.

Compared to Samsung NX210

Compared to Samsung's NX210 the Sony is a touch smaller in every dimensions but the difference is negligible.
The rear layout of both cameras is very similar, with all controls to the right side of the large screen, but the Samsung offers a couple more buttons to play with. However the NX210's screen is fixed (as opposed to hinged).
The shape of the two cameras's top plates is not too dissimilar, but the Samsung offers a more-conventional flash hotshoe vs the Sony's accessory port, and an exposure mode dial too.