Sony NEX-5R Review
Recently I wanted to hang up more pictures in my condo so I went through my Aperture library looking for some good photos. Unfortunately, most of the photos I’ve taken in the past two years have been with an iPhone. Even though the resolution of these photos is high, the quality just isn’t good enough when printed, especially with photos taken in low-light condition. Around the same time I stumbled on Shawn Blanc’s overview of compact system cameras, which led me to considering buying one. These cameras promise DSLR quality photos in a much smaller size.
I did a lot of research and finally settled on the Sony NEX-5R. This is Sony’s latest mid-range compact system camera model. All of the reviews of it that I read were very positive. The picture quality is excellent. Since the technical aspects have been covered so well by current reviews, I won’t go into those too much. My review focuses on a few usability issues that I found through using it the past couple of weeks.
One of the main reasons I chose the NEX-5R over another compact system camera in its price range is WiFi connectivity1. But having WiFi isn’t as useful as I thought it would be due to the limitations in Sony’s software. There are several ways to get pictures from the camera and they all have drawbacks.
Direct Upload – Sony touts apps as one of the big features for the NEX-5R and Direct Upload is an app that does what its name suggests. However, the only two supported destinations are Sony’s PlayMemories service and Facebook. No Flickr, no Picasa, no Dropbox.
Uploading to PlayMemories is pretty easy, but once my pictures are in there, I can’t do much with them. I can’t even share a picture by directly linking to it. Instead, I have to send an electronic postcard using one of the gaudy templates. Uploading to Facebook isn’t useful to me because for most pictures, I don’t want all my contacts to see them. I just want to share them with a small group of friends and family.
PlayMemories Mobile – What I love about taking pictures on my iPhone is being able to share them instantly through text message, email, Instagram, etc. The PlayMemories Mobile app for iPhone (and Android) allows me to use my phone to view the photos currently on the NEX-5R. Then I can choose which ones I’d like to save to my phone. The saved images aren’t the full 16 MP resolution by default, but they are large enough for sharing through a phone.
The only problem with this method is it requires disconnecting my phone from my WiFi network and connecting to a wireless hotspot the camera creates. I understand why Sony did this; there most likely won’t be a WiFi network available outside. However, when I’m inside with both the camera and iPhone connected to my home WiFi network, PlayMemories Mobile should be able to connect to the camera through the existing network.
In addition to the PlayMemories Mobile app, there’s also the PlayMemories Online app2. This app lets users browse photos uploaded to the PlayMemories service I described above. I thought a way to get around having to connect to the WiFi hotspot would be to upload photos from the camera using Direct Upload then download them to my phone using the Online app. But, perplexingly, the Online app doesn’t allow me to save pictures to my phone.
PlayMemories Home – I hate having a bunch of USB cables connected to my laptop so the main thing I expected to do through WiFi is upload full resolution pictures from the camera to my laptop. It sounds like I might be able to do this using the PlayMemories Home software; there’s a short paragraph about it in the manual but it is weirdly worded so I’m not sure.
I wasn’t able to test this out because the PlayMemories Home software doesn’t work with OS X. It took me a while to figure this out because the packaging plainly states the camera is compatible with Macs. However, Sony is being only partially truthful because although Macs can recognize the camera when it’s connected through USB, PlayMemories Home is not available for Macs.
USB cable – This is the old-fashioned way and it works just fine. After connecting it to my Mac, Aperture immediately recognized it and I was able to upload pictures easily.
For now I’m grudgingly using the USB cable method to upload pictures. Once in a while I’ll use PlayMemories Mobile on my phone, but fiddling around with the WiFi network is too much of a hassle so I’d rather wait until I get back to my laptop before sharing any pictures.
Touchscreen & Responsiveness
The overall quality of the hardware is fantastic. It feels very sturdy. I also like the contrast between the silver kit lens and black body. The only aspect of the hardware that isn’t excellent is the touchscreen. It’s definitely nowhere near as responsive as a touchscreen on a modern smartphone.
The software makes the touchscreen feel even worse than it is. Many buttons have small touch targets so it takes several tries for me to successfully tap them. Fortunately, there are hardware equivalents for the on screen buttons. For example, instead of tapping the OK button on the screen, I can press the center button on the directional wheel, which I do most of the since it’s a lot easier.
Typing on the screen is a huge pain. On certain screens, Sony displays a dumb phone style keyboard where multiple letters share one button so I have to tap it several times in order to get the letter I want! When trying to download an app, I have to log into my PlayMemories account. For those instances, Sony displays a regular keyboard. However, the screen doesn’t always recognize when I tap a key. The good news is I’ve only had to use the keyboard a couple times - connecting to my WiFi and logging in to PlayMemories.
Another problem is scrolling around on the PlayMemories site. Instead of creating a mobile optimized site, it looks like Sony is just using the normal site. As a result the camera struggles to render the page. Like with the keyboard issues, this one is annoying but not a big deal since it rarely comes up.
Compared to an iPhone
The main reason I got this camera was my dissatisfaction with the quality of my iPhone camera. I wanted to see how much of an improvement the NEX-5R is so I took a few comparison shots using both devices. These photos haven’t been edited in any way except for some cropping and resizing.
In this first comparison, I wanted to test out the depth of field of the two cameras. The NEX-5R has a longer focal length than the iPhone so its aperture is wider, resulting in a more narrow depth of field and a nice blurry background. The iPhone produces a slightly more vibrant photo by default, but that can be changed through the NEX-5R’s settings or in post-processing.
Another interesting thing is the NEX-5R picture is better composed in my opinion; the angle captures more of the petals and blocks the lamp in the background, which can be distracting. This wasn’t done intentionally, at least not consciously. Maybe my subconscious put more effort into composing a better picture for the NEX-5R because I wanted it to win and justify my purchase. Or maybe it was because the NEX-5R is a “real” camera whereas the iPhone is just a camera phone after all. With the iPhone, I feel like the goal is to snap a quick picture of whatever is happening rather than to take a truly beautiful picture.
Here is a low-light comparison. In both of these pictures the bookshelf was lit by a small lamp on the other side of the room and camera flash was not used. I knew the iPhone wouldn’t perform as well as the NEX-5R, but I didn’t expect the difference to be so drastic. The NEX-5R’s photo has more vivid colors and has less noise. The noise is especially apparent when trying to read the book titles as the letters are not very clear.
Suffice to say I’m very impressed with the NEX-5R compared to my previous main camera, the iPhone 5. Of course the iPhone 5 has the advantage of always being with me so I’ll still be using it for the occasional photo throughout the day.
A minor hardware decision that bugged me is the NEX-5R comes with a bulky shoulder strap similar to ones that DSLR’s have, which seems to defeat the purpose of getting a relatively small camera. Instead of using the included shoulder strap, I bought a wrist strap that’s much smaller. I think the leather strap goes well with the camera. It is also strong and I feel confident holding the camera just by the strap. At only $8, the EzFoto wrist strap is a great deal.
Overall the NEX-5R is a fantastic camera. The problems I described above don’t affect the most important feature of the camera, which is taking high quality pictures. Just a few years ago it was unimaginable to have WiFi and a touchscreen on a camera so it’s acceptable for these things to still have some issues. I’m really looking forward to using the camera more, especially with the holidays coming up.