- Review Date: 10/9/2013
- Bottom line: Sony's Alpha NEX-5T mirrorless camera is simply last year's NEX-5R with added NFC support for quick image transfer to a smartphone. And the price has come down. So this isn't a bad thing.
- Pros: Tilting, touch-screen LCD. Wi-Fi with NFC support. Excellent high ISO performance. 10fps burst shooting. Compact design. 1080p60 video capture. Optional EVF available.
- Cons: No built-in flash or hot shoe. Lacks a dedicated battery charger. Not all camera apps are free.
The Sony Alpha NEX-5T ($549.99 direct, body only) is, on a basic level, the same camera as last year's NEX-5R. Sony has added NFC support (Wi-Fi was already there in the 5R) and reduced the price of the body by $100. Everything else that was good about the 5R remains—including its excellent 16-megapixel APS-C image sensor, compact body, hybrid autofocus system, and sharp, hinged 3-inch touch-screen. It doesn't quite oust our Editors' Choice mirrorless camera, the Samsung NX300, from its perch, but it's still a very versatile high-quality shooter.
Design and Features
If you've handled the NEX-5R, the 5T will feel familiar. It retains the same 2.4-by-4.4-by-1.5-inch (HWD), 9.7-ounce chassis. It's not quite as compact as the entry-level NEX-3N (2.3 by 4.4 by 1.4 inches, 9.5 ounces), but it's better built. Most of the body is metal, although the handgrip has a textured polycarbonate finish. In addition to the body-only option, it's available in a kit with a zoom lens (24-75mm equivalent). The kit also offers a $100 cost savings compared with the 5R kit with the same lens.
The 3-inch touch-screen LCD packs a 921k-dot resolution. It's not quite the standout as it was when it was a class-leading design, but it's still an extremely sharp design. Most mirrorless cameras in this price class feature displays of similar resolution; the notable exception is the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5 with its 460k-dot LCD. The display is quite responsive to touch—you can swipe to scroll through photos, touch an area of your frame to focus and fire the camera, and use your finger to navigate through menus. It's hinged, and can face all the way forward for self-portraits, a trick that it manages without giving up the ability to tilt it to face down so you can shoot with the camera raised above your head.
There's no hot shoe like on the NEX-6, but there is an accessory port. The 5R is the lone body to retain this interface, which is a carryover from Sony's first attempts at marketing a mirrorless camera. The 5R doesn't have a built-in flash, but there's a small add-on flash that connects to this accessory port. It can also accommodate the FDAEV1S Electronic Viewfinder, a tilting OLED EVF that is impressively sharp. If you're considering purchasing the add-on EVF, you may want to set your sights on the NEX-6; it's a little bulkier, but incorporates the EVF into its design, and uses the same image sensor as the 5T.
The control layout is identical to the 5R. The shutter release and power switch are combined, and you'll also find the programmable Fn button, movie record button, play button, and a control wheel on the top plate. The controls on the rear are all located behind the handgrip, to the right of the tilting LCD. They include two programmable function buttons, and a control dial with four directional buttons; these adjust ISO the drive mode, exposure compensation, and the information displayed on the LCD or in the EVF when shooting.
There's no physical mode dial; as with previous bodies in the NEX-5 series you're relegated to using an on-screen dial, activated by the button in the center of the rear control wheel. The menu system is also carried over, which for many, is a love it or hate it proposition. The main menu screen shows you a series of icons: Shoot Mode (the on-screen mode dial), Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, Application, and Setup. These each break down into a more detailed menu, and if you don't know them backwards and forwards you may struggle a bit to find the setting you're looking for. But once the camera is configured to your liking, you won't have to delve into these settings too often.
The new NFC feature allows you to pair automatically with a compatible phone, but if your phone doesn't have NFC, a password-protected connection is still possible. You'll be able to do the basics like transfer images to your iOS or Android smartphone out of the box; just download the free PlayMemories Mobile app to your phone or tablet. But you can also download apps that run on your camera, expanding its capabilities. Free apps include the Smart Remote Control, which allows you to take control of the 5T using your phone or tablet, Direct Upload to send photos directly to PlayMemories Online, Facebook, and Flickr, Photo Retouch to perform basic image editing functions, and Picture Effect+ to add Instagram-like filters.
Then there are the paid apps. It's a shame that you Sony has opted to charge for expanding the functionality of a camera that commands a significant asking price. Prices range from $5 to $10, and if you were to buy the whole lot of available add-ons you'd be in for about $50. There are some that should arguably have been included with the camera to begin with—including Multi-Frame Noise Reduction ($4.99) and Lens Compensation ($9.99). The former improves image quality in dim light, while the latter removes the distortion, darkened corners, and chromatic aberration that some lenses exhibit.
Then there are the more special-use applications. Not everyone is in love with time lapse photography or automatic exposure bracketing, but you can add them to your NEX for $9.99 and $4.99 respectively. Cinematic Photo ($4.99) combines video with a still image, not unlike the Motion Snapshot function of the Nikon 1 J3 and other Nikon mirrorless cameras. Portrait Lighting ($4.99) brings up the exposure of faces and darkens the surrounding areas, a look that many prefer for portraiture, and Motion Shot ($4.99) takes a series of shots of action and shows your subject as they move through the frame in a single still image. The oddest of the bunch is Light Shaft ($4.99); it adds a beam or point of light to your photos. That's a technique that can be striking if done well, but the example shots that Sony uses to show it off are anything but. If I sound a bit critical of the app store mentality it's because I am. The prices are high when compared with camera apps for iOS and Android, and I'd be much happier with the system if Sony offered these enhancements at no extra cost.
Performance and Conclusions
The 5T is a little slow to start and shoot (2 seconds), but is otherwise a solid performer. Its shutter lag is under 0.1-second, and it can focus and fire a shot in very dim light in about 1.8 seconds. It fires off bursts of shots in its Speed Priority Mode at 10 frames per second; you're limited to 9 Raw+JPG, 10 Raw, or 13 JPG images at that rate. The standard continuous drive mode is 3.8fps; you won't see a huge increase in the Raw or Raw+JPG capture buffer, but it can grab 36 JPG images before slowing down at that rate. The Samsung NX300 is a bit faster to start, focus, and fire (1.1 seconds), and can lock focus in dim light in about 1.4 seconds. Its burst shooting is limited to 7.2fps, a pace that it can keep up for 16 JPG or 5 Raw/Raw+JPG images.
I tested the NEX-5T as a body only, but separately reviewed the 16-50mm Retractable Zoom included in the kit. It's not the best performer we've seen in terms of sharpness and it shows loads of distortion when shooting in Raw mode, but we were impressed by how compact it is.
We used Imatest to check out how the 5T does in dim lighting when you need to pump its ISO up to high levels to get a sharp shot. We consider a photo to have too much noise when it crosses the 1.5 percent mark; the 5T manages this feat through ISO 12800, an impressively high setting. I viewed images from our ISO test on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. There's noticeable smudging of detail in JPGs at that setting; the smudging isn't noticeable in Raw images, but they are noticeably grainy. The JPG engine is taking a rather heavy-handed approach to erasing grain; you'll need to dial back the ISO to 3200 to get JPG output that does a good job capturing fine detail. But if you opt to shoot Raw, and you don't a grainy image, shooting at ISO 12800 is a possibility, but ISO 6400 is a better option if your f-stop and shutter speed allow it. The NEX-6 doesn't apply quite as much noise reduction to its JPG output; it's only able to keep noise below 1.5 percent as a result, but detail holds up better when you're not shooting in Raw.
The NEX-5T records video in AVCHD or MP4 format. The former offers better quality—you can opt for 1080p60, 1080i60, or 1080p24 capture—but the latter is saved in a format that's easily shared online. The footage looks great; colors are accurate, motion is smooth, and the autofocus is quick to adjust to changes in the scene. I could hear the 16-50mm refocusing as footage rolled, but it doesn't drown out the stereo audio. There's an add-on mic available for the accessory port that more serious videographers will want to consider.
Aside from the accessory port, the only connectors to speak of are a micro USB port and a mini HDMI port. There's no external battery charger included, so you'll need to invest in one or charge the battery in-camera. An AC adapter that plugs into the USB port is included. In-camera charging can be convenient, but if you buy a second battery you'd be wise to pick up an external charger to go with it. The NEX-5T is a Sony camera, so in addition to SD, SDHC, and SDXC support, you have the option of using Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo and Memory Stick Pro Duo memory cards.
Aside from NFC, there isn't anything new about the Sony Alpha NEX-5T. It's the NEX-5R at a lower asking price. It focuses quickly, packs a sharp, tilting, touch-screen LCD, and can capture sharp images in dim light. It doesn't quite edge out our Editors' Choice, the Samsung NX300, a similarly designed mirrorless camera sans EVF, but with a more robust Wi-Fi implementation and a stronger lens library. If you already have Sony's add-on EVF, the 5T is worth consideration as an upgrade. But if you don't, and you're an EVF fan, the NEX-6 is a better buy. It's more expensive than the 5T, even after a price cut; but if you take the cost of the external EVF into account, it's a better buy at $750 for the body or $900 when bundled with the 16-50mm lens.