The Sony NEX-5n Review: The Improvements
I talked a bit about the Sony NEX-5n in my Sony NEX-5 review that I posted last week. In this post, I wanted to dive deeper into the improvements of the new model. I played with the NEX-5n at Precision Camera here in Austin and got a good feel for the changes Sony added ti this year’s NEX. There are some key, very useful improvements that I’m excited about — enough so that I’m thinking about upgrading to the new camera. Unfortunately, a trade-in will not be worth my while so even if I purchase the NEX-5n I’ll just keep the older NEX. The NEX-5 is still a fantastic camera and having it around will be useful. My wife and son also like the camera so I know it will get enough use.
Overall, the feel of the NEX-5n remains the same — which is a good thing. In addition to the new improvements, Sony has added a few subtle changes to the feel of the camera. Before getting into the detail, you may want to read my comprehensive review on the NEX-5. That will give you a good basis of comparison when I talk about the changes. Let’s start with the physical feel of the camera. The solid magnesium alloy body of the pervious model remains but with a slightly different shape. In actual usage I really didn’t notice a difference. The scroll wheel is the same size but had a different more precise feel. The shutter button is more responsive and the sound of the shutter is sharper but quieter. I aways thought the shutter sound of the NEX-5 was too loud and the NEX-5n’s sound is certainly more pleasant. It is not quiet by any means but the sound is, ahem, noticeably less noticeable. The focus speed has also been improved. Not quite the speed of the new Olympus EP3 but pleasantly faster. On separate note, I was just blown away by how fast the new Olympus cameras focused. It focused so fast that I thought it wasn’t working properly — it was that fast, nearly instantaneous. Olympus has really upped their game and has further closed that gap with DSLRs. The Sony is no slouch either. It is certainly fast enough for most any photographic purpose. I’m not quite sure I’ll be shooting fast action sports but everything else should be fine.
A Touch Screen
The NEX-5n now sports a touch screen. This is something that I hoped for and mentioned in my NEX-5 review. You can use the touch screen to navigate the interface and more importantly it can be used select and track focus. This focus feature is really key and particularly important for video, which I will talk about later. The touch screen is not quite Apple iPhone quality. It works fine but the response lags and scrolling through the interface is not a precise affair. However, it is usable and it can be useful as an alternate way to scroll through menus. The interface on screen looks about the same as the previous model. The top level is an icon view that works well with touch but the sub-menus work better with the scroll wheel. In that sense, the Sony interface is a bit of a hodge-podge and is not truly optimized for the scoll wheel or touch in my opinion. Touch has been added on but the interface has not been altered or improved.
You can also use the touch screen to focus on part of the frame. This, I believe, is the more significant use for the new touch feature. I can also double-tap on object on-screen and the Sony now tracks the selected item. This potentially can improve focus tracking and allow more keepers during faster action. I have not tested this feature in real world conditions so I can not comment on how well it works.
My biggest disappointment with the NEX-5 has been the video. The quality is great but the lack of manual controls and the sometimes poor focusing really limited my enjoyment and use of this feature. I’m thrilled to report that the NEX-5n has tremendously improved in this area. It now allows for full manual controls of the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Perfect. Now, I can drop my shutter speed down and lower my ISO to improve video quality and smoothness. Sony has also added 1080p video – progressive scan video at full HDR quality at 60 frames per second, instead of the previous interlaced video. There is also 24p video for that more cinematic feel. I’m not really a video person, at least not yet. But now with these options, I have everything I need to use a NEX-5 as a combined still photograph and video taking device. The quest for a single device to do both functions may finally be a reality, at least at the amateur level.
My other frustration with the Sony NEX-5 video is the focusing. At times, when I have my subject in frame, the focus will be “tricked” into locking on to the background instead of my foreground subject. The NEX-5n improves this situation tremendously with the touch screen double-tap to focus and follow feature. Once locked on my subject, I can move the subject to the extreme edges of the screen and the focus will still remain locked on the subject. This is fantastic. It seems to address all the problems I had with the previous model. Like I mentioned earlier, I haven’t been able to use the NEX-5n is real world conditions (only in the store) but things look very promising so far. I did notice that if I double tapped to focus-follow on the subject and then start the video, the subject may lose focus after a bit. However, when I start the video recording first and then do the double-tap focus-follow, then the focus tracking seemed to work more consistently. I’m not sure if this was just dumb luck or a real behavior. I will need more testing to find out its true performance.
The improvements in the video feature, by itself, has gotten my excited about getting this new camera. As I mentioned in my NEX-5 review, the video implementation was disappointing and I did not use it. My in-store tests seem promising enough that I’m dreaming of getting the new NEX-5n and doing a whole lot more video. As the family camera, I might be able to chuck the camcorder and use the NEX full-time. For the artistic videos, I’m thinking of adding those old manual focus, large aperture lenses with an adapter so that I can do those cool cinematic feeling videos.
The NEX-5n also appears to have greatly improved its image quality. Not only has it increased its resolution from 14.2MP to 16.1MP, but the high ISO image quality looks really impressive. I based these comments, not on my testing but on results published on-line from imaging resource. The JPEG photos at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 look really impressive. Much better than the NEX-5 and it also seems to be better than the Canon 7D, which is what I own and use to get my best quality high ISO images. If the imaging resource photos are to believed, the new NEX also gives the highly regarded Fujifilm X100 a run for its money. All the more impressive given that the Sony is now 16.1MP vs the Fuji’s 12MP. Usually when the megapixels go up, the high ISO image quality goes down. Sony looks like they really improved their JPEG processing. The colors are livelier, the details are sharper without less smearing and the noise is decreased. I’m not sure if this image quality increase is the result of better JPEG processing or if the sensor performance has also been improved. I’m sure future on-line tests results with RAW output will answer this question soon enough.
High ISO performance is really important to me since I seem to take much of my photos indoors or in dark areas. The much improved high ISO performance is the second reason the NEX-5n is tugging at my wallet. Sony also announced the pro-sumer NEX 7D at the same time. At 24MP, I’m really wary if this more expensive NEX can match the 5n for high ISO quality. Time will tell but I have my doubts. Unless Sony has created the ultimate sensor or some magic computer algorithm, I leaning towards the 5n rather than the 7. 16.1MP is good enough for me without making the jump to 24mp.
I quickly tested two user interface items I specifically did not like on the NEX-5. I mentioned these in my NEX-5 review. They are the switching out of RAW to use the HDR mode and playback of photos and videos. Unfortunately, these interface annoyances have not been fixed and in one case, it is actually worse.
First, I find it annoying that I need to get out of RAW mode just to use the HDR feature. While the NEX-5n now warns the user that you have to be in JPEG to use the HDR feature, it did not go far enough to fix the interface. It works the same as the previous model. You have to navigate through the annoying menu structure to switch to JPEG mode when you want to use the HDR feature.
Second, when viewing your photos and videos in the playback mode, the NEX-5 has two buckets that you have to look at separately. You either view your photos in the still photo payback mode or you can look at the videos in the video playback mode. Most cameras I know allow you to see both photos and videos together but not the NEX. Well, in the NEX-5n, there are now 3 buckets. This is crazy and stupid. There is now a photos mode, a AVCHD video mode and MPEG video mode. This is a step in the wrong direction. Why can’t I view all my media in one playback function. Why would I care if I took the video in MPEG or AVCHD? This should just be an attribute that is displayed on screen when you preview the video. Maybe in the next NEX version, they will have 4 modes? They can also separate out photos taken in JPEG vs RAW. Sony seriously needs some interface help in this area.
Other than the media playback mode issue, there are several, very tangible improvements with the NEX-5n. That little “n” at the end of the name packs a lot of improvements. Very unexpected and I’m thrilled. So much so that I’m seriously considering getting this camera upgrade. I’m not usually one that jumps at every technology upgrade. I wait a good deal between model changes so that I get a whole lot of improvements between my purchases. Maybe it is because the mirrorless camera market is so hot and rapidly improving, but the usual calculus of waiting for a few model changes before upgrading may be turned on its head. The improvements by the other mirrorless manufacturers are also significant. The DSLR market but comparison seems glacial. One could argue that the DSLR feature set is already mature and there isn’t much to improve. But the mirrorless (I prefer the term EVIL, Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens) market is rapidly improving and I predict will eclipse the DSLR market in the near future. That, is a topic for another blog post. If I do end up buying the NEX-5n I will certainly do a followup post. In the mean time, I have several perfectly good cameras that I’ll use to keep on plugging away at my photography.
NOTE: I took the images on this post with the NEX-5 since I do not own the 5n. Please click on the photos to see a larger version. Also if you like to see more of my photographs taken with the NEX-5, please click here.