Hands on with the Sony Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3

A few months after teasing the new cameras at PMA 2010 (with almost no details), Sony officially announced the interchangeable-lens Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5 on Monday. Both cameras will be available in July.

The NEX camera bodies are impressively thin and light, measuring about an inch thick and looking noticeably more slick and slim than competing interchangeable-lens cameras from Panasonic, Olympus, and Samsung. These are the first interchangeable-lens cameras we've seen that honestly approach the size of a point-and-shoot camera.

The Sony Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3 both offer 14.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensors; it's the same size sensor found in Samsung's NX10 interchangeable-lens camera and in several full-size DSLRs, but it's significantly bigger than the Micro Four-Thirds sensor in cameras from Olympus and Panasonic.

The NEX-3 comes in silver, red, and black.

On the video side of the equation, the Alpha NEX-5 will shoot 1080i high-definition video in either AVCHD or MPEG-4 format, while the slightly lower-end NEX-3 maxes out at 720p MPEG-4 video. The other key difference between the two NEX cameras involves the body build: The NEX-5's body is made out of magnesium alloy and has a larger grip, while the NEX-3 has a polycarbonite body available in different color options (silver, black, and red).

The NEX cameras handle SD, SDHC, and SDXC card formats, as well as Memory Stick cards; the one storage slot on the cameras takes both card formats.

The announcement means that there's yet another lens mount to think about, as well. The Sony Alpha NEX series will use the brand-new E-Mount lens system, and the two new cameras offer no body-based image stabilization.

Sony's new E-Mount lenses.
Lenses using Sony's Optical SteadyShot stabilization system—a stabilized 18mm-35mm f3.5/f5.6 zoom lens, as well as a 16mm f2.8 pancake lens—will be available, including in the Alpha NEX's kit configurations. The NEX cameras have a focal length multiplier of 1.5X, meaning that the 18mm-55mm zoom lens has a 27mm-82.5mm field of view in 35mm film equivalent, while the prime lens is a 24mm-equivalent wide-angle lens.

A third, optically stabilized, 18mm-200mm f3.5/f5.6 zoom lens will be available separately in the fall for $800 (not in any kit configuration), which Sony says is optimized for shooting video. In addition to the E-Mount lenses, an adapter that lets you use Sony's A-Mount lenses with the camera will be sold separately for $200.

The Sony Alpha NEX-3 will sell as a kit with the 16mm prime lens for $550, or with the 18mm-55mm zoom lens for $600. The Sony Alpha NEX-5 will cost $650 with the 16mm prime lens and $700 with the 18mm-55mm zoom lens.

Hands On With the Sony Alpha NEX-5

The NEX-5 comes in black and silver.
After some brief hands-on time with the new Sony Alpha NEX-5 camera, I noticed a few things that make the Alpha NEX series a very attractive option for would-be DSLR buyers. This is an incredibly small and slick camera; with the lens removed, the NEX-5's body is about the size of a bulkier point-and-shoot camera. Without the lens attached, it would easily fit into a pocket.

Like the Olympus Pen E-PL1, the NEX models are aimed at entry-level DSLR buyers who don't want the bulk or complexity of a DSLR, and that comes through in the camera's ease of use. No user manual is included with the camera—and it doesn't need one. Beginners will take to this camera immediately, and more-advanced photographers are likely to be tempted by the camera's small size, vibrant display, and creative user interface.

For beginners, helpful in-camera guides offer general shooting tips and creative ways of controlling the settings. You can easily create blurred backgrounds and shallow depth-of-field effects without jumping into the aperture priority or manual modes; when you have the camera in Intelligent Auto mode, you simply "Defocus Background" by rotating the scroll wheel on the back of the camera.

Another big draw is the tiltable 3-inch LCD, which is practically a miniature HDTV. It's extremely sharp, crisp, and bright, and it might make purists forget about the lack of an optical viewfinder very quickly. You can tilt the LCD up and down, but it doesn't swivel; it's built for odd-angle shots, but not self-portraits.

Optional accessories for the NEX cameras.
The NEX cameras also include several innovative, fun-to-use modes found in recent Cyber-shot cameras. In the NEX cameras, these modes are bolstered by the added strength of a big sensor and high-quality lenses. Sweep Panorama mode, for instance, is far more impressive than it is on a point-and-shoot camera, and Handheld Twilight mode (which overlays up to six images to create a sharp, noiseless low-light image) gets a whole lot more sensor power to work with.

What is perhaps the coolest feature in the NEX cameras isn't available just yet, however. Sony says that a July firmware update will allow the cameras to shoot 3D panorama images, which you can view on Sony's Bravia line of HDTVs with the company's 3D glasses. That's a whole lot of proprietary technology to make the feature work, but the demos I saw of the cameras' 3D panorama abilities were impressive.

Of course, experienced photographers will have to make plenty of compromises with either of these cameras as opposed to a full-on DSLR. Advanced users won't be thrilled about the lack of an optical viewfinder, the omission of a pop-up flash, and the absence of a mode dial on the top of the camera (you get a power button, a shutter release, a dedicated video button, a playback button, and that's it).

You use the scrollwheel on the back of the camera and two soft keys to access menus, scenes, and settings; the soft keys' functions depend on which menu you're in. The user interface on the Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3 is outstanding, and the lack of buttons on the back produces an uncluttered and elegant look, but many photographers will want faster access to certain modes.

All in all, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 may appeal more to point-and-shoot graduates than to seasoned photographers, but the cameras' ultracompact size and fun features give them serious potential for crossover appeal. Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for a full review of the Sony Alpha NEX-5.

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