Sony NEX-5T Review - The NEX-5T is Sony's latest mid-range compact system camera, and it looks to build on the success of recent models. Find out how it fares in the What Digital Camera Sony NEX-5T review...
The range includes entry-level, mid-range and high-end models, and Sony has kept things fresh with regular launches of new models. This month it’s the turn of the mid-range model to get a fresh coat of paint, with the launch of the Sony NEX-5T, a feature-packed 16.1-megapixel camera with a sub-£600 price tag.
Sony NEX-5T Review – Features
Sony’s NEX range has four model lines; the 3-series cameras are the entry-level models, the NEX-6 is aimed at advanced enthusiasts, while the superb NEX-7 is the 24-megapixel flagship for professionals. The 5-series holds the middle ground in both price and specification, with the NEX-5T falling between the £300 price of the NEX-3N and the £800 price of the NEX-7.
In terms of specification the 5T is a lot closer to the 3N than to the NEX-7, sharing the same 16.1-megapixel Exmor APS-C CMOS sensor, but most of its other features are carried over from its immediate predecessor the NEX-5R. In fact the only notable difference between the 5T and the 5R is the addition of NFC (Near Field Communication) technology.
This offers additional short-range connectivity with suitably-equipped smartphones and tablets, alongside the Wi-Fi connectivity that is rapidly becoming a standard feature of new cameras.
Like the 5R, the 5T has the ability to run proprietary in-camera apps. There are several apps pre-installed, to do with sharing photos to connected devices and controlling the camera from an Android or Apple smartphone, but more apps can be downloaded and installed from Sony’s PlayMemories website.
Some are free, others cost money, and they can add features such as lens distortion compensation, additional image processing options, time-lapse imaging or multi-frame noise reduction.
It’s an interesting idea, and allows the camera to be periodically updated with new features, but the paid apps are a bit expensive compared to the usual price of smartphone apps.
Hybrid AF system
Most of the other features are inherited from the 5R, most notably the innovative hybrid autofocus system. Most compact system cameras have only contrast detection autofocus using the main sensor, which is fast and accurate in good light with high-contrast subjects, but which can run into problems in difficult conditions, while DSLRs have special separate AF sensors, and use more dependable phase detection focusing.
The NEX-5T uses both contrast and phase detection AF, by means of special sensor cells built into the main sensor, a very clever technology which is unique to Sony. It’s an impressive system, and works extremely well in a wide variety of conditions.
Also carried over from the previous model is the excellent 7.5cm, 921k dot touch-screen LCD monitor. This is partially articulated, allowing it to flip up vertically for use when shooting “selfies”, or tilting downwards for over-head shots in crowds. Unlike the NEX-6 and 7, the 5T has no viewfinder, but the monitor is clear and bright with a good anti-glare coating, and works well even in strong sunlight, not that there’s a lot of that around at the moment.
The NEX-5T has a decent video recording mode, but it’s not one of the camera’s particular strengths It shoots full HD 1920 x 1080 at 25fps, with stereo audio recorded by two built-in mics on the top plate. Automatic wind cut is available, but as is often the case it’s not terribly effective. There is HDMI output, but unfortunately no socket for an external microphone.
One of the most useful and impressive features is perhaps the most subtle. The NEX-5T has the option of “effects preview”, which shows the effects of exposure adjustments and filters live on the monitor. This includes aperture setting, so you can get a live preview of the effect of the aperture as you adjust it, making precise control over depth-of-field very simple.
Sony NEX-5T Review – Design
The overall design of the NEX-5T is identical to its immediate predecessor the NEX-5R. It has a fairly plain rectangular body made mostly of plastic, but with some metal components for added strength. It is available in black, white or grey. Like the other NEX models the 5T’s body is very slim and light, not much larger or heavier than a big compact.
It is a couple of millimetres larger and a few grams heavier than the NEX-3N, but slightly smaller and lighter than the NEX-6 or 7. Despite its small size it is very comfortable to hold, thanks to a well-designed textured front handgrip and a rear thumb-rest. The build quality is excellent, and despite its low weight the camera feels solidly built and durable.
There are some nice detail touches, such as button labels that are engraved rather than just printed, so they won’t wear off, and a sensor plane mark on the top panel, useful for accurate focal distance measurement.
The controls feel solidly mounted and reliable, but it has to be said that the almost flush-mounted buttons are hard to find by touch and harder to operate while wearing gloves. The 5T has the same basic control system as the other NEX cameras, so expect some people to hate it while others, your author included, will really like it.
The NEX interface can appear a bit complicated at first, but it’s very quick and intuitive once you get used to it. For menu operations and mode selections it uses the touch-screen interface, along with two context-sensitive “soft” buttons and a four-way D-pad with a rotary bezel.
Exposure adjustments are made by a large thumbwheel on the top plate. Other than that there are only three buttons, for playback, instant-start video recording, and a little-used function button which can be user-programed. The touch-screen is capacitive and very sensitive, allowing quick and reliable control as well as handy features such as touch-focus.
The NEX-5T has no built-in flash, but the HVL-F20S external flashgun was included in our review kit. This extremely compact dedicated flashgun slots into a socket hidden under a hatch on the camera’s top plate, and is fixed in place with a finger-screw.
Once fitted it can be manually flipped up or down, and is powered by the camera’s own battery. It’s a decent little unit, providing a guide number of 20 at 100 ISO and a recharge time of less than five seconds at full power.
Sony NEX-5T Review – Performance
All of the NEX cameras have had very good performance, and the NEX-5T is no exception. From a cold start it can power up, focus and take a picture in approximately 2.5 seconds, which won’t break any records but doesn’t keep you waiting. The camera’s shot-to-shot time is consistent in JPEG, Raw, and JPEG plus Raw recording modes; a respectable 0.8 seconds.
The 5T has two continuous shooting modes; a standard mode that shoots at about 2fps with continuous autofocus, and a speed-priority mode that only focuses for the first shot, but can shoot at 3fps. In both modes it can capture 11 frames in JPEG, 10 in Raw or 9 in Raw plus JPEG modes, before it has to pause to empty the buffer.
Thanks to the advanced hybrid autofocus system the camera performs just as well in low light as it does in full daylight. In fact the low-light focusing ability is extremely impressive, focusing at exposure levels as low as EV0. For even lower light levels there is a powerful AF illuminator mounted near the top of the handgrip.
If the NEX-5T has a weakness it could be battery duration. Like most Sony cameras it uses the proprietary Info-Lithium technology, so rather than the usual three-bar battery level indicator, you get an accurate display of the percentage of charge remaining.
The NEX-5T comes in a kit with the new SEL-1650P powered zoom lens and the F20S external flash, both of which are powered by the camera battery.
Add to that the big touch-screen and all the advanced technology inside the camera, and that’s going to account for a lot of milliamps. Sony claims 330 shots on a full charge; we took about 200 shots, including some with flash, and a lot of reviewing and menu operations, and there was about 50% charge remaining.
Sony NEX-5T Review – Image Quality
It’s hard to take good photos when the weather in gloomy and overcast, nevertheless the NEX-5T managed to turn in some very good shots during testing, with excellent overall sharpness, clarity and colour reproduction.
Colour and White Balance
Good colour saturation is especially difficult when the light’s bad, but the NEX-5T performed very well. Bright colours were well saturated, especially the strong reds and oranges of autumn leaves. Greens always look a bit washed out at this time of year, but blues were nice and bright too.
Automatic white balance coped perfectly well while shooting in daylight, but towards the late afternoon a switch to shaded or cloudy settings produced better results.
Exposure and Dynamic Range
There were no real problems with exposure, with images showing good tonal range, plenty of shadow detail and minimal highlight clipping, as one might expect from a larger, less crowded sensor. Even unusual settings, such as artificially high contrast black and white, showed the same tonal range. Shooting in Raw mode produced even more shadow detail.
16.1 megapixels is a good compromise between image size and pixel pitch. Sony’s Exmor sensor technology produces exceptionally good fine detail resolution, with the result that images appear considerably sharper and more detailed than their actual pixel size might suggest. You’d have to spend another £300 and get the NEX-7 to find more detail.
When it comes to high-ISO image noise, the current king of compact system cameras is the Fuji X-A1 which we reviewed a few weeks ago. The NEX-5T isn’t in any danger of beating the Fuji, but it does acquit itself well. Images up to 800 ISO are effectively noise-free.
At 1600 ISO noise starts to become noticeable in darker areas, and at 3200 ISO the noise reduction system starts to lose fine detail. It gets progressively more noisy as sensitivity increases, and at 12,800 ISO colours start to get very blotchy. The 25,600ISO maximum setting is impressively high, but is really only suitable for emergencies.
Kit Lens Performance
When bought as a kit the NEX-5T comes equipped with Sony’s new E-mount SEL-1650 powered zoom “pancake” lens, a 16-50mm standard zoom with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 – 5.6. It’s a nice lens to use, although to be honest the powered zoom function is a bit redundant on a small camera like the 5T.
The optical quality is solid though, excellent wide-angle edge sharpness and no visible chromatic aberration or optical distortion. However a glance at the Raw files shows that a lot of that performance is done by the image processor, especially correcting some fairly major pincushion distortion at wide angle.
Sony NEX-5T Review – Verdict
Sony’s NEX range is shaping up to be a powerful force in the compact system camera market. With Sony’s in-house expertise in sensor technology, image processing and optical design, the cameras combine innovative cutting edge technology with well though-out design and photographic excellence.
The Sony NEX-5T is a prime example; a solid mid-range camera sporting a huge list of features, superb design and solid build quality, with slick handling and image quality that is a match for any of its rivals. It’s a nice camera to use, and the live effect preview makes it fun to experiment with different exposure settings and filter effects.
It’s not a cheap camera, and it’s certainly not aimed at beginners, but for an enthusiast who’s looking for a compact system camera that really can replace a DSLR it’s got to be high on the list.
The combination of a 16.1MP APS-C sensor and that fantastic hybrid AF system in such a compact body is a tempting formula.
Sony NEX-5T Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a few images captured with the Sony NEX-5T. For a wider range of test shots head on over to the Sony NEX-5T review sample image gallery.