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Practical’s NEX-5 verdict – 8/10

I was going to post this on our Forum for NEX originally. It’s not good form to launch into what may be seen as ‘rival’ publications or journalists, so it’s the kind of thing which is often kept to blog pages or forum discussion. But Practical Photography is one the best-selling, and most powerful, photo magazines in the world.

So, I copied my ramblings and moved them here, instead of putting them in a forum post where just a few hundred people would see them. Tens of thousands of visitors see Photoclubalpha’s main site articles, and I want this to be seen, because it matters.

PP’s write-up is very positive – it is not a ‘bad review’ in that sense – but much of the wording used is misleading, and omissions can sometimes distort the comparison a reader makes.

PP starts off by saying the NEX-5 has ‘the added advantage of HD video’ over the NEX-3 – of course, both have HD video, the NEX-5 is 1080/50i AVCHD while the NEX-3 is 720/25p MPEG4. It could be assumed that the PP reader has only a marginal interest in video, but this phrasing does not describe the feature and implies that the NEX-3 lacks HD video.

The screen is great for ‘low level composure’  and the APS-C sensor is ‘ideally placed for delivering DSLR quality images’.

The majority of the selecting, PP says, is done through ‘never get lost’ menus (sounds as if PP were fed a marketing term here – I would probably call some of them ‘dead end’ menus in maze terms – you have to return or exit). Confusingly, PP says there is ‘no dual sensor cleaning, but there is an electromagnetic vibration system and an anti-static coating on the sensor’. I thought this was a dual anti-dust measure. What is ‘dual sensor cleaning’ if it’s not this, and how does the NEX lack it?

PP also says that removing the lens reveals how close to the rear element the chip sits inside the camera, and states: ‘There are potential issues here, as this may cause image quality problems such as distortion and aberration’. Well, that’s just completely untrue and gives readers needless doubts. Some of the lowest distortion wideangles ever made have had very short clearance back focus, like the 21mm Super Angulon for Leica M or the classic 21mms designed for mirror lock-up by Nikon and Minolta – or the 16mm Zeiss Hologon for Contax G.

Some of the world’s best lens designs have used rear elements almost touching the film, including the Ricoh GR (for film), the Minolta TC-1; and the excellent Sony R-1 Carl Zeiss zoom also features a minimal gap between its rear element and the 1.7X sensor of that camera, the absence of a mirror freeing Zeiss to create one of the best 24-120mm equivalent zooms ever designed.

In fact the 18mm mount to sensor distance and the wide mount throat combine to offer the maximum possible scope for the makers to design distortion and aberration free lenses of a quality hard to achieve without high costs and large size, heavy weight even for APS-C DSLRs. PP has got it exactly the wrong way round. They have turned a huge positive aspect of the camera into a negative niggle.

Sweep Panorama is described as a function which is ‘not new on a Sony camera’. Actually, this type of Sweep Panorama is entirely new on a Sony, or any camera. This is not a video-composed Sweep Pan, as found on all previous Sony and other compacts. It is a high resolution, auto-stitched, multi-shot panorama of unprecedented size (up to 23 megapixels).

Confusing the issue, PP states that the panorama files are playable on a Sony Bravia 3D TV. This is incorrect. Normal sweep pan (.JPG) files are playable on any HD TV, and are not 3D. The camera(s) have a second entirely separate Sweep Pan 3D mode, which is not a sequence of shots, but a video pan like compacts. The file (.MOT) created is 1080p HD in height, and in a 3D format; and it can be played back on most 3D TVs using the same system as Sony Bravia.

Most of PP’s comments on using the camera are fair and balanced descriptions of its strengths and weaknesses, but once again, language gets in the way of accuracy. The ‘large optics help deliver… detail to the sensor’. What does that mean? Which large optics? The lenses are fairly small. Their size has no bearing on how much detail they ‘deliver’.

‘This is not the fastest camera out there, but with speed priority engaged it’s impressive at 7fps’ – well, actually, it IS the fastest CLC/ILC out there, and that 7fps has no competition from Micro 4/3rds, Samsung NX or Ricoh. The 2.3fps standard capture rate includes reliable AF tracking (certainly not guaranteed when shooting continuous action with the competitors), but this is not mentioned. It would be fair to comment on 2.3fps being a modest drive rate, but the continuous AF performance had to be taken into account when doing so.

‘The general consensus of opinion is that CSC cameras are effectively high quality compacts that deliver DSLR quality. Yet the NEX-5 is still rather bulky and certainly not pocket material’ - conclusion.

‘The NEX-5 takes the compact size of these CSC models down to a new level, as it’s the smallest and lightest of these removable lens models to date’ - second paragraph of the main report, and highlighted pullquote.

I don’t think I need to point out the conflict in these statements. And the day before writing this, I had the NEX-3 with 16mm lens in my shirt pocket.

‘The HDR mode is okay, but it’s not as good as true HDR creation using post-production software’ – not the best comment to make on the most advanced, 6EV range, in-camera HDR system yet seen and one which also saves a non-HDR JPEG of the normal exposure (not mentioned). None of the other multi-shot modes gets mentioned at all; no reference to the Anti Motion Blur or Twilight modes which blend several exposures to create one low-noise, sharp result.

Finally – ‘Most of the CSC products are quite similar in price, especially with lenses that cover the same focal lengths’. Actually, they are not quite similar in price. To get HD 1080/50i you have to spend almost twice as much. To get their equivalent of the 16mm lens… sorry, you can’t.

There is no 12mm f/2.8 pancake lens made for Micro 4/3rds, or any 16mm prime for APS-C. The 17mm offered by Olympus is a 34mm lens equivalent, not a 24mm equivalent. The 20mm offered by Panasonic is a 40mm equivalent. The 30mm from Samsung is a 45mm equivalent.

By glossing over such issues or ignoring them entirely, the PP report omits most of the unique selling (and using) points of the NEX, and the reader is left to assume that it’s pretty much the same as the competition.

I believe the job of a review is to highlight all the aspects of a product which may not be understood fully by the reader, because they are new or unfamiliar; to point out the differences between products, because these differences drive buying decisions. A single feature on a new camera may be the one feature which attracts many buyers. Sometimes, this matters more to the buyer than all other aspects of handling and design. Single features can persuade photographers to change their entire camera system. Just look at Nikon with ultra-high ISO in the D3/3S – or Canon with true 1080p in the 5D MkII, 7D and 550D.

For me, 1080/50i video with stereo sound is important as the only other way to get that in an affordable package is the Canon 550D with external microphone, or the Panasonic Lumix GH1 at around 60% higher cost. The 16mm lens is important – there has never been a 5-element f/2.8 design covering this angle before. The E-mount is important, it allows more potential choice of adaptation to other optical systems (lenses, scientific, astro, micro, you name it) than any other mount. I’ve already ordered my Sony Alpha adaptor (mentioned briefly by PP without further details or comment), plus independent versions for Minolta SR/MD, Leica M39 and C-mount.

APS-C is important too, as this 14.2 megapixel sensor offers the best quality and largest image size in its class.

The PP Overall Conclusion

Ultimately, PP’s Overall Conclusion certainly fits the report, because so much is omitted which would engage and interest their readership, and so much is dwelled on with makes the NEX seem nothing all that different:

‘I wouldn’t recommend the NEX-5 to the more discerning user’, says Darren Harbar while giving the camera 8/10, ‘but for someone who wants a creative point-and-shoot that will give some control without added complication, the NEX-5 is perfect’.

The build quality, design of the lenses, availability of fisheye and ultrawide converters, battery life (or otherwise!), JPEG quality, and many other aspects are not touched on at all in the PP report. Some of these might be negative – battery life can be short, batteries are expensive. Others might be positive – no other system made offers the option of a 12mm (18mm equivalent) wide angle or 10.2mm (15mm equivalent) fisheye at such low cost.

Is ‘I wouldn’t recommend the NEX-5 to the more discerning user’ a damaging conclusion?

PP is certainly not alone in thinking this, but it’s something which should not be said unless you can qualify it by revealing what you would recommend to the ‘more discerning’ user. Think about the language again; above all, it’s the language of the PP report which will colour the readers’ opinions. What does ‘more discerning user’ actually mean?

As it happens, I’m a fairly discerning user; I can tell the difference between the qualities and capabilities of the many cameras I use, I am capable of making judgments, I have the ability to compare and make choices. I can pick the right tool from the rack. Sometimes, I do want a point-and-shoot that will give some control with added complication, just like PP says.

As it also happens, I want a point-and-shoot which can capture high quality 1080 Full HD video  (preferably 24-25-30p, but 50i will do) with excellent quality sound; I want more than 12 megapixels for stills, 14 is fine, 18 would be even better; and if anyone had put a list of possible lenses in front of me, a 24mm f/2.8 equivalent would have been ticked without hesitation.

It was the lens I could never get, or afford, for Leica; it was my favourite fixed focal length in manual focus SLR from the moment such lenses became available around 1974. 24mm f/2.8 was one reason I dumped the Pentax system and bought into Minolta back then; it was the first lens after the 35-70mm f/4 ‘kit’ and the 50mm f/1.7 that I bought for the Minolta AF system in 1985. 24mm wide reach was the reason I pre-ordered the Carl Zeiss 16-80mm for my Alpha 100 in 2006, and it’s the reason I like the Nikon 16-85mm and the Canon 15-85mm best of all the kit zooms for those systems. It’s even the reason I use a vintage 1999 24-85mm Minolta lens on my Alpha 900.

My conclusion

My NEX-5 with 16mm and 18-55mm OSS lenses cost me £679, but that price included a free stereo microphone which sells everywhere for £99. The built-in mics are so good I might not need it (the camera can record clean sound even if placed just a metre away from a PA speaker blasting out live music – try it with a Nikon D5000 or a Canon 550D). But it makes the two-lens kit cost a ‘real’ £580.

‘Worth the asking price’ is PP’s comment. Worth? It’s the bargain of the year, and that is at launch prices which inevitably fall later on. If you want the wide-angle capability, it’s on its own, and if you prefer the angle of a 28mm-equivalent view, you have 14 megapixels to be cropped down and still match the pixel count of Micro 4/3rds.

NEX has real weakness if you are looking for telephoto reach, and many point-and-shoot upgraders will have been used to surprising long lens equivalents; 300mm is nothing. Micro 4/3rds can get you to to that 300mm equivalent in a similarly priced kit, though without the same wide-angle end. This would have been a useful and valid point for the PP review to raise, of value to readers; don’t buy NEX if you are into safari parks, garden birds, or next door’s bedroom windows. When the 18-200mm OSS does arrive it will cost more than a complete Olympus kit with E-PL1, 14-42mm and 40-150mm – it is also a VERY large lens. There is no neat little 55-200mm OSS for NEX, as there is for Alpha, Nikon and pretty much every interchangeable lens system made whether CLC or DSLR.

Every time I use the NEX-5 I find points to criticise. That rear jog wheel has a tendency to change my selected A mode aperture setting when I pop the camera into the small bag I’m using, forgetting to turn it off first. There I am shooting at f/6.3 and the next time I use the camera it’s at f/22. I wish I could tilt the screen vertically, not just horizontally; I love the screen on my Nikon D5000, and the NEX would have been so much better with the D5000′s design. You could even have turned it to face the camera, protecting the screen and removing distracting displays when using the 16mm optical viewfinder. But no, it’s like the A350-550 series, and fairly limited by its hinged articulation.

When reviewers pick up on points like this, it helps the camera makers. In a magazine like PP, hugely influential, such observations can change the course of future camera design for the better. I don’t find a single observation in the Practical Photography August 2010 issue review of the NEX-5 which stems from the critically aware experience of using the camera or treads the risky ground of daring to compare it directly with competitors.

- David Kilpatrick

3 comments to Practical’s NEX-5 verdict – 8/10

  • Oh, I understand your point now – you referred to m4/3.

    I am tempted to use a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 on NEX (w. adapter of course).
    Just from what I saw so far, I want to buy the NEX Camcorder now…
    …which also influences lens choices – maybe the NX10 will go (Not after having the NEX thoroughly tested), and I can add my wish lens 35mm/1.2 Nokton!

  • Hello, David,
    First thank you for this excellent contribution!

    The only issue I have with it is: “no other system made offers the option of a 12mm (18mm equivalent) wide angle” Did I miss something?

    I do not know PP, who are they? ;-)

    Many in the field of camera testing seem to have problems recognizing the value of the NEXes. As an engineer and photographer, I believe, NEX will dominate the DSLE market soon…

    I read an early report from DCresource, where they doubt the decision of SONY to offer the 16mm lens in a kit??? Were they disappointed not to get a NEX first?

    I personally find this a bold decision, does DCresource really believe, the clientele for this excellent designed camera comes only from P&S step uppers?

    With my NIKON D700 I shoot 70% with the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and 80% of those shots are done at 24mm…

    Due to the short lens flange / sensor distance you can almost adapt any legacy SLR – and even better 35mm RF – lens without the design limitation of the added length needed for the mirror box – on a DSLE (I use the ‘E’ for Electronic Viewfinder, many journalists having a problem describing it, and as we all know 35mm, we compare focal length of lenses translated to a 35mm equivalent length – why not using DSLE compared to DSLR which we know…

    I see descriptions as “mirrorless DSLR” – what a nonsense, there is no R(eflection)

    We are all tired of lugging Pro equipment around. I started the DSLE experience with a Panasonic G1. In the tests I could see, that a G1 with a Zeiss G1 90mm ending up in 180mm effective very well challenged as well a 20 year old TAMRON 180mm f/2.5 Anniversary Edition – one of my best SLR lenses – as a new NIKKOR 200mm f/2 in sharpness and detail (David vs Goliath on my G-Spot/VolkerSchenk.com)
    Many see only the size/weight advantage; the major advantage is a better lens-design ….

    …lots to expect…

    I could compare files from a NIKON D700 with a 24-70mm and the new SAMSUNG NX10 with the simple 30mm f/2 prime – very close, I prefer the NX files.

    The appearance of DSLE changed my camera bag totally. When the NEX System launched I thought to sell the NX10/30, but after the results it will stay as my 46mm “Standard lens” (The price of 650.00 US$ for the whole unit comes close to a Canniko prime), the SONY NEX5/16 will be a “24mm prime”, the Olympus E-PL1/17 unit a “34mm prime”, image stabilized doubling as a Night-Street shooter @40mm with an adapted 20mm/1.8 SIGMA (I can save the cost for the Panasonic 20mm 1.7, as I shoot the 20mm/1.8 on D700), and as a Wildlife shooter with my manual 300mm/2.8 TAMRON AD-2; 400mm/2.8 NIKKOR and 500mm/8 mirror lens as a light hiking package, giving 600mm/2.8, 800mm/2.8 and 1000mm/8 Image Stabilized with excellent focusing using the EV-2. PRICELESS.

    I have adapters for all 3 DSLEs for NIKON, CANON FD (using 55mm/1.2), MINOLTA MD and OLYMPUS OM, and Leica M&39mm mount for NEX and m4/3, but mostly use my NIKON mount lenses.

    The camera bag containing the 3 DSLEs with the primes attached and 2 lenses extra, SONY flash and OLYMPUS Viewfinder is smaller than a D700 / 24-70mm!

    I never thought Sony will be capable of developing the NEX so fast, after seeing those wood ducks at PMA. Now they also launch the camcorder earlier as expected.
    After shooting MINOLTA 5D, the first camera with IIS, I happily followed SONY, but soon realized, that shooting NIKON is way less expensive the way I shoot. I was also disappointed by the “feel” of the cameras compared to the good old solid MINOLTA quality feeling.

    The NEX system will bring me back to SONY. They even deliver the Camcorder with the right lens, Oly/Panasonic have the “right” lens as well, while SAMSUNG has none (50-200mm is too long on the wide end for video) – not understandable for me, why they put a lens like that in their line at all, at least it is not expensive…Less understandable is the choice of their own lensmount and the huge flange/sensor distance, which does not allow the use of Leica or Contax Zeiss G mount lenses.

    Photokina is only 6 weeks away, and I wonder, what Canniko has in their sleeves. They have to react, as m4/3rds and now NEX/NX take a huge chunk of the market. 4/3 will have a hard time to survive; the size advantage to APS sensored DSLRs is too insignificant.

    • admin

      The comment about 12mm is based on Practical’s failure to identify this different between NEX and FourThirds – as stated, neither Olympus nor Panasonic (or for that matter Leica, or Samsung NX) have a 24mm equivalent pancake lens, or an adaptor which turns this into an 18mm full frame equivalent (12mm f/2.8) wide-angle. For FourThirds that would be a 9mm f/2.8 and there isn’t one, nor is there a 12mm f/2.8 or anything like it. Of course DSLR systems have a huge range of potential lenses and ILC systems have access to nearly all of them, but I was talking about the everyday buyer gets in the box (which is what Practical were reviewing).