Sony NEX-5T Review: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

Sony decided that the only thing the NEX-5R needed was NFC. So they threw it in and called it the NEX-5T:  the 2013 refresh of the company’s mid-range mirrorless ILC. But is it enough? We put the latest iteration of the NEX-5 under the microscope to find out.

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Introduction

When Sony first made its entry into the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market back in 2010 with the NEX-3 and NEX-5, they certainly did it with a bang. The pair possessed a combination of good looks, size and most of all, image quality — being the first mirrorless ILCs to pack an APS-C sized sensor typically found in their larger DSLR counterparts.

Since then, the Japanese electronics giant has made an effort to refresh their NEX-5 line on a yearly basis, upgrading the internal hardware as well as throwing in novel and value-added features to keep up with an increasingly competitive mirrorless market.

Today, we take a look at the NEX-5T, the latest 2013 update to the mid-range NEX offering with a little surprise: Sony made only one small tweak to the NEX-5R, they added NFC connectivity. Apart from that, you’re looking at what would most certainly be mistaken for its previous generation predecessor. As such, in this review, we put the camera through its paces to find out if this seemingly trivial addition of NFC warrants an upgrade from the NEX-5R and if less is really more.

Design and hardware

Hit or miss, the NEX-5T is identical to its predecessor in terms of physical design. Sony changed absolutely nothing from the NEX-5R, which would suggest that the existing design doesn’t require any improvements. While true to a certain extent, it would have been great if Sony had built in a flash instead of having users plug in a separate attachment — something which I found to be quite a hassle and wouldn’t mind dealing with a larger camera body to have one built in. Otherwise, the 5T offers the same beefy and comfortable grip, 180-degree articulating display, dual control dials and your typical set of function buttons. Yes, the 5T still lacks that dedicated mode dial that I would have loved to see added but sadly, it is what it is.

Likewise internally, the NEX-5T houses the same innards as its year old predecessor. The 5T retains Sony’s trusty 16-megapixel APS-C sensor that offers hybrid contrast/phase-detection autofocus as well as ISO levels of up to 25600. The new NFC chip is located in the handgrip, on the right side of the camera, making device pairing very convenient and straightforward. The 5T also comes with a new SELP 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, which debuted with its higher-end NEX-6 sibling last year. When paired with the 5T, makes for a highly compact camera system that might even be pocketable for some, making it an ideal travel companion.

Features

Alas, this is the only department in which the NEX-5T has something to brag of in comparison to the 5R. Partially owing to the fact that Sony’s suite of PlayMemories camera apps has just been made available in Singapore (where this review is done), the addition of NFC connectivity does boost the attractiveness of the 5T — considering it is also one of the first few cameras to feature the increasingly popular pairing technology. But of course, the apps too, have to meet the mark to seal the deal. And I wasn’t to be let down.

For this review, I decided to test the app that Sony had been promoting so fervently, Smart Remote. As its name suggests, what Smart Remote essentially does is allow you to use your mobile device to control your camera remotely via Wi-Fi. In addition, the app can also leverage the 5T’s NFC capability and allow us to find out how well its addition would complement the camera.

So a common scenario where Smart Remote would be useful would be taking a group photo: using your mobile phone as a remote control for the camera while facing the camera in the group, and snapping the shot right from the phone. But before taking a crack at that, we had to first put the star attraction of the NEX-5T to the test, NFC pairing.

The pairing process with NFC turned out to be truly a breeze; just a simple tap of my mobile phone on the camera grip was all it took to get me hooked up. All you need is to have the Sony PlayMemories mobile app installed on your NFC-enabled mobile phone or tablet (yes that means no go for iOS devices) and you’re all good to go. iOS device users will still be able to pair their devices with the camera but you will have to go through the traditional process of manual pairing over Wi-Fi.

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NFC pairing

Using Smart Remote was fun and it worked just as advertised. It felt as if I were using the camera through my phone camera app, which quite frankly, is a pretty neat feature — a feature which I also reckon inspired Sony’s recently announced QX10 and QX100 remote cameras.

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Smart remote in action: nifty eh?

Hiccup-wise, I had no problems with functionality even at distances of up to 10 meters away. However, do expect a little lag due to likely a combination of Wi-Fi latency issues and rendering overhead, which shouldn’t be much of a bother once you’ve gotten used to it. Other apps I tested were on-camera and did not utilize the NFC capability, but they were nonetheless handy and easy to use, nothing that I wouldn’t mind not having.

All in all, the combination of NFC pairing and PlayMemories apps (or at least the star app) do synergize pretty nicely and will offer a nifty package for users who want that extra creative flexibility.

Image quality and performance

As you would have come to expect, image quality is identical to the NEX-5R, with laudable detail capture, colors and high ISO performance from Sony’s aging but venerable 16-megapixel APS-C sensor. Shots taken with the new SELP 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens are just as sharp as those of the old SEL 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, with the new 16-50mm lens even edging its predecessor in terms of peripheral sharpness. ISO performance is also great thanks to the large APS-C sensor, with usable sensitivity levels of up to 6400 and arguably even 12800 (samples below).

No complaints in the autofocus department as well. The hybrid phase/contrast-detection AF system works great and is pleasingly quick and accurate, with only a few rare occasions of hunting under low light conditions — which is perfectly acceptable given that most autofocus systems would also struggle under such conditions.

Image quality aside, a major gripe I have about the NEX-5T is touchscreen operation, something which I hoped Sony would have improved on after much negative feedback of earlier models. To my disappointment, the NEX-5T’s touchscreen is still just as slow and even unresponsive at times, to the extent that it is almost unusable. Taking into consideration that the NEX-5 series is geared toward novice users and lacks a dedicated mode dial, the quality of touchscreen operation really leaves much to be desired.

Final words

Let’s face it, the NEX-5T offers a veritably insubstantial upgrade from the NEX-5R. While the addition of NFC does boost the appeal of the PlayMemories app suite – offering an increased ease of device pairing — convincing a 5R owner to upgrade to the 5T will undoubtedly pose a significant challenge. What’s more, iOS users stand to gain zero advantage over the 5R due to the universal lack of NFC on Apple devices.

That said, the NEX-5T, or the NEX-5R mark II as I would prefer to call it, remains a very capable camera for the most part, with impressive image quality and AF performance. Coupled with the new SELP 16-50mm kit lens, you will also be getting a highly compact camera system without compromising on image quality, so that’s a plus.

All in all, if you’re an existing NEX-5R user, we see absolutely no reason for you to make that upgrade. However, the NEX-5T will make a compelling option for someone looking to make an upgrade from a compact camera, with its combination of good size and image quality, coupled with those nifty PlayMemories apps. But be warned, if you’re a fan of touchscreen operation, I’m afraid the 5T isn’t going to cut it.

So is less really more? I’m afraid not this time. But, the NEX-5T is still every bit as good a camera as its predecessor was, with the helpful addition of NFC pairing.

 

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The good:

 

  • Solid image quality and low light performance.
  • Hybrid autofocus system is snappy and accurate.
  • New SELP 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens is desirably compact and performs just as well as its predecessor.
  • NFC pairing complements the Smart Remote app nicely.

The bad:

  • Touchscreen operation is frustratingly laggy and even unresponsive at times
  • No built-in flash
  • Paltry addition of NFC to what would otherwise be an identical camera to its predecessor; iOS crowd left out

 

Gadget aficionado, sartorial enthusiast and an uncompromising ice cream lover.