But while the first three sought to steal market share from entry-level digital SLRs, the new Sony NEX-5, which we've already taken a first look at, has a stripped-down interface designed to appeal to photographers without any technical background.
Whether you're used to compact point-and-shoot cameras or larger SLRs, the NEX-5 is an unusual proposition at first sight. Unlike most compacts, it has a large handle, an impeccable metal finish and a swivel screen. The weight is also surprising, and with the 18-55 mm kit lens, the most natural way to hold is with two hands, with the thumb and index finger of the left hand on the zoom ring. Compared to SLRs, there's no viewfinder and just about every single one of the traditional controls has disappeared, meaning you'll need to seriously rethink how you use it.
The NEX-5's controls are laid out to make it easy to take a photo (using your index finger) or start recording video (under your thumb), with less emphasis given to adjusting the settings. Only burst mode and the self-portrait timer have their own buttons, along with the flash, if you're using one (see inset). Pressing the middle button activates the 'background defocus control', or aperture priority mode as we're more used to calling it. Everything else is controlled using the onscreen menus, which are also rather unusual. For instance, ISO sensitivity, normally considered a key setting, doesn't get its own entry in the menu, but is instead hidden away under 'Brightness and Colour'.
The new interface does provide you with a lot of help, with text to explain all of the settings and an onscreen user guide comes with relevant, well-written guidance on how to take better photos. And unlike the Olympus E-PL1, the NEX-5 also shows the traditional settings like aperture and speed, which will help more experienced photographers make the transition from traditional cameras.
Another strength is the excellent LCD screen, which, although incredibly thin—and sharp—can be flipped out from the camera body. Despite being under 5 mm thick, it still manages to pack in VGA resolution.
With its two second start-up time, the NEX-5 is slower to get going than traditional digital SLRs, Panasonic's G-range models or the Samsung NX10.
It's a shame too, because once you do switch it on, scene recognition is almost instant, and autofocus is fast in good conditions, even if very low light levels can slow it down. The burst mode can rack up three photos per second without a problem, but without being able to rival the performance of an SLR with continuous autofocus.
Given that the NEX-5's sensor was inherited from the Alpha 550, we were hardly surprised to see some very impressive results. Noise and blurriness are virtually invisible up to 1600 ISO, and we found JPEGs usable for small prints even at 6400 ISO.
The 18-55 mm kit lens is very well made, and the zoom and focus rings move smoothly, without having too much give and never need forcing. The quality of the optics is up to scratch too: distortion is visible, but not excessive, with the usual barrel distortion at the shortest focal length and pincushion at the longest. We couldn't spot any chromatic aberration, even in RAW files, and sharpness was perfect when zoomed in, even if a little lacking around the outside of the frame in wide-angle.
Compare the Sony NEX-5 to other digital cameras in our Product Face-Off
Building the stabilisation system into the lens was an unusual decision after Sony's acquisition, and subsequent improvement, of Minolta's mechanical stabilisation system. The NEX-5 would have been a few millimetres thicker with mechanical stabilisation, but then every lens would have been able to benefit from it. Right now, the 16 mm lens has no stabilisation at all.
That said, the optical stabilisation on the 18-55 mm lens managed sharp shots at 1/8 sec. which was very reassuring, even if Panasonic's Mega O.I.S. seems more powerful.
The NEX-5 films in 1080i at 50 frames per second, using the same AVCHD format as camcorders. It can also shot MP4 video at 1440 x 1080 pixels at 25 fps. The continuous autofocus works well and if you find it a little slow, a quick half-press on the camera shutter release sets it back to work again. Sound is recorded in stereo and the quality is pretty good. Plus, you can replace the flash with a microphone if you prefer.
It's still not quite perfect, with the sensor suffering from moiré in video mode, meaning the smallest elements can appear coloured. And why isn't there an aperture setting for video so you can adjust the depth of field? Sony probably thought the amateur users the NEX-5 is targeted at wouldn't be interested in that ...
- Excellent build and tiny size
- Very attractive rotating screen
- Quality of photos and noise handling
- 1080i HD video with continuous autofocus and stereo sound
- On-the-fly panoramas or long exposure shots with no tripod
- Useless flash port
- Not enough direct access to key settings
- Not easy for everybody to hold
- A little slow to start up
The Sony NEX-5 is an incredibly compact camera which takes you by the hand and helps you take very impressive photos and videos. It's not a camera for experienced users though, who will be frustrated by the lack of direct control over many settings.