To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade: Sony NEX-5N vs NEX-7
Last month, I had a chance to test the NEX-5N and NEX-7 (read my NEX-7 hands-on report here) for a few days and, considering purchasing one or the other myself as a carry-everywhere camera, I had skin in the game, so to speak, in considering which makes more sense for the discerning consumer. So it seems fitting that I should provide some perspective I garnered from my hands-on experience.
At What Price?
On the surface, Sony has placed these cameras in clearly different categories, pricing the NEX-7 body ($1200) at double the price of the NEX-5N ($600). In terms of pricing, the NEX-5N would seem to have a lot more in common with the Sony’s consumer offering, the NEX-C3. But a lot of enthusiast and pro photographers, who would normally default to the higher-end model, are taking a serious look at the 5N. As I argued earlier, if looking at pure image quality and the latest specs, it represents the best value for the money in the mirrorless market, if not the camera market as a whole. It has an incredible large sensor, by far the best to be found at this price point. The seemingly limited external controls are misleading, as the heavy customizability of the few function buttons available allows direct access to major features that consume 90% of a photographer’s day-to-day shooting needs. With one more function button I would have been on cloud nine, but the current layout passes the gauntlet of basic intuitive usability.
Spec-wise, the cameras have a lot in common, including the articulating screen, almost identical menu systems, and the same great video features, with 1080p 60fps AVCHD 2.0 video, as well as the standard 24fps, plus peaking, a video essential. So why is the NEX-7 twice the price? Let’s take a look at what differentiates the NEX-7 from the 5N:
Key advantages of NEX-7:
- built in EVF (available as attachable add-on for NEX-5N for $350)
- built in flash compatible with Sony’s pro flashes (an attachable flash add-on for NEX-5N can be had for $150)
- hot shoe
- Tri-Navi system
- exposure and AF lock button
- extra function button to cycle through Tri-Navi assignments
- New 24MP Sony sensor
That last point is contentious among internet pundits as an “advantage.” Although useful for large prints and crop-a-holics, many consider 24MP packed onto an APS-C sensor overkill. The sensor, shared by the A77, has been underperforming in high-ISO tests against lower megapixel APS-C rivals, like the 7D and D7000. The question of how much of that is owing to the Translucent mirror cutting off some of the light reaching the sensor will remain until we see scientific studio samples directly from the NEX-7. Considering we can expect the same high ISO performance out of the NEX-5N as the formidable Nikon D7000, as the sensors are very similar, the low-light advantage goes to the 5N. The 5N even has a higher max ISO, 25000 vs 16000.
The NEX-7’s hotshoe is a great addition, giving accessibility to the flashes for Sony’s pro bodies, as well as, via an adapter, Canon and Nikon flashes, as well as Pocketwizards for studio work. And the pop-up flash gives a surprisingly pleasing flat Terry Richardson, Yashica T4-style look, if you like that quality.
But in my experience, the decision came down to the Tri-Navi system and EVF. These two features for me singlehandedly justified the lofty price, catapulting the camera into an uncompromised, DSLR-like experience.
The electronic viewfinder is so good, that I consider it indispensable. As nice as the 920k dot LCD screen is, it just can’t compare to looking through a 2.4 million dot OLED viewfinder, especially on a bright day. The detachable EVF is available for the 5N for a handsome sum, $350, significantly closing the price gap between the two. The image quality is identical, but it feels plasticky and significantly bulks up the otherwise pocketable formfactor. It’s so ungainly, I found myself removing it, leading to a jumble of elements in my jacket pocket, and then reassembling it when I got to my shooting destination. Since my shooting style depends on discovering the world in realtime, this led to a few frustrating moments in which I found myself fumbling around and hurriedly screwing it into place as the shot dissolved before my eyes.
As fast as you can adjust your settings with the NEX-5N given its stripped-down controls, the NEX-7 is simply in a different category. The control dials of the Tri-Navi system are so well-machined, with just the right amount of torque and sensitivity, that changing key settings is ridiculously quick and responsive. The function button that cycles through the various Tri-Navi controls gives an added dimension to the on-camera direct-access experience that not even many DSLRs can match.
Obviously, these are just my observations, and each photographer has to consider his or her shooting style, needs and, of course, budget. But when the NEX-7 starts trickling into stores (the massive flooding in Thailand has significantly delayed production), I’ll be the first in line.