If you want the smallest possible interchangeable-lens camera, experts say the Sony Alpha NEX-5 is for you. At 4.4 inches by 2.4 inches by 1.6 inches, it's smaller than some of the Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus (although testers say all brands offer at least some models that fit neatly into a jacket pocket). Like those cameras, the Sonys use a mirrorless technology that allows manufacturers to fit many of the features from traditional digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras -- a big image sensor, interchangeable lenses and lots of manual controls -- into a palm-sized body.
As for performance, some experts say the Sony truly offers DSLR quality. Others stop short of this praise, but even they are impressed with the Sony's overall performance, even in low light (the camera comes with a separate little flash you can plug into the accessory port, if you need it). The NEX-5 captures 1080i HD video, and experts say it does a really good job automatically adjusting focus and exposure as it shoots video. We priced the Sony Alpha NEX-5 with its 18 mm to 55 mm, 3x zoom lens, but you can also buy the body only. Top experts recommend the pricier Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 (*Est. $900 with kit lens) most often among compact interchangeable-lens cameras, but it's not really pocketable like the Sony.
The enthusiast websites Imaging-Resource.com, PhotographyBlog.com and DPReview.com all subject the Sony Alpha NEX-5 to their usual exhaustive testing. Tests at CNET and PC World are briefer, with concise, easy-to-read reviews. Owners post reviews at Amazon.com describing their real-life experiences with the NEX-5.
Sony's NEX cameras are truly innovative, editors at Imaging-Resources.com say. Importantly, they're the only interchangeable-lens cameras that offer continuous autofocus and exposure adjustment in an integrated way while shooting video. Their photo quality leads the category, testers here say, making them both top picks.
Review: Sony Alpha NEX-5, Dave Etchells, Shawn Barnett, Zig Weidelich and Mike Tomkins, Updated June 8, 2010
"Lacking the charm of the Olympus PEN series" and "the usability of the Panasonic G range and Samsung NX10," editors say the Sony NEX-5 is still a recommended camera here -- but not as highly as other brands. Although the image quality is reasonably consistent, "we weren't blown away."
Review: Sony NEX-5 Review, Gavin Stoker, July 5, 2010
The Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 represent "a brave and interesting attempt to redefine the camera," DPReview.com says. Image quality is good -- not fantastic -- but Sony has shown the world that it is indeed possible to make a tiny camera with a really big image sensor.
Review: Sony NEX-3/NEX-5 Review, Richard Butler and Andy Westlake, Updated Oct. 2010
Lori Grunin finds "quirks and operational annoyances" with the Sony Alpha NEX-5, including a scroll wheel that keeps flying past the menu setting she wants. But for a lot of buyers, Grunin says its excellent photo quality and small size will make up for those shortcomings.
Review: Sony Alpha NEX-5 (Black, with 18-55 mm Lens), Lori Grunin, May 11, 2010
5. PC World
The Sony NEX-5 "offers image and video quality on par with a DSLR and unique modes that go beyond anything in its class," Derrick Story concludes after testing it in the lab and in the challenging light at a basketball game. Its biggest drawback is the lack of an on-board flash.
Review: Sony Alpha NEX-5, Derrick Story, July 13, 2010
The Sony Alpha NEX-5 has amassed more than 50 owner reviews at Amazon, with an overall rating of 4 stars out of 5. A few of the reviews go into quite a bit of detail.
Review: Sony Alpha NEX NEX5K/B, Contributors to Amazon.com