After some brief hands-on time with the new Sony Alpha NEX-5 camera, I noticed a few things that make the Alpha NEX series a very attractive option for would-be DSLR buyers. This is an incredibly small and slick camera; with the lens removed, the NEX-5's body is about the size of a bulkier point-and-shoot camera. Without the lens attached, it would easily fit into a pocket.
Like the Olympus Pen E-PL1, the NEX models are aimed at entry-level DSLR buyers who don't want the bulk or complexity of a DSLR, and that comes through in the camera's ease of use. No user manual is included with the camera--and it doesn't need one. Beginners will take to this camera immediately, and more-advanced photographers are likely to be tempted by the camera's small size, vibrant display, and creative user interface.
For beginners, helpful in-camera guides offer general shooting tips and creative ways of controlling the settings. You can easily create blurred backgrounds and shallow depth-of-field effects without jumping into the aperture priority or manual modes; when you have the camera in Intelligent Auto mode, you simply "Defocus Background" by rotating the scroll wheel on the back of the camera.
Another big draw is the tiltable 3-inch LCD, which is practically a miniature HDTV. It's extremely sharp, crisp, and bright, and it might make purists forget about the lack of an optical viewfinder very quickly. You can tilt the LCD up and down, but it doesn't swivel; it's built for odd-angle shots, but not self-portraits.
The NEX cameras also include several innovative, fun-to-use modes found in recent Cyber-shot cameras. In the NEX cameras, these modes are bolstered by the added strength of a big sensor and high-quality lenses. Sweep Panorama mode, for instance, is far more impressive than it is on a point-and-shoot camera, and Handheld Twilight mode (which overlays up to six images to create a sharp, noiseless low-light image) gets a whole lot more sensor power to work with.
What is perhaps the coolest feature in the NEX cameras isn't available just yet, however. Sony says that a July firmware update will allow the cameras to shoot 3D panorama images, which you can view on Sony's Bravia line of HDTVs with the company's 3D glasses. That's a whole lot of proprietary technology to make the feature work, but the demos I saw of the cameras' 3D panorama abilities were impressive.
Of course, experienced photographers will have to make plenty of compromises with either of these cameras as opposed to a full-on DSLR. Advanced users won't be thrilled about the lack of an optical viewfinder, the omission of a pop-up flash, and the absence of a mode dial on the top of the camera (you get a power button, a shutter release, a dedicated video button, a playback button, and that's it).
You use the scrollwheel on the back of the camera and two soft keys to access menus, scenes, and settings; the soft keys' functions depend on which menu you're in. The user interface on the Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3 is outstanding, and the lack of buttons on the back produces an uncluttered and elegant look, but many photographers will want faster access to certain modes.
All in all, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 may appeal more to point-and-shoot graduates than to seasoned photographers, but the cameras' ultracompact size and fun features give them serious potential for crossover appeal. Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for a full review of the Sony Alpha NEX-5.