Hands-on with the Sony NEX-5

  We've fallen for the charms of the new generation of Micro Four Thirds cameras this year, in particular Panasonic's excellent GF1. But Son

We've fallen for the charms of the new generation of Micro Four Thirds cameras this year, in particular Panasonic's excellent GF1. But Sony might just have trumped them all with the NEX-5, its first 'compact interchangeable lens camera'.

Its new camera category could certainly do with a snappier name, but spending some time with the NEX-5 (on shelves with its NEX-3 brother from mid-June) has confirmed what we suspected when we first saw the concept at PMA in March – it's the world's most covetable camera.

The NEX-5 has tank-like build quality, with the body panels constructed from magnesium alloy and lenses finished with brushed aluminium. The impressive 16mm pancake lens complements its incredibly thin chassis the best, but there's also a 18-55mm zoom lens and a pricey 18-200mm number that'll set you back close to £600.

Aside from looks, the NEX-5 has two big advantages over the Micro Four Thirds brigade. Firstly, it has an APS-C sensor, which is the same size as its DSLR sensors and over 50% bigger than its rivals from Panasonic and Olympus. This means less noise at higher ISO settings, and much better low light performance.

And secondly, Sony has really gone to town on making the NEX-5 as user-friendly as a compact. There are very few buttons, just a control wheel flanked by two keys.

And the menu system (scroll down for a video) is more like that of a mobile phone than a powerful camera, with 'shooting tips' available at almost every step.

Current DSLR owners looking for a second camera may well be put off by its 'DSLR for dummies' approach. But anyone looking to step up from their compact will fall for the NEX-5 in seconds.

Take, for example, its 'background defocus' feature – adjusting 'depth of field' traditionally involves getting your head around f-stops and shutter speeds, but on the NEX-5 you just scroll the wheel up or down to adjust the blur of the background.

Experienced snappers will be tempted to slap some derogatory 'L plate' stickers onto the NEX-5 for these non-purist antics, but the benefit for everyone else is that the NEX-5 is a lot of fun to use.

This is helped by the presence of some nifty features from its Cyber-shot range. For the first time on an Alpha camera, there's the ability to record HD video (1080i on the NEX-5, 720p on the NEX-3) which is very smooth thanks to the sizeable sensor.

The 'Sweep Panorama' feature that lets you take 224-degree landscape scenes in one burst is also on board – although we found there were a few visible 'joins' in our shots – and a new 3D Panorama function, which looked promising on Sony's 3D Bravia, will be available from July as a firmware upgrade.

DSLR veterans will find lots of toys to play with too. There's an HDR mode, which shoots an under and over exposed shot then mixes them for a super-contrasty effect, a 7fps burst mode and a full manual mode.

The NEX-5 is by no means perfect. Our model's battery drained down to below 25% over an afternoon, so it'll need a charge a day. With any lens other than the 16mm pancake it's still far from pocketable. And if you want to use any existing Sony Alpha lenses with the NEX-5, you'll need to buy a £150 E-mount adaptor and be happy only using manual focus, as autofocus won't work.

But overall we were mighty impressed with the NEX-5's performance. Its autofocus is snappy (on a par with the Panasonic GF1), its photos (particularly in low light) were crisp and detailed, and with a chunky grip and excellent build it's an incredibly satisfying camera to hold and use. Look out for a full review very soon.

For Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3 pricing, check out our news story.

Video tour – Sony NEX-5 interface

The NEX5 comes with a clip-on flash in the box.

While the NEX5 will only be available in silver and black, the cheaper NEX3 also has a dashing red version.

Unlike the current crop of Micro Four Thirds cameras, the NEX5 has a handy tilting screen.