Sony today announced the NEX-5R, the third version of their mid-range mirrorless camera, and one with several tricks up its sleeve.
First, the basics: the camera body itself is very modestly changed from the NEX-5N. We get a control dial up top, plus the tilting LCD now folds up 180 degrees (down 50°), like the NEX-3F. A dedicated Fn button has also been added. Those changes are welcome ones, and will likely improve the flexibility and shooting behavior of the camera for serious shooters. Unfortunately, the top dial seems like it was a hasty addition: it basically replaces using the rear dial around the Direction pad (i.e., it doesn't perform separate, new functions).
Inside, the differences are more extensive, and this is where the tricks show up.
The new 16.1mp sensor has 99 phase detect autofocus points in the center of the frame. While at first this seems the same as the Nikon 1, it appears that Sony's system is mostly hybrid: the phase detect is used to get the lens positioned correctly quickly, then the contrast-based system takes over for final focus. The only time that the contrast-based system isn't used appears to be when shooting in continuous servo autofocus in continuous frame rates, at which point the system seems to fully rely only on the phase detect sensors. This is going to put some nuance into how the focus system works, and is going to take some time for serious users to completely figure out. At present only four lenses have firmware updates to work with the new focus system (the 18-55 and 55-200mm kit zooms, the 18-200mm super zoom recently announced, and the 24mm Zeiss). Technically, phase detect works fastest when lenses are directly designed to be used by it (because the lens' internal focus mechanism needs to be optimized for large, quick jumps as opposed to small increments; in the case of Sony's system, it needs to be optimized for both). Sony's indication that other lens updates are coming seems to imply that Sony has been designing lenses with both phase detect and contrast focus in mind all along. Let's hope that's true and we don't need to replace lenses (of course, fortunately there are only seven of those at the moment ;~).
Battery life is also said to have been improved (same battery as earlier NEX models), and the battery can be charged in-camera via the USB port.
But the big trick, and the reason for the headline, is the connectivity (WiFi) and programmability of the camera. Sony is touting this feature as PlayMemories Camera Apps, with the primary shipping app being one that communicates with a Sony-supplied Android or iOS app on your smartphone or tablet. I've only seen this feature demonstrated so far, but it looks far closer to my "ideal" camera-to-phone connection than we've seen on any previous cameras. Still, it's another piece of software in the workflow, and does not seem to be fully automating our workflow (I should perhaps add a ", yet" here, as this is something that might be updated in the future).
Sony has other "apps" planned for the camera itself, including more picture effects (Soninstagram), smart remote control (use your phone to control the camera), photo retouch, and two that triggered my headline: multi-shot noise reduction, and pro bracketing. It appears that Sony has decided that, rather than just adding more features directly to firmware, that they'll let users add some of those as options. The bracketing app is a particularly clear indicator of this. Photographers have pointed out that just bracketing exposure is so 20th century; we're in a digital age where technically the computer inside the camera should be able to help us bracket pretty much any decision when we're unclear of something to set. The Sony bracketing app adds bracketing of shutter speed, aperture, focus, and flash use.
Sony was mostly tight-lipped about how the app system is going to work so far. Up to 100 apps can be loaded in the camera, apparently. Some will be free and some will be paid-for apps. But we don't know how much apps will cost if they aren't free, how the apps are created and by whom, whether there are third-party options for creating apps, and much, much more. The implication in the press information and press conference was that these apps would be usable with other Sony cameras, likely future Sony DSLRs and NEX models. The good news is that Sony has clearly created an option for installing more features into a camera as options (as opposed to doing bigger all-firmware updates). That's very good news, indeed, and right in line with what I've been proposing for years. The bad news is that we don't have any more news about the apps story at the moment. As I learn more, I'll update this story.