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Sony's logo. Click here to visit the Sony website! Sony NEX Firmware Update and Alpha news
(Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 18:45 EDT)

When we first reviewed Sony's NEX-5 (and its slightly cheaper sibling the NEX-3), we raved about the camera's capabilities and image quality, but railed against the inefficiencies of its user interface. We and many of our readers were also disappointed by the lack of aperture control in Movie mode.

Huge kudos, then, to Sony for today announcing a firmware update, due for public release in mid-October of this year, that addresses some of the most annoying user interface issues, and adds aperture control in Movie mode. It also brings support for Sony's motor-equipped lenses (SAM and SSM models) through Sony's E-mount to A-mount adapter.

Here's a detailed list of the changes in this firmware update:

  • Adds a user-selectable option to drop you back into whatever menu item you had last selected, vs. always taking you to the top of the menu system when you hit the Menu button. (A huge improvement in usability; one that frequently had us gnashing our teeth as we fiddled with the cameras many options while testing the prototypes.)

  • Adds a user-selectable option to make the NEX menus wrap so scrolling off the bottom will take you back to the top entry again. (Not quite as important as the first change above, but this still removes an enormous annoyance.)

  • Adds customizable buttons: A gigantic improvement for experienced users. The center button and lower-left button on the camera's back (see illustration above) can now have a wide range of camera functions assigned to them. Sony reps at the press event didn't have an exact number for how many functions could be assigned, but said it was "a whole passel" -- potentially 20 or more. Configurable options include things like white balance, ISO, exposure mode, etc. The center button can have up to three functions assigned to it simultaneously, which can be selected by pressing multiple times or pressing and scrolling with the rear control dial. The lower left button supports just one function at once. Bottom line, you'll be able to have up to four camera functions close at hand, rather than having to delve into the menu system.

  • Aperture control in Movie mode: Probably the biggest single request from video shooters, the new firmware will let you control the aperture used during video shooting in two different ways. In Auto mode, whatever amount of "background defocus" you select in still-image mode will apply to video recording as well. Likewise, if you've selected Aperture Priority mode for still shooting, the same aperture setting will apply when you switch to movie recording.

  • Support for A-mount Sony lenses with internal motors. Initially, the NEX cameras only supported the older A-mount lenses in manual focusing mode. The update will support autofocus operation with A-mount lenses that have internal focus motors. (We didn't take time to do a full count, but we think that's a total of about 12 lens models.) NOTE, though, that you actually have to upgrade the firmware in the lens adapter, as well as in the camera itself. (We were surprised to learn that the A-mount to E-mount adapter actually has a chip in it, to translate data between the lens and the camera body. As part of the update process, then, you'll need to attach your Sony A-mount adapter to the camera, so the camera can update the adapter's firmware.)

Another important announcement included a roadmap of NEX lenses: A total of seven new E-mount (NEX) lenses will be announced in the next two years; four coming in 2011 alone. With the 18-200mm lens only just starting to reach stores, the lack of lenses has been seen as a limitation of the NEX cameras. Sony clearly wanted to send a strong signal today that they're addressing the issue. Here's what they have scheduled:

  • 2011

    • Wide-angle Carl Zeiss prime lens

    • Telephoto zoom

    • Macro lens

    • Portrait lens

  • 2012

    • High-performance standard zoom

    • Wide-angle zoom

    • Medium Tele

Sony also detailed a few Alpha product line expansion plans:

  • First, Sony announced that what looks will be the A700 replacement will be based on their translucent-mirror technology, as seen in the A33/55. Sony didn't give many details, but they did say that it'll have a new sensor capable of full-resolution HD recording, and will be "much more powerful" than the A55.

  • Other additions in the Alpha category will include a vertical grip for the coming model, and a new flash unit as well. (Sony also previewed a new flash unit for the NEX line.)

Finally, Sony representatives said they will proactively support the development of third-party lenses and adaptors for the E-mount. Because the E-mount has the shortest flange-sensor distance in the industry, there's more room to fit in an adapter and still have foreign lenses focus properly. Mr. Katsumoto made a point of saying that Sony was very much in favor of this, and was interested in proactively working with various companies to make more adapters. In a private conversation with Imaging-Resource.com Publisher Dave Etchells after the formal presentation, Mr. Katsumoto underscored that Sony would release full engineering specifications for the E-mount to third party adapter makers; a pretty unusual stance in an industry where manufacturers tend to jealously guard such information.

--by Dave Etchells

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