Sony Alpha A5100 Gordon Laing, November 2014

Sony A5100 review-in-progress

The Sony Alpha A5100 is an upper entry-level mirrorless camera that's compatible with Sony's range of E-mount lenses. Announced in August 2014, it comes just eight months after its predecessor, the A5000, but unlike many swift camera updates, the A5100 sports a number of important and very worthwhile improvements.

First the APS-C sensor, inherited from the higher-end A6000. This means the A5100 now enjoys 24 Megapixels to its predecessor's 20, but more importantly means it also boasts the A6000's 179 embedded phase-detect AF points which allow that model to continuously focus with a high degree of success. This is a huge upgrade over the A5000, and indeed almost any system camera, mirrorless or DSLR. Where most cameras costing even twice the price of the A5100 can struggle with continuous AF, especially mirrorless models, Sony's embedded phase-detect array can track sports and action with ease.

Like its predecessor, composition on the A5100 is with its screen only, which as before can flip back by 180 degrees to face the subject for easy self-portraits or filming pieces to camera. New to the A5100 though is a higher resolution screen, 920k dots vs 460k, and hallelujah, touch-sensitive capabilities. Yes, for the first time in ages for a Sony camera, you can tap to reposition the AF area. Also inherited from the RX100 III and A7s is the option to encode 1080 / 50p / 60p movies in XAVC S, supporting the higher bit rate of 50Mbit/s. Like its predecessor there's also Wifi with NFC and the chance to download apps to expand the functionality. I've started testing a final production model and ahead of my full review can share a selection of Sony A5100 sample images!

Sony A5100 review

Sony A5100 launch analysis

The A5100 sits between the A5000 and A6000 in Sony's mirrorless range, and the big question for many people will be deciding which model to buy, as the three share a number of things in common.

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The A5100 shares essentially the same body as the A5000 and indeed the same degree of screen articulation that allows it to flip back to face the subject. But Sony's upgraded the panel to 920k resolution and also made it touch-sensitive, the latter an advantage it enjoys over every single model in the current Sony range including the A6000 and A7 series. I know some people aren’t keen on touch-screens, but while I can take or leave swiping and pinching images in playback, I definitely see a huge benefit in simply tapping to reposition a single AF area, a process that's laborious on other Sony cameras. I really hope touch-screens are deployed across the range in the future.

The big news is the A5100 inherits the sensor from the A6000 equipping it not just with 24 Megapixels but also the superb embedded phase-detect AF system. I recently came back from shooting the Tour de France with the A6000 and FE 70-200mm f4G OSS and was seriously impressed by the performance. Check out my new article all about it!

The continuous shooting speed is faster than the A5000 (6fps vs 3.5), but slower than the A6000 (at 11fps). You also get a deeper buffer on the A5100, allowing you to shoot for longer.

So with the A5000 you get 20 Megapixels, a fully-articulated screen which can flip-back to face subjects, 3.5fps continuous shooting and built-in Wifi with NFC. Spend roughly $200 USD or 200 GBP extra (at current prices) for the A5100 and you'll add 4 more Megapixels, a higher resolution touch-screen, faster 6fps continuous shooting, and support for 1080 / 50p / 60p with XAVC S encoding. Pay about $100 USD / 100 GBP on top of this and you'll be able to afford the A6000 with its built-in electronic viewfinder and hotshoe, along with faster continuous shooting at 11fps, but you'll lose the XAVC S encoding, touch-screen and the ability to flip the screen up by more than 90 degrees.

This makes for an interesting choice. The older A5000 currently enjoys some good discounts and these will only get better now the A5100 has been announced. When we reviewed it, I reckoned it was the best choice for anyone looking for an entry-level interchangeable lens camera. This is now even more the case, although those who like to shoot action, or even just lively kids or pets, will greatly benefit from the superior continuous AF and faster shooting on the new A5100.

As for the A6000, it would initially seem like the bargain compared to the A5100, at least until the latter starts to be discounted. After all, you're getting a built-in EVF, hotshoe and faster continuous shooting, but the A5100 does have XAVC S movies, a touch-screen and the chance to flip the screen back on itself - oh and it's smaller and lighter too. Obviously if you want a viewfinder, then it's a no-brainer as neither the A5000 nor A5100 have one or support one as an accessory - likewise for the hotshoe for supporting accessories like external flashes or microphones. The burst shooting is also much faster, almost twice as fast. Personally speaking I think I'd spend the extra on the A6000 for the viewfinder and faster shooting, but I would look enviously on the A5100's touch-screen and XAVC S encoding and wonder if an A6100 is very far away?

See my Sony A5000 review and Sony A6000 review for more details, and to see Sony's continuous AF in action, check out my Mirrorless at the Tour de France article!

The bottom line though is Sony once again proving it's the camera company hungriest for success right now. Who else is releasing new products this quickly with genuine benefits, and crucially not playing that stupid game of Canon and Nikon of holding technologies back for fear of cannibalizing their own ranges. With the A6000, Sony came up with a sensor that delivered the best continuous AF I'd tested of any camera costing up to twice the price. If it were Canon or Nikon, they'd have reserved it for higher-end models only, or in the case of the EOS 70D's Dual Pixel CMOS AF, seem to forget about it altogether. But this is Sony we're talking about, so just six months after the A6000 was launched, its superb AF has already made it down into a more affordable model, and lest we forget, just about every model also has Wifi and NFC.

Just when you think Sony has a camera for everyone, they go and squeeze another into the range. So once again, a warning to more traditional camera companies: stop sleepwalking or you'll wake up one day and find your customers have switched brands.

I've started testing a final production model and ahead of my full review can share a selection of Sony A5100 sample images!

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