Hands on with Sony's NEX-5R WiFi viewfinder feature

Just about anyone who's tried to take a self-portrait with a camera agrees: it's a hassle. Setting the scene, hitting the timer, then rushing into place only to find half of your head has been cut out is par for the course.

If that sounds like you, a new feature that makes use of a smartphone or tablet PC as a remote viewfinder could help. One of the first cameras to offer this will be Sony's NEX-5R, which will be available in major markets in October.

At Berlin's IFA consumer electronics show, I got a chance to try out a prototype. (See a video review of the remote viewfinder function on YouTube.)

The function, which Sony calls "smart remote control," is added to the camera as an application. With the WiFi-equipped NEX-5R, Sony includes the option for downloading applications from an online store, via a PC or from the camera's PlayMemories Store app. Users will also need to download a PlayMemories app to their handset. Sony says versions for Android and Apple's iOS will be available.

The base of the system is a peer-to-peer WiFi connection, so the camera needs to be connected with a smartphone or tablet before it can be used. A couple of button presses in the camera sets it searching for a compatible handset. In our test the process took about 10 seconds for the devices to automatically connect.

Once done, the smartphone screen shows a more-or-less realtime video image that matches the camera's viewfinder. It doesn't include any of the text that is typically overlaid on the viewfinder and lags the camera's viewfinder by a fraction of a second.

In tests at Sony's IFA booth -- a noisy wireless environment -- it worked well over a distance of about 20 centimeters, but the video occasionally froze for a moment. Sony says it should work as far as 300 meters when used outdoors with little interference.

Under the video image on the cellphone screen is a shutter button -- hit it to take a picture. In the IFA test, there was a delay of about two thirds of a second between pressing the shutter button on a Sony Android phone and the camera taking a picture.

Once the picture is taken, the original is stored in the camera's memory and a 2-megapixel version is sent to the smartphone or tablet. It can be reviewed and, without heading back to the camera, another picture taken.

The prototype model on show at IFA wasn't without its problems. The phone app failed to receive a copy of the third picture I took, and at least one of the cameras on stage was having WiFi problems, but such problems are not unusual with prototype software.

With the introduction of WiFi, Sony is also bring the idea of downloadable apps to cameras, the remote control being one example. The camera can also share photos with other devices, such as TVs or computers, over the WiFi link.

In the U.S. the NEX-5R will cost $650 for just the body or $750 for a camera body and lens. Prices for other markets were not announced at IFA.

Sony isn't the only company showing such a system at IFA; Samsung has a similar feature on its Galaxy Camera.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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