Now this is an upgrade I can get excited about. When Sony refreshed its entry-level NEX-C3 with the NEX-F3 earlier this year, I was a little disappointed that the major differences were a pop-up flash and flip-up LCD that I never found myself using in day-to-day shooting. These changes came at the expense of size and weight, one of the strengths of the C3 (which I still use). Sony's refresh of the mid-range NEX-5N, the newly announced NEX-5R, makes changes that I think are actually very practical and put affordable mirrorless cameras one step closer to replacing DSLRs for most people's needs.
The first useful improvement, which you can see in the image above, is the addition of a freely rotating control dial, positioned where the on-off switch used to be on the 5N (that been moved to share space with the shutter button, which makes more sense). The control dial--presumably non-clicky like the dials found on the high-end (and expensive) NEX-7 complements the single rotating dial on the back of the camera for quick adjustments to ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, or other settings. A new Function button on top of the camera lets you change the function of the dial, which I would consider using for exposure control in Aperture priority mode or shutter speed in full Manual. The physical control dial is a big deal.
Next is an upgrade to the actual sensor of the camera. While it says as a perfectly reasonable 16.1MP APS-C, the 5R's sensor now has support for both phase-detect and contrast-based auto-focus. The two types of AF can actually be used together for what Sony calls Fast Hybrid AF, though that's only supported by compatible lenses (some existing E-mount lenses, with support for others added later with a firmware update). Phase-detection has typically been an auto-focus feature relegated to DSLRs (and Sony's translucent mirror digital cameras), and allows for much faster focus which can be applied to burst-photography and even continuous AF during video recording. Phase-detect AF on an NEX mirrorless camera is a big deal.
The last notable new feature that I really like on the 5R is the addition of app support. This is enabled through a Wi-Fi antenna built in to the camera, a feature which Sony experimented on with its HX30V point-and-shoot. While I was not impressed by the HX30V's ability to send photos to a proprietary smartphone app, Wi-Fi here is used to download function-specific apps that Sony develops in house to add software functionality to the camera. So unlike Nikon or Samsung's use of Android apps for their new smart cameras, the NEX-5R is definitely a camera first, app-device second (ie. the new interface hasn't changed to look like a smartphone). In fact, Sony is limiting apps for the 5R to in-house developed ones at launch, which I think is a smart move to control the quality of the experience while users familiarize themselves with the new features. Apps like "Picture Effect +" and "Photo Retouch" don't sound useful to me, but I look forward to apps that actually assist in shooting photos, like the "Smart Remote Control", "Time Lapse", or the "Bracket Pro" apps that Sony has announced. Useful photography apps for in-camera assistance is a very big deal.
Other changes include adopting the full-flip up LCD from the F3 (though still touchscreen) and video recording up to 1080p/60fps (with slow shutter for low light video). USB charging is also new for the 5 series, though that may mean that the external battery charger is no longer included, as was the case in the F3 refresh.
The NEX 5R will ship in October for an MSRP of $750 with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, or $650 for the body only.