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As a newcomer currently evaluating the platform (for smart-contracts, experimentally, not as an investment, hence the low amount - I just need to pay for gas), I don't want to commit any large amount of currency to it at this time. This, though, leaves me with the problem of obtaining ether at all to do said evaluation, without mining hardware, and with most exchanges either not wishing to deal in, or imposing proportionately high fees for, fribbling small change - such as purchasing $5-worth of ether at a time.

What is the best way to purchase ether in such small quantities, if it is indeed possible?

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You can use the Testnet, that would allow you to mine some Ether yourself, and try out everything for free. Mist has a functionality to switch to testnet. If you still want to purchase small amounts you can use Bitsquare.io, a decentralized exchange (you need Bitcoins for escrow, though).

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Don't know of any method of purchasing $5 worth.

In Australia, the minimum amount sellers on https://localbitcoins.com will sell is AUD 50 (~37 USD, ~ 0.052783 bitcoins or ~ 2 ethers).

Purchase the bitcoin and convert it to ethers via https://shapeshift.io (minimum 0.00053300 BTC currently).

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You can also look at prepaid or gift cards like those proposed by Bitit

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