Sony had a lot to show off just before we hopped aboard a flight to Photokina. The A99 was a lightweight bargain of a full-frame DSLR, the Cyber-shot RX1 was the most powerful compact we'd ever seen and the 16.1-megapixel NEX-6 was one of the finest mirrorless models of the year -- in other words, this is a camera manufacturer that's doing it right, with a wide range of high-end products that would make any tech giant proud. We won't dwell on the firm's troubling financial misfortunes, but based on the company's recent success in the digital imaging space, Sony absolutely needs to remain afloat -- the interchangeable-lens camera market simply wouldn't be the same without it.
For now, we'll focus on the NEX-6. You can snag this compact body for $850 without the lens, but you're probably gonna want to splurge for the kit. At just under $1,000, the 16-50mm power zoom lens duo is clearly Sony's premium 2012 entrant. It's the first such model to pack a brand-new collapsible optic -- it's not the speediest lens, by a long shot, but it is convenient, and versatile. Sony's standard 18-55mm lens is famously oversized in contrast to the relatively thin profile of nearly every NEX model. It's fairly hefty, suffers from significant barrel distortion and is prone to netting nicks and scratches.
With the NEX-6, that aging version's been retired -- at least temporarily, considering that it may pop up with lower-end models next year. This is also the first Sony mirrorless to feature a dedicated mode dial, and you'll get the NEX-7's OLED EVF, along with a built-in flash and a full-size hot shoe. All this in a body that's marginally larger than the NEX-F3. The 6 is clearly a miniature powerhouse, but is it destined to become yours? Find our take after the break.
Sony NEX-6 reviewSee all photos
The NEX-7 was very well received. It was pricey and large, yes, but the design was comfortable, and it worked. Sony had a winner. You might think of the NEX-6 as this year's 7. Sony won't want you to, of course, since the NEX-7 is still very much for sale, but this is clearly the company's new flagship. Sure, there's still some benefit to picking up the pricier 7, but if you won't miss the Tri-Navi interface and could live without 24.3 megapixels, then the focus enhancements, smaller design and even the dedicated mode dial make this the better pick for most users.
All the critical components are here -- a 2,359,296-dot OLED electronic viewfinder is tucked in at the far edge of the top-left corner, followed by a full-size hot shoe to its right, an extended pop-up flash and that long-overdue dedicated mode dial, which shifts selection from the 3-inch 921,600-dot TruBlack LCD to a small round knob at the top-right of the housing. Just below the dial, you'll notice a compact control ring, tasked with variable adjustments depending on the current mode -- in Aperture Priority it controls aperture, shutter in Shutter Priority mode and so on. Rounding out the upper section is a basic power toggle, a shutter release and a small function button, used to launch a quick settings menu for easy access to white balance, metering modes and focus.
Much of the rear is used to accommodate the 3-inch articulating LCD -- it doesn't flip forward for self-portraits like on the NEX-F3 and 5R (the EVF and flash would get in the way), but it can be angled up at 90 degrees for shots below eye level and down at roughly 45 degrees for overhead captures. Above the display is a mechanical flash release and a playback button, with exposure lock, video capture, a pair of custom controls (that vary based on the current mode) and Sony's standard five-way control ring occupying the area surrounding the rubber thumb grip.
The right side of the camera, like on other NEX models, serves as a dedicated grip, with no inputs or controls. On the left, you'll find an HDMI port and micro-USB connector. (No, there's no microphone input, which we certainly wish Sony had included.) On the bottom, there's a tripod socket, followed by a combination SDXC/Memory Stick slot and a battery compartment, complete with Sony's standard 1,080mAh NP-FW50 cell. You'll only need to access this compartment to remove the memory card -- like other 2012 Sony models, the NEX 6's battery is charged using the USB adapter that ships in the box, or any other USB power source, such as a portable backup battery or laptop.
Finally, around the front you'll find the focus-assist light, along with the interchangeable lens mount and release button. The 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens represents the only new bundled accessory since the very first NEX was released way back in 2010. It offers the same focal and aperture range of its predecessor, but in a slick collapsible housing. There's a mechanical zoom as well, controlled by a front-mounted ring or a large toggle, depending on your preference. Because the lens requires time to expand as the camera powers up, you'll need to pause for a moment or two before you can snap your first image, but for most users, the massive decrease in footprint will justify this momentary inconvenience.
Sony's advancements in the UI department aren't related to software -- essentially, the system remains unchanged from the recent NEX-5R with only slight tweaks over the F3 -- but rather to the new top-mounted dedicated mode dial. We've seen such controls many times before, and Sony's adaptation isn't particularly inventive, but the fact that it's now here marks a major milestone in the company's mirrorless system evolution. The dial's significance is two-fold -- naturally, you'll use it to swap shooting modes on the fly, from Aperture to Shutter Priority to Manual or Sweep Panorama, but it also provides the instant gratification you'd never get from the on-screen alternative, confirming your current selection before you even start shooting.
The rest of the interface is controlled using the dial below the mode control, a second dial on the rear and a pair of variable buttons that change depending on the current screen. There's no touch functionality here, which, considering how useful it had been for focus tracking on the NEX-5R, we actually miss. The hardware controls are perfectly effective for adjusting basic and advanced settings, along with accessing the device's Applications menu.
Like the 5R, the NEX-6 offers built-in WiFi, and the applications to go with it. In fact, calling these "apps" might be a stretch -- some, like Picture Effect+, simply add filters that previous models already carried, while Smart Remote Control duplicates functionality that competitors, such as Samsung, already include within their cameras. You can also download additional programs, but the PlayMemories Camera Apps store only contains offerings from Sony, and they're quite limited at this point. Eventually, this feature could become useful, but it's little more than a marketing gimmick at this point. Also, while the 5R includes a touch-enabled keyboard, here you'll need to scroll through the alphabet and click each character when connecting to networks or typing in user credentials, which, as you might imagine, can be incredibly irritating.
When we reviewed the NEX-5R, we weren't able to link up the camera with any of the smartphones we tried over WiFi. Sony blamed the issue on outdated software (an update was not yet available). The company has made some progress with connectivity, but some of the WiFi functions we tried were frustratingly sluggish. Take Smart Remote Control, for example. After launching the app (you need to dig through several menu levels on the camera to even locate it), the smartphone took several minutes to connect before displaying a remote viewfinder. Functionality is limited to shutter release (useful for self-portraits), exposure compensation and self-timer.
The image transfer app was faster and more useful, and enabled us to send shots to a gallery on the smartphone or directly to a sharing site, like Twitter or Instagram. This, too, wasn't nearly as speedy as it needs to be, but it was notably faster, and more functional. It's the next best thing to having Android on your camera, but getting the two devices linked up is still probably more hassle than it's worth.
Performance and battery life
One of the few things we loved about Sony's original 18-55mm kit lens was the manual zoom feature. Adjusting the focal length required turning the barrel, but the lens responded immediately. Granted, it wasn't ideal for zooming while capturing video, but it got the job done. It shouldn't come as any surprise, but the new power zoom optic is naturally a little bit sluggish -- we're not talking seconds-long delays, but it does take a moment to respond, which can make selecting a precise focal length tricky. Once you're up and running, the NEX-6 can snap 10 frames per second at full resolution, though the buffer fills up after that 10th shot is captured, and you'll need to wait a few seconds before continuing.
The camera takes 2.2 seconds to power on, extend its lens (to the 16mm position), focus and capture its first image. Compare that to about 1.3 seconds with the previous-generation kit lens (mounted on the NEX-6), and the difference is certainly noticeable. For casual shooters, it won't be much of a problem, but as we walked around Miami and New York City during several extended shoots, we often ended up leaving the camera powered up, at the expense of a longer battery life.
Even so, the NEX-6's battery life was perfectly commendable, if not fantastic. We managed to squeeze out nearly 650 still images and more than 32 minutes of HD video over two days of shooting. Your mileage will vary, of course, but we also did a fair amount of settings tweaking, on-screen reviewing, capturing long exposures and grabbing multi-frame shots at night. We didn't use any of the wireless features during either of these days of shooting, however, and as you might expect, each image you transmit will cut down on battery life as well.
As we mentioned, a power zoom lens definitely offers an advantage over manual zoom when shooting video -- the difference is immediately clear, considering that there's no choppy motion or awkward focusing issues to deal with. The kit optic also features Optical SteadyShot, letting you capture smoother footage handheld, even when zoomed in. The OIS also enables long nighttime exposures -- we captured several sharp images on a South Florida beach lit only by a full moon. Finally, although the lens isn't completely silent, it's quiet enough that you won't need to worry about the front-mounted stereo mics picking up heavy mechanical sounds as you zoom -- you'll hear it on occasion, but it won't be an issue most of the time -- as you can see in our sample reel just below.
Sony NEX-6 sample gallerySee all photos
As with most interchangeable lens cameras, the body itself is just half of the equation. When it comes to image quality, the lens matters very much, too. For the purposes of this review, we shot exclusively with Sony's new power zoom 16-50mm kit lens. The company also tossed its pricey 10-18mm optic in the box, but that focal range can be quite limiting, and, at $850, it'll nearly double the price of the camera. It's clear that many photographers dropping a cool grand on a mirrorless rig don't have immediate plans to grow their collection of glass, and we're with you there. In reviewing image quality, we find that it's most effective to take a look at some sample shots to get an idea of how the camera performs in a variety of situations. Let's see some pics:
Shot in Intelligent Auto mode at f/13 and 1/400 second, the camera didn't necessarily opt for an ideal aperture when capturing this Miami Beach scene, which may explain why elements lack the sharpness you'd achieve with a high-end DSLR kit. Still, exposure is fine (with a bright sun overhead, exposing for the water in the far left corner would have meant lost details elsewhere in the frame) and color balance is accurate.
Also at f/13, this 1/125-second exposure preserves detail in the shadow areas -- the camera wasn't thrown by the bright sky. Colors are accurate, and while details are slightly soft, they're in line with what we'd expect from a $150 kit lens.
Shot at f/9 and 1/320 second, this restaurant promo board is perfectly legible at a 1:1-pixel view. With the sensitivity fixed at ISO 100, there's no noise or artifacts visible anywhere else in the scene, and colors are accurate and bright.
This f/5.6, 1/160-second exposure yielded sharp details and accurate colors. There's a small amount of noise visible in shadow areas at a 100-percent view, though it would hardly be an issue for web use or prints.
At ISO 200, noise is just barely visible in shadow areas at a 100-percent view, such as just above the yellow sunglasses and on parts of the Frog Man toy packaging. Colors and exposure are excellent in this f/4, 1/160-second shot.
As expected, noise becomes more of a factor when shooting after dark. With the sensitivity bumped to ISO 3200, noise began to appear when examining the image at 50 percent, and becomes clear in certain areas with a 100-percent view. The optically stabilized lens enabled us to capture this sharp scene with a 1/13-second exposure at f/5.6.
We had some fun shooting on the beach under the moonlight, but these clouds are illuminated by city buildings -- some of which can be seen towards the center of the frame. At ISO 6400, details were still clear and sharp, even with a 100-percent view. Sony's SteadyShot feature reduced blur with a 1/8-second exposure at f/3.5.
We were very pleased with the video quality. Exposure was excellent in every scene, and motion was consistent in our 1440x1080-pixel, 30fps MP4 clips. Audio was also generally fine, though the front-mounted stereo mics did not handle the windy beach well. You can take a peek at several minutes of sample footage in the section above.
The NEX-6 may be the best mirrorless camera Sony's ever made, but there's no doubt that its $1,000 kit price tag will be a turnoff to more than a few potential buyers. Still, we're growing ever more faithful in the E-mount ecosystem, and regardless of your budget, there's something for you at Sony. If cash is tight, we still wouldn't hesitate to pick up the NEX-C3. This may be last year's entry-level flavor, but it's a solid performer, and a fantastic value at under $400 with a lens (used). For roughly $100 more, you can snag the NEX-F3 -- Sony's replacement for the C3. In many regards, we prefer its predecessor, but it's definitely a good deal at $500 with lens. If you want to take advantage of WiFi functionality and, perhaps more importantly, the company's new Fast Hybrid AF, you should set your sights on the NEX-5R -- this kit's priced at $700. Finally, we're struggling to find a reason to drop an extra $250 for the NEX-7, but last year's flagship is still on the market if you're eager to gobble it up ($1,250 with lens).
There's also more than a few excellent mirrorless models to consider from other manufacturers. Olympus' OM-D E-M5 remains one of our favorites, due in no small part to the camera's focusing performance (it's faster than the NEX-6) and its retro design. The five-axis image stabilization is also unlike anything we've seen in this category, making this 14-42mm kit a solid contender at $1,050. If video is your focus, the to-be-released Panasonic GH3 is likely to be an excellent option, but it's not cheap -- you'll pay $1,300, before factoring in a lens. We've also been pleased with Samsung's NX20, which also sports a built-in EVF, but it's not quite as speedy or sleek as the other options we've outlined. But, with a new lower price of $900 with a kit lens (down from $1,100), it is within reach.
In 2012, we've seen an abundance of fantastic mirrorless cameras. We were blown away by several offerings in 2011, it's true, but this year's lineup has really upped our enthusiasm for the category. Sony's just one of the manufacturers driving that momentum, but the company really hit a home run with its NEX series -- each model is priced competitively, and each offers even more power than the last. The most impressive, no doubt, is the NEX-6, with its efficient design, speedy autofocus, dedicated mode dial, built-in OLED EVF, articulating display, pop-up flash, full-size hot shoe, new collapsable zoom lens -- even WiFi functionality and apps, to help reel in some otherwise unswayed consumers. There's a lot here, and we expect almost any buyer to walk away happy. It's a pricey tool, no doubt about it, but if you're serious about photography, the NEX-6 really should be your next camera.
- Built-in OLED EVF
- Dedicated mode dial
- Excellent battery life
- Articulating LCD
- Solid, comfortable build
- Sluggish start-up with compact zoom lens
It may be priced a bit out of reach for some, but Sony's NEX-6 is the company's best mirrorless model yet.