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.