Our First Take
When Sony launched the NEX-7 way back at the end of 2011, it was really the first high-end mirrorless camera. It had superb handling, an electronic viewfinder that didn't make you want to tear your hair out, and tons of manual control. Sony refined the idea last year with the NEX-6, introducing a slightly more compact, slightly more approachable version that had similar capabilities but slashed the cost by several hundred dollars.
This year, Sony is moving permanently away from the NEX branding, but still preserving the spirit of the NEX-6 and NEX-7 with the A6000 (MSRP $799.99 w/ 16–50mm kit lens).
Announced just ahead of CP+, the A6000 is geared towards enthusiast photographers looking for a highly capable camera but either don't want to deal with the expense of the full-frame A7/A7R or need something with a little more speed.
Aggressively priced at just $799.99 with a kit lens, the A6000 represents a compelling option for sub-$1,000 shoppers. Its main calling card is speed, as Sony is claiming that its new sensor and processor are capable of autofocusing in just 0.06 seconds—the fastest in the world. Does that claim hold water? We went hands-on with the A6000 prior to the announcement to see for ourselves.
Design & Usability
The NEX name is dead, but the design lives on.
If you've used the Sony NEX-6 at all, there's nothing about the A6000 that will surprise you. The template here is pretty much identical: dual control dials, a mode dial on top, built-in OLED viewfinder, built-in flash, and a tilting rear screen.
For those who haven't used a Sony E-mount (NEX or otherwise) camera recently, the A6000 is significantly smaller than a full-size DSLR, but is still chunkier than most point-and-shoot cameras. Without a lens attached, the body is about as thick as two smartphones taped together. The body also has a large, pleasantly shaped grip that sticks out on the right side. The entire camera feels exceptionally well built, with no flex in the frame, and is still quite lightweight.
One thing that is very clear here is that Sony has taken the positive feedback regarding the A7 and A7R's design and brought it down to the A6000. The new camera has a rear control layout that is almost identical to the A7/A7R, with the same menu system. The menu layout is as logical here as it is on the higher-end cameras, making navigation a snap. For beginners, the sheer volume of options may be a little daunting at first, but the dedicated mode dial provides safe havens like full auto mode for those who just want to point and shoot.
For more advanced shooters, the A6000 is simply fantastic. The upgraded electronic viewfinder is crisp and brighter than on the NEX-6, with a comfortable eyecup that helps prevent light leak—despite the viewfinder's corner location. (Unfortunately, the location may still cause issues for left-eye dominant shooters, unless you press right up against the finder.) The articulating rear screen also gives you the ability to frame from a variety of angles.
Overall, the A6000 is designed with enthusiast shooters in mind, though the price and feature set will appeal just as strongly to novices who want a camera with room to grow.
Still shooters have a lot to like, but video is an afterthought.
The Alpha A6000 may come in at a budget-friendly price, but Sony has certainly spared minimal expense in delivering a high-end camera. The A6000's feature set begins with its combination of a new 24.3-megapixel backside-illuminated APS-C sensor and a Bionz X processor. The sensor comes with 179 phase-detection autofocus sensors built in, which should provide more accurate tracking of moving subjects.
In fact, that new sensor/processor combo is truly the star of the show here. In addition to the 0.06-second AF time, Sony claims that the A6000 can shoot at a full 11 frames per second while tracking a moving subject. Consider that the NEX-6 shot at 10 frames per second maximum—without tracking subjects at all—and the improvement is obvious.
In our hands-on time with the A6000 we found it to be very fast, but we'll have to get one into our labs to get a better idea of just how well the autofocus holds up under real-world conditions. While we're not going to quibble over a few milliseconds here or there, we can say with certainty that the camera is very fast. It's at least on the same level as Olympus and Fuji when it comes to autofocus speed in a mirrorless camera.
Unfortunately, the A6000's feature set may leave video shooters feeling underwhelmed. The camera offers 1080p shooting in 24p and 60p with AVCHD, and 1440x1080 at 30p in MP4, but there's no microphone or headphone jack to be found. Sony did add zebra striping for help with exposure, but being forced to pick up an accessory to add mic support isn't a great option when so many competing models deliver that functionality out of the box.
Also on the negative side of the ledger here is the battery. The A6000 is yet another camera that uses Sony's ubiquitous FW50 model. While these batteries are compact and plentiful in the market, they're also only good for around 300 shots with the A6000. It's surely very cheap for Sony to continue to churn out these batteries as the company has for the last 5+ years, but pushing power to an OLED EVF, a large high-resolution rear LCD, and a processor like the Bionz X is just too much for this aging cell.
Cheap is not a four-letter word.
Generally speaking, Sony as a camera manufacturer has never been afraid to try new things. In recent memory alone, you have the Sony A7/A7R, the QX lens pods, the RX series of compact cameras... the list goes on. But as wondrous as innovation can be, sometimes a company just has to continually iterate until it refines a concept into its purest form. While the NEX name is gone, the A6000 is what you would get if you distilled all the previous NEX cameras down into one single model.
The result is a shooting experience that has all the positives of previous NEX cameras—the compact size, ever-improving ergonomics, and the excellent EVF—but without the pain points such as the convoluted menu system and control scheme. All in all, it's a camera that is about as well designed as any mirrorless camera on the market.
The ancillary benefit to all of Sony's iterative design is that the A6000 is also apparently quite cheap to build. So despite including the same processor as the A7/A7R and a new 24.3-megapixel APS-C image sensor, the A6000 can be had for just $800 with a kit lens. That's a remarkable improvement over the $1300+ price tag that the NEX-7 debuted with in 2011.
Of course, prices of mirrorless cameras have come down across the board. There are plenty of fine cameras you can pick up for less than $1000 these days, but the A6000's combination of size, power, speed, control, and price make it a very competitive option for shooters of any level.