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The Sony Alpha NEX-6 (MSRP $849.99 body-only, $999.99 with 16-50mm kit lens) is a subtle refinement of the company’s flagship mirrorless model, the NEX-7. While the name may conjure up the idea of Sony taking a step backward, the NEX-6 takes just about everything that made the NEX-7 great, shrinks the size, and offers this all for around $350 less than the NEX-7 cost at launch.
With a 24.3-megapixel APS-C image sensor, 8fps full resolution shooting, and a great XGA OLED electronic viewfinder, the NEX-6 is an appealing option for novices and advanced shooters. With a sudden surge of high-quality NEX-compatible kit lenses about to hit the market, is Sony’s NEX-6 the best value in the mirrorless game?
The NEX cameras have all followed a similar blueprint: thin bodies, plush grips, and a modern, simplistic design. As with other NEX bodies, most of the rear controls are unlabeled, their functions changing depending on what mode you’re currently shooting in. The NEX-7 took this to a new level, incorporating dual control dials allowing for true manual control. The NEX-6 erhmm...dials this back a bit, with just a single control dial placed underneath a new physical mode dial.
Shooting with the NEX-6 is exceedingly comfortable. The grip is large, well-shaped, and covered with a pleasant rubberized material. The body is slightly more compact than the NEX-7, with a slightly shrunken width that actually aids balance when shooting with larger lenses. The only real loss is the second control dial, but the new physical mode dial is a worthy trade-off for everyone except manual-only shooters.
Our only real complaint about the NEX-6 is with the menu system. While it’s certainly suitable for entry-level shooters, it feels a little out of place on a more advanced camera. There’s nothing egregious about the design, it’s frustrating when features like noise reduction and image stabilization are stashed away in the system menu, rather than in a more sensible place. Furthermore, the new applications sub-menu adds very little to the experience, mostly keeping the camera’s built-in WiFi features in a single place.
The NEX-6 is a solid all-around performing camera, with fast continuous shooting speed, competitive dynamic range, and the ability to handle low light shooting without much trouble. Most notably, the NEX-6’s autofocus is seemingly improved over the NEX-7, with far snappier lock-on times in low light and with moving subjects.
One of the major issues that held the NEX-7 back was the camera’s difficulty in locking on and tracking moving subjects. While the NEX-7 camera had remarkable burst speed, the inability to consistently capture moving subjects was tiresome. The NEX-6 fixes that with its hybrid phase/contrast detection autofocus system, which is more responsive than the contrast-only system that the NEX-7 utilized.
The improvements may not be immediately noticeable, but I found myself less frustrated with the focus system than when I reviewed the NEX-7. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold true for the new 16-50mm kit lens. While it’s an able performer, the powered zoom functionality is unwelcome for everything except video shooting. Whether it’s the zoom lens returning to wide angle every time the camera powers off or accidentally nudging the lever and ruining your framing, this lens simply doesn’t seem suited to the kind of photography the NEX-6 was built for.
Besides that, the NEX-6 compares quite favorably to the more expensive NEX-7. The sensor quality seems to have taken a minor step forward, but the biggest reason to go with the NEX-6 over its predecessor is simply value. For just $849.99 body-only you get the same quality for roughly $300 less—plenty of scratch to put towards a better lens.
While the Alpha NEX-6 is designed for slightly more advanced shooters, there are a great many features to assist shooters of all ability levels. Most of these are quite useful, aimed at beginners or those who just want some fun extras: sweep panorama, scene modes, intelligent auto plus, auto portrait framing, and clear image zoom.
However, the headline feature is no doubt the built-in WiFi connectivity, which has made its way into practically every camera for the past year. While the idea of having a camera that can easily interface with your computer, television, or smartphone is appealing, nobody has yet got it right. On the NEX-6 sharing any image is a convoluted process that involves too many steps and not enough intuition. Just to move one shot requires putting the camera into WiFi standby, loading the Sony PlayMemories app on your smartphone, telling it which device you want, and then waiting for it to fetch the contents off your camera.
Once all that is done you can check off any of your files, at which point it gives you two options: copy and upload. Copy will move the shot to your smartphone while upload will let you immediately push it via any number of apps on your phone already. This is great on paper but disappointing in practice; as soon as you select which app you want to use (Gmail, in our case) it kicks you out of PlayMemories and disconnects from the camera, forcing you start the whole process over with the next shot. What if you want to e-mail different pictures to different addresses? Tough luck.
Recommending Sony NEX cameras for the last couple of years has required one massive caveat: lens selection. While Sony has been perhaps the most aggressive company in promoting the use of lens adapters with their mirrorless cameras, the first-party lenses have been sorely lacking.
If you’re willing to invest in high-quality glass, that’s all about to change. The NEX system is on pace to grow in both quality and quantity this year. The biggest addition will be three new Carl Zeiss prime lenses, joining the 24mm f/1.8 lens that has long been far and away the best lens that mounts natively to NEX cameras. In addition other third-party manufacturers like Tokina and Tamron have lenses bound for the NEX system, not to mention Sony’s own continued first-party efforts.
While the NEX system still lacks the abundance of low-cost, high-quality options that have become common for Micro Four Thirds cameras (think the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, Olympus 17mm f/1.8, Olympus 75mm f/1.4, etc.), that’s improving as well. These are still going to be larger lenses than their counterparts, but that’s counterbalanced by the increased image quality provided by the larger APS-C sensor.
One big exception we should reiterate is the 16-50mm kit lens that the NEX-6 comes with. While we found the lens to be of acceptable quality, its ergonomics are very frustrating. The powered zoom lens may be a familiar comfort for point-and-shoot users, but the NEX-6 deserves better glass.
Sony’s NEX system has seen considerable growth since its inception just three short years ago. What started as two barely discernible options—the NEX-5 and NEX-3—has grown into a system that provides solid image quality at a value few other systems can provide. The NEX-7 also became one of the first premium mirrorless cameras, providing advanced features for those who want a body that isn’t concerned with courting point-and-shoot users away from DSLRs.
The NEX-6 follows up on the NEX-7 by preserving almost the entire package—XGA OLED viewfinder, 24-megapixel APS-C image sensor, and fast shot-to-shot speed—while advancing in significant ways. The hybrid autofocus is flat-out better, the more compact body is well-balanced, and the addition of a physical mode dial is a welcome change.
This would already be a worthy update, but increased competition from the Fujifilm X-Pro1, Olympus OM-D E-M5, and the Panasonic GH3 have forced Sony to rethink their price points. The NEX-6 debuts for just $849.99 body-only, which undercuts all of those cameras (even at their discounted prices) by a considerable margin—all while returning similar quality.
We fully expect to see updates from both Fujifilm and Olympus this year, not to mention the promise of improved mirrorless cameras from both Nikon and Canon. Still, at its current price and based on what we’ve seen in our time with the camera in and out of the labs, the Sony Alpha NEX-6 provides one of the best values you can find.
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