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Sony Alpha NEX-6 review: A really, really nice camera

The Sony Alpha NEX-6 delivers a great package of image quality, performance, and design.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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10 min read

Editors' note, July 2, 2014: After evaluating subsequent products in this class, I've replaced the NEX-6 as Editors' Choice for consumer mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras with its successor, the Alpha A6000.

Sony_Alpha_NEX-6_revise_35437771_01.jpg
8.2

Sony Alpha NEX-6

The Good

A fine shooting design, great photo and good video quality, and excellent performance number among the Sony Alpha NEX-6's strengths.

The Bad

The camera lacks the option to save groups of custom settings, a real irritation, and we wish it had a neutral color preset. Plus Sony's wireless implementation is awkward, and the app system is annoying.

The Bottom Line

The Sony Alpha NEX-6 delivers a great package of image quality, performance, and design.

Maybe I'm just getting easier to please as I get older, but Sony's been winning me over recently with its enthusiast-targeted models. The Sony Alpha NEX-6 delivers an arguably better design and speedier performance than its Editors' Choice Award-winning but more expensive sibling, the NEX-7, and equally excellent photo quality. Its only real weaknesses are the wireless implementation and annoying apps architecture. But as a camera for advanced photographers who want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, it hits all the right notes. And as such, it replaced its older linemate as our Editors' Choice for this market segment at the time we originally reviewed it.

Image quality
The NEX-6 produces excellent photos. As I said, in photo quality it matches the NEX-7 and, despite using the same sensor, is better than the NEX-5R at midrange ISO sensitivities. Sony's image processing is extremely good, and images shot though ISO 400 look very clean; depending upon content they can be usable and printed large (13x19) as high as ISO 6400, and ISO 12800 when scaled down. While shooting raw still helps when you need to perform exposure corrections, above ISO 800 you're just exchanging one type of artifact for another.

Sony Alpha NEX-6 photo samples

See all photos

The color and exposure are generally very good, although Sony tends to produce cooler white balance, which make the NEX-6 very good at correcting for tungsten lights, but not quite as good at automatic white balance under cloudy skies. The biggest annoyance is a lack of a neutral Creative Style, which Sony stubbornly refuses to offer in any camera under $1,000. However, the camera has sufficient, if less efficient, controls for you to be able to tweak color to your taste. Raw files also preserve a reasonable amount of detail from which to recover blown-out highlights and clipped shadows.

Click to view/download ISO 100



ISO 800

ISO 3200

Video also looks quite good. While there's a little more in the way of moiré and other types of crawling-edge artifacts than I like, overall it still looks smooth with excellent tonality in both bright light and dim.

The new 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 lens, which comes as part of a kit option for this model, performs about as well as you expect from a kit lens. At its widest, there's quite a bit of distortion and vignetting -- the camera defaults to automatically compensating for the angle-of-view distortion but doesn't seem to fix the problems at the edges and the corners remain visibly dark under some circumstances -- but otherwise it's a pretty sharp, bright lens. I also got to test the new 35mm f1.8 lens, which displays excellent edge-to-edge sharpness and low distortion, but also has some aberration/fringing problems at its widest apertures; that's not unusual, however.

Performance
Note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures we will not be posting comparative performance charts.

A noticeably fast camera -- probably one of the fastest ILCs I've tested thus far, though methodological differences in testing mean I can't say so definitively -- the NEX-6 only shows some signs of sluggishness after shooting raw+JPEG and in bringing up the user interface when powered on or waking up. It takes about 2 seconds to power up, focus, and shoot, partly because you have to wait for it to load the interface before it can register a shutter press. Time to focus, expose and shoot in good light runs roughly 0.2 second. It takes the same 0.2 second to shoot two sequential JPEGs or raws, rising to 1.8 seconds with flash enabled.

Continuous shooting varies with image format, mode, and how many shots. A standard JPEG burst of 20 shots never slowed and maintained a rate of 3.5fps; in Speed Priority mode, which fixes exposure on the first frame, it managed 10.2fps for 12 shots before slowing. You can burst raw for about 12 shots at 4.1fps before it slows, or about 10 shots at 10.4fps in Speed Priority. Those are sufficient burst runs for almost any nonprofesssional needs, and even after slowing the camera maintains a reasonable clip.

The autofocus generally operates quickly and accurately -- with the usual caveat that like all cameras it invariably picks the wrong subject when in multipoint AF mode. I'm also not a big fan of Sony's choice to expand the focus area to the entire scene in low light. When shooting video, the power zoom lens operates quickly and quietly and the autofocus behaves well, without pulsing on static subjects.

The LCD is large and bright and refreshes comfortably fast for both burst shooting and video. I do find the eye sensor on the EVF a little too sensitive, with the camera cutting off the LCD when shooting close to my body. Plus, if you're a heavy viewfinder user, the battery life is entirely too short; the perils of OLED.

Design and features
The design facilitates fluid, streamlined shooting, even single-handed. While the NEX-6 isn't as compact as the lower-end models, it's a hair smaller and lighter than the NEX-7. It's a great size for people who hate tiny controls, with the usual large NEX grip and a bigger area on the back to rest your hand on than the smaller models have; as I invariably hit the ISO sensitivity control on those, the NEX-6's expanded back makes it a less accident-prone design for me.

On the top of the camera sits a standard mode dial with the usual manual, semimanual, and two automatic modes plus scene program and sweep panorama. The mode dial is stacked above a big, easily operated context-sensitive control dial; in front is a function button that calls up user-programmable quick-access settings. There's also a nice pop-up flash that can be tilted back for bouncing the light, along with Sony's new Multi Interface Shoe. (The manual cautions that you have to remove the large viewfinder eyecup when you use the shoe, though it's perfectly comfortable to shoot without it.)

On the back is the standard control wheel with programmable buttons that default to ISO sensitivity, drive mode, exposure compensation and display settings, plus reprogrammable autoexposure lock, menu and Wi-Fi connect buttons. I did find a few of the buttons a little too flush with the body and harder to press than I like, especially the movie record button.

The record button is hard to press and awkwardly located. Sarah Tew/CNET

One other dissonant design note: the battery charges via USB, which I have mixed feelings about. On the surface, it seems very convenient. But you still have to carry a charger-sized adapter (though it uses a Micro-USB cable, it doesn't work with standard phone chargers) and it means you can't use the camera while charging a spare.

The power zoom kit lens is similarly well-designed, with a big zoom switch that's easy to feel and operate in both portrait and landscape orientations. Plus, there's a ring for manual focus or zoom operation, though it's a little too twitchy for zooming.

Fujifilm X-E1 Olympus OM-D E-M5 Samsung NX20 Sony Alpha NEX-5R Sony Alpha NEX-6 Sony Alpha NEX-7
Sensor (effective resolution) 16.3MP X-Trans CMOS
n/a
16.1MP Live MOS
12 bit
20.3MP CMOS
n/a
16.1MP Exmor HD CMOS
n/a
16.1MP Exmor HD CMOS
n/a
24.3MP Exmor HD CMOS
12 bit
23.6mm x 15.6mm 17.3mm x 13mm 23.5mm x 15.7mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 (expanded)/ 200 - ISO 6400/25600 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 16000
Continuous shooting 6fps
n/a
9fps
17 JPEG/11 raw
8fps
11 JPEG/8 raw
3fps
11 raw/15 JPEG
(10fps with fixed exposure)
3fps
11 raw/15 JPEG
(10fps with fixed exposure)
3fps
unlimited JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder EVF
0.5-inch
2.36 million dots
100% coverage
n/a
EVF
n/a
1.44 million dots
100% coverage
1.15x/0.58x
OLED EVF
n/a
480,000 dots
100% coverage
1.04x/0.69x
Optional OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.09x/0.73x
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.09x/0.73x
Hot shoe Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Autofocus 49-area
Contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 99-point phase detection, 25-area contrast AF 99-point phase detection, 25-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
AF sensitivity range n/a n/a n/a 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV
Shutter speed 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb to 60 min; 1/180 x-sync 60-1/4,000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes; 1/250 sec. x-sync (flash-dependent) 30-1/8,000 sec.; bulb to 4 minutes; 1/180 x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec. x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec. x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec. x-sync
Metering 256 zones 324 area 221 segment 1,200 zone 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Metering range n/a 0 - 20 EV 0 - 18 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV
Flash Yes Included add-on Yes Included optional Yes Yes
Image stabilization Optical Sensor shift Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video 1080/24p H.264 1080/60i QuickTime MOV @ 20, 17Mbps 1080/30p; 1080 x 810/24p; 720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/ 24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440 x 1,080/30p @ 12Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/ 24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440 x 1,080/30p @ 12Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440 x 1,080/ 30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo Stereo, mic input Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
LCD size 2.8-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch tilting touch-screen OLED
614,000 dots
3-inch articulated AMOLED
921,000 dots
3-inch tilting touch screen
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting touch screen
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Wireless connection None None Wi-Fi Wi-Fi Wi-Fi None
Battery life (CIPA rating) 350 shots n/a 330 shots 430 shots 270 shots
(with viewfinder)
350 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.1 x 2.9 x 1.5 4.8 x 3.5 x 1.7 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.1 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7
Body operating weight (ounces) 12.4 (est.) 15.1 14 (est.) 9.7 (without flash) 12.3 12.4
Mfr. price $999.95 (body only) $999.99 (body only) n/a $599.99 (body only) $849.99 (body only) $1,099.99 (body only)
$1,399.95 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,299.99 (with 12-50mm lens) $1,099.99 (with 18-55mm i-Function lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $999.99 (with 15-60mm PZ lens) $1,249.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
n/a $1,099.99 (with 14-42mm lens) n/a n/a n/a n/a
Ship date November 2012 April 2012 May 2012 October 2012 October 2012 November 2011

While the camera is physically impressive, as with the NEX-5R (from which much of the subsequent discussion is lifted) the less time you have to spend in the NEX menus the better. On the surface, they seem so straightforward. But in order to make the top-level icons accessible and friendly, everything's jammed unevenly into the level below. The image size menu has 7 options under it, the camera menu has 16, and the setup menu has 67. Plus, with all the usual combinations of limitations -- things that are unavailable when raw's enabled, in some AF modes, and so on -- it's impossible to figure out why something's grayed out. What did I change that suddenly made it impossible to show the AF points?

This model also incorporates Wi-Fi along with connective Android and iOS apps: Direct Upload for connecting to hot spots and mobile devices and Smart Remote Control for using your mobile device as a secondary screen. Connecting directly to the camera is straighforward -- it acts as an access point, generating a unique ID and password. But I had problems consistently connecting to a hot spot, a problem I didn't have with the 5R. The connectivity comes in conjunction with support for proprietary in-camera apps.

Rather than using a third-party API like Android, Sony currently plans to be the only source of these apps, which are distributed through the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN). Echoing my complaints about this system from the 5R review: neither of the basic wireless apps come on the camera, and in order to download them you have to create a useless-to-all-but-PlayStation-owners SEN account for its redundant and unoriginal PlayMemories service. Plus, the SEN EULA includes a mandatory binding arbitration (MBA) clause that makes the SEN account requirement doubly irritating. The EULA also gives Sony the right to remotely delete any apps you buy license. The direct upload options are pretty lame: Facebook or PlayMemories. Even Canon's mediocre Canon Image Gateway allows you to set up pipes to other services, if you're willing to grant it a piece of your privacy pie. PlayMemories doesn't act as a sharing hub, just a syncing hub among all your Sony devices. So, as with Canon's options, the best solution is to copy the photos you want to share to your phone or tablet and upload them that way. And despite what looks like a built-in browser, there's no way to connect to access points that require passing through terms-of-service screens.

In addition to the connectivity apps Sony currently offers two apps and some multilingual keyboards for free. The first app, Picture Effect+, has two extra filters (watercolor and illustration) that are excluded from the built-in effects choices. So in addition to mostly duplicating an in-camera feature, and operating more slowly through the apps interface, Sony removed the filters that it had included on the Alpha NEX-F3. If you're still interested, it also offers a free Photo Retouch app. There are also a handful of paid apps, Bracket Pro ($4.99), Multi Frame NR ($4.99; noise reduction), Cinematic Photo ($4.99; for cinemagraphs, stills with animated portions), and Time-lapse ($9.99). The last of these sounds useful, if expensive. The apps tend to function a bit sluggishly as well.

It's tempting to ding Sony for making a bunch of the capabilities extra-cost app options, but there's really only one key feature irritatingly absent: saved custom settings. Grrr! In addition to all the physical options, such as the EVF, hot shoe, tilting LCD, and Wi-Fi, it provides all the essentials, including focus peaking. For a complete accounting of the NEX-6's features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Conclusion
It's a relatively expensive kit, but the NEX-6 is considerably smaller than a comparable dSLR, with competitive performance and photo quality, plus better video autofocus. The sacrifices you make opting for a mirrorless ILC are loss of an optical viewfinder and reduced battery life, which will make some people pause and others just shrug. But for now, at least, it's my favorite ILC option for less than $1,000.

Sony_Alpha_NEX-6_revise_35437771_01.jpg
8.2

Sony Alpha NEX-6

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Image quality 8
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