Sony had just enough room to squeeze in another camera between the NEX-5R and the NEX-7, with a new model aimed at enthusiast users who know their stuff. The NEX-6 therefore gets a sturdy chassis, a standard flash hot-shoe and a viewfinder, but comes with the same electronics as consumer-level NEX models—notably the excellent 16-Megapixel sensor. Add to that Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to install apps via Sony's Play Memories store, and the NEX-6 could prove to be an excellent inbetweener.
The care with which the NEX-6 has been built is apparent as soon as you start handling this camera. It's dense, reassuring and feels excellent to handle thanks to its grip-friendly rubbery handle. It actually handles a lot like the NEX-5R, from which it inherits the second settings thumb-wheel and the Fn button. However, a few extra controls have been added too, with an exposure lock button and a shooting mode selection dial. The NEX-6 is therefore effectively a "mini-NEX-7"—it's not quite on par with the top-end model, but it's a considerably higher-end camera than NEX-5-series models.
However, Sony seems determined not to make a camera that's got all of its star features. So while the NEX-F3 has a built-in flash, and the NEX-5R has a touchscreen but uses an external flash accessory, the NEX-6 has a flash and a viewfinder but no touchscreen!
That's even more of a shame since, like the NEX-5R, the NEX-6 comes with Wi-Fi connectivity and can be loaded with apps from Sony's Play Memories store. Seeing as there's no touchscreen, you'll have to use the four-way arrows and their associated scroll wheel to enter characters one by one, which can make entering complex Wi-Fi passwords a chore (note that the default keyboard doesn't feature any accents, so some users may need to change their Wi-Fi password or download an international keyboard). Similarly, adding a caption to a picture before uploading it is a real pain. We've been very critical about this in the past, and our recent experience with Samsung's Galaxy Camera has only served to increase our frustration. With the Galaxy Camera, everything feels simple, stylish and intuitive, largely thanks to the Android OS and the high-quality touchscreen!
The screen is otherwise relatively nice, but colour fidelity isn't good enough for you to set the white balance reliably onscreen. Plus, the onscreen image is quite cold. The viewfinder is more neutral and is nicer to use. Although some chromatic aberration is visible around the edges of objects, this is still the best electronic viewfinder (EVF) out there right now.
Advanced users will soon be at home with the NEX-6, as the interface is comprehensive enough to ensure fast access to most settings but is clear enough to ensure you don't get lost along the way. Auto modes are on hand, which is always handy for beginners, and battery life is OK without being exceptional. On the whole, the NEX-6 is a good compromise. It's a very nice-to-use camera ... so long as you don't need to enter too much text.
One small but annoying thing about the NEX-6, however, is that once you've zoomed in on a particular image in playback mode, both the thumb wheel and the settings wheel around the four-way arrows are both used to control the zoom factor. There's therefore no way of flipping between pictures while maintaining the same magnification factor, which can be handy when comparing details up-close between several shots.
Like the NEX-5R, the NEX-6 takes 2.5 seconds to start up. And, like the NEX-5R, it therefore only gets two stars in this part of our review. That's just too slow for this kind of camera.
And that's all the more disappointing since the NEX-6 is otherwise perfectly problem-free when it comes to responsiveness. The autofocus is effective, photo-to-photo turnaround is fast, and the 10 fps burst mode goes beyond current market standards.
The electronics in Sony's NEX-6 are already well-known. This camera is built around a 16-Megapixel CMOS sensor that's been seen in some form or another in almost all NEX cameras, as well as a good few of Sony's Alpha SLRs and a handful of cameras made by other manufacturers (e.g. Nikon D7000, Pentax K-5 II).
It's therefore no surprise to see that picture quality is very good up to 3200 ISO, or even 6400 ISO if you stick to small-sized prints. The Fuji X-E1, the main competitor for Sony's NEX-6 (on paper, at least), preserves detail better at high sensitivity settings, but images are visibly more grainy as a result. Ultimately, then, it's a matter of picking whichever approach to image processing you prefer.
The new 16-50 mm motorised zoom lens isn't bad—but the model we were sent to test happened to be faulty. However, two readers kindly came to our rescue and lent us their 16-50 mm lenses to double-check the results. Sharpness levels aren't extraordinarily even over the frame at wide-angle settings, but you'll be able to print 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) prints without a second thought (especially if you close the aperture to f/5.6). At telephoto, the lens is actually pretty good. Evidently, this lens isn't on par with the 12-50 mm lens that comes with the Olympus OM-D or the 18-55 mm lenses bundled with the Fuji X-E1 or the Canon EOS M, but it definitely outperforms the Sony 18-55 mm model that was previously supplied with NEX cameras.
The NEX-6 inherits its video mode from the NEX-5R, filming 1080p HD at 50 fps. Image quality is good, contrast levels are flattering without going overboard, and the 16-50 mm motorised zoom lens can be used slowly and smoothly when zooming with the sliding switch on the side of the lens, or more quickly using the lens ring (although this is noisier).
Audio quality is marginally better than in the NEX-5R, possibly because the mics have been moved to new positions on the camera's front face. It's a shame to see that there's no built-in microphone socket. In theory, Sony's XLR-K1M adapter and mic kit should be compatible, but it'll set you back £650!