Hands on: Sony NEX-6 review

The NEX-6 is a brand new compact system camera that's a lot like a mash-up of the NEX-5R and NEX-7 compact system cameras. It's got the 5R's phase-detection sensor and the 7's XGA OLED viewfinder, but it goes the extra mile by including a mode dial stacked on top of a rear thumbwheel for ease of use. Is this the best NEX camera yet?

It might not be the prettiest of cameras, but after a couple of days using the NEX-6 we had stopped caring about that. With this model it's not only the inside that counts, but the overall performance too. And on that front the NEX-6 is looking most impressive.

The model we've had to play with came with the latest 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 power zoom lens. That may sound bog standard, but it's the power zoom part that's important. When we first heard those two words together we did reel in horror a little as the idea of using a lens via a zoom toggle on its barrel isn't the most appealing of designs.

But Sony's power zoom has a standard focus ring too that can also power the zoom. It's really smooth in the hand and flies through zoom unless you happen to move it extra slowly, whereby it responds exactly to the power you're putting in. It's smaller than previous Sony E-mount lenses too - a complaint we so often had about the NEX series as a whole - so it shrinks down the overall package of this kit.

Large lenses are a byproduct of a large sensor, and Sony's APS-C size has always delivered where image quality is concerned. If you fancy something smaller then a competitor model, or even something like the Sony RX100 compact camera, might make more sense.

Still, if you take the plunge and buy into the NEX-6 then the image quality won't disappoint. The model we've been using is firmware v1.00 according to the image data in Adobe Bridge, so this is the real deal on these very pages.

The APS-C sensor's 16.1-megapixel count is just about spot on when it comes to image quality. It's not going to be better than the NEX-5N on the whole - and you can read our full review of that here - but we were already impressed with that. Take a gander at the ISO 800 shot below and, although not entirely free from colour noise in the shadow area, it holds plenty of detail and looks top notch to us.

There's always room for improvement, but of the range of compact system cameras on the market the Sony series is up there with the best, in our books. Perhaps its biggest issue is some apparent edge softness from the 16-50mm power zoom lens.

There's no difference between the NEX-5R and the NEX-6 in terms of image quality though - and that's the word from Sony's mouth, as we detailed in our initial pictures and hands-on - but users who want more hands-on control and a built-in viewfinder will definitely find the NEX-6 more appealing. There aren't many compact system cameras with a built-in viewfinder and Sony has managed to maintain a small body size with this near-side-mounted 'finder included in the mix. It meets the top corner of the body but then this doesn't impact how it feels once up to the eye.

The Tru-Finder's 2,359k-dot OLED panel is as resolute as they come, in fact it's the very same one as found in the NEX-7 or Alpha a99 models. Our only quibbles with it are some slight blurring when moving the camera sharply and the view is rather contrasty, too (though, in general, that's representative of the final pictures).

Other design features are also welcome. The dual-stack mode dial does look a bit like someone's added it on last minute, but it entirely changes how this NEX operates. There's a lot less dipping into the originally clunky NEX menu system because of this, plus the d-pad handles settings such as ISO and burst shooting, while the function button atop the camera loads up a quick menu of common options for speedy adjustment. It rights a lot of original NEX wrongs and that is a big step forward as far as we, and many users we're sure, will be concerned.

There's one design blip that we encountered a number of times though: a downward press of the d-pad slips into the exposure compensation mode but the base of a thumb can clip this and adjust the compensation unwittingly.

A standard hotshoe and pop-up flash built in to the body also provide further desirable features. Sony calls the former a "multi interface shoe" which sounds more like some kind of jazzy footwear, but it means the additional pins in the design are compatible with Sony proprietary accessories.

Because of the murky conditions we've been test shooting in we opted for a bracketing mode just to make sure as much detail as possible could be captured among different exposures. The NEX-6 can whirr through shots at pace, including raw files. We'd left ARW raw file capture on without even realising but this didn't cause any problems with processing speed or the buffer's ability to channel data to the SD card.

Pop the camera into Speed Priority mode and the NEX-6 can shoot at up to 10 frames per second (10fps) too. That doesn't rule out raw capture either: we snapped nine raw + JPEG frames at the 10fps speed with no problems.

The latest hybrid autofocus system is also said to cater for continuous autofocus during burst shooting. It won't necessarily be as fast, depending on how the subject is behaving, but it did a good enough job in our hands. Saying that, continuous autofocus is never a failsafe compact system camera option, and it's an area that accuracy could still be increased for both the NEX-6 and compact system cameras as a whole.

Otherwise the hybrid AF system works well for the most part; we didn't even really think much about it in use. But it doesn't fix all previous NEX issues: in low light, for example, the camera may not be able to define a single focus point (or group of points) even if the AF-assist lamp is deployed, and instead throws up a generalised dotted rectangle around the majority image area. It's still possible to fire the shutter but it's difficult to ascertain exactly where focus is. It's hard, therefore, to judge whether the addition of phase detection - which will further eat away at battery life - makes a significant enough contribution to the model. The autofocus isn't as quick as competitors such as the Panasonic G5 or Olympus OM-D for example.

The NEX-6's inclusion of Wi-Fi wasn't something we were able to test out in the Icelandic hills (hardly surprising) and the latest PlayMemories store - an online store where you can download and buy "add-on" apps - isn't up and running. In regards to the latter, we're still not convinced it's the best route to go down: free apps would be fine, if not an encouragement to purchase the camera, but the idea of paying extra for picture effects that feature as standard on many competitor compacts just doesn't sound right to us. And that's before any mention of forthcoming Android-based cameras, such as the Samsung Galaxy camera.

Apart from the above paragraph we struggle to find many issues with the NEX-6. It's better designed and more affordable than the NEX-7 and from our hands-on experience we reckon this is the very best NEX yet. In fact, short of the autofocus system not bettering its rivals, it's one of the best compact system camera we've used.