(Pocket-lint) - When we first saw the Sony NEX-6 ahead of its launch towards the end of 2012 we were impressed with how it seemed to encapsulate the very spirit of what, in our view, a compact system camera should be.
The NEX-6 is small yet comes complete with a built-in viewfinder and embraces DSLR-like image quality by pulling in the same APS-C sensor as found in the NEX-5R.
But a lot can happen in six months - the timeframe in which we last saw the camera. There are plenty of competitor models out there and, as ever, yet more in the throes of release. Does the NEX-6 hold on to that initial positive first impression or is the final release model short of perfection?
Mash it up
The NEX-6 can be found nestled between the NEX-5R and NEX-7 models within Sony's line-up. It's a lot like a mash-up of the two too: it's got the same 16-megapixel, phase-detection sensor as the NEX-5R, paired up with the same XGA OLED viewfinder as the NEX-7.
READ: Sony NEX-5R review
Unlike the NEX-7's side-by-side thumbwheel controls, the 6 instead opts for a singul rear thumbwheel with a mode dial stacked on top of it. For our money it's the best dial-laden NEX on the market, simply because we found it all too easy to knock the NEX-7's dials by accident when in use.
READ: Sony NEX-7 review
The review model we had sent to us came with a 16-50mm power zoom lens, which is compact when the camera is switched off and extends into its open position when the power flows. Unlike the initial release of competitor Panasonic's power zoom lens, Sony has opted for a zoom ring on the lens itself, so it does feel somewhat similar to using traditional kit. The ring rotates smoothly in the hand and can be turned slow or fast for respective zoom speed.
However, as much as this electronic lens may offer some size advantage, it's not necessarily as durable as a traditional, mechanical, twist-barrel lens in our view, something we noticed after a period of use. That said, it's worth noting that this model has been through many reviewers' hands, and shipped via multiple careless couriers. To wit, we noticed that the camera started to think there was no lens attached and we had an issue with the interior barrel "sticking" so that it wouldn't retract. In short it broke; front-on compression in transit being the likely cause. So instead we've been using the fixed 35mm f/1.8 lens instead for the majority of this test.
A fresh view
When it comes to electronic viewfinders the majority of compact system cameras either have them, or can take add-on versions later. The typical approach is for a chunky, DSLR-style build - but this is something that the NEX-6 turns on its head.
Front-on you might not even tell that there's a viewfinder built into the camera at all. It's tucked away to the rear left-hand corner, but the small impact on the camera's design doesn't mean the finder itself cuts corners: the 2,359k-dot OLED panel is resolute, and our only big gripe is that the level of contrast is to excess. There's also slight ghosting lag upon sharp movement, but otherwise it's a top notch.
The inclusion of such a feature isn't to be overlooked. DSLR users typically use their cameras via the viewfinder the majority of the time, and the NEX-6 opens up that style with little compromise. If anything, there's some gain in the camera's smaller size. Like we said at the beginning of this review, it epitomises what a viewfinder-inclusive compact system camera should be.
The rear 3-inch, tilt-angle LCD screen is the other approach in use. It offers up a fairly standard yet decent enough 921k-dot resolution and autofocus is just as quick whether viewing on the screen or through the viewfinder. But here's an oddity: the NEX-6's screen doesn't have a touch-sensitive panel, nor can it tilt as significantly as the NEX-5R's screen can. So the more advanced model, which was released later down the line comes with less advanced features.
If there was one thing we didn't like too much about the original NEX models it was the menu system. The NEX-6 still has a version of that system on board, but it's not needed quite as often, thanks to the physical mode dial, d-pad, thumbwheel and function button combination. It makes light work of adjusting settings compared to earlier generation models and we find it makes the NEX-6 the easiest camera in the range to use.
Performance is otherwise very similar to the NEX-5R minus the touchscreen capability. The phase-detection autofocus sensor works well enough, but it's not got mid-range DSLR speeds in its sights as yet and other competitors, such as the Panasonic Lumix GF6, also pip the Sony in terms of speed. We're not saying that the NEX is slow, because it isn't, but it's slipped from heady heights to middle ground as its competitors focus on pushing autofocus speed.
Low light also limits the NEX-6's focus accuracy, or at the very least its level of feedback. In dim conditions the AF area will surrender its usually small square of focus and instead throw up a large green rectangle around the majority of the screen. It still means that focus has been achieved, but it doesn't give the kind of pinpoint reassurance that we'd like. Otherwise we've found that the camera's been happy to pick out dark, limited contrast subjects, so long as there's enough light for the occasion.
However it is hard to judge whether the addition of phase detection pixels on the sensor have made a truly significant contribution to this latest NEX model. It's better than earlier NEX models, but a little behind some of the competition in our view.
One undeniably speedy area is the camera's 10 frames per second "speed priority" burst mode. We managed to snap nine raw + JPEG images consecutively no problems and with no sign of slowdown. And the camera's ready to roll after just a couple of seconds of buffer-clearing. Outside of the speed priority mode the rate slows significantly, but the camera has time to adjust settings between each shot and refocus if necessary - although the continuous autofocus isn't lightning fast, as you'd find in any compact system camera.
To connect, or not to connect
Just like the NEX-5R, the NEX-6 is the first wave of Sony's compact system cameras to introduce Wi-Fi. It's purpose is to share images directly from the camera, or there's a PlayMemories app which can add additional functions on to the camera in a virtual, modular fashion. The idea makes sense, but a number of these apps are pay-for, and we don't see that being likely to take off at all. Wi-Fi too is just a bit of a faff to play around with and pair up to networks as it is with all current cameras, short of, say, the Samsung Galaxy Camera.
Elsewhere, the battery life can take a bit of a battering because of all that tech at work. We found the NEX-6 would snap around 250 shots per charge with combined use of the viewfinder, rear screen and a spot of Wi-Fi play.
The NEX-6 comes complete with the very same sensor at its heart as the NEX-5R and, therefore, it should come as little surprise that its images are much the same.
It's the built-in viewfinder, mode dial and sturdier build which sets the NEX-6 apart from its little brother model. And even with image quality that matches between the two we're still very happy with what we've seen. There's not the ultra-high 24-megapixel resolution of the NEX-7 to be found here, instead, Sony has rested on the tried and tested 16-megapixel sensor as used in previous NEX models.
Although the very highest ISO 6400-25,600 settings aren't the best, on account of image noise, we'd still happily use some shots up to ISO 3200 when needed. The NEX-6 is up there among the class-leading middle-resolution compact system cameras for sure.
At the lower ISO settings there's none to little noise from ISO 100-400, with a slight dip in clarity and detail becoming more apparent from ISO 800. Of all the compact system cameras out there we're big fans of just how crisp the Sony's shots look at the lowest ISO settings, although the wider-angle lenses do suffer from edge and corner softness to some degree. But when it's on point it's top notch, just look at the detail in the 100 per cent crop below.
Sony NEX-6 image sample at ISO 100 - 100 per cent scale
As we said in our NEX-5R review, the gap between Micro Four Thirds cameras such as the Olympus OM-D and the larger-sensor Sony NEX series has narrowed a little in recent years - both make a good 16-megapixel case at the lower ISO settings.
Elsewhere we're fond of the NEX-6's ability to exposure and the standard colour palette is bright and pleasant. There are other in-camera filter options to shoot with creative styles such as vivid, black & white, portrait and more, while picture effects modes - think posterise, colour pop, toy camera and the like - are also available. The latter is available only when shooting JPEG , however, while the former isn't accessible via the quick "Fn" menu which means more digging deep to find it.
On the one hand the NEX-6 epitomises what compact system cameras are all about: it's small, light, easier to use than any other NEX model, well built, comes complete with a viewfinder, is fairly nippy when it needs to be and snaps cracking images too.
But on the other it's shy of its potential greatness: the battery life gets sucked away all too quickly due to all the tech on board, there aren't the more advanced features such as a touchscreen that feature in "lesser" NEX models and the whole Wi-Fi and PlayMemories setup just doesn't gel as well as we'd like.
A lot of competitors also give it a serious run for its money, but it's still our favourite NEX model so far. Tweak this bad boy with a beefier battery, pep up the autofocus system and squeeze in some even more advanced tech and this would be one of the kings of the compact system camera world - for now it's a prince in waiting.