When it entered the mirrorless market with the NEX-3 and NEX-5 back in 2010, Sony, along with Panasonic and Olympus, saw vast potential to attract the millions of compact camera users who wanted better image quality but without the bulk of a DSLR. Today, however, as the smartphone market continues to erode compact camera sales we see camera makers increasingly turning their attention to a smaller - but potentially more eager - group. Namely, enthusiasts who want a lighter, more compact DSLR alternative, but still demand the level of customization and camera control to which they've grown accustomed.

Accordingly, the past couple of years have seen a rash of high-end interchangeable lens cameras like the Sony NEX-7, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic DMC-GX1 and Fujifilm X-E1, which in both price and feature set are aimed well beyond point and shoot upgraders (ironically, the constituency that was originally supposed to be most profitable for ILC manufacturers).

With the announcement of the NEX-6, Sony appears to be refining the high-end concept by merging much of the technology from the NEX-7 with the connectivity options of the NEX-5R. In essence, the NEX-6 combines the hallmarks of an enthusiast-oriented camera - control dials and a high-quality viewfinder - with Wi-Fi functionality and apps. Oddly though, considering it has created a camera that is obviously designed to appeal to smartphone owners, Sony has removed the touchscreen operation found in the NEX-5N and 5R.

Sony NEX-6 specification highlights

  • 16.1MP APS-C format CMOS sensor
  • 2.3 million dot resolution OLED EVF
  • ISO 100-25600
  • Control dial
  • Customizable Fn button
  • 'Quick Navi' interactive settings display
  • Multi interface hotshoe (supports standard contacts and proprietary connector)
  • Built-in Wi-Fi for connection to smartphones or computers, for photo sharing
  • Proprietary in-camera apps
  • Built-in flash (GN 6, ISO 100)
  • Electronic First Curtain shutter
  • 1080/60p HD movies in AVCHD (50p on PAL region models)

The NEX-6 and NEX-7 are so similar in both appearance and specification (save for the latter's 24MP sensor) that a lot of people might wonder whether the flagship model is still relevant. The NEX-6 offers the same stunning 2.3 million dot OLED EVF, a built-in flash, 1080/60p video, and even adds an exposure mode dial and (finally) an ISO standard hotshoe connection. It also gains the NEX-5R's hybrid phase/contrast-detection AF system. The NEX-6 is missing the NEX-7's Tri-Navi three-dial controls, but this seems unlikely to be a deal-breaker for most photographers. A few minor features from the NEX-7 have been chopped as well, such as 3D panoramas, automatic LCD brightness adjustment, and a handful of Creative Styles.

Now about that hybrid AF system. The NEX-6, like the NEX-5R, uses a modified CMOS sensor which accommodates pixels devoted to performing phase-detection to provide a hybrid autofocus system. The phase-detection pixels are used to determine depth information about the focus target, which means the camera has to perform less hunting to hit accurate focus. Sony is the fourth manufacturer (following Fujifilm, Nikon and Canon) to go down this route, with the potential of faster focus, improved continuous focus performance and better autofocus in movie shooting. The NEX-6 has 99 phase detection 'AF points', ranged in the middle of the frame.

And as with the NEX-5R, the NEX-6 has built-in DLNA-compliant Wi-Fi and on-camera apps. While the app collection is rather limited at the moment (currently only eight are are available), Sony has made clear it plans to expand offerings in the near future. And the possibility of enhancing your camera's current capabilities through user-friendly app downloads, as opposed to firmware updates is one that could be worth the wait.

The Wi-Fi capability allows you to push images from the NEX-6 to an iOS or Android smartphone, to your Mac or PC, or straight to Facebook (or Sony's PlayMemories site) across a Wi-Fi network. You can also use your smartphone as a remote viewfinder/trigger. We've covered the NEX-6's connectivity options in detail in these pages.

E-mount power zoom 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS

Alongside the NEX-6, Sony introduced the E PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS power zoom lens. The retractable zoom design collapses to just under 30mm when powered off, making it one of the smallest kit lenses on the market - and the most compact E-mount optic available outside of Sony's E 16mm F2.8 Pancake lens. Impressively, this new lens is only slightly deeper than Panasonic's PZ 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 OIS power zoom, while offering a usefully-wider field of view at the wide end (24mm versus 28mm equiv.) although settling for a bit less reach at the tele end (75mm versus 84mm equiv.).

The Sony E-mount E PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS power zoom lens, shown detached from the camera and attached to the NEX-6. When the camera is powered-up, the lens extends as you can see in the picture on the right.

With an all-black finish that matches the NEX-6, the plastic and metal construction of the PZ 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 OSS feels pleasingly solid in hand. A long slider placed along the left side of the lens barrel offers an ample, knurled platform with which to easily zoom the lens. The throw of the slider is rather short though, offering no variable speed zoom capability. It does though make for smooth and relatively quiet zooming during video recording, one of the major benefits of a power zoom design.

What we really appreciate, however, is the dual-function control ring at the front of the lens barrel. In AF modes it is used to manually zoom the lens, providing behavior more like a conventional lens than most power zooms.. With a double-ridged platform, the ring is wide enough for a sure and comfortable hold and offers a pleasingly smooth action that allows for precise focal length adjustments. Unlike the single-speed zoom slider, you can increase the speed of the zoom by rotating the ring more quickly. This produces much more audible motor noise than using the power zoom slider, though.

Here, we're showing two pictures taken at the wide (16mm) and telephoto (50mm) ends of the kit lens. Equivalent to a focal length range of 24-75mm, this is a useful lens for everyday photography with the NEX-6.

Switch the camera to MF mode and this same ring automatically controls focus instead, with zoom control operated by the slider. After extended use we much prefer Sony's ring/slider design over the dual lever approach in the Panasonic 14-42 power zoom, where we can never tell by feel whether we're about to zoom or focus the lens. While the Sony lens is of a focus-by-wire design, the action is dampened just enough to approximate a 'feel' of connection to the lens elements with responsive operation. And with MF assist enabled, an initial turn of the control ring brings up a magnified scene view for focus confirmation.

As far as optical performance is concerned, the 16-50mm is consistent with what you'd expect of a complex, retractable yet affordable kit lens. Sharpness is relatively good but the corner performance at wide angle (where a lot of distortion correction is being conducted) isn't great. It performs fairly respectably for a kit zoom, and offers considerable convenience.

The only limiting factor is the maximum aperture range of F3.5-5.6 (standard for this type of lens), which isn't really bright enough for use in very poor light without flash. Optical SteadyShot image stabilization helps, but of course that won't do anything to prevent blur from subject movement.