Hands-on-preview: Sony A99, NEX-6, NEX-5R

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I was invited by Sony Malaysia to have a hands-on session with some of the new products announced yesterday; the full-fram Alpha SLT-A99 and grip, NEX-5R, NEX-6 and 16-50 pancake zoom were all present – though unfortunately not the RX1, which is said to be in final beta at the moment. All products were still non-final in firmware and image quality, so I wasn’t allowed to keep any of the files. But what I can do is offer some subjective assessments and opinions on usability, handling and perceived file quality (off the LCD, at least).

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The Sony Alpha A99
Highlights:

  • 24MP full frame CMOS, full HD video, 6fps, 14 bit RAW files
  • 2.7MP OLED VF
  • Translucent mirror; pentaprism phase detect AF with 19 points (11 cross type), sensor contrast detect AF with 102 points
  • Tilting 3″, 1.2-million dot LCD
  • Sensor shift stabilizer
  • Built-in GPS
  • New ISO-standard hotshoe
  • Dual SD slots

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First impressions are of a solid but relatively lightweight camera; subjectively it’s in the Nikon D800E weight category – noticeably lighter than the D700, 5DIII and A900, but not as light as the APS-C cameras. The body is a matte-finish magnesium alloy with a nicely sculpted and very ergonomic grip; there’s only one workable hand position because of the finger detents, but it’s a comfortable one. Major buttons all fall to hand easily, which is good, because there are lots of them – a number of which are customizable through the menus. One thing I do like with all of the new Sony cameras (including the NEX-6, NEX-5R and A99) is the fact that the power switch is around the shutter button – easy to turn on and shoot, and equally easy to turn off in between to prolong your battery life.

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For a non-Sony shooter, the learning curve was fairly steep, but the majority of camera functions were easy to figure out. I’m told that the A99 is aimed at the professional end of the market, and features a 200k shutter life along with environmental sealing. For the most part, it seems that the external control compliment was well chosen, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find any way to change metering other than via the menu. The focus points were also all clustered around the center of the frame in a square – odd, considering the camera also uses the imaging sensor to focus (and there should be no restrictions with live view CDAF). I suspect it has something to do with the phase detect cell in the ‘pentaprism’ (the A99, like all translucent-mirror Sonys does not have a pentaprism but rather an EVF) and correlating results with contrast detect AF. I didn’t see any AF fine tune adjustments (what if the PDAF sensor is misaligned?) but then again I also didn’t have time to go through the menus in great detail.

Overall though, while the camera felt a bit too menu-centric in operation, responsiveness, speed and general usability felt top-notch. Focusing is as fast as any of the traditional DSLRs I’ve used, though I didn’t have an opportunity to try tracking focus. The focus range limiter works well, though requires a bit of practice to become intuitive in use. The EVF felt a notch above that used in the NEX-7 (and NEX-6) – there just seems to be less tearing and an even finer pixel mask than the already excellent units used in those two cameras. Other than the dynamic range and generous information overlay, it’s not immediately obvious that you’re looking through an EVF based solely on resolution alone.

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On image quality – not knowing how final the image processing in the camera is, and not being able to view files on a computer – i.e. judging off the LCD only, for JPEGs, with whatever processing the camera has chosen to apply – the files look pretty clean. Very subjectively, on a pixel level, I think they’d probably be on par with the Nikon D700, and possibly close to the D3s. It seems that after a generation of evolution in sensor technology, pixels have been allowed to shrink again without too much detrimental effect on noise performance. Side by side with the RX100 I was also carrying (which has the same LCD, and a similar processing engine to the A99) – the A99 appeared a full 2-2.5 stops cleaner, with ISO 12,800 looking quite similar to ISO 3200. This of course bodes well for other cameras that may use the same sensor as a base – the RX1 and newly announced Nikon D600 come to mind. I don’t know if I’ll get around to doing a full review of this camera – it may be meaningless as I don’t have the lenses to use it in my normal course of work, and probably not enough time either – but I definitely think it bears further investigation.

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The Sony NEX-6
Highlights:

  • 16MP APS-C CMOS, full HD video, 10fps, 14 bit RAW files
  • 2.4MP OLED VF
  • Hybrid contrast and phase-detect AF (99 sites)
  • Tilting 3″, 921k-dot LCD
  • New ISO-standard hotshoe

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The NEX-6 feels much like a NEX-7 light – I was told that the market liked the NEX-7, but didn’t like the price point; so Sony went out and filled the gap between. It’s very much a mix of the two cameras on either side of it – it has the same 16MP sensor as the NEX-5R, complete with phase detect points for faster AF, and the body style and EVF of the NEX-7. It’s also a bit thinner than the NEX-7, and has an ISo-standard hotshoe. This new hotshoe – shared with the A99 – has the usual trigger pin in the center, but its electronic communication contacts are in the front portion of the shoe; let’s hope the design of the corresponding accessory shoes on the flashes etc is sufficiently robust, because some of those pins looked rather small and delicate.

This camera actually has two control dials – there’s another one concentrically nestled under the base of the mode dial, along with the familiar one on the back – not the three of the NEX-7. One again, the softkeys are programmable, along with the function button next to the shutter. Overall, the shooting experience was much like the NEX-7, but with the simplicity of the NEX-5 – I actually like this camera better than the other two because it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to do too much. (Curiously the scalloping on the top plate before the mode dial and grip shape remind me very much of the Sony V3 prosumer camera from around 2005 or so, which I also owned.)

The one thing you’re all probably wondering about is AF speed, especially with those extra phase-detect photosites on the sensor. Subjectively, it’s pretty quick under moderately low light (indoor) conditions; there’s no hunting, but perhaps the lens could be driven a bit faster. Maybe the newer lenses will allow this – the only functional lens we had was the 16/2.8. I’d say it felt about the same as the Olympus OM-D and 12/2 under similar conditions.

Not much to say about perceived image quality for this one – the files definitely didn’t look as clean on the LCD as those from the A99; I’d say it’s probably on par with existing cameras that use the predecessor to this sensor (D7000, NEX-5N etc).

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The final camera I’ll quickly mention is the NEX-5R – it shares the same new 16MP sensor with phase detect points with the NEX-6; performance felt almost identical in terms of AF speed, and one presumes image quality would be similar, too. It does gain a touch screen which flips through 180 degrees for the narcissistic photographer. Effectively, it’s the same camera as the NEX-6 minus one the EVF and mode dial. Also present was the new 16-50 pancake zoom, but I didn’t have a chance to shoot with it because it was a non-functional prototype. The size is a little thicker than the 16/2.8 (but not much) – similar to the Panasonic 14-42 X – and like that lens, it uses a rocker switch on the side to zoom. I’m told it will also be available as a kit lens to go with the NEX-6.

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Now that Photokina is officially just around the corner, not only are the announcements coming thick and fast, but the rumor mill is going into overdrive. Many of the big boys in the industry – notably Canon, Leica, Zeiss, Hasselblad and Olympus – have yet to make their announcements; I’m anticipating a busy month ahead. And lets just say there are some very interesting products in the pipeline which will come from far left field. As usual, I’ll be reviewing products of interest to me professionally first, but if something else catches my eye, I’ll do what I can to squeeze it in. MT

A big thank you to Sony Malaysia for the invitation.

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