Sony A6600 hands-on review: Small camera, big deal

With unbeatable autofocus and battery life, Sony's A6600 still leads the pack

Sony A6600 camera

Sony A6600 hands-on review: Small camera, big deal

“It's an evolutionary update, but the A6600 is still top dog thanks to better battery life and best-in-class autofocus.”
  • Real-Time AF is a breeze
  • 810-shot battery life
  • Sensor-shift image stabilization
  • Bigger grip
  • Same sensor as A6500
  • Low-res EVF compared to peers

APS-C cameras have to shout to be heard over the roar of increasingly popular full-frame cameras, but a pair of APS-C models announced by Sony in August prove that smaller sensors still have life left. The $749 A6100 is due this October 2019, while the flagship A6600 hits stores in November for $1,399 (body only).

These cameras much including 24MP sensors, 4K video, 11 frames-per-second continuous shooting, and many trickle-down features from Sony’s more expensive A7/A9 full-frame models.

We love full-frame cameras, but they often cost much more, and not everyone needs one. Today’s APS-C cameras take outstanding photos, and it’s nice to see that Sony hasn’t neglected the format — even if the A6600 hasn’t changed much from 2016’s A6500.

Looking for a competitor with a lower price? Check out the Fujifilm X-A7.

Design and handling

Venerable is the best way to describe the design of Sony’s A6000-series cameras — outwardly, they haven’t changed much over the past five years. That’s not to say nothing has been enhanced.

The A6600 has a much deeper and more comfortable grip than its predecessors, a nod to its target audience of advanced enthusiast photographers. That larger grip has space for a much more potent “Z” battery rated for 810 shots, almost double earlier models.

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David Elrich / Digital Trends

The A6600 measures 4.75 x 2.75 x 2.4 inches and weighs 18 ounces without a lens. We had no issues walking around with this camera and the 16-55mm f/2.8 G lens during our limited hands-on experience.

The controls, for better or worse, remain familiar. There’s a good amount of direct access control, but we have to voice our usual squawk about the video record button being tiny and wedged into a corner). It’s a similar story for the menus, which, while improved, could still be made simpler and easier to navigate.

The EVF is 2.36 million dots while the touch-enabled screen is 921K pixels. Neither is best in class — the Fujifilm X-T3 has a 3.6 million dot EVF — but they worked fine in practice.

Video shooters will appreciate the inclusion of both headphone and microphone jacks along with HDMI out and power connections. Overall, the new A6600 has a nice “heft,” with the magnesium alloy frame contributing to that feeling. The camera is dust and moisture resistant, as well.

The eyes have it

Although the new flagship camera has a familiar persona, it has many features of more expensive full-frame Sonys such as the new A7R IV ($3,500), including 5-axis in-body image stabilization. The best new features are Real-Time Tracking and Real-Time Eye autofocus (the latter of which now recognizes animal eyes in addition to human eyes).

The underlying hybrid autofocus system is much the same, offering 425 phase- and contrast-detection points covering 84 percent of the frame.

We’ve loved the original Eye AF since it first arrived generations ago, and the new Real Time improvements put Sony cameras at the head of the pack when it comes to focus. Getting tack-sharp shots is easier than ever.

Real-Time Tracking and Real-Time Eye AF also work great in video mode. Since video often deals with moving subjects or a moving camera, having a reliable AF system can be the difference between a great shot and an unusable one.

Initial image quality impressions

To give the A6600 a workout, Sony brought us to Coney Island in Brooklyn (we were guests of Sony, but all opinions are our own). While there were no bizarre sideshow attractions to photograph, there were acrobats, jugglers, magicians, and fashion models available. Nearby, there were roller coasters, carousels, boardwalks and other iconic scenes.

Have we said how much we like Real-Time Tracking and Real-Time Eye AF? Forgive us for being redundant but this really sets this camera apart. You simply focus on a face and the camera takes over as it tries to lock onto a person’s eye.

In the viewfinder, you’ll see multiple illuminated points as the artificial intelligence tries to figure out what it’s seeing. It will try to frame the face first, then go for the eye. When it hits the target, a small box appears on the left or right eye (you can choose which one). Once the camera locks in you’ll get terrific portraits.

The fast burst rate of 11 fps, while not new, is another plus. Color was also very accurate with a richness that was pleasing. Even though the sensor is recycled from the A6500, it still performs well by today’s standards and, for the most part, won’t leave you wishing you had opted for a full-frame camera.

It was a dreary, misty day so the outdoor images presented a challenge for the camera. For the most part, the A6600 handled them fairly well, but noise was an issue at higher ISO settings. The camera has a native ISO of 100-32,000 that can be expanded down to 50 and up to 102,400. Here, a full-frame camera would have proven its worth. Granted, Sony’s full-frame line starts at $2,000, but extremely low-light scenes is where you’ll notice the benefit of that larger sensor.

The next day was sunny, and here the A6600 performed very well. Again, the autofocus was the real winner. Real-Time Tracking was fast enough to capture a speeding cyclist as we walked the streets of Manhattan.

As for video, it all remains pretty standard for Sony. The A6600 records 4K HDR video with 2.4x oversampling to capture better sharpness. It’s still limited to Sony’s 8-bit XAVC-S codec, but it does offer both Hybrid-Log Gamma (HLG) and Sony’s standard S-Gamut/S-Log profiles for holding onto more dynamic range if you don’t mind color grading in post. Other cameras have surpassed Sony in some areas when it comes to video — the Fujifilm X-T3 offers 10-bit recording and reads its sensor faster for less rolling shutter — but, again, the A6600’s advantage comes down to it autofocus, which offers unparalleled ease of use.

The 24MP sensor itself may not be any better than the A6500’s, but the new autofocus means you’ll get better results in both stills and video, especially in fast paced or unpredictable situations.

Our first take

The new Sony A6600 is a good addition to the series, delivering quality images and movies in a compact package with an autofocus system that tops the class. Our issue is price — at $1,399 for the body, it seems a bit high for a camera that hasn’t really changed all that much over its 3-year-old predecessor. For current A6500 owners, it might not be worth it.

You can save close to $650 with the A6100, which has most of the same technology but does not have in-body stabilization, the more solid construction, or as powerful a battery. It also doesn’t have S-Log, a headphone jack, or Eye AF for Movies, making it more for a still shooter than videographers or vloggers. And there are other cheaper APS-C cameras such as the Fujifilm X-T30, the new Canon EOS M6 Mark II, and the Sony’s own A6400 (which also has Real-Time AF) for $899.

The A6600 is much more evolution than revolution. But while much has remained the same from the A6500, key improvements like Real-Time AF and a bigger battery cannot be understated. The camera is not best-in-class in every respect, but those two features arguably do more to improve the user experience than anything else, and that makes the A6600 easy to recommend.

Want more camera options? Check out our favorite digital cameras.

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