A modest update to its predecessor, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200, the Alpha DSLR-A230 offers essentially the same feature set in a redesigned body with sufficient quality- and performance-enhancing firmware tweaks to merit the term 'upgrade'. Like its predecessor, the result is a generally solid, if not stellar, entry-level dSLR option.
The A230 is nearly identical to its more expensive sibling, the A330. The only differences are in the viewfinder -- the A230's has a much higher magnification, making it more comfortable to use -- and in their LCD displays. The LCDs are the same 69mm (2.7-inch) model, but the A330's can be tilted up perpendicular to the body or down at a 55° angle. The A330 also offers 'live view' shooting, while the A230 doesn't. As they're essentially the same camera, they should deliver the same image quality and performance. This review is based on an evaluation of the A230.
You can get the A230 in one of two kits, a version with an 18-55mm lens for about £450 or a dual-lens kit that adds the 55-200mm lens for about £570. At the moment, there's no body-only version of the A230, but one could possibly surface later in the camera's life cycle. As with all Sony digital SLRs, you should be able to use any Minolta A mount lens with the camera.
Handling the hardware
Most of the redesign works for the better, although we do have a couple of quibbles. It's lighter, although it still seems to fall in the middle of the dSLR herd at this price range for size and weight. The new grip design doesn't work for us, however. It's only three-quarters of the height of the body and doesn't feel nearly as secure as full-height grips. We do like the rubberised texture that covers it and the left side of the body, though.
The mode dial, which provides the usual access to a handful of scene program modes and the typical manual-, semi-manual and full-automatic exposure modes, sits to the left of the viewfinder. On a ledge behind the shutter is the exposure-compensation button. We don't particularly like its position or feel, though. It's hard to feel and you have to move your whole hand to reach it with your thumb. We think that will discourage people from using it.
Sony provides both an SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo slot in all its entry-level models, with a manual switch to choose between them, so you don't have to commit to the less-popular proprietary format. In an unusual design, the slots and the USB and mini-HDMI connectors sit under a sliding door on the left side of the camera instead of the more common right side (the half-height grip probably necessitated this). It doesn't seem to affect usability, however.
The back controls are pretty typical for a modern dSLR and will be instantly recognisable to advanced point-and-shoot users. A four-way navigation switch with a centre autofocus button is just below the indented thumb rest. With it, you pull up flash options (including a no-brainer wireless on/off), ISO sensitivity settings, display choices and drive mode options. The latter include an interesting three- or five-shots-in-10-seconds self-timer mode and rather limited bracketing: just exposure, for three shots in 1/3 or 2/3 stop increments.
Above the navigation switch is the 'Fn' button, with which you access all your frequently needed shooting settings, plus some others: AF mode, AF area, metering mode, D-Range Optimizer, white balance and 'creative style'. There are no novel options here, but, in a pleasing interface touch, some text pops up to clarify the purpose of a setting if you pause for too long without making a selection. You have to go into the menu system to set flash compensation, image quality and toggle the image stabilisation, but there's nothing truly buried or misplaced in the user interface. Of course, with the relatively basic feature set, there's not much to hide.