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.
Like many budget dSLRs, the viewfinder isn't great -- it's small and it's hard to see the focus dots blink red, especially against dark objects -- but it's better than the A330's and many other competitors', with a larger, effective magnification and the focus-lock indicator close to the middle of the bottom read-out. There's also a SteadyShot scale, which helpfully tells you when you're at your least shakiest. A digital level, which other manufacturers have started providing, would be a welcome complement.
Fairly fast performance
Overall, the A230 is reasonably fast, with a surprisingly zippy autofocus. It powers on and shoots in just 0.4 seconds, and can focus and shoot in a mere 0.3 seconds in good light and 0.6 seconds in dim. The latter is a big improvement over its predecessor. Usually, raw shot-to-shot time is virtually the same as for JPEG, but the A230's 0.7 seconds for raw is slower than its 0.5 seconds for JPEG.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Flash-recycle time is pretty slow for its class, pushing flash shot-to-shot time to 1.5 seconds. That's almost twice that of the Nikon D60 and Canon EOS 1000D, and just slightly slower than the Pentax K-m. And, while its continuous-shooting speed of 2.4 frames per second is only fractionally slower than that of the D60 and 1000D -- and, oddly, slower than the earlier model -- in practice, it still feels too slow to keep up with kids and pets. The LCD also seems to be the same one as on the previous generation of cameras, because we had the same difficulty viewing it in direct sunlight. The image stabilisation works okay, testing out to a saving of about 2 1/3 stops when zoomed out to 200mm.
We're on the fence regarding the photo quality. Part of the problem is Sony's choice of default values, especially in its 'creative styles'. As Pentax does with its K-m, Sony's attempt to provide more 'consumer-friendly' images with its default creative style settings results instead in poor colour rendering -- too cool outdoors and too warm indoors -- which makes you think the white balance is off.
Unfortunately, you can't tell that's what's happening because there's no 'natural' or its equivalent, and Sony doesn't tell you what the contrast, saturation or sharpness settings are for each style -- they're all listed as 0, from which you increase or decrease. If you know enough to change the settings, or shoot only raw, you can get some very good photos out of the camera, but someone with that knowledge is not the likely buyer for this model. This is, however, probably fixable via a firmware update if Sony chooses.
By the rest of the image-quality metrics -- noise, exposure and sharpness -- the A230 renders decent photos for its class. The Dynamic Range Optimizer brings out slightly more detail in shadows and mid-tones, and brings back some clipped shadows and highlights. In general, you probably won't regret leaving it enabled.
We were slightly disappointed by the kit lenses, which don't match the sharpness of similar models from Canon and Nikon. The A230 delivers a fairly average noise-suppression profile for its class. Sharpness starts to degrade at about ISO 400 and colour noise begins to seep in at ISO 800. You really won't want to use ISO 1,600 and ISO 3,200, at which points images are both soft and noisy.
Given that the Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 has a better viewfinder than the A330, it's a better deal, unless you really want the live-view shooting. But, if you're looking for the cheapest decent dSLR available -- albeit one with similarly bad defaults -- you should consider the Pentax K-m.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet