Any self-respecting dSLR has to offer live view these days, but they all rely on clunky mirror movements and need cool-running CMOS sensors. All except this one. Sony's DSLR-A300 uses a regular 10-megapixel CCD and offers instant live view at the flick of a switch, and via a neat tilting LCD too. It can be yours for around £340.
Sony's live view system is either cheap and crappy or brilliantly simple, depending on whether you like your engineering elegant or you just want it to work. Other live view systems flip the mirror up and open the shutter so that the image falls on to the sensor and gets fed to the LCD. Sony doesn't bother with all that nonsense. Instead, it simply deflects some of the light on to a secondary, lower-resolution sensor in the pentaprism, and it's this that produces the live image. You activate it with a sliding switch on the top of the camera. Instantly, a little shutter blocks off the viewfinder eyepiece and the live image appears on the LCD. There's no clanking of mirrors and no permanently-open shutter leaving your sensor open to dust particles. It's not an elegant solution, but it's a damned good one.
That's not the only good thing about this camera. Sony's built-in Super SteadyShot anti-shake system works with any compatible lens, and thanks to a battery life of 750 shots (unless you use the live view a lot), you can shoot all day on a single charge. The Sony's pictures are really clear and vibrant, and the detail is good too. But wouldn't you get even more detail with the 14-megapixel DSLR-A350? Well, it does offer another 4 million pixels, but it doesn't really capitalise on them and overall the detail is pretty similar.
Admittedly, some of this is down to the 18-70mm kit lens. It might have a good zoom range, but optically it's not so hot. Things are nice and sharp in the centre, but by the edges of the frame the detail softens up and shows a fair amount of chromatic aberration too. You can't expect much from the kit lens on any budget dSLR, but this one is pushing it a bit.
And the camera itself has a slightly crude feel, partly because of the chunky plastic bodywork and partly from the coarse-sounding startup and autofocus systems. The engineering lash-up used to produce the live view system, meanwhile, leaves the optical viewfinder image slightly smaller and noticeably gloomier.
The price is certainly tempting, but dSLR prices have been dropping generally, and for the same money you can get a Canon EOS 1000D, also with live view, and also with 10 million pixels. The Canon's a slicker camera to use, though admittedly the Sony does produce better pictures and the simpler live view and tilting LCD are a big bonus.
Perhaps the biggest rival for the a300, though, is another Sony. The DSLR-A200 is essentially the same camera with the same controls, the same sensor and the same lens, but without the live view, and it costs around £60 less.
First impressions are that the DSLR-A300 is plasticky, crude and lumpy and lacks the finesse of rival dSLRs. But it grows on you. It proves versatile, effective and rather likeable. And it happens to take great pictures, within the limitations of the basic kit lens -- but you can always change that later for a better one.