Sony's just revamped its entire 'starter' digital SLR range. The Alpha DSLR-A230, DSLR-A330 and DSLR-A380 replace the old DSLR-A200, DSLR-A300 and DSLR-A350 models. They look different, thanks to a complete restyle, and they sound different too, with a new, quieter 18-55mm kit lens. The top model, the Alpha DSLR-A380, comes with a 14.2-megapixel sensor, an innovative live-view mode and a £600 price tag.
On paper, the A380 looks pretty convincing. Canon has upped the ante for APS-C-sized sensors with the 15-megapixel CMOS chip in the EOS 500D and EOS 50D, but, with 14.2 million pixels, the A380 is only a whisker behind.
Besides, it has something other dSLRs don't -- a full-time live-view mode that doesn't need the mirror locked up and the shutter open. You can change from viewfinder to live view by flicking a simple sliding switch on the top of the camera. That's something you'd expect from most cameras, but, unusually, the A380 has a second, lower-resolution sensor inside that's dedicated to composing images on the flip-out LCD at the back. Because the mirror doesn't have to flip up, the swap-over is instant, and the autofocus in live view is just as fast as it is when using the optical viewfinder.
Inside, Sony's recently renamed SteadyShot Inside feature helps reduce camera shake at slow shutter speeds, and there's an improved D-Range Optimizer that's designed to hold onto extreme shadow and highlight detail in high-contrast lighting.
Sony's redesigned the body to make it smaller and more user-friendly, reducing the number of buttons and redesigning the interface to include a graphical representation of how shutter speed and aperture interact, together with help screens that tell you what's going on as you shoot.
The 18-55mm kit lens is new too. It has a shorter zoom range than Sony's old 18-70mm lens, but it's much better optically and quieter too. The old lens sounded like a misfiring chainsaw, but this one's almost as quiet as Nikon and Canon kit lenses.
But hold on a minute. Apart from the cosmetic revamp and the new kit lens, what's actually different about this camera compared to the old A350? Not much, as it happens. The 14.2-megapixel sensor is the same, the live view is the same, and the 2.5 frames per second continuous shooting speed is the same. Things have been moved around and prettified, but it's pretty much the same camera.
It's got the old camera's flaws, too. Sony's sensor-shift SteadyShot system no doubt helps to some degree, but the claimed 2.5-3.5 shutter speed advantage doesn't always materialise. And the penalty for that full-time live-view arrangement is a smaller and dimmer optical viewfinder.