Sony's older, entry-level has its share of fans, but we soon found that the unprepossessing, very un-Sony-like design of the £1,100 Alpha DSLR-A700 camouflages a sophisticated dSLR that's enjoyable to shoot and can hold its own quite well against models from veteran camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon.
True, much of the DNA for Sony's dSLRs comes from the company's acquisition of deceased long-time player Konica Minolta, but simply relying on good genes never gets you very far in a fickle consumer electronics market.
The body itself is dust and moisture-resistant, with an aluminium chassis and a magnesium outer shell. Weighing 768g including batteries, the A700 feels solid and well made. Thanks to a deep indent on the grip beneath the ledge holding the shutter and a dial -- much like the design of the -- the A700 also feels exceptionally comfortable and stable to hold.
Like its Konica Minolta ancestors, the A700 implements a proprietary hot shoe. Though it doesn't really matter for flash units, which are proprietary as well, the odd connector may limit your choice of accessories that use the hot shoe as a dumb mount. Not a critical problem, but one to be aware of.
Like the , the A700 also sports a somewhat confusingly specced 921,600-dot/307,200-pixel LCD with an approximate 170-degree-rated viewing angle. It's quite a nice display, viewable in bright light, and surprisingly good for judging sharpness when you're zoomed into a photo at the camera's 13x maximum.
Operating the A700 is pretty straightforward. Since it lacks a monochrome display on the top, you configure settings via a combination of direct-access buttons and the LCD. A function button pulls up the Quick Nav interactive information display of all your current settings, which you navigate via a big, comfortable joystick.
Only focus modes -- single-shot, continuous, single/continuous autoselection and manual -- and the three metering modes -- spot, evaluative and centre-weighted -- have their own selection switches. As with all dSLRs of this class, you control shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and program shift with dials.
One of the few issues we have with the A700's operation is the way it handles switching among the three user-definable custom presets. Rather than allocating three separate slots on the mode dial as on the 40D, there's a single Memory Recall slot that brings up a selection screen when you rotate the dial to MR.
Once you make your selection, however, the screen disappears until the next time you rotate the dial. So if you shoot for a while using MR1, for example, you must then rotate the dial away and back to MR in order to select a different preset. How much this bothers you will depend upon how heavily you depend on the custom settings. We use them increasingly as time goes on, which inflates our annoyance a bit. On the other hand, and more importantly, the A700 doesn't seem to lose overrides when it goes to sleep the way the 40D does.
Sony also makes the right calls on the A700's feature set. It lacks Live View shooting -- though Live View can be useful on occasion, we never miss it when it's not there.
Instead, Sony includes a solid set of really practical features, including SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilisation, a built-in wireless flash transmitter and dual memory-card slots -- although one is for Memory Stick Duo Pro rather than an SD or second CF card.