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.
It also provides Eye-Start AF -- when the sensor below the viewfinder detects an object, ostensibly your eye, it initiates AF -- a holdover from the A100. This model augments it with a grip sensor to minimise false starts. We're not fans of Eye-Start AF, since we find it disconcerting as well as battery draining, but we can see how some would find it useful. You can turn it all off if you want, as we do.
In some cases, the A700 offers features and options not usually found in a camera of this class. For instance, you can choose how long the AF area displays, as well as set both minimum and maximum values -- not just maximum -- for the Auto ISO range.
As we've said elsewhere, we'd love the ability to set similar boundaries for aperture and shutter speed as well. It also has extremely nice power handling -- like all Sony InfoLithium systems, it reports percentage of battery life remaining. With the battery grip attached and loaded with two batteries, the camera reports for both batteries. Like the 40D, the A700 supports interchangeable focusing screens.
And because it's from Sony, the A700 naturally has a TV tie-in. You can display photos on an HDTV via HDMI, thanks to a mini-HDMI connector on the camera, though Sony doesn't bundle a cable -- and they're still pretty pricey.
The camera automatically downconverts images for optimal presentation. If you happen to have a recent-vintage Bravia TV, the latter can automatically switch into a photo-optimised colourspace, called PhotoTV mode, when connected to the A700 -- and likely with forthcoming Sony snapshot cameras, as well. It's certainly a nice perk.
Like the 40D, Sony supplies a compressed raw format, cRaw, designed for faster raw-format burst shooting, in addition to its various combinations of standard raw and JPEG files. Unlike Canon's spatially compressed -- that is, lower resolution -- sRaw, however, Sony's cRaw uses lossless compression to shrink file size from about 18MB to 12MB. On one hand, cRaw does let you shoot about seven more frames in a burst --more, but not faster.
In-camera processing algorithms also get a boost. Sony's Dynamic Range Optimiser, which applies image adjustment curves to expand the tonal range, now offers an advanced mode that analyses 1,200 segments in the frame. In addition, there's a .
In a similar vein, the A700 ships with seven Creative Styles, which are named presets of combinations of contrast, saturation, sharpness and brightness: Standard, Vivid, Neutral, AdobeRGB, Portrait, Landscape and Black and White. Of those, the last three support user adjustments and add a Zone setting option, which can automatically adjust the tonal range for high-key (bright) or low-key (shadowy) scenes.
By the numbers, the A700 delivers very good -- though not outstanding -- performance for its class. It can shoot 0.5 seconds after power up, the same amount of time it takes to focus and shoot a typical well-lit scene, and two consecutive nonburst shots edges up to 0.6 seconds.
These results put it about 0.1 seconds behind the 40D overall for single shots, though in practice we didn't feel much of a difference. The responsive feel may be attributable to the overhauled focusing system, which uses 11 area AF sensors, two each horizontal and vertical line sensors in the centre plus an f/2.8 sensor to improve focus speed when shooting with a wide-aperture lens.
However, like many of its competitors, under dim, low-contrast conditions, the A700's focus slows, bumping the lag to 1.2 seconds. Though common, we still think that's still too long for cameras at this price.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
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(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Though it can't match the 40D's 6.3 frame per second burst-shooting rate, the A700's 4.8fps acquits itself quite nicely, especially since we think the focus matches its speed better than the 40D's does at maximum. Sony's rating of 5fps assumes use of a UDMA-capable CF card. We obtained 4.8fps with a SanDisk Extreme IV, which is non-UDMA. In field tests, we were quite happy with the A700's continuous-shooting performance.
As for nonquantifiable performance measures, Sony says it's enhanced the SteadyShot stabilisation system -- not the optical version, but the sensor-shift mechanism inherited from Konica Minolta -- and claims it can buy you as many as four stops.
It has a new gyro, with claimed improved compensation for high-frequency motion, such as overcaffeinated hands. Ours qualify as moderate cases of the high-frequency jitters -- in bright light it delivered on the four-stop promise and in low-ish light gained us about 2 2/3 stops, both using manual focus.
As for photo quality, the A700 fares quite well. Metering, exposure, contrast and saturation look excellent under a variety of lighting conditions, and the photos exhibit a broad tonal range. Automatic white balance generally works well, though photos render a bit too warm under strong incandescent or fluorescent lights, and like many cameras, the A700's auto white balance doesn't deal well with mixed light sources such as shots taken under fluorescents near a window.
Under daylight, balance is extremely good, however. Image sharpness depends upon the lens, and the 18mm-to-70mm kit lens we tested with proved decent, though not outstanding.
The A700 incorporates Sony's latest 12-megapixel CMOS chip. Unlike most other sensors, this new model performs its analog-to-digital conversion on-chip, rather than in the imaging pipeline, a practice which Sony claims delivers better control over image noise. Though we can't confirm or deny that this is a better technology, the A700's noise profile is quite good.
It does an excellent job maintaining colour and exposure consistency across all the ISO sensitivity settings, and photos are quite usable up to and including ISO 3,200. Beyond that, as with similar cameras in this class, colour speckles and smeary details begin to crop up.
All in all, we're very impressed by the Sony Alpha DSLR-A700 as an all-around midrange digital SLR. Though more expensive than the Canon EOS 40D, the built-in image stabiliser and higher resolution are worth the extra money, unless you really need the little extra oomph in continuous-shooting performance that the 40D delivers.
Of course, it remains to be seen how the forthcoming yet pricier Nikon D300 will stack up relative to the A700. If you want to buy now, however, the A700 is a great choice.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday