So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Sony Alpha A700
- Sharp pictures, good noise control, colours well balanced, speedy operation, sensor based stabilisation
- Some minor chromatic aberration issues, no live view, no second LCD display
The Alpha A700 puts Sony firmly in contention with the other big SLR players with its combination of great image quality, a robust feature set and a sturdy design.
Price$ 2,249.00 (AUD)
Traditionally the SLR space has been relatively small. Many companies haven't been willing to play in a market dominated by Canon and Nikon, but more recently Sony has jumped into the fray. The Alpha A700 is the company's second model and takes its spot at the top of their range, ahead of the Alpha A100.
This time around Sony has really done an excellent job. While the previous attempt was a solid unit it didn't quite match up with its key competitors. No such issue here however; the A700 is a first class camera. Its main competitors in this space will be Nikon's D300, Canon's EOS 40D and Olympus' E-3 and although most models offer combinations of features the others don't, the A700 definitely stacks up nicely.
Packing in a 12.1-megapixel sensor, it outshines the E-3 and EOS 40D (both of which are 10 megapixels) in terms of resolution and is on par with the D300. We weren't sure what to expect of the A700 in terms of image quality, as the A100's default lens held it back quite a bit. Fortunately this isn't an issue with the A700. It comes with two possible lens configurations, a standard 18-70mm kit and a larger 16-105mm, and we used the latter.
We managed to capture some very impressive snaps with this unit. Everything comes out razor sharp, with no fringing or blurring and great detail. The pictures do err slightly towards the soft side, but this can be tweaked using the onboard sharpness controls, but overall the A700 certainly rivals and in some cases outdoes the EOS 40D in this regard. Minor barrel distortion was evident and while it was fairly well controlled there was some corner softening towards the edges of the frame.
Haloing was also evident in high contrast areas, but it wasn't particularly prominent and didn't have a sizeable impact on the quality of our shots. This was one of the critical issues with the A100 and so we're very happy to see it remedied here.
Colour balance was quite impressive and responded very well to tweaking using the colours menu. Our shots showed a very noticeable difference between the 'natural' and 'vivid' colour settings; more so than we see on most other units. Depending on your preference there should be a configuration to suit your needs and we found the balance to be accurate.
The A700 also handles exposure nicely, with the dynamic range controls giving a little extra hands-on touch. While they don't have an impact in all situations we definitely noticed a reasonable detail increase in dark areas and a better balance between light and shade.
Noise was also kept well under control. Sony claim that as most of the image processing is done, most users will be happy taking it anywhere up to ISO 1600, and even ISO 3200 is usable in a pinch. There was basically no reduction in quality from the noise compensation algorithms, although you do have an option to control the level of noise reduction.
Operating speeds were quick but not stunning. The 0.5-second start-up time was slightly more sluggish than we're used to, but shot-to-shot times and shutter lag were negligible while the burst mode is fairly speedy at just below five frames per second. This isn't quite up there with some competing models but it is fast enough for many uses.
Another absent feature some users may miss is live view, which is becoming a staple on many other SLRs. A lot of users will probably not miss this, but those who are looking to add some creatively angled shots to their repertoire may find their needs better catered for elsewhere.
Other features include built in wireless flash support, the usual preset, custom and colour temperature white balance colours and an 11-point auto-focus system. One nifty inclusion is a sensor on the viewfinder that automatically focuses as you raise it to your eye; useful in spots where a quick photograph is needed. Sony has also thrown in HDMI connectivity, allowing simple connection to your big screen TV to show off your photos to family and friends.
Image stabilisation, now an expectation rather than a special bonus, is present and unlike some other company's offerings, on the A700 it is sensor-based. This means it will work with any lens you use, which, combined with this model's support for the older Minolta mounting as well as a range of Carl Zeiss lenses, gives consumers a wide variety of options.
The build quality is generally impressive, with a rugged rubber and metal chassis and a hefty right-hand grip. It feels good in the hands and can definitely take a knock or two. One noteworthy design feature is the 3in, 921,600-pixel display which certainly does do an excellent job of rendering your shots in review mode. The only downside to this is that Sony hasn't seen fit to include a second display along the top, which are generally a little easier to use and better in bright conditions.
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