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Sony Alpha DSLR-A100

We haven't had a chance to fully test this product yet, but we've assembled this helpful overview of relevant information on it.

Summary

One of the most hotly contested arenas today is the D-SLR category. Currently Canon and Nikon control over 80 percent of the market, with Canon the dominant leader of the pack. We’ve used and enjoyed many Canon D-SLRs, ranging from the original Digital Rebel up to fantastic 12MP EOS 5D with its full-frame sensor ($3,000 body only). A camera like that is really for pros. A more realistic price for enthusiasts is around $1,000 for a top-notch D-SLR. Enter the new Sony alpha DSLR-A100 with its 10.2MP CCD and a list price of $900 for the body only, $1,000 with a kit lens (18-70mm). This camera is scheduled to go on sale in late July.

Digital Trends and other select members of the photographic press were given the opportunity to try out the new camera in Alaska to see if the A100 could do justice to the fantastic scenery. It did–as you can see by the photos here.

We must point out that the cameras we used during the three-day tryout were not production models but pretty close to it. Sony executives said they were 90 percent there with a few tweaks to be made but they were confident of the build  and overall image quality. The camera we used had no troubles at all and we took hundreds of images.

Features and Design

Long-time observers of the digicam scene will quickly notice the Sony DSLR-A100 closely resembles the earlier Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D and 7D. That’s because when KM left the camera business it sold its assets to Sony. Sony took this framework and completely reworked the electronics. Whereas the Maxxum 5D/7D maxed out at 6.1MP imagers, the Sony uses a 10.2-megapixel CCD that it manufactures. The Nikon D200 ($1,699) is the only other D-SLR with a 10.2MP imager and–in case you’re wondering–it is a Sony chip powering the camera. To its credit, the D200 takes a full five frames per second (fps) burst compared to a maximum of three for the Sony. This higher speed and the required enhancements to the shutter mechanism is one of the reasons you’ll pay $700 more for the Nikon. You’re also paying for the Nikon name, too.

The Sony D-SLR has a number of other features worth noting. One of the most important is Super SteadyShot, the company’s name for image stabilization. In this case, it uses a Konica Minolta-developed CCD shift system that adjusts the imager to counter hand shake. Now you can take extreme telephoto shots or ones in low light with much less risk of blur. This also allows from two to 3-1/2 stops of latitude in exposure for hand-held shooting at longer shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible. In the end, you have more opportunities to shoot in natural lighting without a tripod or a flash. This feature turns every lens you use into an image stabilized lens, saving loads of money since IS lenses cost a pretty penny. The DSLR-A100 has a top ISO of 1600 to help shoot with available light.

The camera also has an anti-dust system that prevents specks of dust from landing on the CCD and ruining your images. Since dust can get inside the camera every time you change lenses, this can be real life–and money–saver. It works automatically each time you turn off the camera.

Since the alpha is based on a Konica Minolta framework it has a KM bayonet mount. This is good news for the vast majority of owners of Konica Minolta lenses since Sony says almost all of those made since 1985 will work with the camera. Sony plans to introduce 19 lenses under its own name soon after the main introduction date. Sony admits many of these lenses are newly made Maxxum glass with simple cosmetic changes. The company is also working with its long-time partner Carl Zeiss to create three completely new lenses including an ultra-wide, 16-80mm Vario-Sonnar T* zoom and two fixed focal length telephoto models–a Planar T* 85mm and Sonnar T* 135 mm. We primarily used the new kit lens as well as many other older Maxxum lenses including a 16mm lens that functioned as a 24mm thanks to the 1.5x digital factor.

Sony DLSR-A100
Image Courtesy of Sony

As noted, the new Sony has a very Maxxum look, minus Konica Minolta logos. There are some variations, of course, including silver-finished knobs and a nice dash of accent finish near the shutter. The body has a built-in comfortable hand grip that places your fingers in position to hit the shutter and to adjust the scroll wheel used to navigate through the menus and to make adjustments.

The rear of the camera is very straightforward. One of the biggest differences between the alpha and the Maxxum 5D is the quality of the LCD screen. Here it’s a 2.5-inch screen rated 230K pixels; the 5D was only 115K pixels. The screen is used to check your settings and to review your shots. Convenient zoom keys on the back let you see if you properly focused your subject. As is the case with every D-SLR other than the Olympus E-330 and Panasonic DMC-L1 the screen is for playback; you cannot frame your photos. In the case of the Sony you have a fixed eye-level viewfinder offering a 95 percent field of view. The viewfinder has another holdover feature from the Maxxum series–Eye Start. The moment you put your eye to the viewfinder the camera starts to focus making it easier to grab a quick shot. Focus still locks in when you depress the shutter halfway. Eye Start can be defeated if you’d like to do it all yourself. The rear of the camera has all of the usual keys (menu, display, delete, playback) and a four-way controller to move through menus or zero in on a portion of the image. The Super SteadyShot on/off button is here as well. We kept it on at all times.

The top of the camera offers a ton of adjustments that’ll keep almost every level of photographer happy. On the right-hand side is the main mode dial that locks into place with a solid click when you turn it. There’s a setting for point-and-shoot Auto as well as typical scene modes such as Night Scene/Night Portrait, Sunset, Sports, Macro, Landscape and Portrait. You can also choose Aperture- and Shutter-Priority, full Manual and Program. Next to it is the continuous shooting/self timer adjustment. The Sony can blast through three frames per second in full JPEG mode for the limit of the memory card. It can also do six RAW or three RAW+JPEG files before giving up the ghost. We found this burst mode to be a lot of fun as the camera fired away. Note the Sony DSLR-A100 accepts the popular and affordable CompactFlash media. No card is supplied but a CompactFlash/Memory Stick Duo adapter is so you can use those proprietary Sony cards if you’d like. We used the camera with a 2GB Pro Duo card.

Also on the top is a second dial offering even more options. You can adjust the type of metering, flash mode, focus setting, ISO (100-1600), white balance, color such as Vivid or B&W and D-Range Optimizer. This last setting is similar to Nikon’s D-Lighting that automatically adjusts the gradation in an image so detail isn’t lost in the shadows. The Sony does this in real-time with the hardware rather than Nikon’s approach which is with software in-camera after you’ve taken a shot. You’ll also find the pop-up flash (manually operated) and a hot shoe.

The camera will be supplied with a typical bundle of accessories: strap, cables, battery/recharger, CF/Memory Stick Duo adapter, manual and software on CD ROM. The battery is rated for 750 shots, more than enough for a day’s shooting.

Sony DSLR-A100
Image Courtesy of Sony

Performance

We have to stress this was a pre-production model so we won’t make definitive judgments about things such as the D-Range Optimizer. However we will comment on the photos we took. In a word–terrific. We must admit we typically like the results of Sony cameras other than the entry-level DSC-S600. We also liked the KM Maxxum 5D when we tested that camera back in the day. The “combined” unit was a winner. The DSLR-A100 was responsive, starting up in less than a second and it captured shots quickly. Continuous shooting was very fast as was focusing. We did a lot of shooting in the RAW+JPEG setting and the camera handled those massive files with ease. Remember this is a 10MP camera and JPEGs are 3872 x 2592 pixels. Color was very accurate though we tended to up the compensation simply because we like more contrasty images, especially landscapes. Skin tones were spot on, even when making large prints (13 x 19s are no problem with a 10-megapixel camera).

Conclusion

Sony has gone “all in” in the D-SLR poker game, quickly leaping into the ranks of the better Canon and Nikon models. Keep it in mind if you’re looking to spend $1,000 for a new camera. Remember this was a pre-production model and we’ll have a final report and DT rating as soon as can.

Pros:

  • 10MP CCD
  • Built-in image stabilization
  • Fast response

Cons:

  • Not a production model
  • Final marks on hold

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