We hoped the new Olympus E-620 would give Canon and Nikon a modicum of competition in the cut-throat DSLR arena, but no such luck—the camera simply didn’t measure up. Another week, another new model, but this time Sony’s entering the ring. The company will be introducing a trio of new models soon and we got our hands on the middle child, a 10.2-megapixel edition with built-in sensor shift stabilization, a 2.7-inch moveable screen and a Live View we actually like using. The A330 has a nice price of $649, including a newly designed 3x 18-55mm lens. Now, will Canon and Nikon get some real competition? Let’s check it out…
Features and Design
Although it’s a basic black-bodied DSLR, the new Sony has a few more curves and more attractive surface textures than usual. It’s definitely a nice refresh compared to earlier models, which were basically modified Konica-Minoltas (Sony bought that company’s camera division in 2006). It has more sophisticated lines, and the top dials are flush with the surface, a nice design touch. Overall, it looks good. It measures 5 inches wide, 3.8 tall and 2.8 deep, weighing 26.8 ounces with the battery. Dimensions and weight are similar to the Canon T1i and Olympus E-620.
The front is dominated by the alpha lens mount, a bayonet-type that also accepts older Minolta glass. Like Olympus, Sony doesn’t have nearly has many lens options as Canon and Nikon (around 25, versus 60-plus) but the key bases are covered in the zoom and fixed focal length categories. Also on the front is an AF/MF switch, lens release button, remote sensor, and self-timer lamp in the pistol grip. Above the grip is a jog wheel to make menu adjustments. The orange alpha logo on the top right is a nice touch. Going beyond looks is the SteadyShot Inside logo, which lets you know this DSLR has built-in sensor shift image stabilization, like Olympus and Pentax DSLRs. With this system, every lens you attach is stabilized, so you don’t have to spend extra for IS or VR glass from Canon or Nikon if you own those bodies.
On the top of the camera you’ll find the mode dial; since this one doesn’t take videos, there’s no movie setting but you’ll find the usual suspects: auto, aperture and shutter priority, manual, six common scene settings, and flash off. On the auto pop-up flash is a hot shoe. Next to that is a switch to change between Live View and OVF (optical viewfinder). There’s a key that engages a “smart” digital zoom (up to 2x), and a power on/off ring surrounding the shutter button.
The standout feature on the back is a tiltable 2.7-inch LCD screen rated 230K pixels. Although it doesn’t move as widely as the E-620’s, it does let you hold the camera over your head or down low, to frame your shots when you’re in Live View. We’ll discuss Live View in the Performance section, but suffice it to say, Sony’s implementation is the best of those currently available.
Also key is the viewfinder, which has 95 percent coverage and 0.74x magnification. It’s surrounded by a soft rubber guard that your forehead will appreciate, and there’s a diopter control next to it. There are sensors directly under the eyepiece that engages the EyeStart AF, so the camera starts focusing as soon as you bring it up to your face.
There are also the usual DSLR controls here as well, including menu, exposure compensation, function, delete, playback, along with a four-way controller. With it, you can quickly adjust the ISO, flash, display, self timer/burst mode and focus type. Surprisingly, white balance isn’t here – you access it via the function key.
On the right side is compartment for the optional DC input, while on the left, a sliding door offers mini USB and HDMI outs, along with dual slots for Memory Stick Pro Duo or SDHC cards. A nearby switch lets you choose between the two media. The bottom of the Made-In-Japan camera has a metal tripod mount and battery compartment.
What’s In The Box
No surprises here. With the kit you get the body, lens, battery, charger, USB cable (but no HDMI), strap, body cap, and eyepiece cover. You’ll also get a 172-page owner’s manual and a CD-ROM with Image Data Converter, Image Data Lightbox SR and Picture Motion Browser software for handling images, and developing RAW files.
With the battery charged and a 2GB SDHC card in place, it was time to start clicking.
Performance and Use
The Sony alpha A330 is a 10.2-megapixel CCD camera, so it grabs 3872 x 2592 pixel files in JPEG/RAW format. We attached the newly designed 3x 18-55mm zoom—previously Sony supplied a 18-70mm kit lens–setting the camera to finest resolution. We started off in auto and tested the various manual options using the viewfinder and Live View. The camera has a Dynamic Range Optimizer (DRO), which helps add shadow detail in high-contrast shots. The default setting is standard, but it can be defeated or enhanced depending on your mode and mood. With Creative Style – the overall image tone – standard is also the default, and you can adjust contrast, sharpness and saturation to your taste. In other words, this DSLR lets you tweak it as much as you’d like, or just use auto.
The weather in the Northeast has been very Pacific Northwest lately, so a lot of our shooting was done on misty, cloudy days. The sun did come out eventually, though, so we could finally see how the camera handled bright daylight. Before getting into the “output,” let’s say the camera has a very nice feel with controls in the right spots for quick adjustments. The menu system has been updated with even some color graphics, making it simple to use.
Sony says it’s trying to make this camera, along with the new A230 and A380, less intimidating for first-time DSLR buyers. We wouldn’t say they’ve accomplished this mission completely, but the same way Canon’s Creative Auto explains what changing the aperture and shutter speed does to a photo, Sony has a graphic display showing if your current setting works best for fast action (speed), and landscape or portrait (aperture). It’s helpful, but it certainly won’t make the transition from point-and-shoot to DSLR a slam dunk for newbies. We know you don’t want to hear it but a few spins through the owner’s manual is really all a casual shutterbug needs. It’s simply amazing what you’ll uncover when you read the manual!
The A330 has a 9-point AF system (8 cross type), so focusing is quick, with little grab. The viewfinder is OK, with decent coverage. Where the A330 really shines is Live View. Unlike competing systems, Sony has a dedicated sensor, so response is much quicker. Sure, there’s some smearing onscreen, but overall it’s quite good, and it’s hard to beat the adjustable screen that lets you hold the camera over your head or near the ground. It would be nice if the screen were 921K pixels instead of 230K, but there have to be tradeoffs to hit a certain price. The screen does, unfortunately, wipe out in direct sunlight.
Where the A330 really misses the boat versus competitors is in burst mode. In Live View, it shoots only two frames per second, or 2.5 using the viewfinder. This is below the 3.4 FPS of the 15MP T1i, and the 4 of the Olympus E-620. If you’re hot to freeze action, this camera might not be your best option.
ISO has a range of 100-3200, which is pretty standard for affordable DSLRs. We did our standard test shots to see if Sony controlled the noise monster. Once we had taken our images, it was time to do some downloads, look at them 200% on the monitor and make letter-size full-bleed prints.
We were very happy to see the Sony alpha turned out some excellent photographs. Colors were very accurate, with focusing that was pin-sharp. It was a really pleasure checking them out compared to the Olympus E-620, and they compared favorably to the more expensive Canon T1i. The Sony’s in-camera stabilization did a fine job reducing blur with handheld shots, especially in low light. It’s not perfect, but it beats walking around with a monopod. The A330 also did yeoman’s work with digital noise, as it started to become noticeable at 800 but even 1600 was usable for an 8×10. Only 3200 was beyond the pale.
We have no reservations suggesting first-time DSLR buyers pick up the Sony alpha DSLR-A330. It feels right and takes fine, accurate photos with little noise until you hit the outer limits (1600+). We did find the 3x zoom a bit limiting, and you should opt for a more potent lens to complement the kit glass. The Live View can’t be beat, but the burst mode is less than the competition, and the camera is definitely noisy, as the mirror mechanism clunks along when you’re firing away. Still, as a $649 list package, this one is hard to beat.
- Very good, accurate photos
- Compact, light, nicely-styled body
- Tiltable 2.7-inch LCD
- Top-notch Live View
- 2.5 fps, less than competitors
- White balance should be more accessible
- Digital noise noticeable above 800
- Mechanical noise noticeable all the time