Sony’s been on a roll this year with the introduction of NEX series of cameras, and now the Alpha A55V as well as its lower-priced sibling, the A33. Although they look like traditional DSLRs, the pair is radically different which we’ll detail on the following pages. In a nutshell, they’re pretty amazing.
Features and Design
The 16-megapixel Sony Alpha SLT-A55V, which we tested extensively over the course of three days, has the classic black-bodied DSLR vibe, but it houses some scintillating innovations including Translucent Mirror Technology. Before getting in to that, we’ll note the camera is smaller and lighter than typical models thanks to TMT, weighing 15.3 ounces (body only), and measuring 4.9 x 3.7 x 3.3 (WHD, in inches).
Translucent Mirror Technology is one of the critical breakthroughs in this camera. It eliminates the motion of raising and lowering the mirror found in traditional DSLRs. Since the mirror doesn’t have to move up and down, the camera can be smaller. But that’s just part of it. Focusing is much more quick and accurate—especially for moving subjects. The A55V captures 10 frames per second (the cheaper 14.2MP A33 is 7). This is a mind-boggling number as most sub-$1,000 DSLRs hit 3 or 4 fps at most. If you’re a parent who really wants to capture their child playing soccer or simply running around, this camera will do it — sharply with little blur. For the record, the 16MP Canon EOS-1D Mark IV — a real pro workhorse — also shoots 10 fps but it costs $4,999 for the body. Now you can see why we’re psyched about this camera.
Like every DSLR, the key element on the front is the lens mount. In this case, it’s Sony’s Alpha system, which features an extensive collection of glass including Zeiss and Sony G series lenses. As with Canon and Nikon, you can quickly tap out buying your favorites. During the review, we used an 85mm f/1.4 Zeiss that costs $1,369, more than the body itself. The camera comes with an 18-55mm lens in the basic kit, but you definitely should upgrade when you get the chance.
There’s not much else on the front, other than a lens release button, a jog wheel on the grip for menu adjustments, and a few low-key logos. Since the camera is relatively compact, the grip was a little small for our hands, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. On the top, you’ll find a mode dial that gives an inkling of what separates this camera from the competition. Along with the usual settings of auto, aperture- and shutter-priority, manual and scene modes, there’s one for 10 frames per second. Also new on the dial is sweep panorama, a feature first seen on Sony point-and-shoots which lets you easily take horizontal and vertical panoramas. Move through the menu and you can even take 3D Sweep Panoramas, you can watch on any new 3D HDTV using glasses. Cool stuff.
Also on the top is an auto pop-up flash, hot shoe along with video, exposure compensation and AE lock keys. As DigitalTrends.com readers well know, we haven’t been big fans of DSLR HD video since focusing is rather slow and cumbersome, since the first crop of these cams used contrast detection rather than the faster and more accurate phase detection. The A55V (and A33) are the first DSLRs to use phase detection and the results — especially the A55V we tested — are spectacular.
Things get pretty interesting on the back, too. There’s an articulating 3-inch LCD screen you can move in many positions. It’s rated at 921K pixels, and there was very little difficulty using it even in bright sunshine. The Live View is really sharp, with no smearing, thanks to the Translucent Mirror Technology and separate AF sensor. This is all pretty cool by itself, but looking through the viewfinder things get really radical. Instead of a traditional DSLR optical viewfinder (OVF), the A55V uses a Tru-Finder electronic viewfinder rated 1.44-million pixels with 100% coverage and 1.1x magnification. It’s a beautiful display, and what this delivers is terrific. Now when you change your settings such as exposure compensation you’ll know exactly if you chose the right amount because you can see the effect in the EVF. This really helps you make the most of the camera and get the shot you want. You can also record videos using the EVF rather than holding the camera at arm’s length as is the case with the competition.
Other keys on the back on fairly standard including function, a four-way controller with direct access to display, white balance, ISO (100 through 12,800), burst and center AF/set button. Playback and delete are here as well. Compartments offer access to HDMI, mic, USB and remote connections. A logo on the side lets you know the camera has a built-in GPS, in case all of the other features weren’t enough. On the bottom in the battery compartment and SDHC/SDXC-Memory Pro Duo slots. Sony recommends the fastest speed card you can buy.