New Sony dSLRs target burst, low-light shooters

Improved noise reduction, faster continuous shooting, and novel image processing additions make the Alpha DSLR-A500 and A550 models to watch in the competitive sub-$1,000 dSLR market.

Sony Electronics

With the announcements of the Alpha DSLR-A500 and A550, Sony brings what feels like a market microsegmentation strategy to dSLRs. These models raise the total of new Sony dSLRs costing less than $1,000 up to five; if you count the older A700, which hasn't been formally discontinued, then you've got 6 Sony dSLR options squeezed into the $400 gap between $549 and $999. A welcome plethora of choices, or a try-anything-and-see-what-sticks strategy? I can't answer that for Sony, but I've been staring at the specs for hours and still can't figure out why the A380, introduced only 3 months ago, exists in this family.

The cameras incorporate Sony's latest technologies for improving low-light shooting experiences. They both use Exmor CMOS sensors (compared to CCDs for the lower-end models), debuting updated on-chip noise reduction which processes chroma and luma channels separately. The quality of its noise suppression has long been one of Sony's weak points, and this can only help. Will it bear scrutiny up to the extended sensitivity of ISO 12,800? I can't wait to test them and see.

They also debut Auto HDR, a variation on the Hand-held Twilight mode, one of the few things I liked in the company's DSC-HX1 megazoom. Auto HDR snaps two sequential shots at different exposures and combines them into a single shot with "optimal" highlight and shadow detail. It doesn't have quite as much control as I'd like--you'll be able to manually select the amount of the bracket, but it's limited to two shots and it doesn't save the individual frames, just the combined result and only as a JPEG--but it's potentially a superior approach to the gamma-adjusting schemes such as Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization and Nikon's D-Lighting. Provided there's no performance overhead, of course.

In addition to the resolution differential between the A500 and A550, the A550 has a higher resolution LCD--the same one used on the A700 and A900--and a faster burst option called Speed Priority mode, which basically forgoes continuous autofocus. (With AF, the continuous-shooting performance is the same.)

Sony's current beyond-entry-level consumer dSLR lineup looks like this:

  Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 Sony Alpha DSLR-A500 Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Sony Alpha DSLR-A700
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2-megapixel CCD 12.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS 12.2-megapixel CMOS
23.6 x 15.8.mm 23.5 mm x 15.6mm 23.4 mm x 15.6mm 23.5 x 15.6mm
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded)
Continuous shooting 2.5fps
n/a raw/n/a JPEG
5 fps
6 raw/12 JPEG
7 fps
14 raw/32 JPEG
5 fps
17 raw/8 JPEG
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
0.74x/0.49x
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
95% coverage
0.90x/0.60x
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
9-pt AF
center cross-type
9-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
Live View Yes Yes Yes No
Video No No No No
LCD size 2.7 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
3 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
3 inches tiltable
921,600 dots
3 inches fixed
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 500 shots 1,000 shots 950 shots 650 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.8 5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3 5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3 5.6 x 4.1 x 3.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 19.1 22.9 (estimated) 22.9 (estimated) 27.5
Mfr. Price n/a $749.99 (body only) $949.99 (body only) $999.99 (body only)
$849.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $849.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,049.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,099.99 (with 18-70mm lens)
$1,049.99 (with 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses) n/a n/a $1,499.99 (with 16-105mm lens)

Notably missing from all these models: video. At the media briefing, Mark Weir, the senior technology manager of the product management unit in the Digital Imaging Division at Sony Electronics, basically said no one does video up to Sony standards.

"The video implementation of SLRs today do not deliver the video experience people expect from Sony...though we can imagine pros having assistants to pull focus and exposure...we believe that mainstream SLR customers...may not have a camera with the existing technology fill their expectations...delivering an excellent user experience...is an obligation that we have that we don't necessarily see being taken quite so seriously when we see video implementations that don't follow focus...or exposure...we understand that has a value...we can imagine that HD video without focus and exposure...can be tough for people to get a good experience out of...but it has to be better...not just possible, but better."

While I agree that video capture in dSLRs is still rough around the edges at all levels, it's also something that many people miss when they move up from a point-and-shoot, or that they still might want to play around with. Furthermore, I think Sony might have outsmarted itself with its two-sensor Live View autofocus system; since it doesn't use contrast-detection AF I think these models would require a lot more retooling to implement video capture than competitors. Is Sony's exceptionally fast Live View AF worth the trade-off? Perhaps.

Video aside, however, the A500 and A550 finally look like Sony's aggressively taking on Canon and Nikon in the sub-$1,000 segment. On specs alone, here's how the A550 stacks up to its competition:

  Sony Alpha DSLR-A550 Nikon D90 Canon EOS 50D
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 15.1-megapixel CMOS
23.4 mm x 15.6mm 23.6 x 15.8mm 22.3 mm x 14.9mm
Color depth n/a 12-bit 14-bit
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 1600/3,200 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 3200/12,800 (expanded)
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 1.5x 1.6x
Continuous shooting 7 fps
14 raw/32 JPEG
4.5 fps
7 raw/100 JPEG (medium/fine)
6.3 fps
16 raw/90 JPEG
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
96% coverage
0.94x/0.63x
95% coverage
0.95x/0.59x
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type
9-pt AF
all cross-type
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video No 720p at 24fps No
LCD size 3 inches tiltable
921,600 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
Shutter durability n/a 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles
Battery life (CIPA rating) 950 shots 850 shots 640 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 22.9 (estimated) 26.0 29.8
Mfr. Price $949.99 (body only) $999.95 (body only) $1,199.99 (body only)
$1,049.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $1,299.95 (with 18-105mm lens) $1,399.99 (with 28-135mm lens)

A lot's riding on that low-light performance. While the 50D claims the same ISO 12,800, it doesn't execute terribly well; if Sony nails the noise reduction, combined with the tiltable LCD it could provide quite an advantage. The A550's viewfinder doesn't compare particularly well, though.

The A500 looks a lot stronger in its price cohort. It has the same viewfinder as the A550, but Nikon and Canon's are also small in these models, and their slower burst performance lends Sony the advantage. And even more so in this territory than that of the A550, if the noise reduction delivers as promised, the A500 will be a very strong contender.

  Sony Alpha DSLR-A500 Nikon D5000 Canon EOS Rebel T1i
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS 12.3-megapixel CMOS 15.1-megapixel CMOS
23.5 mm x 15.6mm 23.6 x 15.8mm 23.5 mm x 15.6mm
Color depth n/a 12-bit 14-bit
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 (expanded)/200 - ISO 1600/3200 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 800/1,600 (expanded)
Focal-length multiplier 1.5x 1.5x 1.6x
Continuous shooting 5 fps
6 raw/12 JPEG
4 fps
9 raw/100 JPEG (medium/fine)
3.5 fps
6 raw/53 JPEG
Viewfinder
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
0.80x/0.53x
95% coverage
0.95x/0.52x
95% coverage
0.87x/0.54x
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
center cross-type to f5.6
9-pt AF
center cross-type
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video No 720p at 24fps 720p at 30fps, 1080p at 20fps
LCD size 3 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
2.7 inches articulated
230,000 dots
3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
Shutter durability n/a 100,000 cycles n/a
Battery life (CIPA rating) 1,000 shots 510 shots 400 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4
Body operating weight (ounces) 22.9 (estimated) 21.6 18.6
Mfr. Price $749.99 (body only) $729.95 (body only) $799.99 (body only)
$849.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $849.95 (with 18-55mm lens) $899.99 (with 18-55mm lens)

One of my biggest complaints about all the low-end Sony dSLRs that have come through here of late are the default settings for Sony's Creative Styles. I really hope they're improved for the new models. I guess we'll find out when they ship in October.

 

Join the discussion

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Don't Miss
Hot Products
Trending on CNET

HOT ON CNET

Still taking notes with pen and paper?

Bump up your grades and school supplies with these laptops, desktops, and tablets!