Sony's confusion of dSLRs

Two new consumer dSLR models ask potential buyers to evaluate trade-offs they shouldn't need to consider.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 Sony Electronics

2/1/2008: Thanks to lack of sleep and rusty HTML skills, the previous table entries for the A700 were incorrect. Sorry for my own addition to the confusion. Fixed now. Lori.

I suppose it was inevitable. With its latest camera announcements, Sony brings its scorched-earth camera marketing philosophy--blanketing each price segment with multiple choices in hopes that one combination of design and features hits pay dirt--to consumer digital SLRs. Today's announcement of the Alpha DSLR-A300 and A350 brings Sony's total number of dSLRs in the $700 to $900 range to three. The models, despite some really nice feature sets, have just enough significant trade-offs to engender frustration rather than delight at the variety.

First, here's an overview of the new consumer lineup:

  Alpha DSLR-A200 Alpha DSLR-A300 Alpha DSLR-A350 Alpha DSLR-A700
Sensor 10.2-megapixel CCD
23.6 x 15.8 mm
10.2-megapixel CCD
23.6 x 15.8 mm
14.2-megapixel CCD
23.6 x 15.8 mm
12.2-megapixel CCD
23.6 x 15.8 mm
Continuous shooting 3fps
unlimited JPEG/6 raw
unlimited JPEG/6 raw
2 fps
unlimited JPEG/4 raw
unlimited JPEG/17 raw
Viewfinder 0.83X magnification
fixed matte focusing screen
95% coverage
0.74X magnification
fixed matte focusing screen
95% coverage
0.74X magnification
fixed matte focusing screen
95% coverage
0.9X magnification
interchangeable matte focusing screen
Autofocus 9-pt AF
one cross-type sensor in center
9-pt AF
one cross-type sensor in center
9-pt AF
one cross-type sensor in center
11-pt AF
two cross-type sensors in center (one f/2.8)
Live View No Yes Yes No
LCD size 2.7 inches/fixed 2.7 inches/tiltable 2.7 inches/tiltable 3 inches/fixed
Price $699 (w/ 18-70mm lens) $799 (w/ 18-70mm lens) $799 (body only); $899 (w/ 18-70mm lens) $1,399 (body only)
Availability End of February End of April Mid March Now

Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 with optional battery grip
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 with optional battery grip Sony Electronics

All the models have Super SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilization and support sensitivities that range from ISO 100-3200, as well as the typical array of firmware-based features, such as Advanced Dynamic Range Optimization. With the A300 and A350, Sony also introduces Live View shooting mode to its dSLRs. Sony's 2-sensor implementation harks back to the more seamless approach pioneered--and subsequently discarded--by Olympus. With a secondary sensor dedicated to receiving a preview image off the imaging sensor, there's no need to flip the mirror up for preview and focus, then flip it back down to shoot, proving a more typical snapshot-like experience when framing via the LCD. In addition, Sony incorporates a flip-up LCD, which makes the feature not just practical, but actually useful (predominantly for overhead and from-the-hip shooting). We would prefer a flip-and-twist display, like that found on the Olympus E-3, but hey--you can't have everything.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A300
Sony Alpha DSLR-A300 Sony Electronics

So the extra $100 you pay to go from the A200 to A300 gets you Live View. Or Live View, plus higher resolution but minus a lens, 1 frame-per-second continuous shooting speed, and a significantly lower-magnification viewfinder (A200 to A350). Between the A300 and the A350, which have the same tiny viewfinder and Live View, for the same $799 you have to decide whether you want the lens kit, or higher resolution and slower speed. You could opt for the Canon EOS Rebel XSi , which competes directly against the A350 at that $799 body-only price, but which delivers a better combination of resolution and performance for the money.

Also debuting at PMA, Sony introduces a pair of lenses: a pricey-but-probably-yummy Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA ($1,749) and a basic telephoto zoom 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 G SSM ($799). Both will be available this spring.


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