Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (with 28-70mm Lens) review: A welcome step-up from smaller sensors

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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Sony's Alpha ILCE-7, aka the A7, delivers excellent photo and video quality in a well-designed camera that's enjoyable to shoot with.

The Bad The long startup time and short battery life disappoint.

The Bottom Line Sony Alpha ILCE-7 (A7) is a great alternative to similarly priced entry-level full-frame dSLRs, as long as you don't need speedy continuous shooting.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Image quality 8.0

There's no question that the cheaper model of Sony's full-frame interchangeable-lens duo looks mighty attractive, thanks to its lower price tag. The less-expensive 24-megapixel model (Alpha ILCE-7, aka A7) boasts faster performance and a better autofocus system than its slower, AA-filter-free 36-megapixel sibling (Alpha ILCE-7R, aka A7R). But despite those advantages, I still generally like the A7R better for its superior image quality. However, compared to similarly priced and bigger full-frame dSLRs, the A7 is a very attractive alternative as long as you don't need to shoot action.

Note: the design and feature set for the A7 is identical to the A7R, so much of my discussion of the camera is, well, also identical.

The A7 incorporates the lower-resolution sensor in order to use Sony's hybrid autofocus system; Sony says that it couldn't put the phase-detection pixels on the 36-megapixel sensor for the A7R. If you need both resolving power and autofocus speed, you're out of luck for now.

Both new sensors have redesigned microlens arrays. While most modern sensors use gapless microlenses, these also required some tweaking on the edges near the lens mount to prevent vignetting, since the sensor's such a tight fit in the mount opening.

Image quality
While the higher resolution and better resolvability of the A7R's sensor beat the A7's, the A7 still fares quite well. It produces sharper images than the 6D and D610 at midrange ISO sensitivities, but it also looks like Sony's performing more aggressive processing on them; you can see the artifacts on the out-of-focus edges.

In general, the A7 produces excellent photos. On one hand, you can start seeing artifacts in JPEGs as low as ISO 800, but processing raw lets you alleviate the edge artifacts and recover some detail. Depending upon subject matter, you can get usable JPEGs as high as ISO 6400 that print nicely as large as 13x19, and even at ISO 12800 there's a reasonable amount of retained tonal range and detail to make those shots usable when scaled down a bit.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 6400

I really like the A7's video. It's not insanely sharp, but it's pretty good, with just a tiny bit of aliasing. It delivers nice tonal range, albeit with some clipped highlights. Even in low light at ISO 3200, it produces saturated colors without a lot of image noise. Also, for those who care, Sony lets you set shutter speeds as low as you'd like -- it doesn't cut you off at 1/30-second like most cameras. The built-in microphone delivers surprisingly warm, full-bodied sound, too.

Performance
I wouldn't call the A7's performance stellar, but it's much better than the A7R and is relatively on par with its dSLR competitors. Unfortunately, it's not much better -- and in some cases worse -- than the NEX-6. And its overly long startup time is a big sticking point, not to mention its short battery life.

It takes a whopping 2.8 seconds to power on and shoot, even longer than the A7R; that's because you have to wait for it to fully power on before touching any of the controls or they simply won't register. Depending upon what you're photographing, that could be insignificant or could count for several lost opportunities. And because the battery life isn't great, you don't really want to leave it on all the time.

Time to focus and shoot in both good light and dim runs about 0.4 second, which is good for dim but not great for bright conditions. Shot-to-shot time is fast, though, at about 0.2-second for raw or JPEG. And while it can sustain a solid burst -- it doesn't slow until after about 27 shots for raw and it doesn't slow at all for JPEG -- with continuous AF that's for a fairly low frame rate of 2.1fps.

Because it has the same image processor but smaller files, it's more responsive than the A7R at least. And the hybrid autofocus system feels faster and a lot less frustrating to use than the contrast-only system in the A7R. It does have the same manual focus peaking and a sharp EVF as its big brother, so manual focus is just as fast and easy. Both cameras incorporate the same excellent EVF and LCD screens as on the SLT-A99, and as with the A7R I do wish the LCD could tilt down further for easier overhead shooting.

Unfortunately, it also has the same embarrassingly loud shutter. While there's some dispute as to whether or not it causes significant shake from vibration -- I didn't find it an issue -- it still outs you when you're shooting for stealth. And while I love the bright, contrasty LCD and huge, vivid electronic viewfinder, they contribute to the camera's terribly short battery life given that the camera is targeted at people who photograph a lot. The only thing zips along merrily on this camera is the battery-level icon.

Design and features
Although I don't consider the A7 a beautiful camera, in a lot of ways it's beautifully designed; it feels very comfortable, with a substantial grip, sturdy dust-and-moisture-resistant magnesium alloy body, and enough heft that it counterbalances fairly well with big A-mount or other lenses.

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