Compactare cute, but sometimes you want the heft of a dSLR-style body, full mode dial, electronic viewfinder, and a lot of direct-access controls. The Sony Alpha SLT-A37, the latest entry-level model in Sony's line of dSLR-style cameras with phase-detection autofocus systems but fixed mirrors, fits in that niche, along with dSLRs like the Nikon D3200 Canon EOS Rebel T2i. The EVF and faster performance make it more suited to action shooting than its ILC sibling, the NEX-F3, and more compatible with a wider variety of lenses. And while it's a relatively uninspiring update to the A35, it's not a bad camera -- in fact, it's one of the fastest models in its price class and is capable of producing very nice photos up through ISO 800.
While I got a few shots I liked from the A37, I wasn't blown away by the photo quality -- it's pretty typical for an entry-level model of this class. That may be due in part to the new 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens, which we tested because I think it will be a popular choice. It's a good focal length range and its aperture range is no slower than the shorter 18-55mm option. However, it doesn't seem terribly sharp.
The camera's JPEGs look reasonably good at ISO 100 and 200, then you start to see more softness at ISO 400 with increasing artifacts up through ISO 3200, which I would consider the top of the usable range for JPEGs. Colors are saturated without getting shifted and the exposures are generally on target.
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The A37 generally performs faster than the A35, and that camera was quite fast. That's not just on our lab tests; it feels quite fast and responsive for nonburst shooting. It powers on, focuses and shoots in about 0.8 second, which is a little slower than other cameras. But in good light it can focus and shoot in 0.2 second and in dim light it's a mere 0.3 second -- both excellent showings. It takes approximately 0.5 second for two consecutive shots, which rises to 0.7 second with flash enabled.
I found continuous shooting a bit wonkier. While it's rated at 5.5fps with a buffer of 14 shots, our lab tests showed it slowed significantly after 10 shots, bringing the average down to 4fps. So the burst performance will depend significantly on the length of the burst.
Also, while the autofocus works quickly and accurately for single shots, the tracking autofocus lagged the subject quite often during my testing.
The 18-135mm lens does work well for manually focusing, though, especially in conjunction with the peaking function (edge enhancement) in the camera. At night especially I found that combination more accurate than relying on the AF; the viewfinder is notably dim even in good light.
Design and features
Its design remains pretty similar to the other SLT models: SLR-like but with an electronic viewfinder. It's relatively lightweight for its size, with a functional -- if somewhat uninspiring -- design. This generation picks up the habit of the NEX series interface, telling you why an option is grayed out rather than simply disallowing it.