Sony's Alpha DSLR-A850 has been around for a while, but it could still prove a great investment for enthusiastic amateur photographers. It offers 24.6-megapixel full-frame digital photography for less than half the price of other digital SLRs that are similarly equipped in the sensor department.
At around £1,700 for the body-only version and £2,500 with the 28-75mm kit lens, the A850 is an undeniably serious purchase. But, in relative terms, it's still a bargain. So how far down the road of compromise does it travel to bring near-professional quality to near-affordable levels?
The price is right
The A850 costs much more than many other dSLRs because of its image sensor. The Exmor CMOS chip inside Sony's high-end camera measures 35.9 by 24mm -- the same size as a full frame of 35mm film, hence the term 'full frame'. Full-frame sensors offer a number of benefits over smaller sensors, including a potentially sharper image with less noise, better quality at larger printing sizes and much more flexibility when it comes to lenses, particularly those for wide-angle photography.
To put things into perspective, you can expect to pay anything up to £5,000 for a full-frame dSLR, which makes the A850 one of the most attractively priced cameras of its type, particularly when you add in the fact that the sensor also has one of the highest resolutions currently available in a dSLR -- 24.6 megapixels.
The A850 is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a subtle piece of equipment. It's big, black and weighs just shy of a kilo before you've even attached a lens. There's a consciously retro feel to the rugged design and textured black plastic casing. Basically, the A850 looks like what it is -- a very powerful, modern camera with some very traditional core values.
The pyramid shape on top of the unit is a clue to the fact that the A850 uses a fixed, eye-level viewfinder system with an optical pentaprism. The viewfinder is great for framing shots. It's outstandingly bright and clear, which is just as well, since there's no live view on the 3-inch LCD screen.
The LCD screen is of excellent quality, showing 921,000 pixels of fine detail. But it's reserved for reviewing shots after the event, and for accessing settings. A secondary, top-mounted, monochrome LCD display provides further status information, including battery level and shots remaining.
The A850 features two memory-card bays -- one for Memory Stick Duo cards and one for CompactFlash media. You can only use one card at a time, however, and you'll need to change a menu setting in order to switch between one type of storage and another.
Sockets-wise, USB-out is accompanied by HDMI, which is a little curious given that the unit is incapable of capturing high-definition video. Still, you can connect the A850 to a Sony Bravia TV and play back your photos on the big screen.