Chief among Sony's design tweaks was to put a bunch of often-used controls on a dial to the left of the flash. All you have to do is select a function--such as ISO, white balance, or metering mode--and press the function button in the center of the dial to change that setting. In our field tests, it made choosing functions quick and easy. It's not quite as easy to control as the Konica Minolta 7D, with all of its dedicated dials and buttons, but it is a definite step up from the 5D and other dSLRs that scatter so many dedicated function buttons throughout the camera back and top. Unfortunately, Sony left the drive mode button on the top of the camera and moved it further back, away from the shutter button. We found it awkward to press, and since the 5D had three buttons on its back, it could have easily fit there rather than in its current position.
Other buttons are logically placed, including the usual lineup of menu and playback controls that flank the 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD screen. The antishake control--now renamed as Super Steady Shot, even though it's a CCD-shift instead of the lens-shifting stabilization that's found in other Sony cameras with an identically named feature--has a dedicated on/off switch on the bottom right of the camera back. If you're new to SLRs, you'd probably count the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100's 10.2-megapixel CCD as its biggest feature. SLR veterans, however, will look past the pixels to the camera's wide array of other features. For example, if you shoot a lot of action, you'll probably like the eye-start autofocus. A sensor below the viewfinder activates the camera's autofocus whenever it's tripped. So, when you look through the finder, your face triggers the sensor, and the camera starts locking the focus right away. While useful for certain situations, it can be annoying and tends to drain your battery more quickly, since it'll also start focusing if any object comes within about an inch of the sensor.
Of course, the Super Steady Shot image stabilization is one of the camera's biggest selling points. According to Sony, they've updated Konica Minolta's CCD shift technology and now claim between 2 and 3.5 stops of leeway in exposure, so you can shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds. In our field tests, we found that, while 3.5 stops is a stretch, they're right about the 2 extra stops. That means you can set your shutter speed 2 stops lower than your slowest comfortable speed and still expect reasonably sharp images--you'll have to make sure your subject stays still though. Since the image stabilization moves the sensor, you don't have to buy premium lenses to get the advantage, as you do with Canon and Nikon's image-stabilized lenses.
Speaking of lenses, since the Alpha system uses the same lens mount as Konica Minolta's old Maxxum dSLRs, most Maxxum AF lenses and third-party AF-mount lenses work with the DSLR-A100. Just remember, the camera's APS-C-size sensor gives you an angle of view that's equivalent to that of a lens with a 1.5X greater focal length compared with a full frame of 35mm film. So, the 18mm-to-70mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 lens included in the Alpha kits becomes the approximate equivalent of a 27mm-to-105mm lens. Sony makes no guarantees of lens compatibility beyond the Sony Alpha lenses that it is marketing, but a Minolta lens that we tried worked just fine. Plus, as the Maxxums do, the DSLR-A100 shakes the sensor each time you turn the camera on or off to help keep it free of any dust that may enter the camera while switching lenses. Sony also coats the sensor with a special coating to avoid static buildup, which would attract dust particles.
As you'd expect, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 has the usual array of metering options, including 40-segment honeycomb pattern MultiSegment, center-weighted, and spot. As for autofocus, you can let the camera choose from nine focus segments, you can choose one of your own, or set it to use only the center-spot segment. At any time, you can switch to center-spot AF by pressing the button in the middle of the four-way rocker on the camera back.
ISO is, perhaps, the biggest surprise in the A100. In addition to normal options for ISO 100 through ISO 1,600, there are Lo80 and Hi200 options. The last two aren't just extensions of the ISO range, as with the boost modes offered by Nikon, Canon, and others. Instead, they're intended for low-key and high-key images, or in regular terms, really dark or really light scenes. Lo80 emphasizes detail in dark portions of a picture, even if it is at the expense of some detail in brighter areas. And Hi200, which is closest to ISO 200 in its sensitivity, is customized to eke out more detail in brighter parts of your images, although it may sacrifice some detail in the darkest areas. Both of these seem useful for photographers interested in becoming more creative, but we wish Sony would've offered an ISO boost to an equivalent of ISO 3,200, since most dSLRs include this.
Other interesting features include D-Range optimizer, which automatically adjusts contrast and color during capture, and white-balance bracketing, which varies the color cast when you shoot three photos in a row, to help make sure that the camera properly compensates for your current lighting condition. It could come in handy, especially in mixed lighting, though your best bet is to shoot in raw format in such situations, so you can vary your white balance during processing.
While you might expect this camera to sport a Memory Stick Duo slot, it doesn't. Instead Sony ships a Duo-to-Compact Flash adapter, in case you already own one of Sony's cards, or in case you just prefer pricey MS Duo media to the more cost-effective CF.
In case you haven't figure this out yet, Sony is basically using the whole Maxxum package and improving on it to create its digital SLRs. That means you can use Minolta hotshoe flashes on the Alpha, and of course, Sony will be marketing the HVL-F36AM and HVL-F56AM flashes, based on the Minolta 3600 HS and 5600 HS flashes, in case you want to buy a brand new one. Sony also plans a full line of other accessories, including wired remote triggers and AC adapters, as well as other lighting add-ons and more lenses. Some of these will launch with the camera, while others will roll out over the course of the year. It may not be the absolute fastest camera out there, but the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 performed well in our tests. Its wake-up time of 1 second from start-up to capturing its first image isn't as fast as the Canon Rebel XT's 0.2 second or the Nikon D50's 0.6 second, but it's not too slow, especially considering the dust-clearing sensor shake at start-up. After powering up, the camera captured successive images--JPEG or raw--in 0.5 second without flash, though it slowed considerably to 2 seconds with the flash turned on.
Shutter lag in our high-contrast test was a very respectable 0.4 second, while in the low-contrast test, it slowed to 1.6 seconds, slower than both the Nikon D50 (0.9 second) and the Canon Rebel XT (0.2 second). In continuous-drive mode, we were able to capture fine quality 10.2-megapixel JPEGs at a rate of 2.49fps.
The camera's autofocus system was just as solid as the Maxxums', which means it's impressive for a camera of this class. It acts quickly on still subjects and does a nice job of tracking moving objects. The AF system's main drawback is that it is rated to work only down to plus 1EV, which means that it may fail in extremely dark situations, though the AF illuminator should help it focus in those situations. Some more expensive dSLRs can focus down to minus 1EV, though you won't find that at prices less than $1,000. On the plus side, it does have an AF mode called Direct Manual Focus in which the camera focuses for you but lets you tweak the focus manually by simply moving the lens's focusing ring. The Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 turned in impressive, high-quality images in our tests. Images have plenty of detail and well-saturated colors, though, as you'd expect, images converted from raw using Sony's included Image Data Converter software showed slightly more detail than those converted to JPEG in the camera.
Sony did a nice job of keeping noise under control all the way out to ISO 800. While noise creeps in very slightly at ISO 400, and a little more so at ISO 800, images retained plenty of detail. At ISO 1,600, noise was much more noticeable and obscured some details, but images were still printable, especially at letter size or smaller, and might even be acceptable for prints as large as 11x17 inches.
The automatic white balance served up overly warm images with our lab's tungsten lights, and the tungsten preset overcompensated, creating images with a too-cool, bluish cast. Manual white balance fared best, turning in perfectly neutral images. In natural daylight, the auto white balance did a decent job of serving up neutral colors. Exposures were accurate, and the camera's many controls let you tweak it to suit your taste. Our only complaint was some minor purple fringing when using the 18mm-to-70mm kit lens. A higher-quality lens would probably alleviate this, though it wasn't much of a problem to begin with, and showed up only in high-contrast, backlit situations.
Overall, Sony's first foray into digital SLRs is very successful. Solid performance, plenty of features, impressive image quality, and 10.2 megapixels make for a convincing argument. Add to that a large installed base of lenses and accessories, thanks to the Konica Minolta legacy, as well as an attractive price point, and it looks as if Sony's off to a good start. Since neither Canon's nor Nikon's lineup lets you get 10 megapixels for less than $1,000--at least not yet--Sony may be jumping into this market at just the right time.