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Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 review: Sony Alpha DSLR-A100

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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.

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