Sony Alpha A3000 review: Photos, price impress on this slow, faux dSLR

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The Good With an attractive $400 (or less) price, the Sony Alpha A3000 delivers excellent photo quality for the money.

The Bad It's slow, with a poor LCD and only slightly better EVF. Plus Sony doesn't include a charger, which may be an issue for some folks.

The Bottom Line If you're just looking for better photo quality than a point-and-shoot on a really tight budget, but not better performance, the Sony Alpha A3000 meets that criterion.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 8

Editors' note, September 26, 2013: I removed the paragraph about Sony's noninclusion of a USB charger; it definitely ships with one. I'm not sure what brain spasm caused me to believe it didn't. However, the presence or absence of the adapter had no bearing on my ratings for the product, so those remain unchanged.

Despite being one of the few growing segments of the digital camera market, mirrorless versions of interchangeable-lens cameras still don't get no respect. For one, there's a perception in some quarters that they don't produce the same image quality as dSLRs, even though they're nearly identical in all the ways that affect image quality. I also think there's a grip issue; for the most part, ILCs tend to sacrifice a decent grip for compactness and sleek design. Only the Sony NEX models offer a substantial grip, and I think that's a large factor in their popularity. Finally, because they're smaller and tend to be targeted at folks stepping up from point-and-shoots, we all expect at least the entry-level models to be cheaper than they are -- not the typical $500-plus at launch. Sony's Alpha ILCE-3000 (aka the Sony A3000) attempts to jump all these hurdles at once by stuffing one of its NEX cameras into a dSLR body and pricing it aggressively at $400 for the kit.

Rather than shrinking one of its single-lens translucent (SLT) models the way Canon compressed a dSLR for the SL1 -- which likely would have resulted in a more expensive model -- Sony based a mirrorless dSLR-style body around its E-Mount lenses and NEX menu and control system. Overall, the idea makes a lot of sense. Once you drop the mirror, the biggest constraint to shrinkage becomes the lens mount. And on the surface (though not necessarily in practice), the NEX menu system looks a lot friendlier for the presumably novice buyer of this camera. It's telling that the closest price competitors for the A3000, like the Canon T3, are generally about two years old.

Unfortunately, the result is a really confusing camera. Because it's got to go somewhere on the web site, Sony buries it in the middle of the SLR page, which itself is misleading because the SLT cameras aren't SLRs. The thing is, people upgrade from a point-and-shoot for two main reasons: better photo quality and better performance. The A3000 succeeds on the first but not on the second. For the most part, the ability to change lenses tends to be an ancillary desire -- most people stick with the lens bundled with the camera. Unlike petite dSLRs like the Canon SL1, Sony's use of the E-Mount system means smaller lenses, compared to the full-size EF-S lenses.

There's also some cost cutting to make the price: no 1080/30p video, a small EVF, and a low-resolution LCD. But unless you really want the better image quality and don't really care about any other aspect of the photographic experience, there are better alternatives everywhere.

Image quality
This is the one thing the camera gets truly right; it really is the best image quality you can get (at the moment) for $400. It delivers really good JPEGs up through ISO 800 and relatively usable ones through ISO 1600, depending upon image content. And if you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot you might even be OK with ISO 3200. The image processing is quite good, though you can probably eke out slightly better results if you shoot raw+JPEG and process the raw; you get more detail, but only in exchange for granier pictures.

The tonal range is pretty typical for an entry-level APS-C model, in that it clips highlights and doesn't preserve much detail to bring out, but it can recover shadow detail without adding a lot of noise. Colors are saturated and contrasty, with some hue shifts in the reds, but they're pleasing nonetheless. There's no neutral color profile option; you can tweak the existing presets but not save as a new one.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 3200

Video also looks good for its class. Yes, it's a little washed out and there are aliasing artifacts (jaggies) on diagonal or movie edges, but the detail resolution isn't bad. As you'd expect, artifacts increase as ISO sensitivity rises, but overall I think the video quality suffices for vacation, school and other casual uses.

The A3000 may look like a dSLR and produce images like one, but it doesn't shoot like one. That's partly because it uses the old-school contrast autofocus system -- not the newer hybrid AF in Sony's higher-end NEX models and not the fast phase-detection AF from real dSLRs -- and relatively slow processing. Even its megazoom doppleganger the HX300 is generally faster.

Time to power on, focus and shoot takes 1.9 seconds; that's slower than the similarly-priced-because-it's-been-replaced Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 mirrorless ILC, and a lot slower than competing dSLRs. Focusing and shooting in good light takes 0.5 second, rising to 0.8 second in dim conditions. It takes about 0.7 second to shoot two sequential photos, either JPEG or raw+JPEG (the camera doesn't support plain raw). In general, that's barely fast enough to keep up with your kids and pets. And its continuous-shooting speed of 2.6fps falls short, though it can sustain a burst indefinitely, at least with a fast 96MBps card.

In video you can use continuous or tracking autofocus, which work fine -- about the same as other inexpensive cameras. The tracking AF is a tad annoying, since you have to go into the menus every time to turn it on and initally frame your subject in the center of the screen, plus it's as likely to jump subjects as most tracking AF implementations.

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