A modest update over its predecessor, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A300, the Alpha DSLR-A330 offers the same essential feature set in a redesigned body with sufficient quality and performance-enhancing firmware tweaks to merit the term "upgrade." And like its predecessor, the result is a generally solid, if not stellar, entry-level dSLR option.
The A330 is nearly identical to its cheaper sibling, the A230. The only differences are in the viewfinder--the A230's has a much higher magnification, making it more comfortable to use--and in their LCDs. The LCDs are the same 2.7-inch model, but the A330's can be tilted up perpendicular to the body or down at a 55 degree angle. The A330 also offers Live View shooting, while the A230 doesn't. As they're essentially the same camera, they should deliver the same image quality and performance. Sony also offers an identical but higher-resolution version of the A330, the 14-megapixel A380.
You can get the A330 in one of two color schemes, black and metallic gray and brown and metallic copper--the brown version won't be available until the fall, though. Each comes in two kits: one with an 18-55mm lens (black, brown) and a dual-lens kit with that lens plus a 55-200mm model (black, brown). At the moment there's no body-only version of the A330, but one could possibly surface later in its life cycle. As with all Sony dSLRs, you should be able to use any Minolta A mount lens with the camera.
Most of the redesign works for the better, though I do have a couple of quibbles. It's lighter, though it still seems to fall in the middle of the sub-$1,000 dSLR herd for size and weight. The new grip design doesn't work for me, however. It's only three-quarters the height of the body and doesn't feel nearly as secure as full-height grips. I do like the rubberized texture that covers it and the left side of the body, though.
The mode dial, which provides the usual access to a handful of scene program modes and the typical manual, semimanual, and full automatic exposure modes, sits to the left of the viewfinder, while a large Live View/optical viewfinder toggle switch sits to its right. Also on the top right is a cryptic button for the Smart Teleconverter, a 1.4x or 2x digital zoom that produces results identical to cropping and only works in Live View mode. On a ledge behind it is the exposure compensation button; I don't particularly like its position or feel, though. It's hard to feel, and you have to move your whole hand to reach it with your thumb, and I think that will discourage people from using it.
Sony provides both an SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo slot in all its entry-level models, with a manual switch to choose between them, so you don't have to commit to the less popular proprietary format. In an unusual design, the slots and the USB and miniHDMI connectors sit under a sliding door on the left side of the camera instead of the more common right side. (The half-height grip probably necessitated this.) It doesn't seem to affect usability, however.
|Key comparative specs||Sony Alpha DSLR-A330||Olympus E-450||Pentax K2000|
|Sensor||10.2-megapixel CCD||10-megapixel Live MOS||10.2-megapixel CCD|
|APS-C 23.5mm x 15.7mm||Four Thirds 17.3mm x 13mm||APS-C 23.5mm x 15.7mm|
Viewfinder (coverage, magnification)
|95 percent||95 percent||96 percent|
|0.74x/0.49x effective||0.92x/0.46x effective||0.85x/0.57x effective|
|Sensitivity range||ISO 100 - ISO 3,200||ISO 100 - ISO 1,600||ISO 100 - ISO 3,200|
|LCD||2.7-inch tilting||2.7-inch fixed||2.7-inch fixed|
|Autofocus||9 points||3 points||5 points|
|Battery life (shots, CIPA rating)||510||500||n/a|
|Body dimensions (WHD, inches)||5.0 x 3.8 x 2.8||5.1 x 3.6 x 2.1||4.8 x 3.6 x 2.7|
|Operating weight (ounces)||19.2||15.2 (estimated)||20.7|
|Mfr. Price||$649 (with 18-55mm lens)||n/a||$599.95 (with 18-55mm lens and flash)|
|$849 (with 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses)||$699.99 (with 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses)||$599.95 (with 18-55mm and 50-200mm lenses)|
The back controls are pretty typical for a modern dSLR and will be instantly recognizable to advanced point-and-shoot users. A four-way navigation switch with a center AF button is just below the indented thumb rest. With it, you pull up flash options (including a no-brainer wireless on/off), ISO sensitivity settings, display choices, and drive mode options. The latter includes an interesting 3- or 5-shots-in-10-seconds self-timer mode and rather limited bracketing: just exposure, for 3 shots in 1/3 or 2/3 stop increments. Above the navigation switch is the Fn button, with which you access all your frequently needed shooting settings plus some others: autofocus mode, AF area, metering mode, D-Range Optimizer, white balance, and Creative Style. There are no novel options here, but in a nice interface touch, some text pops up to clarify the purpose of a setting if you pause for too long without making a selection. You have to go into the menu system to set image quality, flash compensation, and toggle the image stabilization, but there's nothing truly buried or misplaced in the user interface. Of course, with the relatively basic feature set, there's not a lot to hide. (For a complete list of features and guide to the camera's parts, you can download the PDF manual.)
Like many budget dSLRs, the viewfinder isn't very good--it's small and it's hard to see the focus dots blink red, especially against dark objects--and it has an even lower magnification than its predecessor. At least the focus lock indicator is close to the middle of the bottom readout. There's also a SteadyShot scale, which helpfully tells you when you're at your least shakiest; a digital level, which other manufacturers have begun providing, would be a nice complement for that.
Overall, the A330 is reasonably fast. It powers on and shoots in just 0.4 second, and can focus and shoot in a mere 0.3 second in good light and 0.6 second in dim. The latter is a big improvement over its predecessor. Usually raw shot-to-shot time is virtually the same as for JPEG, but the A330's 0.7 second for raw is slower than its 0.5 second for JPEG. Flash recycle time is pretty slow for its class, pushing flash shot-to-shot time to 1.5 seconds--that's almost twice that of the D60 and Rebel XS, and just a bit slower than the K2000. And while its continuous-shooting speed of 2.4fps is only fractionally slower than the Nikon and Canon--and oddly slower than the earlier model--in practice it still feels too slow to keep up with kids and pets.
The AF system is surprisingly fast for its class, especially in Live View, which tends to be one of the Achilles' heels of dSLRs. As a result it delivers a more point-and-shoot-like experience. However, you only see 90 percent of the scene, compared to 100 percent for most other cameras; that's even lower than the 95 percent viewfinder coverage. The LCD also seems to be the same one as on the previous generation of cameras, because I had the same difficulty viewing it in direct sunlight, even when tilted at various angles. The image stabilization works OK, testing out to a savings of about 2 1/3 stops when zoomed out to 200mm.
I'm on the fence vis-à-vis the photo quality. Part of the problem is Sony's choice of default values, especially in its Creative Styles. As Pentax does with its K2000 Sony's attempt to provide more "consumer-friendly" images with its default Creative Style settings results instead in poor color rendering--too cool outdoors and too warm indoors--which makes you think the white balance is off. Unfortunately, you can't tell that's what's happening because there's no "natural" or its equivalent, and Sony doesn't tell you what the contrast, saturation, and sharpness settings are for each style; they're all listed as 0, from which you increase or decrease. So if you know enough to change the settings, or shoot only raw, you can get some very nice photos out of the camera. But that's not the likely buyer for this model. However, it's also probably fixable via a firmware update if Sony chooses.
By the rest of the image-quality metrics--noise, exposure, sharpness--the A330 renders decent photos for its class. The Dynamic Range Optimizer brings out a bit more detail in shadows and midtones and brings back some clipped shadows and highlights; in general, you shouldn't regret leaving it enabled. I'm a bit disappointed by the kit lenses, which don't match the sharpness of similar models from Canon and Nikon. The A330 delivers a fairly average noise-suppression profile for its class. Sharpness starts to degrade at about ISO 400 and color noise begins to seep in at ISO 800; you really don't want to use ISO 1600 and ISO 3200, where images are both soft and noisy.
Given that the A230 has a better viewfinder, unless you really want the Live View shooting, it's a better deal than the Sony Alpha DSLR-A330. But you can also get some significantly better cameras--higher resolution, with better noise qualities and faster performance--for just $150-$200 more.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)