Sony Alpha DSLR-A500 review: Sony Alpha DSLR-A500

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The Good Generally above-average performance and solid raw high ISO sensitivity performance for its class; large, tilting LCD; fast Live View autofocus; wireless flash.

The Bad Awkward aspects to the design; no video.

The Bottom Line Cheaper and with better photo quality than its sibling, the Sony Alpha DSLR-A500's quirky design is the only real flaw in an otherwise solid entry-level model with fast Live View shooting and a useful tilting LCD.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8

Out of the 5 consumer models in Sony's dSLR product line, stuffed into the rather tight price range between $500 and $750, the Alpha DSLR-A500 is probably the biggest value of the lot. It has the best photo quality, good performance, and the tilting LCD (though we haven't yet tested the A390, it's almost identical to the A380 and we expect the same lackluster photo quality from it). It's identical to its upscale sibling, the A550, with three exceptions: it has a lower-resolution LCD, a lower-resolution version of the sensor, and it lacks the A550's no-focus Speed Priority continuous shooting mode. (The design and features coverage of the A500 borrows heavily from my review of the A550.)

While the A550 and A500 have very similar noise profiles, the A500's photos have much better color accuracy, and in fact, its JPEG color accuracy is a lot better than that of most of Sony's other consumer dSLRs. Its image colors are nicely saturated and pleasing, though it has a bit of trouble with the deep pinks. It still doesn't offer a natural/accurate color mode or a way to strip out all the color "enhancement" for JPEGs. Overall, the A500's noise reduction fares pretty well at midrange ISOs, though it still can't top the class-leading Pentax K-x. You can start seeing a little bit of detail degradation at ISO 800, but it's not bad through ISO 1,600. After that ISO, color noise in its images gets bad and detail starts to smear.

You can probably eke a stop out of the A500 by shooting raw and not relying on the in-camera noise reduction; as is true of its generation of Sony dSLRs, the in-camera noise reduction isn't very good. By ISO 6,400 there's not much you can do about the inherent noise in the photos except change your trade-offs. But if you're going to use the images scaled down, they still look pretty good. In a pinch, and for much smaller sizes--even at 50 percent, it's visibly soft and noisy--ISO 12,800 can be serviceable. The A500's kit lens can be quite sharp, though it's prone to a little bit of fringing on the highlights. The lens' sharpness from a distance (as opposed to close up, like the previous shot) is OK, but it's not quite as good as I'd like.

It also performs better than the A550 does on CNET Labs tests, though it's still not quite as zippy as the class-leading Pentax K-x. It powers on and shoots in 0.3 second. To focus and shoot a photo in good light, it takes about 0.3 second, and in dim light, it's still a fast 0.6 second. Shooting two sequential images takes about 0.9 second--not quite as fast as its sibling--and its shot-to-shot time rises to a full second with flash enabled. However, its burst shooting time runs a class-winning 4.8 frames per second.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A500 Sony Alpha DSLR-A550
Sensor (effective resolution) 14.2-megapixel CCD 12.3-megapixel Exmor CMOS 14.2-megapixel Exmor CMOS
23.6 mm x 23.5 mm x 15.6mm 23.4 mm x 15.6mm
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 200 - ISO 12,800
Continuous shooting 2.5fps
n/a raw/n/a JPEG
6 raw/12 JPEG
14 raw/32 JPEG
magnification/effective magnification
95% coverage
95% coverage
95% coverage
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type
9-pt AF
center cross-type
9-pt AF
center cross-type
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 40 segment 40 segment 40 segment
Live View Yes Yes Yes
Video No No No
LCD size 2.7 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
3 inches tiltable
230,400 dots
3 inches tiltable
921,600 dots
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 500 shots 1,000 shots 950 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 5.0x3.8x2.8 5.4x4.1x3.3 5.4x4.1x3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 19.1 24 24.0
Mfr. Price n/a $549.99 (body only) $749.99 (body only)
$599.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm lens) $849.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
n/a $1,134.97 (with 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses) n/a
Ship date July 2010 November 2009 November 2009

The A500 is heavier and bulkier than its lower-end siblings as well as its competitors. While it feels solidly built, the plastic housing leaves a cheaper impression than similarly priced models do. Even for a midrange dSLR, Sony doesn't make good use of the extra space, with too many buttons and labels unnecessarily crowding the body. For instance, the Smart Teleconverter--digital zoom--doesn't belong on a camera like this, and the D-Range Optimizer doesn't really require a dedicated button. They just get in the way while you're trying to distinguish among the drive mode, ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation, and exposure lock button, which all feel identical.

Usually more buttons mean a more streamlined shooting experience, but the A500 seems designed for LCD-based shooting rather than viewfinder shooting. On one hand, the viewfinder displays image stabilization status--bars show how close to steady it is--and will indicate if the lens is in manual focus mode. However, it fits those in by trading off for more traditional information, such as ISO sensitivity. That means you have to look at the back display to change it. The viewfinder prompts mixed reactions as well. It displays the focus indicators as large, persistent boxes, which is a nice switch from the tiny dots favored by competitors' viewfinders. However, the viewfinder is small with a low magnification factor. Since the LCD extends out a bit past the eyecup, you actually have to cram your face against the camera to see through it. I've left cheekprints all over it.

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