Editors' note: The competitive landscape for this camera has changed since our review and we've updated the text and ratings to reflect that. The design rating goes from a 9 to an 8--while still a very nicely designed model, other cameras have adopted some of its conveniences. Features drops from a 9 to an 8, since its still notable set of capabilities have popped up in more competitors. While it delivers solid performance, testing of subsequent models show it to be slower than the rest of its class in several situations, so we've dropped its performance rating to a 7. Text changes include comparisons to newer models.
I know Sony's older, entry-level Alpha DSLR-A100 has its share of fans, but I never got a chance to shoot with it, which made the 12-megapixel Alpha DSLR-A700 my introduction to Sony's take on dSLRs. And I soon found that the unprepossessing, very un-Sony-like design camouflages a sophisticated dSLR that's enjoyable to shoot and can hold its own quite well against models from veteran camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon. True, much of the DNA for Sony's dSLRs comes from the company's acquisition of deceased long-time player Konica Minolta, but simply relying on good genes never gets you very far in a fickle consumer electronics market.
Sony offers several bundles for the A700: body only; a kit with an f/3.5-to-f/5.6, 16mm-to-105mm lens slated to ship late in 2007; a kit with an f/3.5-to-f/4.6, 18mm-to-70mm lens; a kit with an f/3.5-to-f/5.6, 18mm-to-200mm lens; and a dual-lens kit with the aforementioned 18mm-to-70mm lens and a f/3.5-to-f/6.3, 75mm-to-300mm lens. If you opt for a kit, the dual-lens package looks like the best value; the lenses don't add much to the cost, and together they cover a good general-purpose range. However, if you're considering buying a body and lens separately, I think it's worth the extra money for one of the Zeiss T* coated lenses. They feel more substantial and--as you'd expect for pricier models--are faster, sharper lenses. Personally, I'm fond of the SAL-1680 f/3.5-to-f/4.5, 16mm-to-80mm (equivalent 35mm focal range is 24mm to 120mm) as a general-use lens. As of this writing, the 16mm-to-105mm lens wasn't available, but the focal range it covers (35mm equivalent of 24mm to 157.5mm) sounds promising as a kit staple. And though it won't be available until next spring, Sony also announced an f/4.5-to-f/5.6, 70mm-to-300 mm (105mm-to-450mm-equivalent) lens that incorporates a supersonic motor (for quieter, smoother operation) in its autofocus system. As you'd expect, the A700 will also accept legacy Minolta AF mount lenses--you can find a surprisingly complete list of them in Dyxum.com's Minolta Sony Alpha lens database.
The body itself is dust- and moisture-resistant, with an aluminum chassis and a magnesium outer shell. Weighing 1.75 pounds, the A700 feels solid and well made. Thanks to a deep indent on the grip beneath the ledge holding the shutter and a dial--much like the design of the Canon EOS 40D--the A700 also feels exceptionally comfortable and stable to hold. Like its Konica Minolta ancestors, the A700 implements a proprietary hot shoe. Though it doesn't really matter for flash units, which are proprietary as well, the odd connector may limit your choice of accessories that use the hot shoe as a dumb mount. Not a critical problem, but one to be aware of.
Operating the A700 is pretty straightforward. Since it lacks a monochrome display on the top, you configure settings via a combination of direct-access buttons and the LCD. A function button pulls up the Quick Nav interactive information display of all your current settings, which you navigate via a big, comfortable joystick. Only focus modes (single-shot, continuous, single/continuous autoselection, and manual) and the three metering modes (spot, evaluative, and center-weighted) have their own selection switches. As with all dSLRs of this class, you control shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, and program shift with dials. (For more on the body design, check out this slide show.)
One of the few issues I have with the A700's operation is the way it handles switching among the three user-definable custom presets. Rather than allocating three separate slots on the mode dial as on the 40D, there's a single Memory Recall slot that brings up a selection screen when you rotate the dial to MR. Once you make your selection, however, the screen disappears until the next time you rotate the dial. So if you shoot for a while using MR1, for example, you must then rotate the dial away and back to MR in order to select a different preset. How much this bothers you will depend upon how heavily you depend on the custom settings; I use them increasingly as time goes on, which inflates my annoyance a bit. On the other hand, and more importantly, the A700 doesn't seem to lose overrides when it goes to sleep the way the 40D does.
Sony also makes the right calls on the A700's feature set. It lacks Live View shooting; though Live View can be useful on occasion, I never miss it when it's not there.
Instead, Sony includes a solid set of really practical features, including SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilization, a built-in wireless flash transmitter and dual memory-card slots (although one is for Memory Stick Duo Pro rather than an SD or second CF card). It also provides Eye-Start AF--when the sensor below the viewfinder detects an object (ostensibly your eye), it initiates AF--a holdover from the A100. This model augments it with a grip sensor to minimize false starts. I'm not a fan of Eye-Start AF, since I find it disconcerting as well as battery draining, but I can see how some would find it useful. You can turn it all off if you want, as I do.
In some cases, the A700 offers features and options not usually found in a camera of this class. For instance, you can choose how long the AF area displays, as well as set both minimum and maximum values (not just maximum) for the Auto ISO range. As I've said elsewhere, I'd love the ability to set similar boundaries for aperture and shutter speed as well. It also has extremely nice power handling; like all Sony InfoLithium systems, it reports percentage of battery life remaining. With the battery grip attached and loaded with two batteries, the camera reports for both batteries. Like the 40D, the A700 supports interchangeable focusing screens.
And because it's from Sony, the A700 naturally has a TV tie-in. You can display photos on an HDTV via HDMI, thanks to a mini-HDMI connector on the camera, though Sony doesn't bundle a cable--and they're still pretty pricey. The camera automatically downconverts images for optimal presentation. If you happen to have a recent-vintage BRAVIA TV, the latter can automatically switch into a photo-optimized colorspace, called PhotoTV mode, when connected to the A700 (and likely with forthcoming Sony snapshot cameras, as well). I viewed my photos on a Sony KDL-46XBR4 in standard and PhotoTV modes, and it does make a difference. Not a reason to buy either the camera or the TV, but certainly a nice perk if you do.
Like the 40D, Sony supplies a compressed raw format, cRaw, designed for faster raw-format burst shooting, in addition to its various combinations of standard raw and JPEG files. Unlike Canon's spatially compressed--that is, lower resolution--sRaw, however, Sony's cRaw uses lossless compression to shrink file size from about 18MB to 12MB. On one hand, cRaw does let you shoot about 7 more frames in a burst (more, but not faster).