Shop for Sony Alpha ILCE-7R (Body Only)

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Want it fast or want it fine? Sony gives you the choice, introducing not one but two full-frame interchangeable-lens cameras after years of rumors and anticipation. The new A7 series -- which bears the model designation ILCE, like the cheap A3000, rather than NEX, despite the NEX-like body design -- offers a faster, cheaper 24-megapixel model (ILCE-7, aka A7) and a slower, AA-filter-free 36-megapixel model (ILCE-7R, aka A7R).

Sony's rationale for naming them so confusingly closely is that they're identical -- with the exception of the autofocus system, sensor, and target buyer. As performance and image quality are the primary characteristics that define a camera, that makes these signifcantly different cameras. Not identical at all.

The A7, which will be available body-only for about $1,700 or in a $2,000 kit with the new FE (full-frame E-mount) 28-70mm lens, incorporates the lower-resolution sensor in order to use Sony's hybrid autofocus system; Sony says that it couldn't put the phase-detection pixels on the 36-megapixel sensor for the $2,300 A7R. The higher-resolution sensor has no antialiasing filter.

Sony makes a rather arbitrary distinction between the potential buyers of these cameras, designating the A7R for professionals and advanced amateurs and the A7 as the dSLR alternative/compact system camera step-up buyer. If you need both resolving power and autofocus speed, you're out of luck for now. But these are trade-offs that advanced photographers have learned to accept. And while the A7 may deliver fast autofocus, it still can't keep up with its bigger-bodied competitors for continuous-shooting performance, unless you forgo dynamic exposure adjustment. Sony does introduce some new variable AF area size options and zone autofocus into the line.

Both new sensors have redesigned microlens arrays. While most modern sensors use gapless microlenses, these also required some tweaking on the edges near the lens mount to prevent vignetting, since the sensor's such a tight fit in the mount opening.

Like the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10, the A7s employ the company's new Bionz X image processor with upgraded noise reduction and detail processing; the latter minimizes outlines for decreased ringing artifacts and adds new "diffraction reduction technology" that works in conjunction with larger lens lookup tables to provide increased image sharpness at smaller apertures. I hope the diffraction reduction delivers, as that would effectively improve every lens you already own.

Physically, they're dust-and-moisture-resistant magnesium alloy and feel surprisingly light. Sony has advanced the design over the NEX-7, which these models essentially replace -- the NEX-7 hits end-of-life in December -- and they seem really streamlined in comparison, even though there's a lot I like about the NEX-7's design. The A7s have three adjustment dials, a dedicated exposure-compensation dial, and nine programmable buttons mappable to 46 potential operations. It uses the same excellent OLED EVF as the SLT-A99.

Note how the sensor barely fits within the confines of the E-mount. Sony Electronics

The updated interface combines the Quick Navi control-panel from the SLT models with a less confusing version of the NEX interface. Sony says these models will have tethered shooting support as well. I do wish they had dual SD card slots and a flash; though I rarely use (or recommend) on-camera flash, it's nice to have it in a pinch.

While they incorporate the usual limited AVCHD codec options and full manual exposure and audio-level controls, they'll also offer clean HDMI output for more flexibility and can take Sony's XLR mic kit.

The A7s include the same Wi-Fi implementation as recent NEX models, including support for Sony's proprietary app ecosystem. They'll support direct upload to Flickr via a new (free) app, but there are no new apps specifically developed for these models.

Some cameras for comparison:

Canon EOS 6D Nikon D610 Sony Alpha ILCE-7/7R Sony Alpha SLT-A99
Sensor effective resolution 20.2MP CMOS
n/a
14-bit
24.3MP CMOS
n/a
14-bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS/36.4MP Exmor CMOS
14-bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS
n/a
14-bit
35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 24mm 35.8 x 23.9mm 35.8 x 23.9mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x
OLPF Yes Yes Yes/No Yes
ISO range ISO 100 - ISO 25600/ 102,400 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 50
(exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 25600
ISO 50
(exp)/ ISO 100 - ISO 51200/ ISO 102400 (exp, via multishot NR)
Burst shooting 4.5fps
15 raw/unlimited JPEG
5.5fps
n/a
2.5fps (5fps with fixed exposure)/1.5fps (4fps with fixed focus)
n/a
6fps
13 raw/14 JPEG

VF Optical
97% coverage
0.71x
Optical
100% coverage
0.70x
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.71x
OLED EVF
0.5-inch
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
0.71x
AF 11-pt AF
1 center cross type
39-pt
9 cross type
(Multi-CAM 4800FX)
Hybrid AF system
25-area contrast AF;117-pt phase-detection/
25-area contrast AF
Dual phase -detection system
19-pt
11 cross type;
102-pt focal plane
AF exposure range -3 - 18 EV
(center point)
0.5 - 18 EV
(other)
-1 - 19 EV 0 - 20 EV -1 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles n/a 200,000 cycles
Metering 63-area iFCL 2,016-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II 1,200 zones 1,200 zones
Metering exposure range 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV -2 - 17 EV
IS Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift
Best video H.264 MOV
1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/60p/50p
H.264 MOV
1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/ 60p/50p/ 25p/24p
all at 24, 12Mbps
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28Mbps, 1080/60i/24p @24Mbps AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 1080/24p @ 24Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps
Rated estimated max HD video length at best quality 29m59s 20 minutes n/a n/a
Audio mono; mic input mono; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input; headphone jack
LCD size 3 inches fixed
1.04 megadot
3.2 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches tilting
921,600 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC
Wireless flash No Yes No
(No on-camera flash)
No
Battery life
VF/
Live View (CIPA rating)
1090/220 shots
(1,800 mAh)
900/n/a shots
(1,900 mAh)
340 shots
(1080 mAh)
410/500 shots
(1,650 mAh)
Wireless connectivity Wi-Fi Via optional WU-1b Wireless Mobile Adapter $59.95 Wi-Fi, NFC None
Size (inches, WHD) 5.7 x 4.4 x 2.8 5.5 × 4.5 × 3.2 5.0 x 3.8 x 1.9 5.9 x 4.5 x 3.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 27.2 30.1 16.7 (est) 25.9 (est)
Mfr. price $2,099 (body only) $2,099.95 (body only) $1,699.99 (body only)/$2,299.99 (body only) $2,799.99 (body only)
$2,899 (with 24-105mm lens) $2,699 (with 24-85mm lens) $1,999.99 (with 28-70mm lens)/n/a n/a
Ship date December 2012 September 2012 December 2013 October 2012

Though Sony shipped a full-frame E-mount camcorder last year, the NEX-VG900, the company hadn't developed full-frame E-mount lenses until now. Along with the A7s, Sony unveiled the new FE (full E) lens mount, along with a few lenses. Sony promises a lineup of 10 FE lenses by the end of next year and five more in 2015. It also replaced its A-to-E mount adapters with two new models that can accommodate the FE mount. The adapter with transparent mirror technology will cost $349; without, it will run $199. Both are expected to ship simultaneously with the cameras. A vertical grip with slots for two batteries will also arrive then, for $299.

The RX1R fixed-lens full-frame model remains in the lineup, and while it still looks pretty expensive in comparison at $2,800, it does have a really fast, sharp lens -- Sony won't offer a lens that fast for a while, though one could probably make do with the new 35mm f2.8 Zeiss FE.

Really, this is the camera that so many folks have been waiting for, at a high but certainly not unreasonable price, and really, cheaper than I expected. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on it.