Why, it's a new digital SLR! Remember those? They're what we all used to buy before those new-fangled hybrid cameras took over the market. The Sony Alpha DSLR-A390 looks good, too, boasting a 14.2-megapixel sensor, Sony's novel 'Quick AF Live View' mechanism and a tilting LCD display. It'll set you back around £400 with the 18-55mm kit lens.
It might sit at the budget end of the market, but the A390 packs in plenty of features. In particular, the Quick AF Live View mode deserves closer inspection. Other dSLRs use the main sensor to form the live image on the LCD display, which means flipping up the mirror and opening the shutter for viewing. The A390 does none of this.
Instead, it uses a second, smaller 'viewing' sensor in the pentaprism. It delivers perfectly adequate quality for viewing and doesn't require all that mirror flipping. It's activated by a simple switch on the top of the camera. The main autofocus sensor is still active, so the A390 focuses much faster in live-view mode than other dSLRs -- hence 'Quick AF'.
It's quick and simple to activate the live-view mode, and it works well. This mode is all the more useful thanks to the tilting, 69mm (2.7-inch) LCD on the back of the camera. Low-level and macro shots are much easier as a result.
The A390 delivers vivid, saturated colours and good exposure accuracy in all sorts of lighting, whereas previous beginner-orientated Sony dSLRs have had a tendency to overexpose, particularly when it comes to backlit shots. If you want to shoot raw files instead of JPEGs, you can use the bundled Image Data Converter SR software to convert them. It's not Photoshop, but it's not bad.
Like other Alpha bodies, the A390 includes Sony's 'SteadyShot Inside' anti-shake system. This moves the sensor to counter camera movement during the exposure and, in theory, should work with all lenses. The only downside is that the image isn't stabilised in the viewfinder, so long-range telephoto shots can still be tricky.
You can also bring distant objects closer still with the 'smart teleconverter' button. This offers two magnifications -- 1.4x and 2x -- which correspond to those of real optical teleconverters. What you're getting here, though, is just a digital zoom, so Sony's being slightly cheeky with its naming.
The A390 has plenty going for it, but all is not quite what it seems. What exactly is the difference between this and the old Alpha DSLR-A380? The grip has been tweaked and the buttons have been revised, but that's about it. The sensor's the same, the features are the same, the continuous-shooting speed is the same, and there's still no movie mode. Is this really a new camera at all?
While Sony might have done some work on the handling, it's not enough. The grip is too close to the lens flange, leaving little space for your fingertips, and the tilting LCD mechanism leaves scant room for the navigational buttons on the back. The left button is particularly difficult to press because it's right up against the raised edge of the screen.
The kit lens isn't bad, but Sony still hasn't managed to build the same level of refinement into its AF motors as Canon and Nikon have. The whole camera has a lumpy, plasticky feel that leaves you feeling £400 -- and no more -- is about right.
The Alpha DSLR-A390 isn't a bad entry-level dSLR, but it has a real budget feel and it's so similar to the old A380 that you wonder why Sony bothered. If you're a cynical sort, you might observe that Sony's found a way of launching a new camera without actually having to make one.
Edited by Charles Kloet