Sony's plan to aggressively attack the entry-level DSLR market with a raft of new SLRs is no big secret. We've had a chance to get our hands on the new Alpha 350 and the recent Alpha 200. Here are our first impressions of this tight-knit family, including Sony's interesting take on solving the problem of extended exposure cycle time with live view.

Side-by-side

A slightly reworked grip, a different surface finish and that articulated screen set the A350 apart from the A200

Here we've put Sony's latest launch, the A350 next to the already announced A200, to see where the difference lie. The standout features are:

  • 14.2 MP sensor
  • 2.7" screen fitted on a tilting, extending cradle
  • Live view mode

The A200, A300 and A350 give Sony three cameras that are arguably closer in specification than in any other manufacturers' line ups. The A300 is essentially an A200 with the tilting screen and live view, while the A350 is an A300 with a more pixel-dense sensor. In addition to the live view mode switch that mechanically blocks off the optical viewfinder, the A3XX cameras get a button to zoom in on the live view image. Our A350 has a different surface finish on the handgrip corner of the camera - it's that magnesium-alloy-effect plastic that has suddenly started appearing on recent cameras.

Live view vs. live view

The big story on the A3XX cameras is the way Sony has implemented live view. Live view has rapidly gone from being a one-brand technology to a mainstream feature - so rapidly in fact that it isn't yet a single technology - every manufacturer has their own idea of how it should work and what it should achieve. Sony's idea is particularly interesting: it adds a small imaging sensor into the viewfinder chamber with a secondary mirror redirecting light onto it in live view mode. This means light is still able to reach the focus and metering sensors.

Roll your mouse over the above images to see how the light path is redirected between the viewfinder and live view sensor

All other contemporary systems use the main imaging sensor to generate the preview, meaning the primary reflex mirror has to be raised to engage live view mode. In most cases this mirror then needs to flip down to allow focus and metering, then back up again before shot can be taken. Because Sony's system keeps the primary mirror down, this delay is avoided. In theory this means you can compose the image as you might on a compact camera, but retain the rapid response times you'd expect from a DSLR.

All three baby Sonys have a battery life indicator that states the remaining charge in %. You'd have to buy a DXXX-level Nikon or Canon 1Ds III to get this feature elsewhere and, on the Sonys, it's a constant feature of the rear display panel whether in live view or optical view mode. All three cameras have lost the A100's depth of field preview button but the live view feature on the A3XXs means depth-of-field can still be previewed.
Not all live view systems are created equal The tilting screen is useful for live view

As with with A100 (and its Konica Minolta forebears), the new Alphas all use the LCD as their status panels however, unlike the more recent offerings from Olympus and Nikon, you can't 'activate,' this screen to change the settings - that's achieved using the new function button that accesses a menu of the most commonly changed features.

All three cameras are a pleasant size and weight in the hands. They also benefit from the option of adding Sony's Konica-Minolta-style vertical grips. Unlike every other major brand, Sony's vertical grip is positioned so that the the shutter button is in-line with the viewfinder, whichever orientation the camera is held in.

Because of the way their live view works, the A3XX models use the pentamirror type viewfinders that tend to be found on entry-level models. And because of the extra bits and pieces live view required to add live view, their viewfinders are smaller than the one found in the A200. However, Sony's pricing makes it look like all three cameras will mainly be competing with other pentamirror-based cameras, rather than the more expensive pentaprism-touting models. We look forward to subjecting them to our studio tests to see how they compare.