Conclusion - Pros
- Good detail at lowest sensitivities, competitive with best in class
- Reliable metering
- JPEG output makes good use of the sensor's dynamic range
- Most seamless live view system of current DSLRs
- Probably the easiest DSLR to use for a compact camera user
- Super SteadyShot helps keep snaps sharp
- External ISO button
- Above-average ergonomics for its class
- Well-featured and usable software included
- Very good battery life
- Wireless flash capability
- Solid-feeling construction
Conclusion - Cons
- Soft JPEGs with poor low-contrast detail
- Smallest viewfinder to appear on an APS-C DSLR
- Screen obstructs use of viewfinder
- Image quality suffers above ISO 400 (from both noise and excessive noise reduction)
- Long exposure noise reduction turns hot pixels black
- Slower and less responsive than its contemporaries
- Poor continuous shooting rate
- Most convenient button on body given least useful function
Both the greatest compliment and greatest criticism you can level at the Alpha 350 is that it's probably the most compact-camera-like DSLR we've ever reviewed. The secondary-sensor live view system is interesting: most modern DSLR designs are saddled with their film legacy and the A350 makes the strongest bid to step out of that shadow.
The provision of an exterior switch makes it clear that live view is a technique for using this camera, rather than simply an option, or mode that you might consider using. This subtle philosophical change is borne out in the rest of the camera's design: the A350 behaves in a much more coherent manner when it's in live view mode, rather than being held up to the eye - every button press brings up a new menu screen and draws your attention back to LCD.
This will make many compact camera users feel at home while the small, inaccessible viewfinder will alienate those familiar with using DSLRs. And to an extent, it'll be their loss: the ability to seamlessly shoot overhead or down at waist level gives a degree of freedom that no other current DSLR is able to offer. And, at low sensitivity settings, you do get a camera that offers the easy composition simplicity of a compact camera with the focussing speed, shutter-button responsiveness and image quality of a DSLR.
Unfortunately, the A350 is a slow camera by modern standards. The continuous shooting speed is some way behind the models it will share retailer shelf space with, but the bigger problem is the general lag while waiting for the review image to appear after each shot. Waiting around for the camera to start displaying a shooting screen (either the status screen or the live view preview), further distances you from the shooting experience in a way that will be unfamiliar for DSLR users.
The biggest reservations we have about this camera, though, relate to its image quality. On paper and when shooting resolution charts, the A350 is an impressive performer but that prowess doesn't always hold up when you step outside the studio. The default JPEG output from the A350 is distinctly soft (and this is exacerbated when coupled with the rather below-par 18-70 kit lens), though detail is being recorded and can be recovered if you're willing to shoot in RAW and post-process. We also see the traditional trade-off between tightly-packed pixels and high-sensitivity performance, with the sensor producing a lot of noise and smearing it away to an extent we're not used to seeing in cameras of this type.
It's certainly a competitively-priced, well-specified camera and one that feels better-constructed than many of its rivals. It's also one that smoothes down the learning curve while still offering a huge step up in all-round performance compared to compact cameras - and one that will satisfy a lot of buyers. Unfortunately, it can't quite compete with the all-round performance the best modern DSLRs are capable of. Had the image quality been of the same standard as the leaders in its class, that would have been enough to award it our highest rating. As it stands, it's a camera we feel too equivocal about to award more than a 'Recommended.'
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.0|