Update: The noise sections of this review (and the conclusions) were updated February 2009 to reflect significant changes in the way noise reduction works with raw files.
It's been almost two years since Konica Minolta pulled out of the photo business and transferred its entire camera division to Sony, and well over a year since the first Sony DSLR (the DSLR-A100) was announced. Two years is a long time in the digital SLR market, but the three years Minolta (latterly Konica Minolta, now Sony) SLR users have been waiting for a high end model to replace the innovative Maxxum (Dynax) 7D must have felt like a lifetime. But, finally, it's here, and it looks very much like the mockup shown earlier in the year.
Like the A100, the new camera still wears its Konica Minolta heritage very much on its sleeve, and when you start to look a little more closely at the specification it's obvious that there's still an awful lot of Konica Minolta DNA in the A700. This is hardly surprising given that the circumstances behind its development.
And, just as the A100 was obviously based on - and designed to be a successor to - the KM 5D, the A700 follows on from the 7D, and - despite lots of Sony touches and an attractive new design - 7D users are likely to find using the new model reassuringly familiar.
But of course Sony doesn't only have existing system users in its cross hairs; the A700 is designed to go head to head with the latest 'prosumer' models from Nikon, Canon and Pentax. Whether the A700 offers enough to really put Sony on the DSLR map will be decided when we get to look properly at the image quality, but on specification, features and handling it certainly seems to have what it takes to play with the big boys.
Interestingly the one thing the A700 doesn't have is any form of live view; when we spoke to Sony about this the answer was simple; they believe that the compromises involved in current systems are satisfactory, and they won't implement live view until they can 'get it right'. Whether the lack of live view has any real relevance in a camera at this level remains to be seen; we doubt it.
The A700 shares many technologies with earlier Konica Minolta models (including, naturally, the lens mount), plus all those introduced in the A100 - though virtually all have been uprated or upgraded in one way or another (we've been told the A100 and A700 share virtually no components). From the sensor to the construction of the body to the GUI to the extensive feature set, this is a very different camera to the entry-level A100 (more of which later in this review). We'll start by looking at what's specifically new to this model:
What's new (highlights)
Other new / upgraded features of note:
- New advanced Dynamic Range optimizer functions (also supported in RAW)
- New software bundle with all-new raw converter
- Dedicated AF illuminator (red LED)
- New Creative Styles (expansion of color modes function on A100)
- 0.3 EV steps (or 0.5 EV if you prefer)
- ISO 3200-6400 expanded range
- Compressed Raw mode and X-Fine JPEG mode
- High ISO noise reduction control
- Grip sensor (optional trigger for eye control)
- RGB histograms
- New 'Quick Navi' control system
3 years on: A700 vs Konica Minolta Maxxum (Dynax) 7D
Before we look at the A700 and how it compares to Sony's first DSLR (the A100) and the rest of the market it's worth having a quick look at how it compares with the Konica Minolta 7D. Our first impression of the A700 was that in spirit (and very much in reality when you look closely) it is the successor to KM's first (and only) high-end digital SLR, introduced almost exactly 3 years ago at PMA 2004. it's obvious that the A700 contains a lot of Minolta DNA (there are elements of the D7D and the Maxxum/Dynax 7 film SLR in its design and control layout) and it's fair to say that - for users of Minolta's lens system - it can be considered a (long awaited) successor.
Although the styling has been given a modern twist and the D7D's button / switch overkill has been toned down a little, it's not hard to see where Sony's designers started from, and there are many features from the D7D that made it almost unchanged into the A700. These include the basic control layout (the second dial has been lost and replaced by a simpler on-screen 'Quick Navi' system), the magnesium alloy construction, the eye-start focus, CCD-shift IS and high level of customization and the optional vertical shooting grip. For potential upgraders looking for a reason to trade up from a D7D to Sony's new 'Advanced Amateur' model here's just a brief taste of what three years difference makes:
- Twice as many pixels: 12MP CMOS sensor (vs 6MP CCD)
- New shutter with higher maximum speed and higher sync speed
- Bigger screen with three times the resolution
- Improvements to focus speed and accuracy
- Faster (5 fps) continuous shooting capabilities and better buffering
- New 40 segment honeycomb metering
- Better GUI and huge range of new features
- HDTV output
- Creative Styles and lots of new parameters to play with
- HDTV output