Conclusion - Pros
- Good detail at lower sensitivities, very slightly more than ten megapixels but no massive gain
- Low noise at higher sensitivities although at the expense of detail (perhaps too much luminance NR)
- Excellent dynamic range at ISO 200 (more highlight range than we are used to seeing)
- Wide range of DRO options, manual settings deliver biggest difference
- Excellent long exposure capability, no noticeable hot pixels even at 30 seconds with NR off
- Good built-in flash, well metered, no color casts
- Full support for 'Sony Alpha' lens mount and all Minolta A-type lenses
- Good ergonomics, comfortable grip, great optional vertical grip (lots of controls)
- Dust reduction provided by anti-static coating and 'sensor shake' using stabilization system
- Environmental seals around controls (although not storage / battery doors)
- Built-in 'Super SteadyShot' sensor-shift image stabilization appears to work fairly well
- Good build quality, solid construction with no creaks or rattles
- Fast auto-focus, accurate and reliable
- Camera feels fast in use, responsive and no real usage delays
- Superb large, high resolution LCD (delivers full-color VGA; 640xRGB x 480)
- HDMI video output (up to 1080i)
- Five frames per second continuous, good buffering, superb write speed with SanDisk Extreme IV CF
- Clean, easy to follow menu system
- Quality glass pentaprism viewfinder (bright, large view)
- Customizable 'hard button' on camera rear ('C' button)
- Wide range of image parameter presets, addition of brightness custom adjustment
- Built-in AF assist lamp (with projected focusing pattern)
- Very fast USB 2.0 throughput (over 20 MB/sec)
- Easy to understand percentage (%) battery life display
- Supplied infrared remote control
- Value for money
Conclusion - Cons
- Noise reduction settings are applied to raw as well as JPEG files. Would be preferable if they affected JPEG only (as is normal practice). Kudos to Sony for updating the firmware to allow you to actually turn it off at all though!
- Base sensitivity isn't ISO 100, this isn't directly indicated on the camera
- Would still like to see the lowest noise reduction setting using less NR
- Lack of live view will be counted against the A700 compared to the competition
- No ISO display on viewfinder status bar
- No top panel LCD status display
- Variable battery life (using the main LCD for status can be a big drain)
- Poor RAW conversion from Image Data Converter SR
- Average automatic white balance performance, still very poor under incandescent light
The Alpha 700 was introduced as a complementary model to the Alpha 100; aimed more at the serious amateur and semi-professional photographer it enters a segment of the market which is buzzing with new models (EOS 40D, D300 and E-3). The A700 clearly has a lot of Minolta DNA (it's a natural successor to the popular Maxxum 7D) but also exhibits a range of development which can be attributed to the new development team that has come out of Sony's purchase of the Konica Minolta DSLR division.
Konica Minolta were the first manufacturer to put a sensor-shift Anti-Shake system into a digital SLR (again, in the 7D which shipped in early 2005), this same feature graces the A700 but has now been renamed 'Super SteadyShot', refined possibly since then but it works in exactly the same way. In our tests it worked well enough to make a difference providing somewhere between 1.0 and 1.5 stops of 'improvement' which it has to be said is somewhat less than Sony's claims.
One thing that is clear when you start shooting with the A700 is that Sony has worked hard on performance; it feels very responsive, button presses for menus or image playback occurring instantly and there's no feeling of lag when changing settings. Other performance criteria such as continuous shooting speed, buffering and write speeds were all very good, with a pretty blazing 34 MB/sec write speed with SanDisk Extreme IV cards. I should also make special mention of that new high resolution LCD monitor which really does make a difference to the whole shoot & review experience.
With the latest firmware Sony removed my biggest gripe with the A700; the fact you couldn't turn noise reduction off for raw files. Well now you can - though we'd still like to see them turn it off for raw altogether (whilst allowing you to leave it on for JPEGs - this would make raw+jpeg mode considerably more useful).
My other quibble - that this camera's base sensitivity appears to be ISO 200 (not ISO 100), subtly hinted at by the fact that the Auto ISO range begins at 200, and supported by our own dynamic range tests - remains. Sony managed to indicated that ISO sensitivities above 3200 were 'out of calibration' but not those below 200 (the trade-off below this point is highlight dynamic range). This gives rise to the rather ridiculous situation where most users (who try to stick to the lowest ISO wherever possible) will not only be shooting at a setting that doesn't produce the optimum image quality, but also losing a valuable stop of sensitivity at the same time.
These minor gripes aside I have to say that overall image quality was very good, with the A700 producing as much resolution / detail as the competition at lower sensitivities and noise reduction keeping noise levels in check at higher sensitivities without losing too much detail (although we personally would prefer less luminance reduction). Color was predictable and neutral and tonal response was good without ever being over contrasty (nice roll-off in highlights from ISO 200 upwards).
Overall then the A700 is a good performer with good overall image quality with a nice range of features - even if on the negative side there are some quirky design decisions which may or may not affect you. Best of all though is the fact that it weighs in at the lower end of the price band for this category of DSLR, that makes it about $400 less than the Nikon D300 and $300 less than the Olympus E-3.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.5|