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)

12.2 megapixel APS-C 'Exmor' CMOS
For its first 'advanced amateur' model Sony has dropped the CCD used in the A100 and moved to a totally new 12MP CMOS sensor. Designed to offer low noise and high speed (thanks to its on-chip A/D conversion) the 'Exmor' sensor puts the A700 in direct competition with Nikon's new D300.

Bionz Image Processor
Continuing Sony's habit of slapping a daft name on every component is an all-new version of the Bionz image processor, optimized for the new CMOS sensor. Again, this is claimed to boost speed and features a two-stage RAW noise reduction system. The combination of fast sensor and fast processor mean the A700 can offer 5 frames per second for up to 18 raw 12MP files.

New AF Sensor
The A700 features an 11 point focus system with a newly developed Center Double Cross AF sensor, claimed to offer 'the highest precision AD ever in a D-SLR'. The center focus point has two horizontal and two vertical sensors plus a new high precision (horizontal) sensor in the middle. This sensor has a baseline that is about twice as long as earlier AF sensors, enabling in theory, twice the focusing accuracy with lenses with a maximum aperture of F2.8 or larger.
Faster focusing
Sony has also redesigned the focus mechanics, AF algorithm and microprocessor to offer faster AF. The target, apparently, was the fastest AF in any SLR, and to match Minolta's Maxxum 7 film SLR.

New High Speed shutter
Carbon fibre shutter offering 1/8000 sec top speed and 1/250th sec x-sync (1/200th if SteadyShot is on). Sony is quoting a 100,000 shutter cycle life.

Refinements to the Super SteadyShot CCD-shift stabilization system are now claimed to deliver up to 4 stops advantage.

Optical Pentaprism
In place of the A100's pentamirror design comes an optical pentaprism viewfinder with anti reflective coating offering better brightness, better eye relief and high magnification. The spherical acute matte focus screen is now interchangeable.

Aluminum chassis/Magnesium body
Newly-developed high strength aluminum chassis which is 5% lighter and 3x stronger than the A100. Sony tells us the aluminum used is as strong as duralumin and required the development of new processing technology (it is apparently very difficult to work with). The body shell itself is constructed from Magnesium Alloy.

Environmental Sealing
The A700's buttons and levers are sealed to protect against dust and moisture (though it's worth pointing out that the camera is in no way 'waterproof' or 'splashproof').

X-Fine 3.0" LCD
One of the first things you notice about the A700 is the stunning 3.0 screen. With 922,000 (well, 640 x 480 x RGB) pixels it has a resolution of 267ppi, plus high contrast and a wide viewing angle. A new high resolution GUI takes full advantage of the new screen.

Full 1080 HD output
The A700 has an HDMI terminal and offers full 1080i HDTV output, plus a new 16:9 aspect ratio shooting option for TV viewing. The A700 is the first SLR to support Sony's new PhotoTV HD viewing protocol (which basically tells a Bravia TV to optimize the picture for stills viewing and produces better quality).

Wireless remote control
The A700 includes a wireless remote control offering a fairly comprehensive set of controls (though all but the shutter release only work when the camera is attached to a TV).

Dual Storage Formats
Not sure how important this will be to most users, but the A700 now offers both Memory Stick Duo and CompactFlash storage options.

New kit lens
Along with the A700 comes a new compact wide range bundle lens, the DT 16-105mm F3.5-5.6. The lens covers a range equivalent to 24 to 160mm and has internal focusing (though not zooming).

New Vertical Grip
Most interesting of the new accessories launched with the A700 is the VG-C70AM Vertical Grip. The grip offers a portrait shooting shutter button, two control dials (and a full set of buttons) and accepts two battery packs.

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