Despite the impressive amount of new technology contained within it, the A77 is actually a remarkably conventional-feeling camera. It may have a plastic top-plate, rather than the A700's tank-like magnesium-alloy construction, and use SD rather than CF cards, but in pretty much every other respect it looks and behaves like a logical progression of the Alpha series. Overall, despite the fact that it embraces a rather different set of technologies, it feels and behaves much like a conventional semi-pro DSLR - a combination in fact of our favorite design elements from the A700 and the SLT-A55.

After extended use of the A77, our general impression is of a camera that has been designed very well for use by its target audience. It has the same reassuring heft of the A700 and plenty of external control points, but incorporates several of our favorite things about the more modern A55, including (of course) full-time live view, a high-resolution EVF and an articulated LCD screen. It isn't perfect though. Specific issues with the A77's EVF and live view system are detailed below but you'll find more information on the camera's performance issues in the performance page of this review.

As we'd expect from a camera at this level the A77 is highly customizable, and within the five tabs of its custom menu are some options that can really enhance the camera's operation and image quality. As well as features like in-camera optical corrections, the five-tab custom menu also contains several options for customizing the behavior and function of key control points including the front and rear dials and several buttons.

One of the buttons that can be customized is the AF/MF button, which by default toggles between automatic and manual focus. This is only really useful with older, screw-drive AF lenses, since more recent SSM lenses feature full-time manual focus and SAM lenses require you to use a switch on the lens itself. To give you an idea of the depth of the A77's customization, this button can be assigned to one of 28 possible functions, including AF/AEL lock, 'AF on' in manual focus ('AF/MF Control Hold') and focus magnification. The same is true of the AEL and ISO buttons.

Overall operation and handling

The A77 is a solid camera, both in terms of its construction quality and its form factor. The body is chunky and deep, and in keeping with its status as a high-end Alpha camera it has a substantial, generously rubberized hand grip. Like the SLT-A55 which preceded it as Sony's flagship SLT, the A77 has an articulated screen, but it gains an extra hinge, which greatly aids handling when shooting video or stills at awkward low or high angles.

The A77 is a largely conventional enthusiast camera in terms of its ergonomics, and is very similar in its control layout to more traditional DSLR competitors like the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D7000.

The best view of the world in front of the A77's lens comes via its OLED electronic viewfinder. We've expounded its virtues on several occasions now, but it is worth reiterating that the A77's EVF really is very nice indeed. The A55's EVF was excellent, but the A77 betters it in terms of both clarity and detail.

One of the of the most impressive things about the A55 was how intuitive its full-time live view became after only a brief time with the camera. The ability to see shooting data, including a level gauge, overlaid in the viewfinder, and then switch to LCD screen composition simply by pulling your eye away from the finder is addictive. Like all 'disruptive' technologies the A55 made more conventional DSLRs look old-fashioned almost overnight. The A77's implementation is more or less identical (albeit centred around a higher-resolution viewfinder) and equally effective and enjoyable to use. Coming from a traditional DSLR, one of the most important benefits of an EVF is exposure simulation - enabled in the A77's custom menu via the confusingly-named 'Live View Display Setting Effect ON/OFF' option.

Specific handling issues

The A77's full-time live view system is extremely versatile, but it isn't perfect. Although the gap between 'real' optical finders and EVFs has narrowed, there are still some situations in which an optical finder can do a little better. That said, the only times you will ever be exposed to the weaknesses of the A77's otherwise gorgeous EVF are when shooting in very bright ambient light, and/or when shooting fast action in its highest framerate drive modes.

The A77 features an automatic light-sensitive switch next to its viewfinder, which switches between the camera's EVF and LCD as you place and remove your eye from the finder. This switch works well most of the time, to the extent that before too long you'll probably forget it is even there. In bright conditions though, we found during our shooting that it can be very hard to persuade the camera that our eye is actually placed to the finder. With glasses on, it is sometimes almost impossible but even without, we have found it necessary on occasion to physically jam our eye to the finder in an effort to trigger activation of the EVF. Given the availability of a manual Finder/LCD switch on the A77's top-plate this only counts as a minor annoyance, but it's something which did cause a certain amount of irritation during our time with the camera.

The slim letterbox-shaped rectangle above the glass of the A77's eyepiece is a light sensor, which automatically activates the EVF when it is occluded (presumably by the photographer's eye)

It works very well in normal shooting conditions but in very bright light we've found that manually switching between the A77's EVF and rear LCD screen is more reliable.

Aside from this, in most shooting environments the A77's EVF is a joy to use, and extremely responsive. Where it falls down is when you need to shoot at the camera's fastest frame rates, when live view is not available. Even then, unless you're panning with rapidly-moving subjects it isn't a major annoyance. For more detailed information on this point, head over to the performance page of this review.

If you've already skipped ahead to 'performance' you'll know that the A77 can take pictures very quickly, but something that we didn't expect is how slowly the camera's user interface responds in certain situations. When you press the 'menu' button the A77's menu takes a moment to appear, and when it does, there is a slight but noticeable 'lag' when moving between options using the control dials and rear joystick. On many occasions we've found ourselves pressing 'menu' then pressing it again because nothing seemed to happen and in doing so accidentally dismissing the menu, then having to start again. This is just plain annoying on a camera aimed at this level, and the same applies for the slight lag between changing a setting on the top-plate LCD and the setting actually showing on the screen. It is all too easy to accidentally move beyond the value you want, because the camera can't quite keep up with the control inputs.