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August 29, 2009

New Sony Alpha A500 returns to 12mp CMOS sensor

We are now witnessing the "Sony power-play" in DSLRs, that Minolta fans had been waiting since the Sony take-over of the Minolta legacy was revealed. We haven't checked the "history books", but if memory serves us well, Sony has a new world record with six new DSLRs in a year (2009). And the power-play may not be complete yet, as there is room for a A700-replacement and perhaps the mythical Alpha A800. But let's not get carried away, we have three actual brand new DSLRs to talk about :-)

Sony fans were puzzled by the waves of consumer-tier DSLR announcements, a six-pack of them in-fact, so there was a collective sigh of relief when Sony revealed two beyond entry-level and one $2000 35mm-full-frame DSLR. We start the tape-delayed coverage with the new Alpha A500!

Meet the new Alpha A500

The camera is anchored to a 12mp APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor, married to the new Bionic (Bionz) engine. As expected, it takes Sony and Minolta Alpha mount lenses, and yes, the sky is blue :)

One feature that sets Sony (and Pentax/Olympus) apart from Canon and Nikon is the inclusion of sensor-shift image stabilization in most (if not all) of their current DSLRs. While the debates of optical vs sensor-shift image stabilization will keep Limahl singing for ever, it is hard to argue against the benefit this provides to nearly every lens mounted to the camera.

Machine-gun mode (burst mode) fans will be thrilled that when using the OVF, they can get 5fps and when using the sensor-fed Live View they can get a very respectable 4fps.

The A500 has the expected features, such as RAW and RAW+JPEG, 9 focus points, 40-segment honeycomb pattern, 30 to 1/4000 second exposure range, custom WB, AEB of 3 shots (0.3 or 0.7 increments) and things like that.

One of the things potentially luring non-Alpha photographers to the A500/A550 might be the Quick AF Live View (Q-AF-LV) that promises an improvement in DSLR Live View. To the casual gadgetologist, this may seem like a strange comment since their $150 P&S compact happily offers live preview, but DSLRs, partially because of their design, partially because of sensor design and partially because of "SLR traditionalism" have been slow in incorporating this feature. Also taking advantage of this feature is the manual focus check which mega-zooms the area of interest so you check whether it focused correctly.

And yes, face detection fans, the Q-AF-LV mode brings this popular with P&S cameras feature to the Alpha A500. Needless to say for those who hatorade face detection, use of it is not mandatory, contrary to popular belief ;-)

With HDR being so popular with digital artists and photographers, the camera manufacturers have slowly and shyly started to embrace it as an out of the box feature. Needless to say, there is only so much you can get out of current technology, but to many, this may be a convenient new feature.

Another populist feature that may annoy some purists is the "Smart Teleconvertor" (surprisingly, not a typo) which "etends" (no spell-checker for press releases?) the image by 1.4X or 2X.

LCD display and non-Video
The camera lets you look into its soul (oh dear) with its 3-inch (230K) LCD display and it features a fixed eye-level penta-mirror (so easy to mis-type pentax-mirror). The display is fixed in-place tilting (corrected!). If you prefer a much higher screen resolution, the Alpha A550 has 921k dots.

None of the three new Sony DSLRs revealed in this batch (or ever by Sony) feature DSLR-Video. Sony even tried to explain this via an interview to Pop Photo. They do find themselves in a little bit of a marketing check-list competitive disadvantage since the other mass-market manufacturers have Video in at least one interchangeable-lens camera.

Other Features of interest
The A500 features an auto-pop-up flash, with GN 12 at ISO 100, and its hot-shoe can take the standard assortment of external Alpha flashes.

Storage is provided via the usual Sony Memory Sticks but Sony wants to sell these cameras beyond "fan-boys", because they have made the very pragmatic compromise of also taking SD/SDHC memory cards. This is a big plus for both consumers and Sony since it removes one potential barrier for potential buyers.

To keep Sony fans happy, they offer Bravia Sync, and also HDMI output.

Battery Power
The A500 uses the existing NP-FM500H battery, and the Sony PDF mentions that the camera can get 1000 CIPA shots when using the OVF, which is quite nice for OVF shooters (CIPA is a Japanese industry organization that among other things has defined a set of tests for providing more consistent battery life estimates).

But if that's not enough, you can use the new VG-50AM battery grip, which can take two NP-FM300H batteries for an additional two millenia of shots.

Price and availability
The camera will be available in a body-only and kit-lens (w/18-55mm SAM DT) combination in the USA market for $750 and $850.

You can already get your place in line by placing pre-orders, starting with Amazon offering the A500 body-only for $750 and the A500 + 18-55 SAM DT for $850. The latter, in Sony-speak, is the A500L model.

Also taking pre-orders, at the same prices is Sony Style.

Further Reading
+ Preview and brief hands-on at Alpha Mount World
+ Sony
+ Camera body pictures at Pocket Link

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