The 10.2-megapixel Sony Alpha A200 replaces the two-year-old A100 with a number of subtle improvements including a larger LCD screen and increased sensitivity range.
When Sony adopted Konica Minolta’s photography arm in 2006, it pledged to continue what Konica Minolta had started. At the time, this consisted of just two DSLRs – the Dynax 5D and 7D. Nonetheless they gave Sony an ideal platform for future developments. Launching soon after the acquisition, the Sony A100 marked the beginning of the Sony Alpha range.
Designed to be faster, lighter and easier to use the Sony A200 replaces the Sony A100. Although the new model shares many similarities with its predecessor, it is said to have been influenced by its elder sibling, the Sony A700. Indeed, the design of the entire Alpha line varies in only a few areas, and as such, still bears many of the hallmarks of the original KM models from which it stems.
Arguably, the entry-level market is just as important for Sony to crack (to encourage people to buy into the Alpha system from the beginning), and with a lineage of compatible Minolta A-mount lenses, Sony is in a strong position to do so. Furthermore, the company has continued to develop its own range of lenses, as well as partnering with Carl Zeiss to produce professional-grade optics. So, what does the Sony A200 bring to the table?
Sensibly, Sony has stuck to the same 10.8MP total CCD sensor that featured in the A100, giving an effective pixel count of 10.2MP. Usually this is the first thing manufacturers like to boost in ‘upgraded’ models, but Sony has left this unchanged. Thanks to the 23.6 x 15.8mm APS-C format sensor, the focal length conversion factor of 1.5x has also remained.
Processing and operation are handled by Sony’s Bionz image processor, which is now said to be responsible for a 1.7x faster autofocusing system, as well as high speed image processing and a reduction in image noise. Noise is removed from Raw files before images are converted to JPEGs, theoretically minimising any effects that JPEG artefacts would have on it during compression.
The metering system uses a 40-segment honeycomb pattern, with the options of multi-segment, centre-weighted and spot. The camera’s sensitivity range has been extended, with an extra stop now at ISO 3200 and the option of Noise Reduction accompanying higher settings and longer exposures, while the nine-point focus system comprises eight selectable points and a central cross-hair sensor.
Sony’s sensor-based Super SteadyShot image stabilisation technology has continued on the A200, claiming to allow shutter speeds of 2.5 to 3.5 steps slower than would usually be possible. Dust, meanwhile, is handled by a two-step process; utilising a static-free coating on the low pass filter and quick vibration of the sensor upon each powering off of the camera, to help prevent and shake off any dust that may have worked its way into the body.
Dynamic Range and Burst Rate
The D-range Optimiser features two settings said to help bring out detail in shadows and highlights. The first works on the image as a whole to assess brightness and contrast while the second analyses each area of the image separately to bring out detail.
The camera offers a 3fps burst rate in JPEG capture, with a six-frame limit for Raw images, three-frame limit for simultaneous Raw+JPEG recording, and unlimited capture for JPEGs, depending on the shooting parameters and the memory card used. Sony’s Creative Style settings, meanwhile, provide a choice of eight capture modes, including Standard, Vivid and Black & White modes, as well as an Adobe RGB setting.
The camera is powered by an Infolithium battery, which allows the camera to display its remaining power as a percentage and is claimed to allow up to 750 shots to be captured on a full charge. If this isn’t enough, an optional vertical grip launched alongside the model accepts two of the above cells, thus providing power for an extra 1,500 shots.
Other tweaks and improvements include a quieter shutter mechanism, higher X-sync speed when using Super SteadyShot (now from 1/125sec to 1/160sec) and the option to record images in 16:9 widescreen format
Performance and Handling
Whether the continuous autofocus mode is indeed 1.7x faster than the Sony Alpha A100 is something that would be difficult to measure precisely, but it certainly is fast. In good light, the camera has no problem locking onto subjects, and only slows down when moving rapidly from distant subjects to those close up. Predictably, lower light levels slow it down a touch, but it still remains fairly speedy.
Despite the anti-dust facility vibrating the sensor each time the camera is powered off, we did notice a few specks of dust on certain images. This isn’t a criticism of the anti-dust function per se, but we do question Sony’s logic of having the sensor vibrating on power-off rather than on start-up. The latter would make more sense, as it would ensure that you start off shooting with a dust-free sensor – especially if you have just changed lenses or if the camera has not been used for a period of time. The only reason I can think of as to why Sony has done this is so that it wouldn’t compromise start-up time (which, incidentally, is prompt), though we’d rather wait a touch longer for the camera to start up than risk dust and then need to post-process it out of images.
As promised, the noise coming from the mirror slapping up is a little quieter than that of the Sony Alpha A100, but it’s still a touch noisy. It is, however, a more direct, faster and less ‘lagging’ sound, and thus less intrusive.
In the past we have enjoyed using the previous Sony Alpha A100 model, but always felt that there was room for improvement in terms of its general operation and the way that certain features were accessed. Clearly Sony thought the same, with the tweaks and refinements on the A200 serving to facilitate more convenient operation.
A new Function (Fn) button sits above the main menu pad, which allows a quick access to flash, metering, autofocus, AF area, white balance and D-Range Optimiser settings. On the Sony Alpha A100, these were accessed via a secondary mode dial on the top-plate, which now features the more traditional PASM and Scene options that were previously located on the side of the shutter release. Having to rotate the dial, press the dial’s central Fn button and then use the other hand to adjust shooting parameters seemed unnecessarily complex, so this change here is most definitely welcome.
You soon realise this has come at a cost, though. Repositioning the camera’s mode dial to the other side of the top-plate has allowed for a dedicated ISO button in its former place, joining the shooting mode button which was located here previously. The ISO button is hard to reach comfortably, using either finger or thumb, and the shooting mode button even more so, being positioned further away from the grip. Even when a strap isn’t in use, these two buttons aren’t exactly ‘to hand’ but rather just past it. Keeping the mode dial here would have made more sense, as its thumb and finger operation isn’t affected whether you’re using a strap or not.
Larger LCD Screen
The rear has seen a revised design to accommodate the larger Clear Photo 2.7in LCD screen, which has seen a marginal increase of 400 pixels to 230,400. Aside from this, the camera has adopted a less angular form, with the smooth and rounded contours making it feel a lot nicer in the hand. The remote socket has also been repositioned from the back to the side, and the Super SteadyShot button now lies horizontally, underneath the menu pad.
Ease of Operation
As on the Sony Alpha A100, the front command dial is recessed into the grip fairly deeply (but even more so here), and as such makes turning it a little more difficult than it could be. Also, I don’t have the largest of hands but I still found that the grip wasn’t quite large enough to offer enough purchase. At first the camera felt comfortable in my hand but after being out with it for a while, my forefinger felt squashed into the camera’s body – something I would imagine that people with either larger hands or longer nails would find even more annoying.
One downside of the Sony Alpha A100 was that the built-in flash had to be raised manually without the aid of any dedicated flash button. This had been carried over from the Dynax 5D model, and it’s unclear as to why this wasn’t initially addressed, but Sony has now provided a button to the side of the flash unit itself. In addition, the camera’s hotshoe accepts dedicated flashguns from Sony’s Alpha line as well as those from third-party manufacturers.
Dimensions and Weight
The camera has been marketed as smaller and lighter than its predecessor. To be pedantic, these changes are only within a few millimetres (with the A200 in actual fact being a little taller), and as such are barely noticeable. Granted, there’s also a 13g reduction in weight but all of these changes are so very slight and barely noticeable at best, and may have, dare I say, simply resulted as a byproduct of the camera’s manufacture.
Image Quality and Value for Money
Noise appears on all sensitivities, but isn’t generally a problem up to ISO 400. Only areas of little detail show this on lower ISO settings, and even then it’s relatively fine-textured. Noise reduction can be applied at higher sensitivities, but is reasonably gentle, with images remaining fairly noisy but retaining a good amount of detail. Noise visible at ISO 3200 resembles ISO 1600 on the Sony Alpha A100
Tone and Contrast
Exposures are generally very good. The camera does well to hold detail in both shadows and highlights, but can occasionally be fooled by a few highlights and underexpose as a result. Using the D-range Optimiser, detail may be brought out of shadow areas when shooting a backlit subject, but with just two modes it lacks the more comprehensive level of control found on the Sony Alpha A700 model.
Colour And White Balance
The camera’s white balance system does well to produce accurate images. JPEGs straight from the camera turn out marginally colder than the magenta-toned Raw images, with a slight greenish cast.
Sharpness and Detail
Despite images appearing a little soft on occasion, sharpness is generally fine and artefact free. As with most other adjustments, this can be tweaked with the supplied Data Converter software, as well as third-party packages such as Adobe Lightroom.
Value for Money
The camera offers a lot for its £369 body-only price tag, and even the 18-70mm kit lens package can be found for as little as £400. In comparison to similarly priced and specified models, the camera’s only major omission is live view, so if you’re happy without this then the camera will give you everything else you need. Should you want a live view-sporting Alpha model, the forthcoming Sony Alpha A350 will provide this as well as a 14MP sensor, for around £600 with its kit lens, but for £400 you can’t really ask for (and shouldn’t need) anything else.
The A200 is further confirmation that Sony deserves its slice of the DSLR market. Admittedly, there’s nothing here that is particularly revolutionary, and the upgraded features don’t make a world of difference, but the focus with this model is on providing a good, entry-level DSLR at a very reasonable price. There isn’t quite enough here for A100 users to justify an upgrade, but existing Minolta users still using film, for example, couldn’t really ask for a better introductory DSLR. Anyone looking to purchase an entry-level DSLR will find themselves tempted by what the A200 has to offer.