Sony A230 has a sleek new look, but is the latest entry-level Sony a tempting offering? The What Digital Camera review of the A230 investigates...
Sony A230 was launched at the same time as the mid-range A380 model, this camera heralds a new look for the Sony DSLR range. The previous incarnations have all been slight tweaks on a design that can easily trace its heritage right the way back to the original Minolta Dynax film cameras and more recently the Konica Minolta Dynax digital range that they have evolved from.
The first Sony Alpha cameras may have featured new improved technology inside, but in the exterior they shared much of the old design.
This new model, however, looks like a Sony product; it has sleeker lines and a more curvaceous body that is instantly recognisable as part of the wider brand. So is this new DSLR model anything more than a fashion makeover of Sony’s previous entry-level offering? We take a closer look.
Sony Alpha a230 review – Features
The A230 is an update to the existing budget A200 model, and though for the time being it will be sold alongside the A200, it would be fair to call it a replacement. Consequently the feature set of this new model is very familiar. It uses the same 10.2-megapixel APS-C sized CCD sensor as the A200, outputting a 3872 x 2592 image in a choice of .ARW Raw files or JPEGs, which are also available in 5.6MP (2896 x 1936) and 2.5MP (1920 x 1280) sizes, all in Fine or Standard compression. The sensor is mounted on a sensor-shift mechanism for the recently renamed and updated SteadyShot Inside image stabilisation, which promises between 2.5EV and 3.5EV of effect on all lenses. This sensor-shift, along with an anti-static coating, also helps minimise dust build-up in front of the sensor.
Sony claims the BIONZ processor works with the sensor to produce low noise levels and fast data processing. This has allowed the A230 to offer a solid ISO range of 100-3200, which is on a par with the latest budget offerings from other manufacturers.
The metering system is a 40-segment honeycomb pattern and offers a full array of multi-segment, centre-weighted and spot metering options. Exposure compensation of up to +/-2EV is available in 1/3 steps, though there is no exposure lock function for those wishing to recompose after metering.
Focusing is taken care of with a phase-detection TTL system with nine AF points, the centre point being a cross sensor for added sensitivity. The points can be selected individually using Local selection, automatically using the Wide focus area, or just using the centre point with the Spot selection. Focusing can also be set between single shot, continuous, automatic and manual modes.
White balance can be controlled automatically, selected from one of six presets, or via a custom option, which allows you to take a test shot to fix the value. Each preset also allows further adjustment for fine tuning.
Shooting modes have been kept relatively simple on the top dial. There’s a full Auto mode, a Program auto, Aperture and Shutter-priority modes, plus six individually selectable scene modes and a ‘no flash’ option.
The viewfinder gives you a pretty standard 95% coverage, and also provides dioptre adjustment for spectacle wearers. There is no live view mode on this model so all composition must be done using the ‘traditional’ method; and being a budget model it also lacks the recent trend of video capture, making it purely a still image-based DSLR.
The rear LCD screen does have other uses than just image review, though. This 2.7in 230,400-dot screen is also home to all of the shooting information, which can be displayed in purely numerical values or in a graphical format, with a handy sliding diagrams for the aperture and shutter values.
The inbuilt flash unit – housed in a pop-up latch in the top of the camera – delivers a guide number of 10m at ISO 100, and features a decent range of options, including flash compensation, rear sync and high speed sync options. In addition it can also work as a wireless transmitter to fire compatible off-camera flashguns.
As the Alpha range’s past may hint at, the lens mount is fully compatible with the full range of Konica, and Konica Minolta Dynax lenses, plus the extensive range of current Sony lenses, making an impressive – if often underestimated – lens collection. The A230 comes with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM (Smooth Autofocus Motor) lens as standard.
Design & Performance
Sony Alpha a230 review – Design
The new design of both the A230 and A380 models has met mixed reviews among users. While most would agree that in looks they are much improved, the handling and usability has generally been regarded to have suffered. The major issue is with the grip; this has been made shallower and shortened into a sweep at the top, thus only leaving room for two regular sized fingers with any purchase on it. The old model gave a deep and spacious grip but at a cost to the look of the camera.
Overall the design is very clean and buttons are well spaced, bordering on scarce. The positioning of both the Menu and the compensation/Av button on the sloping edge rather than the back makes them difficult to access without adjusting your grip from either reviewing or shooting stances. Though some functions can be accessed from the Fn (function) button and the four-way dial, many other useful modes require a full menu navigation, including the shake reduction and file type options.
Even changing the focus point selection between the nine AF points requires at least three button presses.
There are some good points, however; the overall size of the camera is fairly compact and it is light in the hand. The ports are all housed together beneath a hard plastic cover that slides back into the camera when opened – which looks very slick – and also reveals the clever inclusion of dual memory card slots for both MemoryStick Duo and SD types. There’s even a switch to allow you to swap quickly between the two – though this doesn’t then offer the option to split image types between the two cards, as with more advanced cameras such as the Nikon D300s.
In all, the A230 may seem a little light and plasticky for some, but considering this is an entry-level model the overall package is pretty impressive. The handling, however, could do with a few tweaks.
Sony Alpha a230 review – Performance
In terms of focusing, the nine AF points do a decent job of covering the main areas of the screen, despite the slightly unconventional layout that sees a cross format and one in each corner of the central area as opposed to the diamond layout used by other cameras. Focus locks on fairly quickly too, especially when using the central cross-type point or the wide area setting. However, the motor housed in the SAM kit lens – designed to improve focus speed – is far from silent, whirring loudly as it travels through the range to find focus.
The metering system errs on the side of underexposure under extreme conditions but generally gives a balanced tonal range. The D-range optimiser system offers a standard and advanced setting, which can have beneficial results for high-contrast scenes, though this can be quite subtle on regular shots.
Continuous shooting is delivered at a fairly paltry three frames per second, though this is standard for an entry-level model. This does mean, however, that it is capable of extended numbers of shots. Using a 1GB Panasonic Gold Class SD card we achieved 11 shots in Raw+JPEG, 32 shots in Raw, and using the Fine JPEG option the camera continued to shoot until the card was full – writing files in 2sec, 1.5sec, and 1sec respectively.
As there are no fancy features such as movie or live view on this model, the battery life is pretty impressive. The spec sheet suggests an approximate 510 shots on one charge, which seems fair given our experience. This is, however, a lot fewer than the 750 shots approximated for the older A200 model.
The LCD screen is very standard by all accounts – at 2.7in and 230k dots it’s by no means large or high resolution – but it is clear enough to read in bright conditions and has an excellent angle of view.
The kit lens is an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SAM lens. This comes in line with the standard offerings of the competition, which is a shame because the 18-70mmm focal range offered on the A200’s kit lens was a nice extension. What this lens does have, however, is the new SAM (Smooth Autofocus Motor), which aids focusing speeds, if a little noisily. There is still a lens motor in the body, though, for older lenses, thus allowing full compatibility with the entire Alpha/Dynax range.
Value & Image Quality
Sony Alpha A230 review – Value for Money
At the budget entry point to the DSLR range it would be foolish to avoid the issue of price.
The previous Sony Alpha A200 was, for a long time, one of the cheapest DSLRs on the market; the A230 (with lens) is currently placed at least £35 cheaper than the Canon 1000D (£390 with lens) and the Nikon D3000 (£450 with lens) entry-level models, making it also highly competitive on price. Against this competition it holds up well and there is nothing it is really missing.
Prices are likely to fluctuate as the camera ages and new ones are added, so bear in mind that should you find the Sony A230 for a cheaper price than the £355 street price at time of testing, you are getting a better deal. Right now though, this is a decent proposition but one with very able competition.
Sony Alpha A230 image quality
Sony A230 Tone and Exposure
The metering system is very proficient in gaining a balanced tonal range and this is clearly seen from the image histograms. Presented with high-contrast scenes, in which it is unable to capture the full range, the metering will slightly underexpose to maintain the greatest amount of tone. By using the D-range optimiser it is also possible to capture more detail in highlight and shadow areas, because the camera will automatically adjust the brightness and contrast of the shot.
Sony A230 White Balance and Colour
For an entry-level model the range of white balance settings on this camera is extensive. Each of the presets has manual adjustments, and there’s also a custom setting. If you leave it set to Auto it performs adequately, though there is a slightly worrying tendency to produce slightly cold results in shady scenes, and even portraits, when using one of the exposure modes from the PASM quartet.
Sony A230 Raw/JPEG
A maximum value of ISO 3200 may not seem like much of a feat these days, but to actually deliver usable results above the ISO 1600 mark is still a rare ability. With all noise-reduction technology turned off there are obvious signs of noise on the A230 at the higher values, with coloured noise creeping into shadow areas and a diminished level of detail. However, the overall image is still pleasing to the naked eye and comparatively impressive for such an ISO value.
Sony A230 Noise and ISO
There is very little visual difference between the Raw and JPEG files straight from the camera, even viewed as an enlargement of a 300 x 300-pixel section. On close examination the JPEG file shows greater fringing but slightly sharper edges thanks to sharpening but the Raw appears slightly brighter – in most cases making this difficult to see. The adjusted Raw file presents a better final result, however, thanks to the non-destructive editing.
Sony A230 Sharpness and Detail
The main limiting factor appears to be in the resolution, with detail surviving down to the pixel. However, there were marked improvements in the sharpness when using the more expensive Zeiss 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, as opposed to the standard kit Sony 18-55mm SAM lens.
Sony A230 ISO quality
General ISO performance is very good with no significant sign of noise evident until ISO 800, and still fairly light noise at ISO 1600. The highest value of ISO 3200 does show far more chroma noise, though it is not excessive for a camera of this level and, by adding the noise reduction, is able to reduce it extensively, if at slight detriment to the level of detail.
Underneath the veneer, very little has changed from the old model but that is not necessarily a bad thing, as this still offers a very competitive performance, and currently a cheaper price than its competitors once you take into account the kit lens.
The new outside of the camera certainly looks slicker and is well built with some nice little features, such as the sliding port/card cover, and overall it is smaller and lighter; but the handling has suffered making it more difficult to get a solid grip.
These handling issues are the only real let down to an otherwise very competent camera, and if your budget is tight, it’s well worth considering.
But, if your cash can stretch a little further it might be also worth considering Nikon’s new entry-level offering, the D3000, which we have also reviewed.