Sony Alpha A330 Inverness
Sony Alpha A330
With its roots in the old Konica Minolta DSLRs, the Alpha range has struggled with styling; no doubt a continuing source of pain to a company as fashion-conscious as Sony. With the A330, however, things are starting to look up. The design has evolved from the bastard child of Konica's models into what you could definitely begin to call a distinctive Alpha look. Sharp edges and purposeful curves along with a grip pattern suspiciously close to a Formula 1 carbon-weave effect have it looking aggressively futuristic.
The body ergonomics, however, have split opinion more than any other DSLR to arrive in the PC Pro office. It's all down to that patterned grip. To many hands, it's way too short. Try shooting one-handed and there's simply not enough purchase; it feels horribly like it's trying to wriggle out of your hand under its own weight.
A second surprise is the pixel count. Like its predecessors it remains at ten megapixels, putting it on a par with the cheaper Canon EOS 1000D and Nikon D60, rather than pushing the value envelope and gunning for the 15 megapixels of the more expensive Canon 500D and Nikon D5000. It's a departure for the Alpha range, whose speciality up until now has been blowing the competition out of the water with its specifications. It's all the more confusing considering that the older Alpha A350, which is still available if you look, is cheaper and better specified with its 14.2-megapixel sensor.
Yet more bad news: an outright retrograde step. Where previous Alpha models stole a march on the competition by including 18-70mm zoom lenses, the A330 falls limply in line with the industry standard, coming with an 18-55mm kit lens. The lack of that extra zoom range was desperately obvious when we compared it to an older model. Not only that, the lens feels lighter and its plastic mount doesn't impress.
Autofocus is also slower and far noisier than the average kit offering, although that's more an aesthetic consideration than a practical one - it's plenty fast enough unless you're shooting sports. And it's helped along by an eye-activated system that switches the autofocus on as soon as you look through the viewfinder.
Fortunately, that's the only feature reduction we could spot, and this is certainly not a camera that's lacking in useful additions elsewhere. The tilting screen of the older Alphas is still there, allowing you to shoot both over your head and with the camera close to the ground (although not around corners since it only tilts up and down).
Sony also has by far and away the best live-view mode, since it allows the camera to continue to use its normal autofocus mechanism. Other DSLRs are reduced to using painfully slow contrast-detect focus in live view, while the Sony is consistently fast in any mode.
In conjunction with the tilting screen, it turns a comfort-blanket feature for people used to digital compacts into a serious tool that can help you take better shots. The in-body image stabilisation makes any lens image-stabilised too, which partially offsets the higher cost of Sony's aftermarket lens range compared to the competition.
A feature we like a lot is the in-camera help text. When you're scrolling through the options for a given setting - autofocus mode, for instance - pausing for a few seconds brings up a brief description of the function. It's a great reminder, even for seasoned users, and a feature that others are bound to copy soon. Ease of use is helped by a more conventional control and button layout too. It all feels more coherent and usable - less a gadget and more a camera - than previous designs.
Image quality reveals no great surprises. At low ISO it's the match of its Nikon and Canon peers, and the D-Range Optimizer function, which is enabled by default, works fairly well to improve apparent dynamic range. It does tend to introduce noise into shadow areas, though. Noise is also a limitation at high ISO, with Sony still not managing to get the problem under control as well as Canon. Shots at ISO 1600 are usable but ISO 3200 remains a setting of last resort.
Our issue, as so often of late, is with the price of the model. To some extent this is out of Sony's hands, global exchange rates being what they are. It's nonetheless a lot to swallow when a more expensive model is in some ways worse than the previous one.
Sony has made a rod for its own back by creating an expectation of stunning value that undercuts the competition. The A330 is a perfectly capable DSLR, streamlined and easier to use than the previous generation. But beyond ease of use it offers nothing we haven't seen before. It's a good camera but it's currently too expensive to recommend over its predecessor, as long as you can still find one.
10.2MP sensor; 3,872 x 2,592 maximum resolution; 18-55mm, f3.5 - f5.6 kit lens (27 - 82.5mm 35mm equivalent); 2.7in TFT screen; shutter speed 1/4,000 - 30 seconds; 100 - 3,200 ISO sensitivity; +/- 2EV exposure compensation; evaluative, centre-weighted, spot metering; lithium-ion battery; 1yr RTB warranty; 126 x 81 x 96mm (WDH); 768g
Competent, fully featured and easy to use, but a backward step in some respects
Author: David Fearon