Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2491
Sony A350: Full-Time Live View at 14.2MPby Wesley Fink on April 3, 2008 3:00 AM EST
- Posted in
- Digital Camera
UPDATED: New full-size image downloads are included for the Sony A350, Canon 5D and Pentax K20D at a constant f4.0 at all ISO settings. Crops on page 6 are now actual pixels with no size reduction and were extracted from the updated images.
When Sony secured victory for Blu-ray a couple of months ago, it was difficult not to reflect on the Betamax vs. VHS battle that Sony lost many years ago. Those around at the time will remember that Betamax was the superior format but VHS won with licensing, availability, and lower prices. The Blu-ray victory was quite a contrast - this time being promoted by Sony who secured the exclusives they needed to assure Blu-ray the winner. As with VHS, however, it appears in the short term that the inferior format won again as Sony is only now introducing features to Blu-ray playback that were introduced with HD DVD almost two years ago. Those who review technology often see less capable technologies win based on dollars thrown into promoting a product and buying distribution channels.
Why does this matter in the Digital SLR market? It doesn't as far as DSLR reviews are concerned, but it does put into perspective the fact that Sony is a massive player in the electronics arena, and Sony plays (and pays) to win. When Sony absorbed Minolta it wasn't long until the A100 launched the 10MP (megapixel) wars, even though the A100 was in reality a Minolta 5D upgraded with the new Sony sensor. Great things were expected after this first foray, but it took Sony quite a while to begin putting their stamp on the DSLR market.
Last October the A700 prosumer Sony launched with a new 12.2MP CMOS sensor and 5FPS burst speed in a rugged magnesium semi-pro body. The A700 is still based on the Minolta 7D digital SLR but it is more "Sony" than the A100. This was followed at January CES with the A200 update to the A100 - now targeted at a street price of $599 with a kit lens. A month later at PMA, Sony surprised the market with two more entry level digital SLR cameras that feature what we found to arguably be the best Live View in any SLR.
No one else in the DSLR market has introduced so many new cameras in such a short period of time. There are now Sony entry models at $599, $699, $799, and $899. The A700 is $1399 to $1499, and Sony isn't finished yet. A new Pro level 24.6MP full-frame (presumably to be called the A900) will launch later this year. New Sony DSLR cameras are everywhere, and to their credit, Sony has found ways to differentiate the three entry models.
The A200 shipped about a month ago, and today we are taking a first look at the top entry-level Sony called the A350. It is the only entry-level SLR with a huge 14.2MP sensor, but unlike most recent DSLR sensor introductions, this one is CCD and not CMOS. The A350/A300 are also the only entry DSLR cameras with a tilt LCD. This is coupled with fast AF Live View, which moves that feature to a full-time view alternative with fast auto focusing. Most of the recent DSLR cameras feature Live View that was pioneered by Olympus, but Sony takes the feature from checklist novelty to a truly useful viewing alternative. This makes the transition easier for point-and-shoot users accustomed to Live View composing with the LCD screen.
Current Sony Lineup
Below is a comparison of current Sony models with the Sony 18-70mm f3.5-5.6 lens. For those who wish to buy the body alone, only the A350 ($799) and A700 ($1399) are available without a kit lens. A two-lens kit is available for the A200, A300, and A350. The two-lens kit adds the 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 to the A200K and the 55-200mm f4-5.6 to the A300/A350 kits. The two-lens kit adds $200 to the single lens kit prices.
At 14.2MP, the A350 is the highest resolution Sony you can buy until the A900 is introduced later this year. The current top-of-the-line A700 is the only current CMOS model with a lower 12.2MP resolution. Canon will have a similar situation with their announced 12MP XSi entry-level model in their line with the prosumer 10MP 40D. As we have said in many articles, image quality is about more than sensor resolution. The resolution, sensor sensitivity, and sensor noise levels all contribute to the final image quality - all else being equal - and this is often reflected in the fact that top prosumer models often have a lower sensor resolution than less expensive entry-level models.
Features and Handling
Sony is used to playing in the large volume retail space where every trick used to gain visibility can result in higher sales.
This is very clear in the packaging theme for Sony DSLR cameras and accessories. No one will miss the bright orange and white (or bright orange and silver) that makes the Sony packages stand out.
The A350 body is on the small side, like the other Sony entry DSLR models, without the extreme smallness that seems to some a problem with the Canon XTi or Nikon D60/D40x. The new Canon XSi is a bit larger than the previous model to address size complaints and accommodate a 3.0" LCD. The Sony A350 is both a little wider (5.25" vs. 5.1") and taller (4.0" vs. 3.8") than the upsized XSi. Minolta pioneered body-integral image stabilization, and the evolved Sony Super Steady Shot is a feature on every Sony DSLR, along with auto sensor cleaning.
The top deck contains a single dial to adjust mode (full-auto, program, shutter-priority, and aperture-priority) and a wide selection of special scene programs such as portrait, sports, night, etc. On the opposite side of the viewfinder hump you will find a mechanical (no power required) Live View/OVF (Optical Viewfinder) switch, timer/drive mode button, and ISO button. The shutter release and shift/adjust dial are on top of the comfortable handgrip.
9-point auto-focus is featured on the A350. The layout and pattern is the same as the A200, A300, and earlier A100 suggesting it is the same AF module. The burst AF speeds on all models also support the conclusion that this is likely the same venerable AF module used in previous Minolta and Sony digital SLRs. Sony claims faster AF in the newest models, and that is likely the result of faster data processing in the supporting data processing modules in the DSLR. The prosumer A700 uses an updated and faster 11-point AF system. The A350 AF system is very competitive in its class and a big step up from the Olympus 510/410/420 and Nikon D60/D40x 3-point AF modules.
While the A350 is a bit larger than the Canon XSi, the LCD is 2.7" instead of the 3.0" LCD featured on the XSi. However, it is the only LCD in its class that is articulated, allowing an upward tilt as far as perpendicular for low-level shots and a down tilt to allow holding the camera above your head for crowd shots. These kinds of shooting situations require a contortionist on the usual DSLR and they are a great benefit for the capable and fast Sony Quick AF Live View. The LCD brightness is adjustable up and down, but it was still a challenge to read info on the LCD in bright sunlight. Perhaps some aftermarket LCD hood will improve LCD viewing.
The rear finds the on-off switch to the left of the viewfinder, which is typical of all the current Sony models. To the right of the viewfinder are the metering pattern/exposure compensation button, AEL (exposure lock)/zoom button, and the unique auto teleconverter. The teleconverter switch just takes advantage of the high-resolution sensor to give you instant 1.4x and 2x crops of the regular image. It does not add or interpolate pixels.
The main part of the a350's back is dominated by the 2.7" tilt screen, and the expected MENU, DISPlay, Delete (Trash Can), and Playback buttons to the left of the screen. To the right is the extremely useful Fn (function) button, which brings up the most commonly used adjustments to allow quick adjustments without searching through menus. The up/down/select multi-controller is used to navigate menus and the screen and a Super Steady Shot on/off switch complete the rear controls.
The sensors at the bottom of the viewfinder are the trademark Minolta "auto-on" when you bring the viewfinder toward your face in OVF mode. There is also a small knurled wheel to adjust viewfinder focus to match your eyesight. This former high-end feature is now making its way into almost all of today's DSLR cameras.
The A350 is an entry-level camera despite some high-end features like the 14.2MP sensor. As such, it is designed to be easy to use. Ours came out of the package setup at the factory for Live View mode with Super Steady Shot on. In general, Sony made the controls very easy to use and figure out. Sony tells us one complaint from buyers moving from point-and-shoot digital cameras to a digital SLR is that they are often overwhelmed by the controls of the DSLR. Point-and-Shoot users will find the A350 easy to use and familiar right out of the box.
Another editor at AnandTech ordered the A350 from SonyStyle as soon as he saw the specifications in our PMA reporting. He received his A350 last week and commented that the controls on the A350 were extremely easy to figure out and use. He said after 15 minutes he felt like he could figure out most everything on the camera and he was ready to "shoot like a Pro" with the A350. If other new users also find this kind of "instant comfort" with the A350, it will become a big seller.
Live View and the Optical Viewfinder
Sony Live View impressed us at PMA, and now that we've spent more time with a production A350 we are even more impressed with the Sony version. Sony Live View is definitely unique compared to others, and their description as Quick AF Live View is justified.
Everyone else now uses the imaging sensor to provide Live View, and while that method works and is fairly cheap to implement, it does have serious limitations. First, it eats precious power, as the mirror has to be flipped up and held out of the image path during Live View. Second, the camera must flip down the mirror for focus and metering, which slows down shooting and momentarily turns off Live View. This makes Live View more a check-box feature on today's digital SLRs than something truly like the Live View seen on Point-and-Shoot cameras. Some variations of this exist, such as the Canon Live View system with contrast-detection focusing that has been announced for the Canon XSi, but all the Live View systems have been slower and less capable than optical AF.
In the A300 and A350, Sony introduces a totally different Live View System, based on an additional live view sensor and a tilting pentamirror. In the Sony Quick AF Live View, the pentamirror tilts and the optical viewfinder closes during live view. It can also run continuously without overheating the sensor, which is an early reported problem with the Canon system.
One huge improvement from the prototypes we saw at PMA is the top mounted switch for Live View or the Optical Viewfinder. It is a mechanical switch that works with or without camera power, and it is exceptionally easy to slide without the excessive resistance we saw on the PMA cameras. When the switch is in Live View, the viewfinder blind closes so there is no mistaking the camera mode.
In our shooting with a production A350, the Quick AF Live View seemed just as fast as the optical viewfinder. Sony specifies a slight speed penalty with Live View, however, with continuous shooting of 2FPS in Live View and 2.5FPS with the Optical Viewfinder. If you look closely at the specs on page two you will see this is slower than the 10.2MP models (A200 and A300) which manage 3FPS with less info to write with the lower-resolution sensor.
Those who are used to the Live View capabilities of their point-and-shoot digitals will love the new Sony A350 and A300. They will seem very familiar and Live View is exceptionally easy to select and use. The bad news is that the 2.7" Live View LCD only shows 90% of the image you will capture. That won't matter for the snapshots LV will mainly be used for, but it is an obvious problem if you are using Live View for high or low-angle Macro shots with the tilting Live View Screen. When you process or review the captured images, there is a lot more around the image than you framed on the Live View screen. Keep that in mind during critical shooting and it will be less of a problem.
It's a good thing the Live view is useful and fast because the optical viewfinder is absolutely horrible - both dim and tiny with a pronounced "looking down a tunnel" effect. You can see why this is the case with a close look at the viewfinder specs on page two. The top A700 has a good viewfinder with a .90x magnification, and it uses a true pentaprism for a bright clear image.
The 2006 A100 had a decent .83X pentamirror viewfinder that was both larger and brighter than normally seen on cropped sensor DSLR cameras. That viewfinder appears to be carried over intact to the new A200. Then there is the new A350/A300 with a .74X optical viewfinder. The view is reasonably bright - for a light at the end of a tunnel - but the tunnel is so long you are left with the impression that the viewfinder is dim. The screen itself appears tiny and the usefulness of the optical viewfinder is seriously reduced in the A350 and its sister A300.
If you will mainly shoot with the optical viewfinder and don't really care about the tiltable LCD and Live View, then go with the A200 as the viewfinder is much better. The fly in the ointment comes if you want the 14.2MP sensor because the other options are 10MP - and that gives the A350 about 40% higher resolution than the other entry-level Sony cameras.
It's a good thing the A350 has good full-time Live View because we would flunk the camera if we had just the optical viewfinder to depend on. Even the tunnel-like Olympus E-510/410 viewfinders are better than the new A350 - and they are hampered by the smaller sensor with the 2X multiplier. There are ways to get around most viewfinder issues as Olympus showed us with the superb viewfinder in the new E-3, where the small sensor is assisted with a high pentaprism with a 1.15X magnification. The A350 optical viewfinder is usable, but in general it is pretty awful. Sony really needs to improve this viewfinder because it will matter to most users who don't mainly use Live View, and many will be buying this camera for the 14.2MP sensor and not just the Live View.
Resolution, Sensitivity and Image Quality
Sony likely wanted to scoop the industry with the 14.2MP resolution of the entry A350. That plan probably got scrapped by the 14.6MP Samsung CMOS sensor used in the prosumer Pentax K20D. While the A350 doesn't gain bragging rights as the highest res sensor south of $8000 it is still mighty close at 14.2MP. It is also the highest resolution sensor to be found in any current or announced entry-level DSLR.
Pentax went to great lengths to emphasize the greater size of their photoreceptor sites that made sensitivity more akin to the Sony/Nikon 12MP sensor. Pentax also emphasized the expanded sensitivity of their 14.6MP sensor with ISO options to 6400. Sony makes no special claims for the 14.2MP sensor in the A350, but the new sensor still has the option of ISOs to 3200.
We've already discussed how the A350 is easy to use with the best Live View you can find in a DSLR these days. The big remaining question, then, is whether the 14.2MP sensor really makes any difference in image quality.
To answer that question we considered that the most revealing test of sensitivity, noise, and resolution is low tungsten light typical of home interiors. The selected scene was not chosen to be pretty but to be revealing of sensitivity, noise, and image quality. It is a shot of my office stacked with motherboards and other review equipment taken with a standard 50mm f1.4 lens.
We found the APS-C 14.6MP CMOS sensor in the Pentax K20D to be excellent in sensitivity with well-controlled noise. The sensor size and resolution is roughly comparable to the A350, but the camera is much more expensive, uses a CMOS sensor rather than CCD, and it is targeted at the prosumer rather than entry-level. For those reasons, we included the Pentax K20D in these comparison tests.
The Canon 5D is justifiably famous for its incredible resolution with the full-frame 12.2MP CMOS sensor. The larger size sensor creates larger photo sites and the larger pixels are more sensitive to light than smaller APS-C sensors. The larger sensor size means the pixel size is more like an 8MP APS-C than a 12.2MP sensor. That makes for a good comparison to these two 14+MP sensors.
All images used a 50mm f1.4 lens (Pentax 50mm f1.4, Sony/Minolta 50mm f1.4, Canon Ultrasonic 50mm f1.4). Aperture Priority was used with a fixed aperture of f4 at all ISOs on all three cameras. Shots were taken using a tripod and remote shutter release to prevent shake. High ISO Noise Reduction used the lowest level of high ISO NR that could be selected in each camera. White Balance was manually set to Tungsten on each camera and the only light source is a 100W tungsten bulb. These harsh test conditions should make image noise as severe as you will likely see in each camera short of time-exposure darkness. Images were captured in JPEG format so they could be displayed and downloaded without the requirement for post-processing software.
Resolution and Sensitivity Tests - Sony A350 vs. Pentax K20D
All crops represent a view of 230x300 actual pixels cropped from the larger 14.2, 14.6, or 12.2MP images. The crop area on the 1.5X multiplier Sony A350 and Pentax K20D are represented by the red rectangle on the full image above. Since the Canon 5D is a full-size sensor the coverage of the 50mm is greater on the 5D than the two 1.5X multiplier sensors. Therefore two sets of crops and full images are presented for the 5D. One set is taken from the same location and the 50mm lens provides a greater field of view on the 5D than on the 1.5X multiplier cameras. The second set of 5D images were shot with the same camera and 50mm lens moved closer to the image to try to maintain the same field of view. Despite the different fields of view, all Canon 5D cropped images are still maintained at 230x300 pixels. The comparison to the Canon 5D sensor is presented on the next page.
Links to the full JPEG images are also available on each camera sensitivity crop. These files are huge, but they can be downloaded for those who wish to view the actual images or explore EXIF data embedded in each image. A shareware EXIF viewer, OPanda IEXIP 2, is available at for download at Opanda.
|ISO Comparison - Sony vs. Pentax|
|ISO||Sony A350||Pentax K20D|
Click on any of the above image crops for the full image.
Note: Full size images are between 3.5MB and 11.4MB!
The Sony A350 exhibits very accurate color with the tungsten setting at all ISO settings. Noise is well controlled through ISO 800, with little increase in noise. By ISO 1600 we begin to see increased noise, but considering the crops are larger on screen than a 20x16 enlargement we supsect the images would still be very useful at ISO 1600 even for enlargements. By ISO 3200, noise has become an issue, but color is still very accurate at the Tungsten preset under tungsten light. ISO 3200 images are usable for small prints but are much too noisy for enlargements. The K20D noise is well controlled through ISO 3200. Noise at ISO 6400 is comparable to the Sony A350 at ISO 3200, making images at ISO 6400 useful for small prints only. Color on the Tungsten preset remains warm in some colors with the K20D, much like the Canon 5D crops shown on the next page, but whites are very clean. Custom white balance would probably do a better job than the Tungsten preset on the K20D.
|ISO Comparison - Sony vs. Canon (Same Shooting Position)|
|ISO||Sony A350||Canon 5D|
Click on any of the above image crops for the full image.
Note: Full size images are between 3.5MB and 11.4MB!
Like the K20D, color on the full-frame Canon 5D is somewhat warm at the Tungsten preset compared to the cooler and more accurate rendition of the Sony A350. Whites are also somewhat warmer on the 5D under Tungsten than the K20D. The Canon 5D would also likely benefit from custom white balance under Tungsten lighting.
|ISO Comparison - Sony vs. Canon (Same Field of View)|
|ISO||Sony A350||Canon 5D|
Click on any of the above image crops for the full image.
Note: Full size images are between 3.5MB and 11.4MB!
The Sony Proprietary Battery
Visit any forum discussing photography and the Sony A700 and you will find complaints about Sony's proprietary NP-FM500H battery. Those discussions now apply to the entire Sony DSLR line since the A200, A350, and upcoming A300 all use the same proprietary battery. The problem is twofold. First Sony is the only source for the battery, even some six months after the A700 was introduced. Second, the new battery grips for the A200/A300/A350 and A700 can only use the new Sony batteries - there is no provision at all for the rechargeable AA batteries that have been the bread and butter of grip users for many years.
The problem is less that Sony is the only source or that the Sony NP-FM500H battery is the only battery usable battery in the grips than it is the price Sony has set for the new battery. List is $70, and the cheapest we have seen the battery is just over $50. This compares to generic high-capacity BP-511 rechargeable batteries for Canon cameras at less than $10. The same can be said for the Olympus BLM1 or the Pentax rechargeable Lithium that can use the drop-in and cheap NP400 generic or the current Nikon rechargeable packs. Sony is alone in using a battery you can only buy from Sony and that is priced at a very high $70.
Since Sony makes batteries it is easy to see the motivation, but most end-users do not appreciate this kind of heavy-handedness from any manufacturer. It is shocking that no OEM has produced generics for the new Sony battery, which perhaps means Sony has the design well locked up with patents. If so give us a better price and we won't scream so loudly. The good news is that with all the new Sony cameras now using the NP-FM500H there is a much larger potential market for any battery maker who wants to produce a generic NP-FM500H.
Consider yourself forewarned of this issue with all current Sony DSLR cameras. You can buy any other digital SLR and get reasonably priced high-capacity generic lithium rechargeable battery packs. This is not a current option with Sony digital SLRs. You also cannot use AA batteries in either Sony grip, making the bottom line cost of Sony grips much higher than battery grips from other camera manufacturers.
Recent years in the photo industry have seen Canon and Nikon as the 800-pound gorillas playing in the DSLR jungle. Everyone else was further down the food chain. There have been some interesting cracks in that perception with Pentax teaming with giant Samsung who is making their new 14.6MP CMOS sensor in the K20D. However, no one has seemed quite so serious a challenge to Canon and Nikon in DSLR space as has Sony in the last six months with their unending parade of new models with significant new features.
Sony now has more interesting new entry DSLRs than any DSLR maker. The top entry DSLR - the A350 reviewed here - is truly unique and comfortable for those stepping up from point and shoots. It will also appeal to buyers impressed by high-resolution numbers, and frankly it delivers quite well on the promise of its 14.2MP sensor. Those who want to step up from entry DSLR can stay in the Sony line and choose the A700, and later this year Sony says they will introduce a full-frame Pro-oriented 24.6MP that will likely be called the A900.
There is absolutely no doubt that the A350 is the right camera for you if you mainly want to shoot using Live View. Nothing else comes close to the smooth and seamless Sony Live View for ease of use that makes every other implementation of Live View look complicated and slow. The A350 will certainly appeal to new DSLR buyers moving up form point and shoots. It will also attract a number of serious amateur photographers with the 14.2MP sensor, which is currently the highest resolution sensor available in any current or announced entry-level DSLR.
The good news about the sensor is that output is very clean and noise remains low up to ISO 1600. However, ISO 3200 is usable for only small prints. Color is very accurate across all ISO settings. While the A350 does not equal the CMOS sensors of the more expensive Pentax K20D 14.6MP or Canon's low-end Pro 12.2MP full-frame, side-by-side comparisons are better than we really expected. That is certainly good news for those looking for a bargain high-res DSLR.
Serious photographers need to also be aware, however, that the nifty Live View only shows 90% of the image you will capture, and the optical viewfinder is downright awful, with a somewhat dim view at the end of a very long tunnel created by the .74x viewfinder magnification. If you plan to do most of your shooting with the optical viewfinder the A200 is a better choice at a lower price, but you won't get Live View or a 14.2MP sensor if those features are important to you. The $1399 A700 seems to have it all with the best .90x viewfinder on a bright true pentaprism and the excellent 12.24MP CMOS sensor also used on the Nikon D300. However, you won't find Live View on the A700 as Sony believes it is not needed or wanted by photo enthusiasts.
The other good news is that the A350 is exceptionally easy to use. It is easy to reach a comfort level very quickly with the A350 - even if you are new to digital SLR photography. The flip side to this is that you won't find a submenu of custom functions on the A350 as you will on competing Canon and Nikon cameras. You can reassign some button functions if you would like, but you won't find anything that remotely resembles a custom functions menu. We doubt that will matter much to the A350 target audience, but you are forewarned if that matters to you.
At its price point, the Sony A350 is an exceptional value. It is easy to use with the highest resolution sensor in its class. One of our Editors just got his A350 this past week and he commented that in 15 minutes he felt comfortable with all the features of the A350 and was ready to go out and shoot like a pro. It's hard not to like the easy and fast focusing full-time Live View and the quality of the images you can take with the A350. If others feel similarly comfortable with the A350 in such a short time, this could become a best seller.
It is becoming clearer that Sony has ambitious plans in the DSLR market, and that they are willing to invest the resources for a large and varied product line to attract buyers and provide them a line to grow with. We strongly believe it takes great products, wonderful service, and competitive prices to win the market share Sony covets. The A350 is a great value in what has become a good DSLR line. Recently Sony also serviced a first DSLR product for us and the service far exceeded our expectations. That is certainly a good sign.
Sony is a huge player in the worldwide electronics market, and they bring considerable resources to a market they have said they intend to dominate. That huge size brings tremendous resources, but it can also be a handicap if Sony tries too soon or too hard to bully buyers in the DSLR market. Sony is not the biggest player yet, and the expensive proprietary battery is an example of such bullying. Sony, as one of the world's largest battery makers, is clearly self-serving in forcing Sony DSLR buyers to pay $50 to $70 for proprietary Sony InfoLithium rechargeable batteries that are available for every other DSLR brand as $10 generics.
The inability to even use AA batteries in the grips for the new Sony cameras is another example of Sony dictating to a market it does not yet lead. A smarter move would be a lower battery price along with serious marketing on the advantages of InfoLithium batteries. Then no one would care that you could only use the Sony proprietary battery. The current expensive battery only available from Sony smacks far too much of coercion to make sure Sony gets their extra pound of battery flesh from buyers who bought their cameras for the nifty features and didn't know to ask about batteries.
We wonder if accessory moves like the NP-FM500H battery and the "no AA" grips mean that Sony's thinking may be too far down the growth curve right now. Sony needs to tweak their thinking a bit and try to win new DSLR buyers instead of bullying them. Everyone knows Sony but not everyone loves Sony. Many in the photo market genuinely love Canon and Nikon and it will take a complete and solid effort from Sony to win them over.
The current lineup is a good starting point for Sony to win the market share they want to capture. If Sony can keep the announcements, innovations, and service coming - and tweak their marketing a bit to better mesh with DSLR market realities - they may actually reach their ambitious goals in the DSLR market.