27th Apr 2008 | 11:28
Sony's entry-level DSLR is a great camera, but a bit rough around the edges
The Sony A200 is the least expensive model in the company's digital SLR range, and replaces the A100, Sony's first digital SLR.
The A100 was, in fact, a development of Konica Minolta's Dynax 5D, which Sony bought up when Konica Minolta decided to exit the SLR market.
And while the A200 is now a further generation removed, there are still echoes of the Dynax in the design and handling.
Inside Sony's latest Digital SLR
The most obvious example is the power switch, which is still at the back of the camera and the top left, and which still prompts an odd cacophony of mechanical shunting noises that seems to accompany the power-up process.
This mechanical noise is no doubt connected with Sony's anti-dust and anti-shake (Super SteadyShot) hardware. This uses a CCD-shift system to counter camera shake at slow shutter speeds, as opposed to the lens-based stabilisation favoured by Canon and Nikon.
This system has been enhanced in the A200, and Sony now claims that it offers a 2.5 to 3.5 shutter speed advantage.
Where you might expect to see camera shake appearing at, say, 1/30 (depending on the focal length you're shooting at), you should now be able to shoot safely at 1/8 or even 1/4 of a second.
Systems like these aren't foolproof, but the Sony's does seem to work very well.
Like the A100, the A200 features a 10-megapixel CCD and at first sight the differences between this camera and its predecessor look fairly minor. It's more of an evolutionary development than a big step forward.
Sony says that improved noise reduction has allowed a new maximum ISO of 3200, and the battery performance is impressive for an 'amateur' SLR at 750 shots.
The A200 normally ships with the Sony 18-70mm kit lens used on the A100. This offers a good focal range but pretty poor performance, with a drop in definition towards the edges of the frame and some fairly strong chromatic aberration.
However, we tested the A200 with Sony's more expensive 16-80mm Zeiss-badged optic.
The A200 is a bit bulky compared with the likes of Nikon's new D60 and the diminutive Olympus E-410. The body panels are plastic, as you'd rightly expect at this price level, and they do create a slightly cheap feel.
The grip on the right of the camera is only tall enough for about three normal-width fingers, and it does leave your fingernails scraping the lens flange.
The main controls are easy enough to get to, but they're all in different places, which means it'll take a little longer to learn where they're positioned. For example, the ISO is adjusted using a button on the top plate, as is the drive mode.
On the back is a button for EV compensation. But the other controls are split between the menus and an Fn button on the back.
This calls up this model's new Camera Function Display, a grid of six buttons for accessing the flash mode, metering mode, AF mode, AF area, white balance and dynamic range optimiser.
Strange control layout
To change the image size or quality, though you have to press the Menu button, as you do if you want to swap between the camera's different Creative Styles, which include Standard, Vivid, Portrait, Landscape, Night, Sunset, B/W and Adobe RGB.
Why have these controls spread across three different locations - buttons on the camera, the function screen and the menus?
This, combined with the slightly plasticky feel and the rather awkward body shape, leaves the A200 feeling unpolished compared to its rivals.
On the plus side, the LCD screen is good, and the data display is very clear. It does tend to get swamped a little in bright light, however.
There's not much wrong with the Sony's picture quality. Definition is good, though not exceptional - it might be possible to squeeze out just a little more sharpness by shooting RAW files and processing them with the bundled Image Data Converter application.
The colour is very good, and the Vivid mode produces strong, saturated but realistic-looking hues. The multi-segment metering favours darker areas in some scenes a little too heavily, and this can lead to badly 'blown' skies.
Switching to centre-weighted metering will sort this out though, since this cruder system is more readily influenced by highlights, which often works better.
The high ISO/noise performance is disappointing. At ISO 400, quality is very good, but at ISO 800 there's a noticeable deterioration, with reduced sharpness and more noise.
The quality becomes fairly objectionable by ISO 1600, and at ISO 3200 it has deteriorated to the point where you wonder if Sony was wise to include this setting.
Images are soft, with a coarse, 'blotchy' noise that's visible even when the picture is scaled to fit a computer screen. It's not helped by the camera's noise reduction system, which produces a strong smudging effect.
Having seen the difference between the Nikon D300 and Sony Alpha 700 at high ISOs (and these cameras share the same sensor design), it appears as if high ISO performance is one of Sony's weaker areas at the moment.
Great value from Sony?
So how does it rate compared to other entry-level SLRs? The A200 appears pretty good value. £450 for a new 10-megapixel DSLR with anti-shake and anti-dust isn't to be sneezed at.
But that price includes the distinctly inferior 18-70mm kit lens, and if you want the kind of quality this camera's capable of achieving, you need a more expensive lens - and that will pitch the A200 against some much tougher competition.
Overall, the A200 is a good camera, but one that's spoilt by too many rough edges. The standard lens isn't good enough, the control layout's not quite straightforward enough, and the finish isn't quite elegant enough.
It's the sort of camera you might buy on price, but it's not necessarily the sort of camera you could fall in love with.