Sony Alpha A380 £650
2nd Jun 2009 | 09:54
Sony's new DSLR takes on recent efforts from Canon and Nikon
Sony Alpha A380: overview
Sony is a relative newcomer to the DSLR market, having taken control of Konica Minolta's photographic division after it pulled out of the photographic business in 2005.
The Sony Alpha 380 is the most highly specified of three simultaneous new releases from Sony, alongside the A280, A330 and A300, and is designed to appeal to both first-time DSLR buyers and enthusiasts.
It directly replaces the Sony Alpha 350, which was released last June and shares many of the same major features as its predecessor.
These features include a 14 million-pixel CMOS sensor and a unique 'Quick AF Live View' mode, but all in a newly designed, lighter body. On paper, it's Sony's best entry-level DSLR so far, but does the A380 have what it takes to compete with new HD video-equipped competition from Canon, Nikon and Pentax?
'That' Live View system
The Alpha 350 was notable at its release for its unique 'Quick AF Live View' system, and the A380 incorporates the same technology.
LIVE VIEW: the A380 uses a second image sensor to generate the Live View image
Rather than using the main imaging sensor to generate the live view image, which entails slow contrast-detection autofocus, the A380 features a secondary CCD sensor above the viewfinder, specifically for live View.
When the system is activated, one of the mirrors inside the viewfinder assembly changes position, and redirects the image coming through the lens onto this secondary sensor.
TILTSCREEN: The Sony Alpha A380 has a screen that tilts to your whim
The resulting picture is displayed on the camera's screen.
The benefit of this system is that the A380's 'normal' AF mode, which is centred around a specially designed sensor beneath the main mirror, is still operational, so the Alpha 380 can offer full-speed, uninterrupted phase-detection autofocus in live view – something that no other camera on the market can match.
The only potential downside to the system for some photographers is that due to the low resolution of the live view sensor, it is not possible to magnify the live view image for accurate manual focussing.
The Alpha 380 has a lot of tricks up its sleeve in addition to its unique Live View system.
Amongst other key settings there's a high-resolution 14 million-pixel sensor with a wide ISO range of 100-3200, built-in Steady Shot INSIDE image stabilisation, and eye-start AF. The latter two functions are ported over from older Konica Minolta technology, but both have been adapted and improved by Sony.
Exposure is handled by the standard 'PASM' exposure modes (programme, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual, for those of you that don't speak geek) plus the usual range of automatic scene presets to cover pretty much any shooting situation.
Images from the A380's sensor are recorded either in the standard JPEG mode or in Sony's own ARW. Raw format, with a raw+JPEG simultaneous recording option is also available.
PORTS: a panel slides across to reveal card slots as well as USB and HDMI connectors
This is great in terms of ultimate flexibility, but it will burn through memory cards very quickly.
On the subject of memory cards, Sony has done away with CompactFlash media support in the A380, opting instead for dual slots for its own Memory Stick Duo cards and – finally - long-overdue support for the ubiquitous SecureDigital format.
We don't normally get excited about memory card covers, but the A380 features a cool sliding door to protect the memory card bays and HDMI connections, which cries out to be played with until it breaks…
Handling and interface
Speaking of breaking, the Sony Alpha 380 leaves a little to be desired as far as build quality is concerned.
Despite being a fairly chunky camera, Sony has managed to shave almost 100g off its weight compared to the A350, and unfortunately it shows.
The A380 feels plasticky in a way that very few of its competitors do, and the drastically downsized, angular handgrip is remarkably uncomfortable.
GRIP: it's uncomfortable to hold
I thought it was just me and my banana fingers, but no-one that I've shown the A380 to enjoys holding it. The flip-out LCD screen is stiff, too, and doesn't feel very solid, and our test sample has some rather rough moulding around the frame.
It's not a big deal, but it makes the camera feel cheaper than it is.
New, tastier menu
One of the changes that is very good to see, however, is a newly updated, greatly clarified menu system and onscreen interface compared to earlier Alpha DSLRs.
This includes a useful display illustrating the effects of different shutter and aperture settings, which will no doubt appeal to novice photographers that are still getting their heads around how DSLRs work.
DISPLAY: beginners will love the helpful display
Something that compact cameras don't have is a through-the-lens viewfinder. Unfortunately, the A380's viewfinder is pretty poor compared to other similar DSLRs, and is noticeably smaller and dimmer than most.
However, the unique selling point of the A380 is its performance in Live View mode, and, naturally, the viewfinder is of the A380 is still superior to any compact or bridge type camera, so its shortcomings are unlikely to bother Sony's target market.
In terms of image quality the Sony Alpha 380 is a mixed bag. First impressions are encouraging, and straight out of the camera, images taken in decent light look great, - really punchy, with plenty of contrast.
The A380's metering system is very good at getting the exposure right, too, even when subjects are relatively small in the frame.
Likewise, the automatic white balance system can be relied upon in most situations, although like virtually all AWB systems it tends to remove some of the natural warmth from sunlit scenes.
Too much noise
Where the A380 falls down is in detail capture, and noise. Specifically, not enough of one, and too much of the other.
Even at low ISO settings and in good light, the A380's sensor delivers JPEG files that require quite a lot of sharpening before they appear properly crisp.
Coloured noise is visible in shadows and neutral midtones at ISO 200, getting much worse as the ISO sensitivity is increased.
Raw files from the A380 are much better than JPEGs, and a lot more detail can be coaxed out of them using the supplied Image Data Converter software, but I'm surprised that the JPEGs aren't more polished.
High ISO performance is very poor compared to competitive cameras like the Canon EOS 500D and Nikon D5000, but arguably, these settings are unlikely to be used all that regularly.
When Sony took over from Konica Minolta and started to produce DSLRs, we secretly hoped that the Japanese electronics giant would take the opportunity to completely re-invent the concept.
Sony is, after all, the company that gave us the Walkman, in all its many forms, the Playstation and more recently, the PSP.
All of these devices were, simultaneously, pioneering pieces of hardware that opened up entirely new markets, and stone cold design classics. So where would Sony take the humble DSLR? The answer, up to now, was not all that far
The Alpha 380 certainly looks very different to earlier Alpha DSLRs, and it feels very different too, thanks to its overhauled ergonomics, new menu system and a more useful, colourful GUI, yet it still isn't the revolutionary product that a lot of people will be hoping for.
Other good points include an amazing Live View mode and superb value-added features like eye-start AF and Steady Shot INSIDE. Ultimately of course, this is an entry-level camera, and as such, we think it succeeds.
At its current (introductory) price the Alpha 380 is outclassed by competitors like the Nikon D5000, which offer more refined handling and better image quality, plus, of course, HD video recording mode.
The omission of an HD video recording function is disappointing, especially from Sony, and a plasticky body and unconvincing image quality detract from the camera's good points.
It is important to note, however, that if Sony's past pricing strategy is anything to go by, the A380 will drop in price fairly quickly and get cheaper and cheaper the longer it has been on the market.
If and when its price drops below £600, the A380 will be a great bargain.