Sony A700 Hands-On Preview
Sony A700 Overview
by Shawn Barnett
Updates: Added Feature Comparison, Operation and Performance tabs.
Full test shots uploaded!
(Check the Samples tab) 10/02/07:
Extensive Image Analysis
See Exposure>Imaging tab)
Now that the din of Canon and Nikon fans has quieted from last month's announcements, Sony and Minolta fans have something to smile about: the Sony A700. I longed for the next Alpha when I reviewed the first Sony Alpha A100. Though impressive, it seemed a lot like the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D with a face lift, a few enhancements, and a higher resolution sensor. Though I didn't notice when it first arrived, the Sony A700 is actually largely an upgrade to the Maxxum 7D, a camera I enjoyed quite a bit. There are fewer dials, which is a shame, but there's a whole lot more Sony-ness about the A700, which is what I was looking forward to.
The new Sony A700 is a beefy SLR with a 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor designed for the photo enthusiast. The sensor was made by Sony specifically for this camera, according to the company. The Sony A700's sensor has a 1.5x crop factor, the same as most other digital SLR cameras on the market.
Its body is a combination of magnesium alloy in the front and top, and polycarbonate on the back and other panels, which probably helps make it lighter than the previous Maxxum 7D by 2.3 ounces (65.5g).
My preliminary experience with a Sony Alpha A700 pre-release camera has been great. The big, bright viewfinder makes framing images surprisingly easy, and the 3-inch, high-resolution LCD is a wonderful place to review your images. It was only a few minutes into my time with the A700 when I pulled the camera away from my eye and said, "Wow!"
I was able to keep my eye comfortably in the viewfinder, track and zoom as my toddler sons kicked a soccer ball, moving repeatedly from 15 to 2 feet away, as I fired and pulled zoom the whole time. The zoom was smooth, the shots were well-framed, and I felt in complete control. Playing back those images was ridiculously fast and smooth from high-res frame to high-res frame, and checking focus is a dream on that 640x480 screen.
Other features and improvements to the A700 include a higher x-sync speed of 1/250 second (1/200 with Super SteadyShot active), 5 frames per second continuous mode, a new Grip-start sensor, a bigger, brighter viewfinder, and direct HDMI output, a new Bionz processor, and a new 16-105mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, equivalent to a 24-157.5mm lens.
Body only, the Sony A700 digital SLR will retail for $1,400. Bundled with an 18-70mm lens, the price will be $1,500, and with the 16-105mm lens, the price will be $1,900.
Alpha History. Both Sony executives and Minolta fans who know will disagree with me on my impression that the A700 has more "Sony-ness." They have good reason. I'm told that the Minolta design team moved pretty much wholesale to the Sony division when Konica Minolta changed its long term strategy and essentially handed their long camera-making tradition over to Sony in early 2006. So in truth the Alpha line is just a continuation of the Mind of Minolta's vision for what a digital SLR camera should be. Still, I think it's clear that the Sony A700 is an amalgam of the best the two companies have to offer.
The Alpha line goes back 27 years. Called Maxxum here in the States, and Dynaxx elsewhere, Alpha was the line's name in the Japanese Domestic market from the beginning, and Sony made Alpha the worldwide moniker for the line from here forward.
Sony A700 Look and feel
I've always been impressed with Minolta SLR camera designs, as well as their optics. Taking nothing away from Minolta's design aesthetic, I see many Sony aspects in the A700's design, including a tendency for fine, precise, and intricate engineering of each part. Much like the R1 and the F818, the Sony A700 is built for the enthusiast.
The Sony A700's design is an unusual blend of angles and curves that does not attempt to imitate the more organic shapes used by Canon and Nikon. It is a high quality machine, and absolutely not ashamed of it; yet it conforms well to the human hand. Though the Sony A700 doesn't quite bristle with the analog dials I so enjoyed on the Maxxum 7D, its controls are thoughtfully placed for easy visibility and quick adjustment.
From the front you can see the Sony A700's unique grip sensor, which can be set to prevent the Eye-Start AF system from powering up until you hold the grip, useful if you normally hang the camera around your neck, not so useful if you tend to hold the camera by the grip. Up from that is the remote control sensor, the Shutter button and Front control dial. To the right is the camera's AF assist lamp, and down again from there is the Depth-of-field preview button. Off to the right is the Focus mode lever.
Here on the back of the Sony A700, the Playback zoom button has been taken from the midst of the left button cluster and moved to the AF/MF button upper right. The Flash EV compensation and Drive mode dials that were on the 7D have been removed from beneath the two large dials on the top deck, replaced with software controls. The Memory Set and ISO buttons are replaced by a programmable Custom button and the Function (Fn) button on the Sony A700. In Playback mode, the Sony A700's Custom button serves as a quick way to check histograms, and can be invoked right after capture. You can check highlights and shadows, and Luminance and separate RGB histograms without scrolling through half a dozen available display modes. Though it takes a few presses on the camera's Multi-controller, rotating images is also fairly simple, just press the Fn button and then press the joystick to cycle through the rotation options.
The Sony Alpha A700's Multi-controller joystick is surprisingly easy to use. I usually dislike most joysticks, but this one has just the right mix of resistance and play. Pressing it in is also not a risky gamble as is often the case with joysticks and rocker disks.
The Sony A700's LCD is a large, vibrant display that's striking to behold. Here in this shot its color and resolution aren't easily seen. It has a very high contrast and fine resolution that make fonts look incredibly smooth. Pressing the Function button turns the Status display into a graphical menu, as shown above. You can scroll among the camera's onscreen items with the Multi-controller joystick, and make rapid adjustments with the Rear control dial. Or you can launch a menu for a given item by pressing in on the Sony A700's joystick and scrolling through the options with either the joystick or any of the control dials. I like that they usually all make a change, and I'm not left trying one after the other until I've found the right one.
Note the Sony A700's Eye-Start AF sensors beneath the viewfinder.
Super SteadyShot is activated on the Sony Alpha A700 in the usual position on the back at the lower right. The CompactFlash/Memory Stick Pro Duo door is located on the right, opening toward the front with a slide to the rear. The Sony A700's springloaded door stays open and out of the way.
On top Sony took a minimalist approach, omitting the EV compensation dial on the left and moving the Mode dial to the left in its place. Though it's clear that there would be more space for a status LCD here, Sony stuck to the integrated status LCD on the A700, which does indeed offer that interactive graphical menu. Though I'm fine with the Drive, White balance, and ISO buttons here on the top deck, it is notable that it's more difficult to access these controls unless you take your hand off the Sony A700's main grip. Nevertheless, if you want to keep your hand on the grip, you can use the Multi-controller in combination with the gorgeous rear Status LCD display and make your changes to these items and many more.
The flash on the Sony A700 is still a pull-up design, and cannot be automatically deployed by the camera in full auto modes. That's not really a big deal for the Sony A700's target market. The Mode dial has the standard complement of manual and scene exposure modes, as well as the MR setting, which stands for Memory Recall. Sony/Minolta's proprietary hot shoe is concealed here by the hot shoe cover.
Sony A700 Heft and Grip
With the high quality 16-80mm Carl Zeiss optic attached, the Sony Alpha A700 feels hefty, but well balanced and solid. The contoured grip makes handling the A700 a pleasure, with a nice deep groove for the middle finger. The grip seems to be compatible with large or small hands. The thumb grip on the back has a soft rubber pad and a large raised curve to augment your hold on the A700. I do have to be careful to keep from pressing the AF/MF button on the back accidentally; though it's recessed and high, my thumb is more comfortable right on top of it than down a little lower. Once you learn its purpose and make adjustments, it's placed just right for quick activation.
Attach the optional battery grip and the camera gets a lot taller, but not much heavier. Most of the right-hand rear controls are duplicated on the grip, including the Multi-selector joystick and Rear control dial. Though the placement of the shutter button on the vertical grip is odd at first, it keeps the camera's balance a little more even, and the top of the lens remains the same with respect to both shutter buttons.
Other designs tip a lot of the camera's weight into your left hand while shooting vertically, something I'd never given much thought. The hold does become a bit top-heavy with all that extra camera over the top, but I didn't find it too troublesome. I wouldn't mind a rubber pad for the rear thumb grip, though, because that's slightly slippery compared to the camera body's grip.
The battery grip holds two Sony InfoLithium NP-FM500H batteries via a special sled that slides in from the left side of the grip. Power is drained one at a time, and the detailed battery status appears on the Sony A700's status display. The grip's expected price will be around $350. With or without the vertical grip, the Sony A700 is a pleasure to hold.
Under the Skin
by Dave Etchells
Sony A700 Sensor
The sensor in the new Sony A700 is a 12.2 megapixel CMOS design that Sony describes as "all new" and custom-designed for the A700. Many have speculated that the CMOS sensor in the recently announced Nikon D300 might be a Sony chip, and some of us under NDA for both cameras have been privately wondering if the two cameras may not in fact be using the same chip. It does seem that they're different models though, at least based on the extent to which Sony reps seemed to be holding out the A700 sensor as being a unique competitive advantage. Physically, the Nikon D300 produces images the same number of pixels high (2,848), but 16 pixels wider (4,288 vs 4,272) than those of the Sony A700.
One feature that Sony made much of the new sensor's integration of the 12-bit A/D converters right on the chip itself, rather than as separate components as on most digital SLR cameras. The advantage of having the A/D converters right on the Sony A700's sensor is that there's no chance of noise pickup in the connections between the converters and the sensor readout cells. It's always a design challenge in any mixed-signal (analog and digital) system to avoid picking up digital-generated noise in the low-level analog circuitry. By moving the A/D converters directly onto the sensor silicon itself, Sony engineers have eliminated an entire category of possible noise issues.
Sony A700 Super SteadyShot upgrade
The new Sony Alpha A700 uses the same underlying sensor-shift image stabilization found in the A100, but with improvements. While we don't have specs at this point, one benefit of the more powerful BIONZ processor in the Sony A700 is improved performance in the anti-shake system. This should translate into better image stabilization performance, allowing slower shutter speeds than on the A100. (Stay tuned, we have some interesting studies of anti-shake technology coming, we'll hopefully be able to include the A700 in these tests, once we get a production sample.)
Sensor-based image stabilization obviously involves some mechanical complexity in the camera body. The shot at left offers an interesting look at the Sony A700's sensor subassembly, with the chip itself (the light purple object with 3 gold dots in its corners) held inside the carrier frame that's driven by the anti-shake actuators.
As with the A100, Sony uses the Super SteadyShot actuator system as the basis of their anti-dust system. We'll try to look at that in more depth on the eventual production sample, but informal tests here at IR have generally shown anti-dust systems using anti-shake actuators (rather than ultrasonic transducers) to be relatively ineffective.
Sony A700 Shutter
The Sony Alpha A700 contains an all-new shutter mechanism. It's a vertical-traverse design, with a maximum speed of 1/8,000 second. The new shutter's higher curtain speed translates into a noticeable improvement in the flash x-sync speed (the minimum exposure time that results in the entire sensor surface being exposed during the shutter cycle). The A100 had an x-sync speed of 1/160 second when Super SteadyShot was turned off, or 1/125 second when it was turned on. The corresponding times for the Sony A700 are 1/250 and 1/200 second. Sony USA gave no cycle lifetime specification for the A700's shutter mechanism, however we have since been notified by readers that the German Sony website mentions 100,000 cycles. (In higher-end digital SLR cameras, it's customary to rate the shutter life at a given number of exposure cycles. The shutter on Nikon's D300 for instance, is rated at 150,000 cycles, but Nikon did not publish a rating for the shutter in the D200.)
Sony A700 Viewfinder
The viewfinder in the Sony A700 has also been upgraded. It's now a pentaprism design (better brightness than the pentamirror type used in the A100), and still covers 95% of the frame, but the magnification has been increased almost 9 percent, going from 0.83x in the A100 to 0.9x in the A700. The eyepoint is 25mm from the eyepiece objective, 21mm from the surrounding eyepiece bezel, both numbers higher than those of the A100. This is a fairly high eye relief, and reasonably comfortable for eyeglass wearers, although we found that we did have to press our eyepiece lenses up against the bezel to see the full frame. I also noticed that the viewfinder image became quite distorted if I moved my eye away from the center of the eyepiece. This doesn't seem like a limitation of any sort, as I tend to keep my eye centered on the eyepiece anyway.
Another enhancement to the A700's viewfinder is its new focusing screen. When you look through the eyepiece of an SLR camera, you're not actually looking right out through the lens. What you're actually seeing is an image that's projected by the camera's optics onto a fine-grained, translucent glass (or plastic) screen. It's like a miniature camera obscura, that you carry around inside your camera. As you'd expect, the characteristics of the viewfinder screen affect the quality of the image you see.
Traditionally, viewfinder screens have been made from ground glass; literally a piece of glass that's been ground with very fine abrasive. These work well enough, but Sony's gone one better in the Alpha A700, with a new "super spherical acute mat" screen. The illustration of the surface of this screen seen above right shows that, rather than a random pattern of fine abrasions, the surface of the A700's screen is composed by a regular pattern of microscopic spherical lens shapes. Looking through the A700's viewfinder eyepiece, the end result is subtle but apparent. The A700's viewfinder is quite bright, and has a subtle, more smooth-looking appearance to it than the viewfinders on other cameras we compared it with, notably the Nikon D200.
New, Big, Bright LCD
The latest batch of digital SLR camera announcements from the major makers all seem to include large, high-resolution LCD screens, and the Sony A700 follows that trend. It's a 922,000 pixel screen (counting as usual the red, green, and blue elements as individual pixels), measuring three inches diagonally. It also has a very wide viewing angle, although Sony hasn't yet given a spec for this. Just playing with it, though, we felt we could still see the screen +/- 85 degrees from straight on, so that'd make (very roughly) a 170 degree viewing angle.
This is now the third or fourth ~920K pixel LCD screen we've seen, and we have to say the extra resolution is well worth it. (Tonality also seems better on this latest generation of LCD panels, our feeling has been that we can see highlight and shadow detail better on them as well.) It's difficult or impossible to convey how these screens look in a web article, photos won't come close to doing them justice because the linear pixel density of these panels is higher than most screens our readers would be viewing them on. Suffice it to say that the A700's LCD panel is really a thing of beauty.
|LCD Tricks. The Sony A100 had a position sensor in it, so it could reorient the rear-panel LCD contents as you rotated the camera. There are also large- and small-type versions of the display, see te Operation tab of this report.|
Sony A700 Construction
They're not calling it a "pro" camera, but the Sony A700 is clearly intended to compete against high-end amateur/low-end pro models from other makers, like the Nikon D200/D300 and Canon 40D. As befits a camera in this class, the A700's body and frame have been upgraded, with extensive use of magnesium-alloy castings and body panels, and the addition of environmental seals to a number of controls and body openings.
Magnesium Body Castings. The new magnesium-alloy body is actually composed of two separate castings, with several stamped-metal panels fitting inside. The two castings are shown above, on the left, and then mated together on the right.
Chassis Components. The castings are only the most prominent parts of a digital SLR body, though, there's always a lot of internal sheet metal and smaller parts that help hold everything together. In the shots above, we see front and back views of the camera with its body panels removed. In the shot of the front, it's a little hard to tell what all the pieces are made of, but judging from the metal color, the sheet metal on the left looks like stamped magnesium alloy. There appears to be a chunk of polycarbonate molding on the right side. Sony told us that some of the inner components of the camera are made from aluminum, to save weight, primarily in pieces that the body panel components mount to. In the shot of the back of the camera above, the large hunk of sheet metal looks like stamped sheet metal.
Environmental seals are almost a requirement for "semi-pro" digital SLR cameras these days, and the Sony Alpha A700 steps up to the mark, with seals on its button controls, as well as around its card compartment door. The battery door does not appear to have any gasket around it though. We don't have an overall view of the A700 showing the location of all environmental seals; our general sense is that the its sealing isn't quite as extensive as that of the Nikon D200/D300, the Pentax K10D, or the Canon 40D. If we learn more when the production samples of the Alpha A700 are available, we'll update this section accordingly.)
Thanks no doubt to all the metal castings and metal structural components, the Sony A700 certainly has a pleasant heft to it, but the use of lightweight magnesium and aluminum alloys keeps it from feeling too heavy. At 782 grams with a battery inserted but without a lens, the Alpha A700 is almost 150 grams heavier than the original A100, but weighs less than the Nikon D200 or D300. It's just slightly lighter than the Canon EOS-40D.
Sony A700 Memory Subsystem
The original Alpha A100 had a CompactFlash memory slot, and shipped with a CF to Memory Stick PRO Duo adapter, permitting use with Sony's proprietary Memory Stick card format. Perhaps reflective of their having had a bit more time since taking over the designs from Konica Minolta, the Sony A700 sports two memory card slots, a CompactFlash Type I/II slot, and another separate one for Memory Stick PRO Duo cards.
While the Sony A700 supports having cards in both slots simultaneously, you have to select between them manually: There's no provision (as in some high-end pro digital SLR cameras from Canon and Nikon) to write to both cards sequentially, switching to the second as the first fills up. Nor is there any provision for splitting storage of RAW and JPEG files between the two cards.
It's understandable that Sony would continue to promote their proprietary memory card format in the Alpha A700, but we suspect most serious users of the camera will gravitate toward the faster and more capacious CF format. While there's no difference in shooting speed between the two card types when you're shooting to the buffer memory, our tests showed that buffer clearing time was much longer with a Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo card than the Kingston 133x or 266x CF cards we compared it to.
Sony A700 Processor: Brand-New BIONZ
Processing large digital images quickly demands huge amounts of computing power. This is why we've seen so much emphasis on processing chips by various companies, with various manufacturers drawing particular attention to their proprietary processor chips in their marketing pieces.
Sony has recently joined this fray with their "BIONZ" architecture, which we first saw in the Alpha A100. Here again, we have no specifics from Sony to go on, but their reps made a point of noting that the BIONZ chip in the Alpha A700 is an all-new design, developed just for this camera. This is certainly a believable proposition; just the basic performance of the camera implies that there's a lot more going on under the hood. The A100 turned out a modest 2.4 frames/second at 10 megapixels in our testing, while the new A700 comes within a hairsbreadth of 5 frames/second at 12 megapixels. That's a solid 2.5x increase in raw throughput, processing power that apparently also makes itself felt in other advanced features like the improved predictive AF system mentioned earlier, and enhanced image processing in the improved Dynamic Range Optimization feature.
With Sony's new Alpha A700, the digital SLR camera market just got even hotter. Sony and Minolta fans have needed this camera, and Sony has delivered. The Maxxum 7D was a great design worth upgrading to keep up with advancing technology, and it seems the Sony A700 will be a more than competent contender in the market. Better, our experience says it should help photographers make great images, which is more what a camera is about than doing well in some spec comparison table.
Great control placement, a good fit, new lenses and accessories combine with improvements in the AF system, noise performance, image stabilization, and overall speed to create what should be an easy choice for enthusiasts.
We're excited to get a production version so we can see what this mature design from two of the biggest names in electronics and photography can produce.
Sony Alpha A700: New features
- 12.2MP CMOS sensor, Sony says sensor is "all-new for this camera"
- More rugged body, magnesium alloy and polycarbonate construction
- Environmental seals
- Continuous 5 fps shooting, no buffer limit in JPEG Fine/Normal mode with sufficiently fast memory card
- All-new shutter, vertical traverse, 1/8,000 max speed, 1/250 or 1/200 x-sync (slower when Super SteadyShot is turned on)
- Viewfinder is glass pentaprism, 95% coverage, 0.9x magnification.
- DRO (Dynamic Range Optimization) has been revised to include five user-selectable levels in D-R+ mode
- 922K-pixel LCD, 267 ppi vs 160 ppi for typical 230K-pixel 2.5" monitors
- Dual CompactFlash (type I/II) and Memory Stick Pro Duo card slots
- Lithium-ion battery good for 650 shots
- New lens for high-end kits: 16-105mm f/3.5-5.6
- Goes wider than any other kit lens, is equivalent of 24mm at wide end, vs 27mm equivalent for others. Doesn't sound like much, but the difference is 83 degree coverage for 16mm vs 76 degrees for 18mm.
- Super Steady-Shot image stabilization enhanced
- Both Eye Start and Grip Start sensors for AF
- Predictive autofocus has been enhanced
- Direct HDMI output built-in
- New Sony Bravia televisions will have special PhotoTV setting, optimized for still pictures. Higher resolution, more gradation, richer color. More natural contrast, not as pumped as standard TV mode
- New vertical grip with full controls, holds one or two batteries for extended runtime
- Sony's goal: "Number One total picture quality among mid-class DLSRs"
- New sensor with on-chip A/D converters
- New image processor (entirely new BIONZ design)
- RAW noise reduction, fast & low-noise processing optimized for CMOS