Ok, I'll admit it: the tiny lens hood on the Sony 18-70mm kit lens makes me feel – how to put this delicately – a little inadequate.
I'm a big believer in the value of shooting with a lens hood outdoors, but this one fits the definition of such only in the highly academic sense. With its quarter-inch of plastic shading, I be willing to place a large bet that no effective flare control is taking place with this hood mounted up, and unboxing the kit version of our Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 review unit, my first impression left me wondering why Sony bothered to include this bit of ridiculousness at all.
As we found out in reviewing the Alpha A200, however, beneath an exterior that makes some awkward first impressions, Sony is building excellent cameras with their latest DSLRs. A few hours shooting with the step-up Alpha A350 make it seem likely that the same will hold true for Sony's current mid-tier model – in spite of some early-on strangeness.
The Alpha A350 brings pro-grade resolution via its 14.2 megapixel sensor, slotting it somewhere between true entry-level models and advanced-amateur choices like Sony's own A700. Like its smaller, less costly siblings, the A350 is an all-plastic camera (with polymers even taking the place of metal on the kit lens mount). Composite construction is the de facto option for consumer DSLRs these days, but our review unit's ill-fitting panels and general creakiness don't inspire confidence. However, it only takes a minute of shooting with the snappy, responsive A350 to relegate any negative impressions of its physical form to the back of your mind.
If you follow new tech announcements, you're probably aware that the live view system that Sony launched with the A350 is different from anything else out there in an important way: two sensors – the usual one handling final image capture, but also a small secondary sensor that feeds the LCD image – are used.
What this means in practice is that the multi-cycle mirror up/mirror down dance to allow for composition and focusing with single imager and AF sensor in live view is gone. The A350 can do both simultaneously, and based on the press I've seen on Sony's system so far, I'm not sure that the impact of this change has yet been fully realized in the market.
As an old-school shooter who likes my optical viewfinder, the fact that I was able to spend a morning shooting with the A350 without feeling the need to disengage live view speaks volumes about just how polished this technology really is. With real-time AF and a single mirror movement that allows for tested continuous shooting rates at just under 2.0 frames per second in live view (!), initial impressions of the A350's on-screen composition mode are that it makes every other live view system out there – including Olympus's comparatively good one – seem like the disappointing compromises that they are. Canon, Pentax: are you listening?
Not surprisingly, the A350's silky smooth 2.7-inch articulating LCD only ups the live view system's charm.
Trying to get a ground-level shot? Simply reach down, flip the screen up, aim, focus, and fire. No aching knees or dirty clothes required.
Whatever compositional sloppiness the whole live view package permits, it more than makes up for itself if you ever use your DSLR to capture quick snaps. The A350 has both speed and flexibility in live view mode to discreetly pull off spontaneous shooting – something no other brand can lay an unqualified claim to at the moment.
Live view is an impressive total package, and very early impressions of image quality are that it holds up nicely as well.
High ISO shooting will be the trial by fire for Sony's 14.2 megapixel CCD sensor, but the company's been making great improvements in noise performance of late for their higher-res cameras across the board, which leaves me cautiously optimistic about what we'll uncover.
In spite of its obvious strengths, everything's not rosy for the A350. I'm still struggling with the ergonomics a bit – the grip is at once too wide for my larger-than-average hands, and too shallow – and Sony's control layout always leaves me baffled on the first day. A little more time will help tease out whether there are actual control placement concerns with the A350, or if it's only a matter of getting through the adjustment period.
Likewise, there's still the issue of cheaper-than-the-norm build quality to contend with. We were able to shelve our concerns about how flimsy the A200 felt in light of its attractive price and excellent performance. Even if the A350 aces the performance measures, however, its heavier price tag and somewhat more discerning target market may prove challenging for a camera with thin construction.
The A350 quickly turned our frowns about its build quality upside down with a feature set that can only be described as refined. Everyone in our office is currently smitten with the A350's live view implementation as well – no small feat, given that we've all had our hands on just about every live-view DSLR currently on the market. On balance, the A350 faces some clear challenges in the most crowded segment of the DSLR market, and we'll see how things pan out after the "live view honeymoon" is over.
Look for our detailed review of the Alpha A350 in coming weeks.