Sony A330 Review
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The Sony A330 is a new 10.2 megapixel DSLR camera featuring a restyled external design and enhanced user interface, both intended to make it easier to use for people new to SLR photography. Replacing the A300 model, the A330 retains all of its predecessor's key features, with a 2.7 inch tilting LCD screen, impressively quick Live View mode, anti-dust system, ISO range of 100-3200, anti-shake that's built into the body, eye-start auto-focus and Dynamic Range Optimiser. Sitting in the middle of the Sony Alpha range above the entry-level A230 and and below the 14 megapixel A380, the Sony A330 has a street price of around £600 / $650 with the 18-55mm kit lens (exclusivly sold by Jessops in the UK). Does the A330 offer enough to beat the Canon EOS 500D / Rebel T1i, Nikon D5000, Olympus E-450 or even the Olympus E-P1? Zoltan Arva-Toth found out...
Ease of Use
Announced in May 2009, the Sony A330 is the successor to the Sony A300 digital SLR, which we reviewed at the end of last year. The core specifications of the new model are remarkably similar to those of its immediate forebear, but it has undergone a complete design overhaul, which has resulted in a smaller and considerably lighter camera aimed squarely at compact camera owners wishing to trade up to a DSLR.
The first thing you notice when picking up the Sony A330 is that it feels cheaper built than its predecessor. Upon reviewing the A300, we wrote that the body was "unashamedly plastic", but noted that it did "not feel cheap or low quality at all". The same cannot be said of the new Sony A330, which feels much more plasticky. There is little doubt that at least some of the afore-mentioned weight loss comes from the use of less robust materials (which probably helps Sony's bottom line too).
The right-hand grip has been completely redesigned - for the worse, unfortunately. It is so uncomfortable it makes you wonder if the camera would do better without it (grip-less SLRs were the order of the day for decades, and nobody complained about that). And the grip is but one example where the new design lags behind the old one. The new, smaller body apparently forced the engineers to re-think the control layout and philosophy of the camera, and this has resulted in a number of questionable design decisions.
For starters, the number of external controls has been reduced, making the camera less intuitive to use. The A300's separate Drive Mode, ISO and Display buttons are gone, and these functions are now mapped unto the four-way controller. That alone would not be objectionable at all - we have seen similar solutions that worked quite well - but unfortunately Sony's implementation has caused the four-way pad to cease functioning as a quick AF point selector. Now you need to enter the Function menu via the Fn button, navigate to 'AF area', enter, select 'Local', then repeatedly press the left or right arrow button until the desired AF point is highlighted, and finally exit the Function menu. That's about half a dozen button presses (sometimes more) required for something as simple as changing the active AF point!
This effectively means that most people will only use the central AF sensor for focusing, and recompose if needed. This age-old focus-recompose technique is much faster than selecting an off-centre focus point on the Sony A330, and works every time except when dealing with extremely shallow depth of field. To choose the central AF point, enter Fn --> AF area, select 'Spot', exit and don't ever change it again. Alternatively, you can use the AF button in the centre of the four-way navigation pad to focus on whatever is in the centre of the frame, and hold it down not only while recomposing but also while releasing the shutter too (so that pressing the shutter button does not cause the camera to refocus).
The AEL (autoexposure lock) button is also gone, as is the highly useful Manual Exposure Shift function I liked so much in the A300 (which allowed you to quickly change the aperture-shutter speed combination without changing the EV in manual exposure mode). Of probably less importance is the omission of the SteadyShot switch - the A330 retains the sensor-shift image stabilisation feature of its predecessor, but now you need to enter the main shooting menu to activate or deactivate it. Given that about the only time you will want to deactivate it is when you mount the camera on a tripod, the omission of an external switch for this particular function seems a logical decision.
The controls that do remain are rather haphazardly placed, with almost nothing falling readily under your thumb or fingers. The new power switch is in a place where you would expect the control wheel to be - in the dark, or with the camera up to my eye, I sometimes switched the camera off accidentally, when my actual intention was to change the aperture setting. The control wheel itself is located further down, and the best thing you can do is try to train yourself to use your middle finger to spin it.
One button that inexplicably escaped the axing of so many external controls is the nearly useless 'Smart Teleconverter'. Only active when shooting JPEG in Live View, the 'Smart Teleconverter' button acts as a 1.4x / 2x digital zoom, delivering a cropped 5.1 / 2.8 megapixel image respectively. When shooting RAW and / or outside Live View mode, the button is idle. Thankfully, pushing this button in these cases no longer prompts the camera to display the arrogant "Invalid operation" message I criticised the A300 for. The A330 says, "Smart teleconverter not available when shooting with OVF. Select Live View." or, "Smart teleconverter not available when shooting RAW. Select any image quality other than RAW" instead. These messages are certainly more civilised than the old one, but the real solution would be to make this button reprogrammable to do something more useful than its current function.
The optical viewfinder (OVF) of the Sony A330 appears to be identical to that of its predecessor, delivering 0.74x magnification and 95% frame coverage. The nine autofocus points are permanently marked on the focusing screen, and are therefore always visible in the viewfinder. The active AF point lights up in red when in use, and if focus is acquired, a green focus confirmation dot appears on the left side of the in-finder LCD; similarly to other manufacturers' models.
As with its forebear, one of the main highlights of the Sony A330 is its Live View implementation. None of the currently manufactured competitor models - the 'non-SLR' Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1/GH1 aside - can auto-focus quickly in live view mode, and that's because competing DSLRs get the live view feed off the main imaging chip, which means their mirror must be raised while in this mode, blocking light from reaching their AF sensors. So they either have to temporarily lower their mirror for auto-focusing, which is loud and interrupts the live view, or resort to contrast-detect AF, which their lenses are not optimised for.
Sony have circumvented this problem by using a secondary imager. While the solution is not new - secondary-sensor Live View debuted in the Olympus E-330 of 2006, where it was called Live View Mode A - Sony took a fresh look at it when designing the A300/A350 and came up with their own version. Given that no other manufacturer - not even Olympus - offers this in any of its current models, it was logical of Sony to continue using it in the A330. The benefit of secondary-sensor Live View is that autofocus is just as fast, and shutter lag is just as short as when using the OVF, unlike in the case of competing models that offer main-sensor Live View. The downside of Sony's solution is a much lower Live View frame coverage (90%) and the inability to magnify into the live image for accurate manual focussing. We suspect that the properties of the secondary sensor might also be behind the fact that the Sony A330 does not offer a video mode.
The LCD on which Live View is delivered is a 2.7-inch, 230,400-dot affair that tilts up and down, just like the one in the A300, albeit it feels considerably less robust. A tilting LCD is always a better choice for a Live View capable DSLR than a fixed one, though some competing models from Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic go even further by offering full LCD articulation. The brightness of the screen can be set manually, but it can also adapt to ambient light levels automatically. Outdoors visibility is average - we've seen much worse (more reflective) LCDs on some competitors, but would still like to see some improvement to the antiglare coating. Switching between Live View and the optical viewfinder is done by way of a mechanical switch to the right of the pentamirror housing - a simple and elegant solution, though once again the quality of the switch appears to be lower than that of the A300.
The Sony A330 has a pop-up flash with a guide number of 10 (in metres at ISO 100). This is a small step back from the one built into the A300, which had a guide number of 12. Of more importance is its mode of operation. There is no mechanical button to raise the flash, and neither are you advised to raise it by hand. Instead, if you would like to use it, you need to enter the Flash menu by pressing the right arrow key on the four-way pad, choose the required flash mode (Fill, Slow or Rear) and exit the Flash menu. The flash will only pop up when you (half-)press the shutter release. If you don't want to use it any more, it is not enough to push it back - you need to re-enter the Flash menu and select the Flash Off option. Otherwise it will pop up again the next time you hit the shutter button. As with the AF point selection procedure described above, I found this solution to be unnecessarily complicated and in conflict with the A330's billing as an easy-to-use SLR. To be fair though, some shooting modes allow the user to choose an Auto Flash option, which will probably please novice users - but it's no substitute for a well thought-out user interface.
The pop-up flash can also act as a TTL controller for wirelessly slaved external flash units. External flashguns can of course also be mounted to the camera itself via the hot shoe. Be reminded that it is not of the standard variety - non-dedicated flashguns and other hotshoe-mounted accessories such as PocketWizards physically cannot be mounted without a separately sold hot shoe adapter.
The camera has a few niceties inherited from its forebears. These include the sensor-shift image stabilisation system we already touched upon (and which Sony now calls SteadyShot Inside), an orientation sensor that rotates the status display so it remains readable even if the camera is in portrait orientation, a pair of eye proximity sensors beneath the viewfinder that automatically shut down the LCD when raising the camera to your eye (provided you are not in Live View mode), and Minolta's legacy Eye-start AF technology. In the field, I found the eye-start autofocus system to be somewhat useful, though not necessarily faster than the more traditional solutions.
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As far as the anti shake system goes, it works very well for providing camera stabilisation at relatively slow shutter speeds - see a demonstration in the Image Quality section of this review - but it's less effective at the other function Sony has tasked it with; namely, shaking off any dust particles that may have settled on the sensor during a lens change. Apparently the anti shake system was simply not designed to move the sensor fast enough to shake off the dust - this will be evident if you look at some of our samples that clearly exhibit a few dust spots.
New to the Alpha A330 - and to its bigger brother the Alpha A380 - is a so-called help guide display, which teaches beginners about the effects of aperture and shutter speed, both by way of a text guide and via icons such as stick figures. This approach is certainly better than simply throwing in an auto mode and a host of scene modes (which is not to say the A330 lacks any of these, but the inclusion of the help guide does mean it goes a step further).
The Sony A330 has slots for SD/SDHC and Memory Stick PRO Duo memory cards. Dual card slots are always welcome, though the A330 unfortunately has one of the least useful implementations of the concept I have seen to date. The camera cannot record simultaneously on both cards, cannot copy images from one to the other, and cannot even switch automatically to the secoond card when the first one fills up. To do that, you need to open the sliding cover that hides the memory card compartment and manually move a small mechanical switch to the desired position. The same compartment that houses the memory cards gives shelter to the USB and HDMI OUT ports too.
In use, the Sony Alpha A330 proved to be fairly quick, putting aside the operational glitches and design flaws described above. Start-up was nearly instant, autofocus with the kit lens was fairly speedy if not quite as quiet as with an SSM lens. Thanks to the secondary-sensor approach, there was no noticeable AF speed penalty when shooting in Live View. The camera's burst mode was an unimpressive 2.5 frames per second (fps) with the OVF, and 2fps in Live View. The latter value, though lower than the former, is actually much better than anything the competition's DSLRs can produce in Live View. Image playback speeds were also acceptable. Magnifying into an already captured image does take a couple of seconds though. Maximum image magnification is 12x, but there is little point in going beyond the default 6.1x setting as the image progressively falls apart at higher values.
To round it off the Sony DSLR Alpha A330 has a few features that put it ahead of its immediate competitors (such as fast AF in Live View, an Eye-start AF option for when shooting with the optical finder and eye proximity sensors that automatically shut down the LCD when lifting the camera up to one's eye), but it has a few comparative disadvantages too (no Live View magnification for accurate manual focusing, no video mode etc.), and is actually a step back from its predecessor the A300 in terms of ergonomics and handling, which ultimately leads to a less pleasant shooting experience.
But handling, features and performance are only one side of the coin - the other one is image quality. Read on to find out how the Sony Alpha A330 measures up in that area...