Sony Alpha a330
At a Glance
With a petite size and a relatively low price, the 10-megapixel Sony Alpha a330 ($650 with 18-55mm lens, as of 8/25/2009) builds on the strong foundation laid by its predecessor, the a300. Though this camera is clearly intended for the same new-to-digital-SLR crowd that the a300 targeted, this model is not enough of an upgrade to entice existing owners.
At 17.3 ounces, the a330 is small and lightweight--smaller than last year's a300--and it packs most of the features of that model (albeit with a slightly less powerful flash). That it's available for $850 with an additional 55-200mm lens sweetens this model's position as a newcomer's kit. The a330 is not an upgrade for owners of the a300. This camera is aimed squarely at the smaller-is-better crowd. Its light weight is quite convenient, but its grip is consequently smaller and may feel less comfortable and secure in larger (or even average-size) hands. With no LCD on top, the a330 instead has incorporated more functions into its buttons and control dial.
The a330 still has a hot shoe for an external flash, in-camera image stabilization, and a lovely tiltable live view screen. Fortunately, Sony's adjustments to shrink the a300 have not dented the ease of use I enjoyed on that model. I seldom had to consult the manual to find an option, and the mode dial has incorporated clean, readable scene options (such as landscape, portrait, and sports) for when you're shooting fast and loose.
In my hands-on evaluations, the a330 was almost unbelievably fast to autofocus, with varying but generally correct results. The camera includes several multiweighted focus modes in addition to manual focus, and also offers multiple metering modes.
However, high-quality JPEGs from our tests often looked a little soft, likely due to the camera's built-in noise reduction algorithm. While sharpening in Photoshop improved edges somewhat, shooting RAW and working on pictures on the PC achieved better results. Unfortunately, this approach is counterintuitive in a camera aimed at amateur DSLR users who may not want to spend time in an image-editing app perfecting every little detail.
The a330 produced excellent, detailed macro shots using its 18-55mm kit lens. Color was also accurate to the naked eye--vibrant but not unnatural, even with vivid reds and violets, which are often hard to render correctly. If you're looking to dial things up or down, the camera has several filters, including landscape, natural, and vivid, as well as a sunset mode. In addition, the dynamic range optimizer works well; in my tests, the feature helped render more shadow detail and also helped a little with highlight clipping (although you can't expect miracles from a high-contrast scene). In terms of digital noise, the a330 performed admirably, holding down the ugly chromatic noise until ISO 400, and much of the time, even ISO 800. (The camera offers an ISO range from 100 to 3200.)
Seeing as the a330 contains a nearly identical feature set and the same imaging chip as its predecessor, this camera is not worth an upgrade, nor is it hearty enough to take on the latest models from Nikon and Canon. But for consumers new to DSLRs and looking for a camera with advanced features that's easy to tote around, the inexpensive Sony a330 meets its mark: It's very simple to handle--and it offers the added benefit of live view.