We've yet to come across a Sony DSLR or DSLT that skimps on build quality, and the Sony Alpha a57 is no different in this respect. Sporting a design that's very similar to that of big brother the Sony Alpha a65, the latest entry-level model feels well-balanced, robust and has a reassuring weight to it.
While it may lack the weather-sealed, metal construction of some of the pricier Sony Alpha cameras, the solid plastic build of the Sony Alpha a57 still feels more than capable of coping with everyday use, and compares favourably to its similarly-priced adversaries.
The ergonomically-shaped, rubberised front grip is very comfortable and pairs nicely with the neatly curved, rubber-clad rear thumb pad to provide a firm purchase. The body is adorned with quite an array of controls that - although numerous - are all sensibly proportioned and clearly labelled, making the Sony Alpha a57's interface pretty self-explanatory to get to grips with from the outset.
Dedicated buttons provide fast access to key settings such as exposure compensation, ISO and the camera's HD movie mode, while access to the display, white balance, Picture Effect and drive mode options are offered via the four-way pad on the back of the camera.
Anything else important that's not directly accessible is stashed in the quick graphical on-screen menu that's activated by pressing the Fn button above the four-way pad.
Once you've mastered operating the Sony Alpha a57, there's scope to assign your choice of functions and settings to a number of the controls, so you can customise the interface to suit your preferred style of shooting.
There's also a handy button labelled '?', which calls up a built-in on-screen guide that 's designed to help beginners master both basic and more advanced techniques, helping new owners to get the most out of the camera.
The Sony Alpha a57's 3-inch LCD screen boasts a high resolution of 921,000-dots and offers a clear, sharp view of the scene in front of the lens. Thanks to Sony's integration of its TMT design, full-time Live View is readily available, with no black-outs between frames as the mirror remains fixed in place.
The fact that the screen is articulated adds another level of versatility to this camera's design, helping users to maximise the benefits of the Sony Alpha a57's excellent Live View system as well as its movie mode, particularly when you need to shoot subjects from awkward perspectives.
When sitting in its native position on the back of the camera, the screen also provides a wide viewing angle in all directions, plus a very effective anti-reflective coating helps to maintain visibility under a range of lighting conditions.
Although the SLT design means that there's no scope for the optical viewfinder found in the traditional DSLR design, the Sony Alpha a57 does offer a (rather excellent) electronic viewfinder, complemented by infrared proximity detection sensors that automatically disable the screen and activate the EVF when the camera is lifted to your eye.
If you're one of many photographers who have had a bad experience with EVFs in the past, then we urge you not to let this put you off from at least trying Sony's most recent innovation.
When we picked up our first SLT camera featuring the manufacturer's latest development in viewfinder technology, we were sceptical as to just how good an EVF could really be. We needn't have been concerned, the 1.44k-dot EVF featured on the Sony Alpha a57 - which sees a resolution boost in comparison to its predecessor's - is very good.
Although it's not quite up to the even higher level of detail, dynamic range and clarity offered by its pricier siblings (or indeed that of an optical viewfinder), the Sony Alpha a57's offering is still a far cry from the small, low-resolution, slow-to-refresh EVFs we've suffered in the past, with this camera's bright, detailed version being pleasurable to use by comparison.
Of further benefit is the EVF's ability to display full shooting information, plus extras such as a live histogram, for instance - a feat that an optical viewfinder can't achieve.
Although the Sony Alpha a57 delivers a favourable handling experience overall, there are some issues that have the potential to cause some confusion. For example, some of the camera's features - such as its Auto HDR, Multi-Frame Noise Reduction and Smart Zoom modes - aren't available while you're shooting raw+JPEG. The camera displays a message telling you the feature isn't available in your current mode, but fails to offer a solution.
Unless you've not experienced this common quirk with Alpha cameras before, you're likely to end up scratching your head and fiddling about with settings until you figure out the answer to the problem for yourself. For a camera aimed at newcomers to more advanced photography, this seems unnecessarily complex.
Similarly, while the menu system is generally easy to navigate, it could do with a bit of a revamp to bring it into line with its rivals' inherently simpler, colour-coded offerings that tend to make the process of quickly finding the settings you need much slicker.