Sony is serious about its SLRs. The A100 was a fair effort, with a resemblance to the Dynax 5D Sony inherited from its takeover of Konica Minolta, but the A700 is a whole new camera. Where the A100 is a budget model for novices, the A700 is targeted at enthusiasts and even professionals too. It offers a combination of durability, speed, resolution and high ISO speeds.
At the heart of the A700 is a 12.2MP Exmor CMOS sensor designed for the best possible performance, with on-chip noise reduction both before and after the analogue/digital conversion. More noise reduction is then applied by Sony's BIONZ processor.
This BIONZ processor is clearly a fast performer as the A700 can shoot JPEGs at 5fps until the memory card is full up. It can also shoot up to 19 RAW file without even a hiccup.
It's not just the processor that controls the maximum continuous shooting speed - the shutter and mirror have to be able to keep up too. The A700's new shutter/mirror assembly has that short 'clack' sound characteristic of high-speed cameras, and Sony says the shutter should last in excess of 100,000 shots.
Bigger and better
From the outside, the differences between the A700 and the A100 are clear. The A700 is substantially larger and heavier. The reinforced aluminium chassis is finished off with magnesium alloy body panels.
And the switchgear has silicon seals to resist the entry of dust and moisture. The controls are different, as well. Like other 'serious' SLRs, the A700 has two control wheels rather than one, and the new menu system is reckoned to make routine adjustments much easier.
That's open to debate - menus are menus, and there's nothing particularly special about these - but the A700 does have an alternative control method. Pressing the Fn button on the back makes the LCD information display interactive, so that you can scroll around and highlight the settings you want to change. It's both intuitive and quick.
The A700 doesn't have a secondary status LCD display on its top plate, unlike the Canon EOS 40D, but it doesn't really need it. It's as easy to use the 3-inch LCD on the rear, and it doesn't seem to have much impact on battery life because Sony claims an excellent 650 shots on a full charge.
This 3-inch LCD deserves a special mention. It's not the first 3-inch LCD on an SLR, but it's the sharpest, with an amazing 921,000 dots. Not only is it sharp, it gives an excellent indication of what your shots will actually look like. You can double-check exposures using the histogram display, which show individual RGB histograms and overall luminance.
You'll be impressed, then, even before you take any shots. But what are the results like? Do they live up to the promise of the hardware?
At ISO 100-200, there's no significant noise at all. At ISO 200-400 it's starting to appear in darker areas, but the overall levels are very low. At ISO 800 noise is more apparent, but even at ISO 1600 it's not strong. So yes, the Sony does have a noise advantage over its rivals.
Picture quality is still quite good at ISO 3200 (better still after the v2 firmware update) and although it's starting to disintegrate at ISO 6400 (in 'extended' ISO mode), the colours and contrast are still strong.
It's impressive, but is the A700's high-ISO performance really as miraculous as it seems? There's always some pay back with noise reduction systems, usually a discernible 'watercolour' effect where finer textural detail gets smudged.
This is visible in the Sony's pictures, though it's not really objectionable even at higher ISOs. But while we were checking this, another issue became apparent. Our camera seemed weak at reproducing fine-textured detail. Hard outlines were fine, but grass or distant vegetation was soft, appearing filled in at times.
To make sure, we tested the A700 against another SLR with the same subject and this confirmed the Sony had a serious failing in this respect. Surely we weren't the only reviewers to check this?
Sony was clearly aware of this issue because a Version 2 firmware update was arrived on 30th October, which addresses it directly. We tested the A700 with two different subjects at all ISOs both before and after the update, and it makes a considerable difference.
With the v1 firmware, the textural rendition is soft and unacceptable, while with the v2 firmware crispens things up considerably. Sony describes the change as 'subtle', but we think it makes the difference between a camera that's disappointing and one that's extremely good.
With the textural rendition sorted, it's possible to enjoy fully the Sony's image quality, and the A700's most striking characteristic is its rich, saturated and natural-looking colour. Its tonal rendition is extremely good, particularly in the highlights - bright values don't seem to accelerate off the end of the scale as readily as they do with other SLRs.
The 'Dynamic Range Optimiser' option is interesting, too, especially when used in Bracketing mode. Here, you take one shot, and the camera saves differently-processed versions for you to choose from later. The effects can be subtle or strong, depending on the lighting, though no better than those you might get using the Shadow/Highlight tool in Photoshop.
Sony's done a great job with the A700. It feels like a solid, professional camera, and the overall colour rendition, high-ISO image quality and 5fps are terrific. If you do buy one, do check the firmware in case early production models are still in the supply chain. Updating the firmware is only a five-minute job.
Incidentally, avoid the 18-70mm kit lens if you can. Its performance is weak at the edges of the frame and it suffers from chromatic aberration too. Go for the more expensive 16-105mm zoom if you can afford it.