Hands on: Sony Alpha 700 DSLR

Sony is aiming high with its new Alpha-700 digital SLR. It's been 14 months since the company tested the DSLR waters with the Alpha-100. And while that was clearly a place-marker at the low end of the SLR market for Sony after its acquisition of Minolta, the A700 clearly has more serious aspirations.

At first glance, the A700 looks broadly similar to its lower-spec stable mate. Its longer features list is reflected in more buttons and controls, but the layout remains reasonably clean.

High-spec Sony

A quick look at the spec sheet and the A700's credentials are about right given its expected launch price of around £1,000. A 12-megapixel CMOS sensor, 5 frames per second continuous shooting and 11-point AF are what you'd expect at this price, while HDMI output and a 921,000-pixel 3-inch LCD certainly get our attention.

The camera feels satisfyingly solid when you first pick it up, with the grip well contoured and the weight balanced.

But this is a camera aimed right at the heart of the serious amateur - or semi-pro - market. And with Canon and Nikon both very well represented here, it's the A700's performance, and not its looks, feel or specification, that will make all the difference.

We briefly put the A700 through its paces at the Natural History Museum in London yesterday. And while we didn't have long enough to comment definitively on performance, in terms of usability the camera's key strengths were quick to come to the fore.

The optical viewfinder is outstanding, and we found the camera to be quick and responsive in what were difficult lighting conditions. A single press of the new Function (Fn) button calls up all key settings immediately onto the LCD, with adjustments made through the joystick. There is also a dedicated Custom button, which you can assign to a frequently used function for instant access.

Sony sees the big picture

We were left feeling that Sony really focused on improving the user experience when developing the Alpha-700. But the best news is arguably this: the A700 comes not only with the inevitable MemoryStick slot, but also one for a CompactFlash card. We hope this is a sign of things to come from Sony's camera division.

The company certainly needs to score all the points it can with the A700. The higher up the SLR food chain you get the stiffer the competition, and only time will tell if the A700 has the clout to eat into Nikon and Canon's market domination.

But our limited time with Sony's new standard-bearer left us cautiously optimistic. It's certainly a major leap forward from the A100, and if its ultimate performance is a match for its ease of use, Sony may just have a winner on its hands.