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Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 Gordon Laing, November 2009
 

Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 design, controls, screen and live view

Sony has completely redesigned the Alpha A230’s body, to give it a unique look and feel compared to rival models. The grip in particular is quite unusual, being shorter than most and lacking the usual overhang at the top which prevents your middle finger from slipping. Viewed from above it’s equally unique, with the grip coming to a relatively narrow tip that’s not particularly deep either. We’ve pictured the Alpha A230 below, alongside Canon's EOS 1000D / Rebel XS, which is much more traditional in its ergonomics.

Canon's EOS 1000D / Rebel XS
 
 

We always recommend picking up a camera in person to see how well it fits your own hands, but this is more important than ever with the Alpha A230, as its grip really is unlike anything else on the DSLR market right now (apart from of course its siblings, the A330 and A380). As always, it’s highly subjective, but we just didn’t get on with the A230’s grip, as there’s little to grab hold of and nothing other than the rubber coating to stop your fingers from slipping. Thank goodness then for the conventional thumb rest on the rear which allows a reasonable secure hold, but overall we’re not fond of the new design. We’d be interested to hear what you think in the Cameralabs forum.

The smaller grip is partly to stand out from the crowd, but also to save on size and weight, two areas which Sony’s focus groups have described as deal-breakers for those upgrading from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR. Sony’s put effort into reducing both the size and weight of the A230 over its predecessor, and certainly succeeded in this goal: measuring 128x97x68mm, it’s 3mm narrower, 2mm shorter and 3mm thinner than the earlier A200, and at 500g, a comfortable 110g lighter too when both bodies are fitted with their respective batteries. This also makes it the lightest DSLR in the current Alpha range, shaving 39g from the weight of the A330, and while it's the same width and height, it's 3mm thinner due to its fixed screen.

But some of that weight loss across the new Alpha triplets is thanks to a new, weaker battery with much reduced lifespan (see bottom of page), and while the A230 is indeed smaller and lighter than the A200, it still remains on the chunky side compared to many rivals. Canon’s EOS 1000D / Rebel XS is roughly the same width, height and weight, but is 6mm thinner, while the Olympus E-620 may be 3mm wider, but is 3mm shorter and 8mm thinner.

 
 

The thickness is where you really notice the difference and Sony can’t use the excuse of having built-in stabilisation either, as the Olympus E-620 features both this and an articulated screen. So with at least two key models coming in smaller, the A230 is far from the compact DSLR Sony is trying to pitch, and for our money the others mentioned here are much more comfortable to hold and use.

     
     

The A230’s build quality is roughly similar to the other entry-level DSLRs mentioned above, but while all employ plastic shells, the Sony and Canon look the most plasticky thanks to their shiny finish across many surfaces. Nikon and Olympus employ a more textured finish which to our eyes make them look and feel slightly more professional, although again this is a personal preference. To be fair though, there’s certainly no creaks or poor joins to complain about here, with the A230 feeling well-assembled and reasonably solid.

Eagle-eyed Sony spotters will also notice while the A230 shares essentially the same body as the A330 and A380 above it (bar the tilting screen and Live View controls), all three Alphas actually sport subtly different textures on their grip areas: the A230 and A380 are most similar with a random organic pattern, while the A330 features tiny squares in a regimented grid. You can see examples in the pictures above.

 
     

Along with a redesigned body, Sony’s also rearranged many of the controls, again based on feedback from its target customers.

Some find themselves in more intuitive positions with better labelling, while rarely-used controls like the previous SteadyShot switch, have been sensibly relocated to the menu system. Most of the changes make sense and result in a layout that’s cleaner and more approachable for the DSLR beginners Sony is aiming for.

 
 

The main mode dial remains on the upper left surface, although now recessed with only one quarter of its edge exposed for adjustment. The upper right surface has been simplified with the previous ISO and drive mode buttons relocated to the rear, leaving just the shutter release (with a new rotary power control). The A330 and A380 also squeeze their Live View switches and digital teleconverter controls on this surface, but in the absence of Live View on the A230, it's pretty bare in comparison.

Turning to the rear, there’s now no longer any buttons running along the left side of the screen, and as mentioned above, the earlier separate power switch on the back has now been relocated to around the shutter release; only the Menu button finds itself in the upper left side.

The rest of the controls are to the right side of the screen, grouped around the usual cross-keys which like many rivals feature dual-functions with labelling to explain: push up to change the Display mode, push right to adjust the flash settings, push down to set the ISO and left to change the drive mode.

Above these are just two buttons: one labelled Fn and the other to adjust exposure compensation. We’ll fully describe the Fn button later on this page.

Completing the controls are delete and play buttons on the rear and an AF / MF switch by the lens mount, but sadly there’s still no optical depth-of-field preview button.

Overall, the redesign is a bitter-sweet experience for us, as while the new control layout is more intuitive and easier to use, we weren’t personally fond of the grip and physical ergonomics. As always, design and handling are a subjective opinion, so we’d recommend trying it for yourself.

 
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Sony HVL-F20AM Flash

 

Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 flash

 
 

The Alpha A230 is equipped with a popup flash which is now hinged closer to the viewfinder, allowing it to rise much higher than its predecessor which was only hanged halfway.

The A230’s flash now rises to around 55mm above the top of the lens mount which is roughly the same as Canon’s EOS 1000D / Rebel XS. Sadly though the flash itself is relatively weak with a below average Guide Number of 10 compared to 13 on the Canon EOS 1000D / XS.

Pushing the cross-key right allows you to choose between fill-in (always-on), slow sync, rear-curtain sync and wireless flash options. With the flash popped-up, the A230’s main menu system also lets you adjust flash compensation in a range of +/-2EV. Note without a physical switch to raise the flash, you'll need to enter the menus to force it to popup in anything other than the Auto modes - this is a bit slow for quick opportunities needing a fill-in.

On top of the A230’s head you’ll find a hotshoe for an optional flashgun and as you’d expect for its price point, there’s no PC sync port for external lighting. The A230’s flash synch speed is 1/160 whether you’re using SteadyShot or not. Sony also launched a new slim HVL-F20AM flashgun with the A230 and its siblings.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 viewfinder

The Alpha A230 is equipped with the same optical viewfinder as its predecessor, employing a penta-mirror arrangement to deliver 95% coverage with 0.83x magnification. Interestingly this is one of the advantages it has over the pricier A330 and A380 models. Their Live View mechanisms in the viewfinder result in a smaller 0.74x magnification, and a noticeably smaller apparent view as a result. Compared to the competition, the A230’s viewfinder also looks slightly larger than the 0.81x / 95% of the Canon EOS 1000D / XS, but in this instance it’s not a huge difference.

If you prefer to use the viewfinder for composition (and with the A230 you have no other choice), then the experience with the A230 is preferable to the A330 and A380. The view is larger and easier on the eye, which also makes manual focusing more practical. In contrast the relatively small apparent view of the A330 and A380 viewfinders tends to draw you towards their alternative Live View systems instead.

 

The reason the A330 and A380's viewfinder look relatively small is because Sony’s squeezed an additional sensor in there in order to deliver its innovative Live View system (see our reviews of these models). If you want Sony’s quick and fuss-free Live View system, then it’s a compromise you’ll just have to live with.

Running below the frame in the A230’s viewfinder is the usual basic exposure information: aperture, shutter speed and an exposure compensation scale, complemented by a five bar scale on the right side indicating how hard the SteadyShot system, is working (if enabled); remember as a sensor-shift system you won’t see the stabilising effect though the viewfinder, so this scale is the only indication of what’s happening behind the scenes. Sadly there’s no indication of the ISO permanently shown in the viewfinder – a shame since most rival models now offer this useful information at all times.

Like its predecessor, the focusing screen shows the same nine focusing points, but instead of single lines marking their positions, the A230 now uses more conventional squares – and like Canon’s cheaper DSLRs, a red dot illuminates in the middle of each to indicate when they’re active.

Finally, sensors below the viewfinder automatically switch the screen off when your eye approaches, and like earlier Alphas can also be configured to fire-up the AF system so the camera’s ready for action. Traditionalists may prefer to deactivate this feature though.

 

Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 Screen and menus

 
 

The Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 is equipped with a 2.7in / 230k pixel screen, the same specification as its predecessor. In use it’s fairly vibrant with a wide viewing angle, although the ambient light sensor of the A330 and A380 models appears to be missing. Like its predecessor, the screen also remains fixed in position, unlike the vertically-tilting monitors on the A330 and A380 models. Of course this isn't a disadvantage on the A230 as it doesn't offer Live View facilities.

Like most DSLRs these days, the Alpha A230 uses its main colour monitor to display all shooting information, and like its predecessor these details rotate by 90 degrees clockwise or anti-clockwise when you’re holding the camera in a portrait orientation; it’s a nice feature which means the text is always upright.

Sony has however revamped the presentation for these latest Alphas in an attempt to make things easier for DSLR beginners. By default, the A230 starts with a new graphic view, which shows exposure information in a bar running along the top, and extended shooting information in two bars at the bottom.

   

So far, so normal, but the space in-between is occupied by two long wedges representing the shutter speed and aperture scales, with icons at each end indicating what impact they’ll have on your photos. The shutter speed scale has an icon of a still person on the left side representing slower exposures, while on the right side is an icon of a person running representing quick exposures.

In a similar style, the left side of the aperture scale with the smaller f-numbers shows an icon of a sharp person with a blurred mountain behind them, while on the right side with the bigger f-numbers is an icon where both the person and the background are sharp. Both graphically illustrate which end of the scale you’ll need to use to achieve these effects without having to explain depth-of-field or shutter speeds. More experienced users can press the DISP button to lose these graphics and fill the space with additional shooting information.

 
 
 

Like its predecessors though, Sony’s resisted the option of rival models where settings can be highlighted and adjusted directly from the main screen. Instead, you’ll be using the cross-keys to fire-up dedicated menus for the ISO, drive mode and flash, and relying on the Fn button above them for other popular settings.

Like the A200 before it, pressing the Fn button divides the screen into six sections although now it’s much more colourful. As before you can adjust the AF mode, AF area, Metering Mode, White Balance and D-Range Optimizer, although since the Flash options have their own position on the right cross-key, the A230’s sixth function allows you to directly adjust the Creative Style.

An important new feature for the A230 (and its siblings) is the on-screen help guide, which pops-up a page of helpful information if you pause for a moment when adjusting a certain setting.

     

Switching between exposure modes and scene presets also presents an explanatory page, and on the whole these are very helpful for beginners. Once again, more experienced owners can switch them off if preferred.

 

For all other settings you’ll need to dive into the main menu system, divided into seven tabbed pages which don’t scroll: two for Record, one for Setup, one for Playback and three for Configuration.

In playback you can switch between a clean view of the image, one overlaid with basic shooting information, and a thumbnail view with red, green, blue and brightness histograms; the view with five tiny thumbnails of previous images running along the top is no longer available. This simplifies matters, although zooming could be more intuitive – rather than offering zoom-in and zoom-out buttons, you’ll need to first press the exposure compensation button (labelled with a magnifying glass), then use the finger dial to adjust the zoom level (up to 12x on-screen or 5.1x over HDMI) and the cross-keys to scroll around. Additional playback options, such as displaying thumbnails or starting a slideshow, are accessible by pressing the Fn button, which once again presents six options.

All the menus in this review were grabbed over HDMI, although during playback over this connection, the signal formats itself to the 16:9 aspect ratio, hence the wider images below.

     

In a missed opportunity, given the built-in orientation sensors and rotating shooting information, portrait images don’t turn to fill the screen when the camera’s rotated by 90 degrees – shame.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 Battery and connectivity

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After powering its previous entire DSLR range (from A200 to A900) with the same NP-FM500H InfoLithium battery pack, Sony’s switched to the NP-FH50 pack on the A230 and its siblings to save a little space and weight. The new pack, also used in the Cyber-shot HX1 super-zoom and numerous Sony camcorders, may be around two thirds the weight of the previous FM500H, but loses almost half the capacity: it’s rated at 6.1 Watt Hours compared to 11.8 Watt Hours of the old model.

Since the internal electronics are very similar to its predecessor, this unsurprisingly has a negative impact on the number of shots you can take per charge: Sony quotes around 510 shots on the A230, compared to 750 on the A200. Sadly despite using one of Sony’s InfoLithium batteries, the A230 also doesn’t provide the accurate percentage of charge remaining like earlier Alphas, instead relying on a segmented battery icon alone. This is a shame since having the percentage on-screen at all times was a key advantage Sony models had over the competition.


 

As a further slap beyond reduced battery life and basic feedback on remaining charge, the A230 also no longer has an optional battery grip. This was again a standard accessory across the earlier A200, A300 and A350 models, so enthusiasts wanting improved battery life or indeed something more to hold onto will have to look elsewhere, such as Canon’s EOS 1000D / XS or the Olympus E-620. Clearly it’s not a priority for Sony’s new target audience, although to be fair, Nikon doesn’t offer a battery grip for its D3000 or D5000 either.

Some of the biggest changes involve the ports and memory card slots. The earlier A200 employed a single Compact Flash memory card slot, located in the right hand grip like most DSLRs. With the A230 though, Sony’s switched this single Compact Flash slot for a pair of smaller slots, one unsurprisingly for the company’s own Memory Stick Pro Duo format, and the other for SD media. Uniquely both slots have also been relocated to the left side of the body, behind a large sliding door. Sadly you can’t record to both cards simultaneously for backup though, instead having to manually select one or the other with a tiny switch alongside the slots.

Joining the card slots behind the same sliding panel are two ports, and thankfully given Sony’s track record for proprietary technologies, both are standard: one is a USB output, and the other is a mini HDMI port, a new addition to the A230 and its siblings over its predecessor. It’s good to find an HDMI port, although in the excitement you may not have noticed the absence of a standard analogue TV output. As such, the A230 and its siblings become the first cameras we’ve tested which offer HDMI alone for connecting to a TV, so if you have an older set, you won’t be enjoying any big-screen slideshows. Finally, behind a small flap on the right side of the body is a DC input.

Now let's check out the A230's features including the sensor, stabilisation and drive modes.


All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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