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Sony Alpha DSLR-A330 Gordon Laing, September 2009
   
 

Sony Alpha DSLR-A330 verdict

Sony’s Alpha A330 sits in the middle of three models in the company’s consumer DSLR range, featuring 10.2 Megapixel resolution, built-in image stabilisation which works with any lens you attach, a quick Live View system and vertically-tilting screen. It’s a fair specification, although one which shares a great deal with its predecessor, the Alpha A300 – indeed as we mentioned at the start of this review, the internal specification is almost identical, with most of the changes being external.

This is an interesting strategy since the majority of new rival DSLRs look pretty similar to their predecessors on the outside but normally feature significant internal enhancements. Always fond of bucking the trend, Sony has opted for the opposite strategy here, keeping most of the internals of the A330 unchanged from the earlier A300, but housing them in a significantly redesigned body with a revamped user interface.

Sony has done this in an attempt to appeal to those buying their first DSLR, who have previously been put off by large cameras and tricky controls. Clearly convinced it had the internal specification right on its previous generation, Sony’s instead concentrated on shrinking the body and making it easier to use here – and it both respects it’s succeeded.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A330



The Alpha A330 is indeed a little smaller than its predecessor and comfortably lighter too when both are fitted with their respective batteries. The user interface is also much friendlier than before, with help at every turn and icons representing how changes in the aperture and shutter speed will affect depth of field and motion.

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As for the internal specification, most of what we said about the earlier A300 applies here: the 10.2 Megapixel sensor is capable of delivering good-looking images at lower sensitivities, the built-in stabilisation provides around three stops of compensation against camera-shake, while the secondary sensor used in the Live View system allows it to be quick and fuss-free. And before you think Sony’s resisted the temptation to keep all the electronics the same, the A330 does now feature an HDMI port and a switch from Compact Flash to SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo media.

So far so good, but the A330 is not without its downsides. First let’s look at the new stuff, starting with the redesigned body. It’s certainly smaller and lighter than the earlier A300, but it remains larger and heavier than key rivals including Canon’s EOS 1000D / Rebel XS. Sony could argue this is due to its built-in stabilisation and tilting screen, but the Olympus E-620 has both of these (and a more flexible screen), while coming in smaller and lighter still.

Of greater concern, much of the A330’s weight loss is thanks to a less powerful battery which in turn has reduced the number of shots per charge – and there’s no optional battery grip either. Physical design is always a personal thing, but we’re not fond of the redesigned body which looks and feels more plasticky than many rivals, while employing an uncomfortable sawn-off grip. Of course it may feel great in your hands, and as always we’d recommend picking it up in person, but it just didn’t feel right to us.

Sticking with the new specs a little longer, the HDMI port is a welcome addition, but it’s come at the cost of a standard composite TV output, which means owners of older TV sets without HDMI connectivity won’t be able to play slideshows. We’re all for looking to the future, but this seems a daft omission. And while it’s not surprising to find a Memory Stick Pro Duo slot next to the new SD slot, Sony could have earned brownie points and boosted sales of its own format by allowing the camera to record to both cards simultaneously for backup, or to automatically switch when one’s full.

There’s also a new kit lens, with a slightly shorter 18-55mm focal range than before, but a new Smooth Autofocus Motor, or SAM for short. Anyone hoping this will be quick and quiet though will be disappointed to find it focusing at roughly the same speed and volume as rival 18-55mm kit lenses, although the optical quality is at least respectable.

As for the parts inherited from the earlier A300, the sensor still suffers from more visible noise artefacts than rivals at higher sensitivities, and continues to deliver fairly soft output using the default settings. This is a camera that performs best at 400 ISO or below, and with the image processing tweaked to deliver punchier photos more suited to its target audience of DSLR-beginners. Continuous shooting may be slightly quicker than the quoted 2fps - at least for JPEGs framed with the viewfinder - but remains slower than the competition and rules out serious action photography.

On the upside though, the Live View system, which uniquely employs a secondary sensor in the viewfinder head, remains refreshingly quick and fuss-free, and all the more useful with the tilting screen. But as discussed in detail in our Design page, there’s both pros and cons to this approach. Yes it’s quick and avoids complications while also using the main AF system, but by not using the main sensor, you don’t enjoy anywhere near 100% coverage or magnified focus assistance. It also compromises the size of the optical viewfinder, so as before, you’ll need to have a think about which Live View system best matches your style of photography.

It should also be noted that by sharing essentially the same electronics as its predecessor, the A330 also misses out on any kind of video recording facilities. Video may not be important to DSLR traditionalists, but it’s a key feature which many new buyers look for, and one that’s glaringly absent compared to its major rival from Canon. So before our final verdict, how does the Alpha A330 measure-up against the competition?

Compared to Canon EOS 1000D / Rebel XS

 
 
Canon EOS 1000D / Rebel XS review
 
 
Canon’s EOS 1000D / Rebel XS is the company’s entry-level DSLR and a strong rival for both the Alpha A330 and its sibling, the A230. Both the 1000D / XS and the A330 share 10 Megapixel resolution, 18-55mm kit lenses, image stabilisation of some description and Live View capabilities. So far so similar, but look a little closer and there are a number of key differences.

In its favour, the Alpha A330 has built-in stabilisation which works with any lens you attach, a slightly larger 2.7in screen that can also be vertically tilted for easier composition at high or low angles, an HDMI port, and a quicker, fuss-free Live View system with faster autofocus. Its AF system also employs nine points to the Canon’s seven. It sounds like a win for the A330, but the 1000D / XS has several advantages of its own.

In its favour, the EOS 1000D / XS has a slightly larger optical viewfinder, slightly faster continuous JPEG shooting (3fps versus 2.35fps in our tests), optical stabilisation which you can see through the viewfinder, a slightly more powerful internal flash, a standard TV output, and a Live View system that may be slower, but technically more accurate with 100% coverage and magnified focus assistance, along with free remote control software for PCs or Macs and an optional battery grip. In our tests the real-life detail at low sensitivities may have been roughly similar, but beyond 400 ISO the Canon took the lead in noise levels. Traditionalists will also prefer the Canon’s ergonomics and crucially at the time of writing, one year on the market has seen the 1000D / XS discounted to lower prices than the newer A330.

There’s pros and cons to both, although the A330’s built-in stabilisation, tilting screen, fuss-free Live View and HDMI port are big advantages over the Canon. Some will however prefer the EOS 1000D / XS’s smaller, but numerous advantages, along with its more technical approach to Live View. See our Canon EOS 1000D / Rebel XS review for more details.


Compared to Nikon D3000

 
 
Nikon D3000 preview
 
 
Nikon’s D3000 is the company’s latest entry-level DSLR, and priced at roughly the same point as the Alpha A330 – so like the Canon EOS 1000D / Rebel XS, it’s likely to be a key rival for Sony. Again like the Canon and Sony bodies, the D3000 offers 10 Megapixel resolution, an 18-55mm kit lens and image stabilisation of some description. The key difference here is the D3000 does not have Live View capabilities, although again dig deeper and more variations become apparent.

In its favour, the Alpha A330 has built-in stabilisation which works with any lens you attach, a screen that can be vertically tilted for easier composition in Live View, an HDMI port, and a fuss-free Live View system. It sounds like another win for the A330, but the D3000 sports a number of advantages, a few of which are shared with the Canon 1000D / XS.

In its favour, the D3000 has a slightly larger optical viewfinder with on-demand grid lines, slightly faster continuous JPEG shooting (3fps versus 2.35fps), a larger (albeit fixed) 3in screen, a slightly more sophisticated AF system (11-points versus nine), optical stabilisation which you can see through the viewfinder, a slightly more powerful internal flash and a standard TV output. Both the D3000 and Alpha A330 are aimed at DSLR beginners, but Nikon’s model is arguably a little friendlier in operation and boasts superior metering. In terms of image quality, we’ve not yet tested the D3000, bur sharing the same sensor as the earlier D60, it’s likely to out-perform the Sony at higher sensitivities. In terms of ergonomics, the Nikon is also preferred.

So once again Sony scores with the big features of built-in stabilisation, tilting screen, fuss-free Live View and HDMI port, but the D3000 remains a classy entry-level model. The absence of Live View is unforgiveable for the target market, but superior AF, ergonomics, friendlier operation and one of the most foolproof metering systems on the market means it’ll be popular with DSLR beginners. See our Nikon D3000 preview for more details.


Compared to Sony Alpha DSLR-A230 and A380

Sony’s own Alpha A230 and Alpha A380 are of course the closest rivals to the A330, as all three are based on the same camera with only subtle variations between them. The A230 is essentially the A330 without Live View and the tilting screen, while the A380 is simply the A330 with four extra Megapixels. Look closer and there are differences in the finish and continuous shooting speeds, but basically it boils down to weighing up resolution and Live View capabilities against their prices.

Sony’s effectively created three versions of the same DSLR, allowing you to choose the model which best suits your budget and requirements. This strategy also maximises exposure for the Alpha range in stores, and it’s one the company repeated more recently for the mid-range A500 and A550 models which feature twin Live View systems and faster continuous shooting.

Returning to the entry-level threesome though, the A330 hits a sweet spot between features and price in our view. Unless you really don’t see the point of Live View, it’s worth paying the extra over the A230, and in our tests the A380 lost any resolution advantage by suffering more at higher sensitivities. See our Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 review for more details.

Sony Alpha DSLR-A330 final verdict

When Sony announced the Alpha A330 (and its siblings the A230 and A380), it wasn’t hard to understand why many enthusiasts were disappointed. Most have become accustomed to new cameras featuring more powerful specifications such as higher resolutions, quicker shooting and bigger, more detailed screens, not to mention the adoption of modern gadgetry, like movie modes.

With the new entry-level Alphas though Sony completely avoided that route, instead opting to keep essentially the same electronics as their predecessors, and simply house them in a redesigned body with a revamped user interface. Sure, there’s a switch from Compact Flash to SD / Memory Stick Duo and a new HDMI port, but in terms of major specifications, there’s little change.

As such the A330 is certainly not an upgrade for owners of the previous entry-level Alpha generation. Anyone with an A200, A300 or A350 looking for an upgrade from Sony would be better-served considering the higher-end A500 series. And if you are stretching to a mid-range budget, there’s a wealth of compelling rivals to consider, including at least two key models with HD video capabilities.

But that’s not to say the A330 is a failure. Sony’s done its homework and is squarely targeting its revamped entry-level threesome at confirmed DSLR beginners. In order to appeal to these buyers, it’s gone for a much less intimidating user interface and a distinctive body design, and while we weren’t personally fond of the latter, it certainly stands out among the competition.

The target audience are also unlikely to be overly concerned by the below average performance beyond 400 ISO, relatively slow continuous shooting and technical limitations of the Live View system; indeed they’re much more likely to be bothered by the lack of video recording. But ultimately many will be won over by the easy user interface, fuss-free Live View experience, built-in stabilisation and fairly unique styling. Brand-loyalty is also not to be underestimated, especially where Sony is concerned.

For our money, the A330 also hits the sweet-spot in this latest entry-level Alpha threesome. Like its predecessor, you’ve really got to hate Live View or be on a tight budget to go for the A230 instead, and in our tests, any resolution advantage of the pricier A380 is lost at higher sensitivities. To be fair, the A330 also suffers beyond 400 ISO and there are better choices if you regularly shoot at 800 ISO or above. But stick to lower sensitivities and you’ll enjoy good quality from a DSLR which boasts built-in stabilisation, fuss-free Live View and an HDMI port, all at an affordable price. As such the A330 comes Highly Recommended for DSLR beginners.



Good points

Built-in IS which works with any lens.
Quick and fuss-free Live View.
Vertically-tilting monitor.
Beginner-friendly user interface.

Bad points
More noise than rivals at high ISOs.
Slow continuous shooting.
No movie mode.
Body shape may not be to all tastes.



Scores

(compared to 2009 budget DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

16 / 20
16 / 20
16 / 20
17 / 20
17 / 20

82%



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

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