Our image of an "entry-level" digital SLR has blurred since we put together last year's Editor's Choice issue. This year's winner, the Sony Alpha 100, is such a full-featured, versatile camera that we initially planned to put it in the Advanced D-SLR category. We changed our mind when we considered its remarkably low price. Our point is this: You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a D-SLR you can grow with.
If you grew up with the big five 35mm SLR brands, it may seem strange to shoot with an SLR bearing the Sony name. That said, Sony's first interchangeable-lens digital SLR doesn't come out of nowhere. The Sony Alpha 100 inherits its ample capabilities from both the venerable Konica Minolta SLR system and Sony's own EVF line. Chief among these is a huge legacy of lenses. But it also includes the camera's sensor-based image stabilization, which steadies shots made with any of those lenses. There's no need to put stabilizing hardware in each and every lens that would benefit from it. The camera's image stabilization combines with good high-ISO performance -- speeds go up to ISO 1600, and we shot at ISO 800 with less grain than you'd get from a comparably fast film -- to give you more freedom with existing-light photography. We shot handheld at very slow shutter speeds to blur moving subjects yet keep static elements tack-sharp, which ordinarily requires a tripod.
The Alpha 100 incorporates a new Sony technology called Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO), which analyzes and manipulates RAW data in-camera, before processing and compression, to recover shadow or highlight detail that might otherwise be lost. (Such adjustments must ordinarily be made in RAW postprocessing.) Especially in its "plus" setting, it improved highlight detail in our Large/Fine JPEG files -- in some cases lessening the need for RAW mode.
Our favorite feature is the top-mounted function dial, used to quickly adjust settings that would otherwise require delving into the menu. These include ISO, white balance, flash mode, metering pattern, AF mode, DRO mode, and image parameters such as contrast, saturation, and sharpness. All that makes the Sony Alpha 100 an advanced D-SLR at an entry-level price.