Smack in the middle of a trio of new entry-level DSLRs from Sony, the 10.2MP Alpha 330 is an appealing option for photographers stepping up from compacts. A nice price ($650, street, with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 Sony DT SAM lens; $850, street, with an additional 55-200mm f/4-5.6 Sony DT SAM lens), fast autofocus, tilting LCD, and easy-to-understand controls are a few of its highlights. And it aced nearly all of our tests in the Pop Photo Lab.
Typical of DSLRs these days, the A330 got an Excellent rating in our color accuracy test. With an average Delta E of 7.11, it handily beat our cutoff of 8 or below for top honors. As have previous entry-level Sonys, the A330 also scored quite well in noise control. Using the manufacturer's RAW converter (Image Data Converter SR), and with the default level of noise reduction applied, it never rose above a Moderately Low noise rating. That's two steps above the bottom rung on our scale.
At higher ISOs, Sony's noise reduction is quite aggressive and comes at the expense of real-world resolving power. Indeed, resolution was the one component of image quality in which the A330 fell behind its competitors. No surprise, since it starts out with fewer megapixels than most competing DSLRs, which have at least 12MP (the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, tested on page 64, leads the pack with a 15.1MP sensor).
At ISO 100, the A330's lowest sensitivity, it delivered 1970 lines of resolution (a High score) in our test. Once we reached ISO 3200, the default NR ate up 200 lines-not insignificant-for a result of 1770 lines. By way of comparison, the 12.3MP Olympus E-620 served up 1820 lines at ISO 3200, even with its default noise reduction applied.
Given the resolution, the A330 scores a Very High rating for overall image quality from ISO 100 through 400, pulled up a bit by its Excellent color accuracy and Very Low or better noise in that range. From ISO 800 through ISO 3200, overall image quality was High.
Autofocus And Live View:
The speed of the autofocus system is one arena in which the Alpha 330 shines. It focused faster than the Rebel T1i for the brighter half of our AF test, turning in a blazing 0.27 seconds at the brightest light level, EV 12. And while the Canon locked onto our target faster at EV 2, it wasn't by much-0.57 versus 0.63 sec for the Sony. All the way down at murky EV -1, the A330 focused in a speedy 1.02 sec. That was the limit of the Alpha's AF system-in less light than that, it couldn't focus-while the Rebel was able to focus at EV -2, the dimmest level of our test. Shooting in Live View mode? The Sony uses phase-detection AF, affording a much faster response, as the mirror doesn't have to flip in and out of the light path to allow the camera to focus on your subject. The downside? Because the Sony's live view comes from a separate sensor, you don't get 100-percent framing accuracy.
Handling And Controls
Sony made major changes in the build and design of last year's entry-level offerings. Like the new A230 and A380, the A330 is smaller than its predecessor, the A300.
The grip has also been redesigned: Although the new grip is more stylish, with a cool, textured rubber finish, we miss the A300's ridge that you could tuck your middle finger under, and even more the pronounced divot for the middle finger found on the A200. Your middle finger wraps over the top of the new grip, with your index finger resting on the shutter button. The older designs felt more comfortable when we rotated the camera or tilted it upward.
The control interface on the LCD is a radical departure. To appeal to novices who may be unfamiliar with camera jargon, Sony uses graphics: A shutterspeed scale shows an icon of a runner at the fast end and a stationary figure at the slow end. (We performed a nonscientific poll among non-SLR users, and they seemed to understand it.) The aperture scale depicts a person in front of a mountain-at the large aperture (small f-stop) end of the scale, the mountain is blurred to indicate shallow depth of field. If you don't like the scales, tap the display control on the touch pad and it'll revert to numerical versions, with a little more info about other settings such as white balance, AF, and metering modes.
A column of buttons on the left of the LCD was eliminated and those functions redistributed. Some are now on the control pad, while playback and trash get new buttons to the right of the LCD. The off/on switch for SteadyShot (sensor-shift image stabilization) was also eliminated- you now must jump into the main menu system to change its status. But if, like us, you leave it on unless you're panning or using a tripod, this is no big loss.
The 2.7-inch, 230,400- dot LCD tilts up and down, but it won't swivel the way those on the Nikon D5000 and most Olympus DSLRs do. Canon's Rebel T1i has a stationary monitor, but with a higher-res 920,000 dots.
Sony used to distinguish its DSLR kits from competitors by bundling them with an 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, longer than the 18-55mm range covered by Canon, Nikon, and Pentax kit zooms. Not anymore. The Alpha 330's kit lens spans exactly that standard range, equivalent to 27-82.5mm on a full-frame sensor (see our test on the next page). A second kit lens extends the reach to 200mm (300mm equivalent). Both of these sport Sony's Smooth Autofocus Motor (SAM).
There are always tradeoffs to consider when choosing an entry-level DSLR. We find a flexible LCD more useful than video capture, but if you're a family shooter who likes to switch quickly between stills and movies, you may disagree and miss the video. Compose your shots in live view? You'll love the Alpha 330's speedy AF, which doesn't slow you down. Ultimately, one of the best things about the A330 is the price. With a kit lens, it's the least expensive of all its competitors. That alone might make up your mind.