Just a few years ago, a full-frame DSLR would have set you back as much as a late-model used car. Now, Sony is offering its new 24.6MP Alpha 850 for a cool two grand (body only).
And our lab tests revealed image quality close to that of its more expensive sibling, the A900 ($2,700, street, body only). In fact, the A850 scored better on two out of three image-quality factors, although not by a big margin.
Where Costs Were Cut
The biggest real differences between these two cameras come in three areas where Sony compromised to keep the costs down. The most significant of these? Burst speed-3 frames per second for the A850, versus 5 fps for the A900. If you shoot fast-moving subjects, such as sports or wildlife, this could mean the difference between capturing the moment and capturing the moment after.
If you're a landscape artist or architectural shooter, burst rate might not matter to you, but the next big change, in viewfinder accuracy, probably will. While the downgrading of the A850's finder to 98% accuracy from 100% on the A900 may seem like a minor change, it can be irksome for those who like to frame their images very precisely-particularly since the A850 lacks live view. Of course, you can always crop later to the composition you wanted, so, given the price difference, we think most shooters could live with this compromise.
And while the A900 comes with a wireless remote trigger, the A850 does not. This may again seem insignificant, but it, too, depends on how you shoot. Macro photographers, for whom any touch of the camera can make a difference in composition and focus, know the value of a remote trigger.
A remote would've come in handy in other situations, too. For instance, during field testing, I was trying to make a 5-sec exposure of a train pulling into a station, with about half the exposure elapsing before the train passed into the frame to capture the signs on the opposite platform. Without a remote, I relied on the 2-sec self-timer. In the end, the exposure was a little over a second before the train pulled in, so I didn't get nearly as much detail in the platform as I'd wanted.