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Sony has finally entered the digital SLR game with its new 10MP Alpha 100, and it’s full of surprises. Does this newcomer stand a chance against veteran DSLR players Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax? Some might have said, “No way!” before Sony acquired Konica Minolta’s DSLR division earlier this year. But now, by combining some of KM’s best DSLR features with Sony’s advanced sensor technology and design innovations, the Alpha 100 makes it a whole new game.

Of course, the A100’s success could ride on cost. At press time, the official price hadn’t been set, but our educated guess is that it will be about $899 (street) for body only, and with the Sony 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 macro kit lens, $999. That puts it directly in price competition with the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, Nikon D70s, and Olympus Evolt E-330 (see sidebar).

Sony gave us an exclusive look at one of the very first working models of the Alpha 100, and we came away extremely impressed. Several features and specifications were still being finalized, and it may be a few months before a production version is ready for testing, but here’s a glimpse at the A100’s top features and functions:

1. Nice Body
The A100 is fairly compact and well-balanced. The body weighs 1.4 pounds, just slightly more than the Rebel XT’s 1.2 pounds, and is similar in height and width (5×3.8 inches) to the XT. Two large dials on top give you quick access to most image quality and metering controls, and the camera back includes well-positioned buttons for playback and menu controls. According to Sony, the internal frame is made of magnesium alloy, and the Minolta A-type bayonet lensmount is made of stainless steel. The outside shell is a tough black polycarbonate, with a well-formed grip and mirrored finish around the shutter button. In all, a sound design.

2. Uncommon Sensor
A Sony-manufactured 10.2MP (effective) CCD sensor holds the key to image quality. A true APS-sized sensor, it gives a 1.5X 35mm lens factor to any optic mounted on the camera. The A100 captures a 10MP image (3872×2592 pixels) at up to 12 bits per color when stored in Sony’s SRF 1.1 RAW format (the same format as on the Sony DSC-R1 EVF), and it can be set to JPEG, RAW + JPEG, and RAW only. The resolution can also be set to 5.6MP (2896×1936 pixels) and 2.5MP (1920×1280 pixels). In addition, the A100 uses a new image processing engine, called “Bionz.”

3. Flexible Memory
The A100 accepts CompactFlash Type I/II cards and microdrives, and Sony Memory Stick Duo cards with a supplied CF adapter. Card type and speed help determine burst duration and frame-per-second shooting speed. According to Sony, with a fast CF card it should capture fine-quality, full-resolution JPEGs at slightly more than 3 fps continuously until the card is full (impressive for a 10MP DSLR). In RAW, the duration drops to 6 or 7 frames without a pause; in RAW + JPEG, around 3 frames. It can continue firing as soon as enough space clears in the buffer for another shot, but not at the faster rate.

4. Steady Shooter
The A100 features built-in image stabilization, activated at the moment of shutter release when the IS switch is turned on. While officially labeled Super SteadyShot (a designation for the IS on some Sony digital cameras and many camcorders), it appears to work the same way as the IS on KM’s Maxxum 5D and 7D: Instead of moving a lens element to compensate, the sensor moves rapidly to reduce vibration or hand motion. Sony claims it tweaked KM’s IS system so that it now provides up to 3.5 shutter steps’ advantage over a nonstabilized DSLR: great for low light or slow shutter speeds.

5. Dust Repulsion
A two-part system helps reduce or eliminate dust on the sensor. An antidust coating on the sensor surface repels it. Then, the camera uses the antishake
system in reverse: Every time the camera turns on or off, the sensor vibrates to get rid of remaining dust. If all else fails, you can set the camera to Cleaning mode and carefully blow off the sensor-though this should be needed less often than on any DSLRs but those in the Olympus E-series, which include an ultrasonic dust-removal system.

6. Eye Beam
The A100 sports an eye-activated auto-focus system, using a sensor under the view-finder similar to the one on the KM Maxxum 7D (which only turned off the LCD monitor). Move your eye up to the viewfinder, and the camera focuses on whatever it’s pointing at, based on your selection of AF zones. This feature can be turned off to prevent it from focusing every time something nears the viewfinder. There are nine selectable AF zones, with eight linear sensors and one cross-type in the center. The A100 also has a Direct Manual Focus (DMF) function, to tweak the AF when you turn the focus ring on a lens. In total, the AF system seems very similar to the excellent one found on the Maxxum 7D.

7. Sharp Screen
The eye-activation system also automatically turns off the 2.5-inch LCD monitor. Similar to the Clear Photo LCD Plus design on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1 and T9, this sharp LCD packs 230,000-pixel resolution and a wide viewing angle. Shooting information is easy to see in bright sunlight, and it displays regular or large font sizes. Also, the image instantly rotates when you turn the camera to shoot vertically (as on the Maxxum DSLRs), and can be zoomed in up to 12X in playback. A neat feature: The zoom always starts moving in on the selected AF zone.

8. Good View
Sony claims a 0.83X viewfinder magnification ratio with approximately 95% accuracy. We were impressed with the performance of the AF system, the viewfinder brightness, and the data display, and we’re eager to see if they’re all as good on a production model as they appeared on the early version.

9. Cruising Controls
Metering and exposure controls are extensive. Menu controls for many of the important functions-such as meter pattern, AF mode, white balance, and drive settings-can be activated quickly using the large multifunction dial to the left of the viewfinder. Shutter speeds range from 30 sec to 1/4000 sec in 1⁄3-step increments, and metering choices include multipattern (40 segments), center-weighted, and spot. Below the lens, there’s a depth-of-field preview button, and on the back, a jack for a wired remote control. Ergonomically, only the self timer/drive button seems out of place, on the top right side of the camera-a better place for the exposure compensation button.

10. programmable Buttons
The A100’s menus don’t have custom functions, but several external buttons can be customized, and it has many advanced image-quality settings: white balance bracketing, color space presets for Adobe RGB, and seven other shooting modes, like Night and Portrait. Also: menu slider controls for sharpness, tone, and contrast, and a mirror lockup activated in self-timer.

11. Unusual ISO
ISO settings range from “Lo80” to 1600, with an additional “Hi200”. The base ISO is actually 100-the Lo80 and Hi200 are unique to the Alpha 100. Lo80 optimizes exposure and tonal curve to emphasize shadow detail, albeit at the expense of highlight detail. It’s designed to improve low-key images with lots of shadow detail, without affecting midtone areas such as skin tones. Hi200 optimizes tone reproduction for a high-key image with lots of highlight detail, as in a snow or beach scene, although dense shadow areas may block up.

12. Setting a Tone
A new feature called Density Range Optimizer (DRO) is billed as improving tonal rendition across the entire image. Also new, the DRO+ setting analyzes an image and locally adjusts its gamma and tone (similar to digital burning and dodging). This happens rapidly in-camera, saving adjustment time later. We’ll tell you more once we test a production unit.

13. Flash Forward
The pop-up flash has redeye reduction and a guide number of 39 (in feet, at ISO 100). The hot-shoe should work with older KM 3600HS and 5600HS flash units, though Sony won’t guarantee it. It isn’t compatible with Sony HVL-F1000 or HVL-F32X dedicated flashes, a good indication that Sony is headed toward KM flash technology.

14. Save the Lenses
The A100 appears to be compatible with all existing KM and older Minolta lenses (with no formal guarantee), but remember that 1.5X 35mm lens factor.

15 Battery Power
Sony claims the rechargeable Li-ion M-class battery lasts up to 750 exposures, half made using the pop-up flash.
To read the full article and a look at “The Competitive Set” check out the coming August 2006 issue of Popular Photography & Imaging.


Field Test: Sony Alpha 100 DSLR
Inside Story: Testing Sony’s Alpha 100 DSLR