Camera Test: Sony Alpha 390

The more grippable successor to the A380 is a lot like, well, the A380.

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When we tested Sony’s Alpha 380 last year, we hated the grip and noted that its 14.2MP sensor could’ve provided more resolving power. Now, Sony has replaced this entry-level model with the new 14.2MP Alpha 390 ($600, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 Sony DT SAM lens). It’s extremely similar to its predecessor, but has a completely redesigned grip, a notable improvement over the old one. The rest of it? Well. . .

In the Test Lab

Given that the innards of the A390, by Sony’s admission, don’t differ significantly from the A380, we’re not surprised that the test results from the Popular Photography Test Lab are essentially the same. In our resolution test, the A390 showed 2200 lines per picture height, just behind the A380’s 2255 lines, earning the A390 a Very High rating on our scale— unimpressive for a camera with 14.2 effective megapixels. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 Micro Four Thirds camera, by comparison, scored 2240 lines with a sensor that is smaller in physical size and, at 12.1MP, has 2 million fewer pixels.

In our color accuracy test, the A390 earned an Excellent rating, with its average Delta E of 7.7 from 8-bit TIFFs converted from RAW files using Sony’s Image Data Converter SR. Converting to 16-bit TIFFs improved accuracy a tiny bit, yielding a 7.5—in this test, a lower score being better. Again, this is nearly identical to its predecessor, which scored 7.3 in 8-bit.

The Sony keeps noise at acceptable levels across all its ISOs, although the camera’s top is a modest ISO 3200. Again, the A390 finds itself bested by an ILC, this time Sony’s own NEX-3, which reaches up to ISO 12,800 and showed lower noise numbers at almost all the ISOs the two cameras share. Of course, the NEX-3 lacks an optical viewfinder, which makes the A390 better for panning along with a subject, especially while bursting. Since the A390’s mirror can flip up and down faster than the NEX-3’s LCD can re-establish a preview image, you get more visual feedback from the A390, as you would with any DSLR.

Another point about the A390’s low noise scores is the way it achieves them, namely, through blurring. At ISO 3200, the A390’s resolution drops to 1870 lines—a significant drop, and very noticeable in images shot at that ISO.

In our autofocus test, the A390 proved speedy in bright and moderate light, achieving focus in a scant 0.29 second at the brightest level in our test of EV 12, slowing to a still-impressive 0.48 second in the mid-level EV 6 and slowing to 1.09 second at EV 0, the dimmest level at which the camera was able to focus. While Sony rates the AF system to be effective only down to EV 0, we were surprised that the camera failed to focus in dimmer light, given that the A380 was able to focus down to EV –1 in our test. Despite that limitation, we were quite pleased with the A390’s ability to lock focus quickly in moderate and bright light.

In the Field

The biggest difference between the A380 and the A390 is the grip. The A380’s grip was a bold departure from traditional grip design that ultimately didn’t work. Being shallower at top than bottom, it constantly felt as if the camera would fall out of your hand. The A390’s returns to a more traditional style, with a nice indent for your middle finger that provides leverage when tilting the camera up or down.

The problem with this new grip is that, for some users, it’s too deep overall. Testers with medium to small hands in particular found that their right hands were too open, once again leaving you with a less-than-secure feeling. Larger-handed shooters had much less of a problem here.

Almost every tester, though, found exposure compensation to be a clumsy operation. This requires a button press with the thumb and then a rotation of the lone command wheel on the front of the grip with the forefinger, and the placement of the controls made it near impossible to perform single-handedly at eye level.

The camera body itself, not counting the protrusions of the grip, is quite deep—just over 2 inches including the extra depth of the tilting 2.7-inch, 230,400- dot LCD screen, which adds about 1/8-inch to this dimension. But, before you blame the screen for that depth, consider that Sony was able to put a larger screen—with more than three times the pixel count, which also tilts up and down— into the NEX-3, while making it one of the thinnest cameras to accept interchangeable lenses.

Like most entry-level DSLRs, the A390 uses menus on the LCD screen to change most of the settings rather than external hard controls. Flash, ISO, display, and drive mode are the big exceptions, with direct access through the five-way control pad. Other common settings find their home in the Shooting Function menu. Strangely, you have to go to the main menu to engage or disengage the Super SteadyShot sensor-shift image stabilization, which gave our shooters between 2.5 and 3 stops of handholding leeway when using it.

If Sony would eschew the fancy icons in the Shooting Function menu, there would be plenty of room to include SteadyShot and memory card formatting, two things that are unnecessarily cumbersome to control with this camera.

The A390 accepts both Memory Stick PRO Duo and SD or SDHC cards. You must use a physical switch to tell the camera which card slot is active. It’s not a major inconvenience, but you should remember to select the card you’ve got before shooting. We’re just happy to see that the camera isn’t limited to Sony’s card type.

Conspicuously missing from the A390 is video recording, which has yet to find its way into any Sony DSLRs. The flip side is that you get arguably the best live view shooting available in a DSLR, thanks to the second sensor hidden in the pentamirror. Since the mirror in front of the imaging sensor doesn’t have to flip up during live-view shooting, the camera can use conventional phase-detection AF. All other brands of DSLRs must switch to slower contrast- detection AF in live view.

Bottom Line

The development of interchangeable-lens compacts has made choosing a camera in the $600 range more complicated than ever before. Sony’s own NEX-3 ($600, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 kit lens) beats the A390 in certain areas of performance. But we’d rather use the A390, given the slow-moving interface on the NEX cameras and the lack of an optical viewfinder.

We also like being able to invest in lenses that will work with a newer body once we’re ready to step up. So far, few lenses are available for any ILC system other than Micro Four Thirds. With that in mind, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-G10 ($550, street, with 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 Lumix G Vario lens) offers an appealing alternative to the A390, though its electronic viewfinder may be a deal-breaker for fans of a true optical viewfinder.

There aren’t many other DSLRs this inexpensive, and, in our lab tests, the A390 beat both the Pentax K-x and the Nikon D3000. So we’d be much more enthusiastic in recommending the A390 were it not for its ergonomics. Handle the A390 yourself before making a decision. If it feels comfortable in your hand and you don’t mind the controls, then it could be the camera for you.

**Specifications: **

Imaging: 14.2MP effective, APS-C-sized CCD sensor captures images at 4592x3056 pixels with 12 bits/color in RAW mode.

Storage: Memory Stick PRO Duo, SD, and SDHC. Stores JPEG, ARW RAW, and RAW + JPEG files.

Burst Rate: Full-sized JPEGS (Fine mode): 2.5 frames per second up to card capacity. RAW (12-bit): Up to 6 shots at 2.5 fps.

AF System: TTL phase detection with 9 illuminated focus points (1 center cross-type). Single-shot and continuous with tracking. Tested sensitivity down to 0 EV (manufacturer's rating) at ISO 100, f/1.4.

Live View AF: TTL phase detection, as above.

Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec plus B (1/3-EV increments).

Metering: TTL metering using 40-segment honeycomb pattern evaluative, center-weighted, partial and spot-metering, EV 2–20 EV (ISO 100).

ISO Range: ISO 100–3200(in 1-EV increments).

Flash: built-in pop-up TTL autoflash with +/- 2-EV exposure compensation (1/3-EV increments), GN 33 (ISO 100, feet), covers 18mm lens field of view. Flash sync to 1/160 sec. Dedicated Sony/Minolta hot-shoe and wireless control of optional flash. Viewfinder: Fixed eye- level pentamirror.

LCD: 2.7-in. TFT with 230,400-dot resolution.

Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, mini HDMI video.

Battery: Rechargeable nP-Fh50 Li- ion, CIPA rating, 510 shots with optical viewfinder, 230 shots in live view mode.

Size/Weight: 5.1x3.9x3.4 in., 1.2 lb with card and battery.

Street Price: $600 with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 Sony DT Sam lens.

For info: www.sonystyle.com

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