Sony today launched sweeping updates to the higher end of its Alpha DSLRs with three new cameras. The A850 is an unusual step for Sony that takes the full-frame, 24.6-megapixel sensor, sensor image stabilization and dual processors as the A900 but with a slightly reduced viewfinder that provides 98 percent coverage versus the previous model's complete image, reducing the cost. It continues to have a 3-inch LCD with live view, shoots at up to three frames per second at full resolution, and has slots for both CF and most Memory Stick Pro Duo cards.
Although the A850 makes relatively few sacrifices, the differences are enough to lower the price by $700 to put the A850 at $2,000 (body-only) when it ships in September. To match, Sony is launching a 28-75mm f2.8 lens, the SAL2875, that should provide standard zoom while taking in large amounts of light both up close and when approaching telephoto ranges. Like its intended companion camera, the lens will be relatively moderate in its $800 price, but it won't be available until November.
For more mainstream photographers, the A500 and A550 are Sony's new mid-tier, crop-frame DSLRs and are the first to sit in between the A700 and the economy A300 series. Both have a swivel LCD and new combinations of sensors and processors that boost the maximum light sensitivity up to ISO 12,800, or enough to theoretically compete with cameras like Canon's Rebel T1i.
Live view has been given a similar boost and implements a new dual-sensor trick that promises to eliminate the slow autofocusing that most DSLRs suffer when in live view mode: a second sensor coordinates its information with the first to reduce the time for a contrast-based autofocus lock. This also gives the smaller Alphas a unique dual-preview mode that shows a 7X or 14X zoomed-in picture through the viewfinder but regular magnification through the LCD. Smile detection is also new on these cameras.
The two more inexpensive cameras are separated by resolution and speed. The A500 captures 12.3 megapixel images at regular speed, but the A550 not only snaps 14.2-megapixel images but does so at up to seven frames per second, leaving it the only camera in its class to achieve the feat. Resolution is different on the preview LCDs, as the A500 gets a 230,000-pixel display where the A550 gets a much crisper-looking 921,000-pixel image.
Either camera will be inexpensive, with prices floating at $750 for the A500 body and $950 for the A550. A basic macro lens, the $200 SAL30M28, is accompanying these and will provide a 30mm fixed-zoom, f.28 option for all Alphas. Both the A500 series units and the lens will be ready in October.