With the announcements of the Alpha DSLR-A500 and A550, Sony brings what feels like a market microsegmentation strategy to dSLRs. These models raise the total of new Sony dSLRs costing less than $1,000 up to five; if you count the older A700, which hasn't been formally discontinued, then you've got 6 Sony dSLR options squeezed into the $400 gap between $549 and $999. A welcome plethora of choices, or a try-anything-and-see-what-sticks strategy? I can't answer that for Sony, but I've been staring at the specs for hours and still can't figure out why the A380, introduced only 3 months ago, exists in this family.
The cameras incorporate Sony's latest technologies for improving low-light shooting experiences. They both use Exmor CMOS sensors (compared to CCDs for the lower-end models), debuting updated on-chip noise reduction which processes chroma and luma channels separately. The quality of its noise suppression has long been one of Sony's weak points, and this can only help. Will it bear scrutiny up to the extended sensitivity of ISO 12,800? I can't wait to test them and see.
They also debut Auto HDR, a variation on the Hand-held Twilight mode, one of the few things I liked in the company's DSC-HX1 megazoom. Auto HDR snaps two sequential shots at different exposures and combines them into a single shot with "optimal" highlight and shadow detail. It doesn't have quite as much control as I'd like--you'll be able to manually select the amount of the bracket, but it's limited to two shots and it doesn't save the individual frames, just the combined result and only as a JPEG--but it's potentially a superior approach to the gamma-adjusting schemes such as Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization and Nikon's D-Lighting. Provided there's no performance overhead, of course.
In addition to the resolution differential between the A500 and A550, the A550 has a higher resolution LCD--the same one used on the A700 and A900--and a faster burst option called Speed Priority mode, which basically forgoes continuous autofocus. (With AF, the continuous-shooting performance is the same.)… Read more