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Alpha 500, 550 and 850

Sony’s September launch for 2009 looks set to include three new models – the Alpha 500, 550 and 850. The model numbers are confirmed by the usual backdoor leak, appearing in the registration database for SonyStyle USA in this case (Canada has been a past culprit, updating databases associated with their site before the product is officially released). However, only a few people know what these cameras will be, and they are limited by non-disclosure contracts.

All the speculation is pretty meaningless – who, after all, would have predicted the direction the Alpha 230, 330 and 380 took? They came as a surprise. I can remember getting a surprise like that when I was about five years old. All my friends were getting bicycles (very small ones, with stabilisers). I got… a scooter! Nikon and Canon got the D5000 and 500D, Sony got the scooter.

We don’t know of a new Sony sensor yet, and all the indications are that the Nikon due to be launched shortly will be a ‘D3000′ (D5000 video etc in an even more basic, compact, simple body and selling with an RRP around 65% of the D5000). Both Nikon and Sony will have been concerned about the Canon 50D and 500D with their 15.1 megapixel ‘count’, and the Pentax K7 will have added to the need to compete (Samsung sensor). Working together, they will either be trying to take the 14.2 megapixel CCD of the 350/380 a step forward in performance or they will have a 16.x megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor which has been kept firmly under wraps.

Numerical clues

Sony likes to offer a clearly defined product range in terms of features and USPs. My guess would be that the 500/550 indicate the use of a revised 12.2 megapixel EXMOR at 500 level and a new 16.x EXMOR for 550 – as with the 300/350 and 10 megapixel/14 megapixel sensors. This is how the model numbering of 200/300/350 and 230/330/380 has so far functioned – the first digit of the number indicates the body style or feature level, and the second two digits indicate the sensor.

That means the 850 may possibly share the same sensor as the 550, and that reinforces the prospect that it could be an APS-C 16.x megapixel model. I think it would be reasonable to assume double BIONZ processing (an architecture which has proved very successful) for high speed shooting – above 5fps – plus an optical glass prism finder. The Minolta tradition reserved glass prisms for all models above level ’7′ in the last decade of Minolta operation, the 2-3-4-5-6 levels having mirror prisms.

The 5-series bodies will, I think, follow the style of the new 2-3 series but be a little larger and with fewer ‘lost’ controls. The 8-series will be on A700 scale but restyled to match the new range, and the 850 will effectively replace the 700, leaving only the Alpha 900 as a survivor with visible Minolta genes.

As for video, if it appears it will be coupled to sensor-based live view. As the EXMOR 12.2 megapixel CMOS is compatible with live view and video (in revisions later than the IMX021 used in the Alpha 700) it’s reasonable to hope for LV/video in the 5-series. Any new sensor would have to be LV/video friendly to sell through to Nikon and handle today’s market demands. Sony does like the stratify its offerings, and that could mean that only the 850 offered video. But it could also mean that only the 5-series offer video and the 850 has entirely different USPs.

The 1997 ‘beast*’ – the Dynax 800si with its GN 20 superflash. Could the 850 also have a special emphasis on the onboard flash functions? *For ‘beauty’, see the 9xi.

If I had to look back at Minolta heritage for clues, I’d give the 850 a built-in HVL-F20AM flash including the rotating bounce reflector, creating the first ever DSLR to have an onboard flash as powerful as the 800si (GN20) and capable of shooting bounce (at ISO 1600!) without needing an accessory flashgun. But then, I would also like to add onboard GPS position embedding and wifi data transfer. Because of the file sizes involved, wifi transfer is best added via an accessory grip with loads of battery power for sustained connection. GPS is already built-in to some Sony video Handycams, and therefore seems a more likely added feature. Nikon at least has a GPS socket and an affordable add-on. Sony must match that feature soon.

Of course, you can also just look back at Alpha model numbers since 1985. It is possible that Sony has used numbers like 100, 300, 230, 350, 550 and 850 because there never were any previous Alpha SLRs with those numbers. But there was a 700 and a 500 (both suffixed ‘si’) so that theory is demolished pretty easily. Still, they do seem to be avoiding past Dynax/Alpha/Maxxum model numbers as far as is practical.

Vid variations

What if Sony has finally added video? After field-testing all the Nikon and Canon models, I can say that audio quality is critical because it’s appalling mono in the Nikon D5000, barely acceptable mono in the D90 and 500D, OK-ish stereo in the 5D MkII only. The Minolta/Alpha hot shoe has unused connections and the potential to add further connections. It would be a great type of shoe for fitting a stereo shotgun mic or an adaptor for line input from mixing desks.

A new 16.x megapixel CMOS in APS-C size would be ideal for video, possibly capable of 1080p/24 standard which would make it unique. This is the standard required by Getty and other stock clip libraries, by broadcasters and producers. So far all the VD-SLRs made have offered peculiar bastard settings – 1080p/30, 1080p/20, 720p/24, 720p/30, 1080i/24 output and so on. The first maker to offer 1080p at 24 or 25 fps with stereo sound and external mic input will have matched an industry standard neatly and gain praise from the HD video community.

Full frame – fantasy?

The alternative scenario – and by far the most popular guess – is that the 850 must be a full frame, 16.x megapixel model one notch below the Alpha 900 in  price. I think that the Canon 5D MkII renders that most unlikely. The 24 megapixel sensor of the Alpha 900 is well proven, in full production, has scope for revision without massive research investment or tooling up. It has a marketing advantage over the Canon; Sony may have moved the megapixel count to the rear side of the A230-380 series, but they still value that number. If it’s full frame, my bet is on 24 megapixels again. Sony has already proved it can sell the Alpha 900 for 25% less than the Canon 5D MkII street price in the UK, and undercut even the Nikon D700 consistently.

The forthcoming 28-75mm f/2.8 with in-lens motor (presumed to be Tamron-derived) lower cost full frame standard is pointed out by many as evidence that a lower resolution full frame is coming. Well, I’ve been using the old KM 28-75mm f/2.8 D on my Alpha 900 and it’s more than up to delivering the goods on 24 megapixels. Having a lower cost 28-75mm would benefit overall Alpha 900 sales (or any other full frame model). The main reason people give me for not buying a 900 is the cost of a set of CZ full frame glass, and Sigma UK is selling out of Alpha mount HSM deliveries within hours. That lens is needed anyway, regardless of future FF bodies.

Form versus function

It’s clear from the A230-380 series that Sony is capable of prioritising visual design over ergonomic design and control of functions. The new 18-55mm and 55-200mm SAM lenses point to a contrasting willingness to sacrifice visual design to cut costs or improve manufactured output QC (closely related objectives). We can be almost certain that the 500-550 models will reflect both the new look and manufacturing methods. Since they will have to sell for £700-1000 UK (the Alpha 380 covers a £500-700 kit range) they are going to have to be attractive to look at, and impressive to handle. Whatever the 850 turns out to be, it will probably occupy the £1000-1750 list price slot with any future Alpha 900 successor hitting the £1750-2500 Canon 5D MkII target.

One thing is sure. The A230-380 have been a step which makes many Alpha owners wonder whether to stay with the system. I’ve never read so many damning opinions based on merely handling cameras in stores. I have an Alpha 380 kit arriving today and I will try to be objective – I will also ask non-photographers what they think. If the A500-850 launch follows the same directions of development as the A230-380 and fails to deliver any of the key features hoped for, there will be plenty of Alpha users switching system in 2010.

To sum up:

The most expected and demanded features are -

  • Live View off Sensor, together with HD Video capture
  • A new sensor to compete with either the Canon APS-C 15+ megapixel, or Nikon full frame 12+ megapixel
  • Better high ISO performance, higher maximum ISO
  • Onboard GPS location tracking and metadata embedding (RAW and JPEG alike)
  • Wireless data transmission either onboard or via power grip
  • Faster maximum shooting rate (over 5fps) expected in 850
  • Dust, moisture, shower and generally environmental sealing improvements
  • Onboard flash with better command functions for wireless remotes
  • A more complex AF module with better tracking
  • AF tuning function as found in the A900, or improved
  • Improved exposure accuracy, white balance, etc

When the new cameras are finally announced, you can tick this list and see how well Sony did…

- David Kilpatrick


5 comments to Alpha 500, 550 and 850

  • bhaefner

    I agree! If the 550/550 and 850 look anything like the 230 etc., there will be a lot of Alpha mount lenses and bodies for sale on Ebay next year. But it will not happen! There is going to be a battery grip for these cameras. So much has already become apparent. Thus, I think they will look more like the 200 etc. and 700, respectively. In case the 500 should really get the old 12 megapixel chip from the 700, I hope they do something about the noise and resolution, the latter being barely higher than that of the 200 which, not having had the privilege to use a 900, yet, in my opinion is the best of the lot (I sold my 700!). If only the 200 had mirror lock-up (I use long telephotos on tripod!). That would be easy to achieve with a firmware modification, I suppose. Depth-of-field preview I can do without. For my macro work outdoors, the viewfinder is usually to dark to use this feature when stopped down to f16 or even f22.

  • Jonathan

    I currently use an “analogue” Minolta Dynax 7 and I am still awaiting a FF equivalent digital SLR from Sony. I don’t need 24 MegaPixels and the Alpha 900 is too expensive and does not have a built in flash. What I want is around 12 MegaPixels, low noise FF digital SLR with a built in flash for occasional fill in. I don’t want to be lugging my HS5600 flash gun around all the time. Full Frame would be useful as the three lenses I use the most are wide 17-35mm (f2.8 to f4.0), standard 28-70mm (f2.8) and telephoto 70-200mm (f2.8). I am not so sure about these effectively becoming 25.5-52.5mm “wide”, 52-105mm “standard” and 105-300mm telephoto on say the Alpha 700. Without full frame at a reasonable price, I might as well sell my lenses and switch to Nikon!

  • LEdgars

    May be it is interesting dilemma to compete with 50d or d700. Or may be not and compete with both. It could be pretty logical to add A550 as a 50d competitor (both have 15-16Mpix APS) and A850 then will go as a d700 competitor. In that way it is possible current A700 users feels that they downgrade if they buy A550, but from Sony marketing point of view it will force to by FF A850. Taking into account Nikon d700 success, average (16) Mpix FF A850 for £1000-1200 (body) could shake the market. I bought my A900 for about £1500 and it could be strange if they list A850 for higher price. For sure then A850 cannibalize A900 sales, but for many 8Mpix difference between 16 and 24+ Mpix could be valuable for only £300. In addition I agree with DK article before, that A900 performs pretty well in low ISO arena especially with DxO and C1 raw converters. Moreover if Sony will add some A900 firmware improvements to come closer to D3x IQ, A900 could be even more exciting camera.

  • Bengeo

    Given that the A230-380 range have been designed to be attractive to people upgrading from point and shoots I think they have met that target very well. They look and handle like smaller bridge cameras and don’t have the bulk to intimidate new DSLR users. The menu system is very well thought out too, only showing you items that you can change and explaining clearly what the different settings do. But I wouldn’t want an A850 in that form!

    Andy

  • Photorer

    A very interesting analysis—– it will be interesting to see what comes out in the next month or two……..!