In terms of overall performance the A200 is a definite improvement over the A100. As with most DSLRs the A200 starts up in well under a second, and shuts down again almost instantly on power-off. The AF system is now much faster and more accurate, and is noticeably better at locking on quickly to low-contrast or poorly lit subjects, something that was a bit of a problem for the A100. It also spends a lot less time hunting backward and forward when focusing at longer zoom ranges. As a result of this and the improved Bionz sensor the overall shooting speed is significantly faster, averaging approximately 0.6 seconds from shot to shot in single frame mode. Continuous shooting speed is also much faster, able to maintain a consistent three frames a second to the limit of card capacity, which is comparable to the EOS 400D and Nikon D60. The improvements to the image stabilisation system are hard to spot, but Sony's claim of an extra half-stop of stability seems to hold water. I was easily able to take hand-held shots using an 80mm lens at 1/10th of a second, which is about three stops lower than the unstabilised recommended speed.
Improvements to overall picture quality are somewhat harder to quantify. As I've noted before, barring differences in lens quality there's not a lot of variation in the level of fine detail between any of the leading 10MP digital SLRs, and the A100 was definitely no slouch in this respect. For the A200 the Dynamic Range Optimiser feature has been slightly improved, producing a wider range of highlight and shadow detail in high contrast shots, but since the A200 uses the same sensor as the A100, not surprisingly there isn't much difference in total quality. Where there is a difference however is in high-ISO noise control. Early sample shots seen on the internet from the Chinese launch of the A200 in early January seemed to suggest an almost miraculous lack of noise in 3200 ISO shots, but as my test shots on the following pages will show, it's not quite that good. It's got nothing to be ashamed of though, producing virtually noise-free shots and 400 ISO, and only a tiny amount of mid-tone noise at 800 ISO. At 1600 and 3200 ISO noise is visible, but colour balance and exposure remain accurate and the shots are far from unusable.
The software supplied with the A200 is the latest version of Sony's Picture Motion browser and Image Data Suite. I've used the former before and find it to be reasonably easy to get along with once you've beaten it into submission by turning off the default calender-based browsing. Image Data Suite, used for image processing and converting the camera's RAW files, is also reasonably good, and certainly a lot better than some other manufacturer's efforts. It can also output directly into Adobe Photoshop, which is even better.
The Alpha A200 is an important model for Sony, since it is now the entry model for a growing DSLR system. It ticks all the right boxes, with an attractive and easy-to-use design, brisk performance and good picture quality. Its feature set will leave advanced amateurs and semi-pros wanting more, but that's pretty much the idea of an entry-level camera. For the price it offers a comprehensive package for the first-time user with very few problems. Could Sony overtake Nikon this year?