Comparing the A500 to its two main market rivals, the first thing that stands out is that it's quite a lot bigger and bulkier than either of them. It measures 137 x 104 x 84mm and weighs 597g body only, significantly larger and heavier than the D5000's 127 x 104 x 80mm and 560g. By comparison the EOS 500D is tiny and waif-like at 128.8 x 97.5 x 61.9mm and 480g. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I have heard the the mid-range Alpha cameras described as ugly, but personally I like the design. The lower two thirds of the body is covered in a comfortable textured rubber which makes the camera easy to grip and provides some level of impact protection. The A500 has a full handgrip similar to the A350 rather than the awkward half-height grip of the entry-level models such as the A330. The large size of the camera body does at least give plenty to hold onto, and the camera fills the hand nicely. Those of you with smaller hands may find it a bit of an awkward fit, but now you know how I feel about all those tiny pink ultra-compacts you make me review.
The overall build quality is good, certainly on a par with its main rivals. The body is made of plastic but the fit and finish are of a high standard, with no creaky panels or gaps at the joins. Like the D5000 and EOS 500D the A500 doesn't make any claim to being weatherproof or especially rugged, but the various sockets are covered with tight-fitting rubber plugs and both the battery and card hatch have strong metal hinges. The card hatch is well fitted and looks like it should keep out most dust, but the gap around the battery hatch is rather wide.
There are no fewer than 13 buttons scattered over the expansive acreage of the camera's body, as well as a mode dial, a slider switch for the live-view and a D-pad for menu navigation. Sony are usually very good at control ergonomics, and the A500's controls are all well spaced out and clearly labelled, and the buttons are relatively large, although they do feel a bit “squishy” compared to some more professional cameras.
I wish Sony would make its mind up about its viewfinders. The quality ranges from the restrictively narrow tunnel of the A330 to the gorgeous sweeping vista of the A900, and everything in between. The A500 is towards the narrower end of the scale by recent standards, with 95 percent frame coverage and 0.8x magnification. It has a good clear data display along the bottom, but the amount of information shown is rather limited, with just focus confirmation, shutter speed and aperture setting, EV compensation and a camera shake warning. The nine focus points are clearly marked, but the red LED that illuminates them also causes a lot of glare on the right of the viewfinder, which can be a bit distracting especially in low light. At least it has a nice soft cushion around it, which won't scratch your glasses. Like all Sony DSLRs it has an eye-start sensor which can be used to automatically focus as soon as the camera is raised to the eye.