Hot on the heels of the recent launch of the entry-level Alpha A200, Sony has announced two more new digital SLR cameras. The Alpha A300 and Alpha A350 are a pair of high-performance mid-range models that sit between the A200 and the semi-professional Alpha A700. The two models share an almost identical design and specification, apart from their sensor resolutions. The Alpha A300 has the same 10.2-megapixel APS-C sensor as the A200, while the A350 incorporates a brand new 14.2 megapixel APS-C CCD sensor. Alongside the New Pentax/Samsung K20D and GX-20, both 14.6 megapixels, this seems to define a new band of high-resolution performance significantly ahead of Canon's newly-announced 12.2-megapixel EOS 450D, which could be worrying for the market leaders. It's probably significantly more worrying for Nikon, whose DX range of consumer DSLRs is currently topped by the 12-megapixel D300, costing over £1,000.
The new models have some very impressive features, including a 2.7-inch articulated LCD monitor with incorporating a new feature called Quick AF Live View, which enables the use of the DSLR's advanced new centre-cross 9‑point phase detection AF sensor in live view mode. (In most other live-view DSLRs, any live-view focusing is either done by flipping the mirror, or by using a slower contrast-detection AF system.) Apparently this is achieved by using a separate Live View image sensor in the light path from the reflex mirror. It's not the first time this has been tried, but hopefully Sony will have better luck with it. The monitor tilts upward by 130 degrees and downward by 40 degrees, useful for tripod and waist-level shooting.
One interesting although slightly worrying feature is the inclusion in Live View mode of something Sony is euphemistically calling a Smart Teleconverter mode. However this is none other than our old friend digital zoom, enlarging the centre zone of the sensor, providing extra magnification at the price of overall image quality. Sony claims that the large 14.2MP sensor of the A350 means that even digitally-zoomed pictures are sharp, but I'll reserve judgement until I can get one in for review.
Other noteworthy features include an improved Super SteadyShot moving sensor image stabilisation system, with a new control algorithm that promises 2.5-3.5 stops of extra hand-held stability. The new models also have Sony's proven anti-dust mechanism. The improved Bionz image processor provides maximum sensitivity of 3200 ISO, and both cameras also make use of Sony's InfoLithium battery technology. Battery duration is an impressive 730 shots (410 in Live Veiw mode though) and the remaining power is displayed on the monitor as a percentage.
Optional extras include the powerful new HVL-F42AM Flash unit, with wireless control and bounce/tilt head, and the VG-B30AM Vertical Grip, which allows comfortable handling in portrait or landscape shooting positions. The grip holds up to two NP‑FM500H Rechargeable Battery Packs for an extended shooting stamina of up to 1460* images (820 images in Live View mode) from a single charge. The grip is compatible with A200, A300 and A350.
The A350 Digital SLR camera will be available from the beginning of March, and the A300 from the beginning of April. They will each be sold either body only, as a kit with the DT18-70mm F3.5-5.6 lens, or as a two-lens kit with the DT18-70mm F3.5-5.6 and DT55-200 F4-5.6 lens. Pricing hasn't yet been officially confirmed, but some retailers are already taking pre-orders for the A350 body only for £499, £569 with the 18-70mm and £699 for the two-lens kit, so it would be a fair guess that the A300 will priced somewhere between this and the £369/£449/£599 pricing of the A200.