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Sony got something of a head start in the digital SLR field by inheriting Konica-Minolta's technology and lens mount when that company pulled out of the camera business in 2005, and anyone who is familiar with Konica-Minolta's camera range will notice many similarities between the A700 and the Dynax 7D launched in 2004. The overall shape of the body and the layout of many of the controls are virtually identical, and in many ways the A700 can be seen as a development from the Konica-Minolta design. However these similarities are really only superficial; the A700 is in every other respect a completely new camera.
The initial impression is extremely positive. For anyone who is used to handling digital SLRs, the A700 certainly feels like a grand's-worth of camera, but it is surprisingly light by comparison to other semi-pro models. Measuring 141.7 x 104.8 x 79.7mm and weighing 690g sans lens, it smaller and lighter than the Canon EOS 40D at 146 x 108 x 74mm and 740g, the Nikon D300 147 x 114 x 74mm and 825g. The closest match in terms of physical dimensions is the Pentax K10D at 142 x 101 x 70mm and 710g. Nonetheless the A700 feels large and reassuringly solid in the hand, in fact some people with smaller hands have commented that the camera's handgrip is too large to be comfortable. I can see what they mean; I have particularly large hands, but even I found it to be quite a handful. A secure two-handed grip is essential especially when using a longer lens.
Most manufacturers try to keep some consistency in the control layout between their various models, so that people who are upgrading from one body to another with find the controls familiar. However with the control layout being based on the Minolta Dynax 7D the A700 has a completely different interface to the easy-to-use A100, which will be confusing and somewhat irritating for anyone moving up from the entry-level model. The only similarity between the control layouts of the two cameras is the position of the on/off switch. The main mode dial is now on the left of the top panel, with separate external buttons for ISO, white balance, drive mode and metering mode instead of the A100's dial-and-button system. Sony has also opted for the type of on-screen graphic interface first used by Olympus on the E-500. Pressing the ‘Fn' button highlights an option on the monitor status display, and the joystick is then used to navigate around this and select which parameter to change. It's a very intuitive system for anyone who has used any type of computer software, and is a very quick way to adjust frequently-used settings.
For exposure adjustments the A700 has a dual-wheel input, as do most high-end SLRs, with one wheel on the top of the handgrip just in front of the shutter button, and the other on the back positioned under the right thumb. Both wheels are larger than the single wheel on the A100, and are slightly easier to turn. All of the controls have a solidly positive feel to them, although I did fond the metering mode and focusing mode selectors, both of which are small multi-position dials, to be a bit fiddly. I'm also not particularly fond of the small joystick that replaces the more usual D-pad. It has a press-in action to confirm selections, but I really prefer a conventional D-pad with a centre button, such as the one on the A100. I dare say I'd get used to it in time, but at least initially it felt a bit awkward and fiddly.
Other notable external features include a powerful AF assist lamp with a range of around 7m, and a row of ports on the left-hand end of the camera. These include the DC power input, the socket for the remote electronic cable release, a flash sync socket for connection to a studio flash system and a combined USB/Video port. It also includes an HDMI socket, currently a unique feature on a digital SLR, which allows the camera to be connected to a HD TV set. If it is connected to a Sony Bravia TV it offers something called Photo TV HD mode, which includes fully optimised HD picture viewing. I'm not sure that this will be a selling point to many professional photographers, but it does offer the option of presenting preview photos to friends or clients on a large screen at maximum quality, which could be handy if you happen to own a new Sony LCD TV. All the socket hatches are covered by rubber plugs which actually have hinges, rather than the usual flexible rubber straps, which means they stay open when they have to and close securely to keep out dust and moisture.
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