With the Alpha DSLR-A380, Sony takes a lot of the complaints users have about digital DSLRs--and Sony cameras in general--and tries to offer compelling reasons for them to jump on its bandwagon. This compact camera is smaller and easier to use than newbies might expect a DSLR to be while still offering excellent colors and backlight correction. It even accepts SD Cards, which is a relatively new trick for Sony cameras. Before you buy this $699 camera, though, consider that similarly priced or even less expensive DSLRs offer HD movie recording, while others offer speeds better suited for shooting fast-moving subjects.
The 1.6-pound A380 (5.0 x 3.8 x 2.8 inches) is similar in size to the Nikon D3000 (5.0 x 3.8 x 2.5 inches), but weighs 0.2 ounces less. And while it's a bit heavier than the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, the A380's dense, more substantial feel may appeal to enthusiasts.
On top of the A380 is a mode dial, along with a switch for moving between Live View mode and the optical viewfinder. On the back of the camera and next to the 2.7-inch (230,400-pixel) LCD are function, exposure, delete, playback, and menu buttons, along with a five-way navigational pad. We love the LCD's built-in accelerometer, which quickly re-orients photos and menus as you rotate the camera in your hand. All in all, the layout of buttons looks more streamlined than the Canon T1i.
Like the Nikon D5000, the A380 has an articulating LCD, meaning you can pop it out and rotate it 135 degrees upward or 55 degrees downward (the D5000's most oblique angle is 170 degrees). This comes in handy when you're shooting at tricky angles, such as holding the camera above you. Of course, this means shooting in Live View mode--something we don't recommend unless you find yourself in such as a situation where using the viewfinder is impossible. As you'd expect, the camera is slow to focus in Live View mode, and its shot-to-shot speeds drag.
Two more notes about the A380's design: one, it has HDMI output, which would be more useful if the camera shot HD video. Secondly, whereas Sony cameras used to accept only Memory Stick storage, the A380 has two slots--one for Memory Stick Cards and another for SD Cards. When you open the slot that covers these cards, you'll see a switch that instructs the camera which one to read.
The A380's beginner-friendly user interface has illustrations that help novices understand how their changes to the settings will affect the photo quality. For instance, the shutter speed is shown on a spectrum, with an icon of a stationary person at one end and a moving subject at the other. For depth of field, there's ablurred icon at one end of the spectrum, and asharp, clearicon at the other. The only other feature we'd like to see Sony add is a navigational dial, so that users could adjust settings such as aperture in manual mode on the fly.
In several ways, the $699 A380's image quality is comparable to the $799 Canon EOS Rebel T1i's captures. Like the T1i, its colors are accurate, but more saturated than photos we've seen from such Nikon cameras as the D3000 or D5000. In Macro shots, its nine-point Autofocusing sensor captures lots of fine detail in the foreground, while softly blurring what's in the background.
The A380 holds its own when it comes to harshly lit situations. The camera did a good job of bringing out shadow details without overexposing the background. As mentioned above, however, you don't get HD movie recording, something even the $599 Pentax K-x offers.
Speed and Battery Life
Our photos of moving subjects were less sharp on the A380 than similar shots captured with the T1i and D3000. That could be because this DSLR shoots at 2.5 frames per second, while the T1i shoots up to 3.4 fps and the Nikon D5000 up to 4.0 fps. While its brisk shot-to-shot speeds feel typical, the Nikon D3000 and D5000 have faster startup times. On top of that, the A380 operates noisily.
The A380's rechargeable lithium ion battery is rated for up to 500 shots. Like the Nikon D3000 and Canon T1i, it lasted through a few busy days at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, where we were taking lots of photos with the flash on.
The $699 Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 is an intuitive, inexpensive DSLR that also happens to take good photos. However, other similarly priced cameras (such as the $599 Pentax K-x) can shoot HD video and are generally faster. Don't want to shoot video? The Nikon D3000 ($549) is an even better deal. When it comes to ease of use, however, the A380 leads the pack.