As expected the A850 is just a scaled down version of A900 aimed at the lower end market. Hopefully, the high ISO performance of this new camera would be improved over the A900. Several reviews has shown that the A900 is a little weak when compared to the competitors.
The A5x0 specs did show a few exciting innovations such as:
- In Camera HDR Mode - The camera takes three bracketed consecutive images and create an HDR image in camera. This was first seen in Pentax K7 and Alpha users will be happy to see it in the new A5x0 series. While this may not be as convenient as the pixel grouping technology of the Fujifilm Super CCD EXR which takes two images in one shot, it is a step forward in making it easier to create hassle free HDR images for photographers. These photographers may find themselves reaching for a tripod a little more often though.
- Faster Shooting Speed - The A550 can shoot at 7fps at speed priority mode. The speed priority mode means that the focus and exposure is locked. Focus lock may work with a small aperture when shooting moving objects, however that would neutralize the advantages of faster lenses.
- Two mode live view - There are two modes of live view for A550. The first is just like any other cameras in the market, using the main CMOS sensor. The mirror will lock up and the optical viewfinder will be blocked. However, the A550 does not support contrast detect. Thus this mode of liveview only supports manual focus. In the second mode, the A550 uses a second sensor for liveview and the optical viewfinder is totally unblocked. So users can take photos as they would before liveview was introduced in dSLRs. In this mode, AF functions as per normal, using the fast Phase Detection mode. You can read more here.
- 3" 921k dots articulating LCD - While the A500 only supports a low resolution LCD, the A550 is the first dSLR with an articulating LCD at 921k dots and 3 inches.
- EXMOR R sensors! - To me, this is the single most exciting component of the A5x0 cameras. The A500 spots a 12mpx one and the A550 spots a 14mpx one. I am definitely not the only person who is glad that Sony is not using the improved light sensitivity of the EXMOR R to pack more pixels but instead improve the performance of current sensor configurations. I would prefer the A550 to be 12mpx but I guess Sony, whom some people attribute as the starter of the dSLR mega pixel war, would not accept the idea of downscaling the pixel count of their dSLR. I guess staying put is in itself a commendable effort by Sony.
- Better battery - What can I say? Sony makes batteries. They are one of the biggest manufacturers of batteries for laptops, gadgets as well as standard consumer batteries. Even other brands use their batteries. Better batteries gives more shots between charges. Great news to event and wedding photographers. Great news to holiday makers and travelers.
What I find lacking in the A5x0 series:
- Video - Some might argue that they do not use the video functions of their dSLRs but I do see some pretty impressive clips on the internet shot with video capable dSLRs. My personal take on this is that at least adding video would give Sony's marketing department and distributors on less major dent to fill when they polish and spin their sales pitches.
- Built Quality - By looking at the price level of the A550, I suspect the A550 will invade into the territories of prosumer models such as the Pentax K7, the Nikon D90 and the Canon 50D. At least on paper, the weight and materials used on the A550 suggests that it may not match some of these other models.
- No AF in live view mode - With all the point and shoots and digital video cameras that Sony built, one would think that Contrast Detect AF would be an easy feat for Sony engineers. I am little surprised to find Contrast Detect AF missing in the normal liveview mode of A550. Again, some might argue that CDAF is never fast enough or useful on dSLR anyway. Besides, the innovative "optical viewfinder enabled liveview mode" supports the highly responsive Phase Detect AF. Well, I figure that if Sony wants to support Video mode in the future, the main sensor definitely has to learn do contrast detect. You cannot shoot video with the mirror up, unless the second liveview sensor in the A550 (currently used specifically for liveview) is upgraded and is able to shoot video... now that is an idea! A dual sensor dSLR. A dual processor dSLR have been around in the forms of A900 and Canon 1D mkIII for a while now, why not a dual sensor dSLR?
Updated: My mistakes, it seems like the A500 & A550 do not use the new EXMOR R sensors. They are the old EXMOR sensors. Sigh, what a disappointment.