It's been nearly 2 days since Sony officially unveiled the new Alpha 700, and reaction has typically focused on a differences, rather than similarities, with the other two recently unveiled DSLRs aimed at the same segment, the D300 and 40D. The main difference between the the A700 and the others is the presence or absence of Live View, a comparatively new feature on DSLRs. In the forums of various photo web sites, fanboys of various ilks have been parading their colours but fail to see the wood from the trees. It's a matter of a tool fulfilling a function and if a tool does well what it is meant to do, then it is a good tool and maybe worth its asking price.
Personally, I can see where Live View may be useful but it's absence will not be a big handicap for the shooting that normally like doing. Macro and underwater photographers may feel the lack more severely but since I do not do either on a regular basis, these applications are not driving my photographic needs. Fans of competing systems who do have Live View seem to believe that theirs is the One True Way and if Sony have chosen not to implement the flavour of the month, then we (Alpha Mount shooters) are all doomed by our choice.
But looking at a camera as a whole, instead of simply a sum of its specifications, we should really evaluate a camera as means to an end. As stated above, if your end is high magnification macro or underwater photography, a D300 may be a better tool with its contrast detection AF. However, if you are in the mainstream and looking for a camera that fits well in the hand, has a comprehensive and ergonomic control system (including vertical grip for some), most probably comparable AF performance and image quality, and the bonus of in-body image stabilization, then one cannot fault the A700.
I take photos because it's enjoyable, and a key to that is the process and tactility of handling the camera to take the shot. The main difference between a compact camera and an SLR is the degree of control one has over the picture making process. With a compact camera, usually one can only point it in a particular direction, perhaps change zoom to crop the scene, and press the shutter. The camera decides where to focus, what aperture to use and hence the depth of field (which is usually the whole scene for small sensor cameras), the shutter speed, exposure, whether to use flash, colour balance, and then recording a processed JPEG which has limited post-processing potential. Where manual controls are available, they are slow and unwieldy to use. With an enthusiast DSLR, the interface and ability to set the shooting parameters quickly and efficiently are the key features which sets it apart.
The Alpha 700 looks to retain the old Minolta spirit pioneered with the 600si, refined in the 7, and then carried through with the 7D. Though one may lament the loss of a knob and dial, it looks as if Sony have further refined the camera interface. The placement of the key buttons on the read of the body have been retained. The AF, AEL, AE mode dial and directional selector are still in their well placed positions. The vertical grip replicates the controls almost exactly meaning that shooting in portrait position should be as easy as in landscape. The replacement of the drive dial with a button press and control wheel is a main change, one that needs to be tried before a definite opinion can be formed. The change of the ISO button to the top is also another thing that has to be tested. But overall, the interface matches or exceeds that of its forebears.
The one thing that may prove to be a consumer gain over the 40D is the rear LCD. This is a 640x480 X-Fine dual mode LCD. This means that it can operate in transmissive or reflective mode so that it should be viewable both indoors and out. Reviewers have generally been effusive over the clarity of the display (apparantly shared with the D300). The extrememly fine pixel pitch (267 ppi) means that images look extremely good and that reviewing sharpness is improved.
So to compare with the 40D, we have Live View on one hand and the high resolution LCD on the other. The screen will be a feature that every shooter can appreciate whereas Live View may only be of practical use to a few. This may prove to be a deciding factor for buyers coming from the existing Sony consumer market which Sony hope to tap into, many of these will see cameras as a way of instantly sharing photos to others at social occasions and so the better screen will be a strong selling point. Due to the lack of AF in Live View mode on the 40D, this feature is not going to be useful to users who come from a compact camera background.
The D300 has Live View and a high resolution 3" screen so there is no advantage to the Alpha 700 on this front. The anticipated comparatively large step in price from the Alpha 700 to D300 (as opposed to the delta between the 40D and A700) may be a potential draw for the Alpha, but at this level, perceived brand values may play more of a role.
The lightness of the A700 may indicate that Sony is focusing on the female photographic market. It has fairly compact dimensions compared to the other two making it more friendly to smaller hands. On the other hand, the addition of the vertical grip makes for a formidable camera, especially wedded to a tele zoom like the 70-200mm SSM. So stylistically, Sony seems not to give anything away to its competitors.
On the lens front, the provision of the 18-250mm and 16-105mm lenses makes for a compelling package for first time DSLR buyers. Zeiss lenses in the line up offer upgrade potential. For the majority of buyers, the Sony lens line up is perfectly adequate, with the newly announced lenses offering a combination of convenience but also acceptable quality.
So looking at the bigger picture picture, the Alpha 700 is an attractive offering for newcomers not blinded by brand loyalty or gimicky fashion. All three competing cameras are good photographic tools and it will boil down to an individual tactile dialogue which camera suits them best. I think Sony have done a good job and I look forward to the time I can mount my own lenses to an Alpha 700.