Posted by: Kenji Hall on September 6, 2007
A year after Sony entered the single-reflex-lens camera market with an entry-level model, it’s about to launch its second camera with an interchangeable lens in November. The Alpha 700 should rival the 800-pound gorillas, Nikon and Canon, for the attention of camera enthusiasts. But what took Sony so long?
A pessimist might interpret the lull as the growing pains of a new venture. After all, Sony didn’t have its own SLR division until it took over Konica Minolta’s $646 million camera business in March 2006. Even for a consumer-electronics powerhouse like Sony, making the jump from point-and-shoot, pocket-sized cameras to SLRs can’t be a simple matter.
To hear Sony tell it, the months of tweaking amounted to time well spent. “We didn’t want to cut corners,” says Keiichi Ishizuka, deputy senior general manager of the digital imaging group. “There would be no point in coming out with a new camera if we didn’t offer something that consumers would be satisfied with.”
It remains to be seen whether consumers will bite. The one thing that can be said about the 700 is that the engineers left nothing to chance. The image sensor, which takes photos at 12 megapixels, relies on new technology that cancels out the muddiness that can occur with photos taken in low lighting. The magnesium-alloy-and-aluminum body has been whittled down to a trim 1.5 lbs. And engineers even fine-tuned the sound the camera makes when snapping a picture.
Ishizuka says his staff had Sony’s audio experts poll camera buffs to find out how a shutter should click. Engineers then designed a shutter to sound that way. (And make no mistake: the biggest fans do care. Check out these camera sounds.)
The heft of a camera, how its shutter clicks, how much "noise" or pixilation shows up in photos--these are all tiny details that matter to avid shutterbugs. There's also a collaborative air about the 700 that's promising for Sony. The fact that Sony's SLR group, a bunch of former engineers from Konica Minolta, worked with the audio group on mechanics as well as with the TV group to make the camera plug-and-play compatible with Bravia flat-panel high-definition TVs shows how Chairman and CEO Howard Stringer's vision of a more united company is coming to fruition.
Sony hasn't skimped on features, either. There's the anti-shake stabilizer, and a larger, higher resolution screen that brightens in daylight. The Lithium-ion battery has been rated to last for 650 pictures, and the dial lets the user quickly flip between manual mode and several semi-manual controls (far faster than trying to hunt for the functions in menus on the LCD screen). It also performed well in a dimly lit event space inside Sony's showroom in the shopping district, capturing facial features of the models and officials standing around in sharp relief.
Still, I can't help but wonder if rival consumer-electronics maker Matsushita Electric Industrial might have stolen a march on Sony. Matsushita, also new to the SLR market, started off with a top-of-the-line SLR featuring Leica lenses instead of tiptoeing in with an entry-level model like Sony did. Sony has yet to come out with its own high-end model, and Ishizuka says there won't be one till sometime next fiscal year (starting in April 2008) or later. (Inevitably, one journalist asked why Sony hadn't equipped its Alpha 700 with Live View, which lets users see their shots on the LCD screen as they're taking them—and which comes with Panasonic's Lumix DMC-L10. Maybe they're saving that for the next model.) For now, Sony remains in third, with around 6%, trailing Canon's 47% and Nikon's 33%. Not bad for a newbie. But if it wants to grab 10% and keep Panasonic at bay it will have to prove what it's capable of with the long-awaited flagship model.