HandlingPick the Sony Alpha 55 up and you're in for surprise: it's both small and light. That's clearly welcome news for anybody who doesn't want to cart a bulky camera around with them, but the small handle isn't all good news. Even somebody with normal-sized hands will struggle to grip it properly, and we suggest anybody with big mits gives it a real try before buying one. The body isn't made from top quality plastic either, and left us feeling like we were holding an entry-level camera—but the Alpha 55 certainly doesn't come cheap ...
Despite looking a traditional SLR, viewfinding is electronic and comes to you directly. The LCD screen and the viewfinder both show you exactly what the camera's sensor can see. The latter covers 100% of the field, has a decent 1.1 x enlargement and 480 000 pixels (3 x 480 000 green, red and blue pixels). It's not as accurate as a good optical viewfinder, but doing it electronically has some other advantages: you can see how low light levels affect the white balance in real time, and viewing is faster than with an optical system. On the other hand, some people notice visual artefacts on the display, and both electronic noise and jerky movements become common as soon as light levels fall. There's also a real problem with the dynamic range on offer.
The LCD screen is top quality. It sits on a horizontal hinge and can tilt in just about every direction, offering you a good view of its 920 000 pixels. It certainly picks up reflections on a sunny day, but it will be perfect for shooting video.
The interface has clearly been designed with beginners in mind. There are no customisations options, and most features are available either via a direct button or via the onscreen menu. The video mode has its own direct access.
ResponsivenessWe have no real complaints about the Sony Alpha 55's responsiveness. Switching it on is fast and the autofocus works well in the majority of situations. It works really when in video mode and is without doubt one of the best such systems currently available.
Saving a photo is also fast. Burst mode reaches a lightning-fast top speed of 10 fps in a dedicated mode, and you'd need to use a professional SLR to achieve anything similar. The burst mode is so fast, in fact, the Alpha 55 struggles to cope with all of the information coming out of the sensor and freezes up for a good ten seconds while it empties the cache.
Picture QualityAfter trying Sony's new 16 Megapixel sensor on the NEX-5, we were keen to see how it performed on the Alpha 55. To cut a long story short, we weren't disappointed, but we weren't very surprised either. The Alpha 55 produces photos that are pretty similar to the NEX-5. To start with electronic noise, there's nothing wrong up to 400 ISO, but blurriness removes some of the details at 800 ISO. It's nothing serious, though, and photos at 1600 ISO are perfectly usable. Any higher, and you lose details with more and more blurriness, but for small prints (4'' x 6'' or 5'' x 7'') you can go up to 6400 ISO without any problems. An excellent performance, all things considered.
It's a shame we can't say the same about the lens. The 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 really isn't great. It's pretty weak overall and if there's not much detail in wide-angle shots, things are hardly any better in tele-photo. Having tried it on several cameras now, we don't think the 18-55 mm lens can really cope with a 16 Megapixel sensor. We also tested a 50 mm f/2.8 macro lens and the difference is incredible. We would recommend a 17-70 mm f/2.8-4 HSM lens from Sigma for this camera. It will cost more, but is faster and offers much better optics.
Everything else on the Alpha 55 is pretty good. The exposure is good across the whole frame in most ordinary situations. Colours are a rather easy on the eye, but in a good way.
Compare the Sony Alpha 55 to other digital cameras in our Product Face-Off