Neither bottom-of-the-range DSLR nor semi-professional tool, the Sony Alpha A380 is aimed squarely at family users and enthusiastic amateurs.

Thinking about upgrading from a compact to a digital SLR for the first time, or simply want a relatively lightweight and compact model as a backup? Though Canon and Nikon have long dominated the world of digital SLRs, Sony is fast gaining ground as a viable alternative.

The 14.2Mp Sony Alpha A380 does battle with its competitors' similarly priced and pitched 500D and D5000 cameras, although it omits those two models' HD video functionality.

Neither bottom-of-the-range DSLR nor semi-professional tool, the Sony Alpha A380 is aimed squarely at family users and enthusiastic amateurs; the electronics manufacturer delivering a fairly compact model that is at once easy to use yet feature packed.

Chunky controls, well-labelled buttons and comfortably lightweight body ensure that the Sony Alpha A380 will appear less threatening to anyone picking up a more ‘serious' camera for the first time. However, despite the overall feeling of robustness, the plastic nature of the finish is an initial disappointment.

Not quite what we expected from a camera retailing for a suggested £720, though that figure does include an 18-55mm zoom lens that we'd recommend absolute beginners plumping for. For £520 you can get just the camera alone.

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Sony Alpha A380: screen time

Unusually for a DSLR, the Sony Alpha A380 features a tilting LCD screen at the rear that can be angled up or down, for either low or high angle shooting, a feature shared with its D5000 rival. Unfortunately for Sony, the Nikon has the edge by virtue of the greater flexibility of its own screen, which can also rotate left or right, and fold inwards to the body for added protection. By contrast, while welcome as a useful extra, the Sony Alpha A380's screen can't help feel a bit stiff and awkward.

On a positive note, the Sony Alpha A380's LCD displays a graphical interface showing key shooting information, and, as the user tabs through the features on display, an on-screen guide explains, by way of a brief text ‘speech bubble', what the different settings do. Thus, this is a camera that you can familiarise yourself with without constant recourse to the manual - and such help can be deactivated via the menu system once experience grows.

The info display also cleverly flips 90 degrees if the DSLR is turned on its side in order to shoot portrait fashion, while an eye-level sensor switches it off if the optical viewfinder directly above is in use. Additionally, the camera will automatically determine focus for the user when it detects their eye is level with the viewfinder, so the shutter release is ready to be fired immediately. Fast, responsive and reliable appears to be the Sony Alpha A380's mantra.

Its Live View feature - where the rear screen can be used for shot composition as you would on a compact camera - is also impressive as an alternative to the slightly murky optical viewfinder above. And, with a single press of the ‘AF' button at the rear, in this mode the Sony Alpha A380 will continue to automatically determine focus for the user if required.

Inevitably, constant use of the LCD use sucks up power, delivering just 230 images from a full charge of the Sony Alpha A380's battery as opposed to 500 shots if using the viewfinder instead. Standard JPEG, better quality Raw, or a combination of both file formats are written to either Sony's own Memory Stick media or the more widely used SD or SDHC. There are slots for both; with a sliding switch to specify which one you want to record to, as the camera doesn't automatically choose.

Along with the innovative, Sony has also included some odd features on its flagship consumer model. A case in point is the dedicated button for a ‘smart teleconverter' that digitally crops into an image when your own lens won't stretch that far. Since this is utilising only a portion of the image, overall resolution inevitably drops. Strange, as the Sony Alpha A380's otherwise higher-than-average resolution is surely one of its greatest selling points. Incorporating some form of video capture, Full HD or otherwise, might have been a better bet by way of an additional attention grabber.

NEXT: our expert verdict >>

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Sony Alpha A380: Specs

  • 14.2Mp Digital SLR
  • 128x97x71.4mm
  • 490g
  • Lithium-Ion battery
  • Continuous Shooting Speed: 2.5
  • 2.7in LCD
  • Continuous, Self-Timer, Single modes
  • Dust reduction
  • exposure modes: Aperture-priority, Automatic, Manual, Program, Scene Modes, Shutter-priority
  • Exposure bracketing: 0.7
  • Flash
  • ISO Settings: 100, 1600, 200, 3200, 400, 800
  • Image Stabilisation
  • Max Resolution: 4592 x 3056
  • Centre weighted, Multi-Segment, Spot metering
  • Min Shutter Speed: 4000
  • Optical viewfinder
  • PictBridge
  • White Balance: Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent, Shade, Tungsten
  • 14.2Mp Digital SLR
  • 128x97x71.4mm
  • 490g
  • Lithium-Ion battery
  • Continuous Shooting Speed: 2.5
  • 2.7in LCD
  • Continuous, Self-Timer, Single modes
  • Dust reduction
  • exposure modes: Aperture-priority, Automatic, Manual, Program, Scene Modes, Shutter-priority
  • Exposure bracketing: 0.7
  • Flash
  • ISO Settings: 100, 1600, 200, 3200, 400, 800
  • Image Stabilisation
  • Max Resolution: 4592 x 3056
  • Centre weighted, Multi-Segment, Spot metering
  • Min Shutter Speed: 4000
  • Optical viewfinder
  • PictBridge
  • White Balance: Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent, Shade, Tungsten

OUR VERDICT

The Sony Alpha A380 delivers evenly exposed images with natural colours when left on its default settings. There are further pre-optimised Creative Style settings for those who prefer the more vivid look. We weren't convinced, however, that the supplied kit lens made the best of the sensor's high pixel count, with detail softer than we expected. Couple this with disappointment about the plastic build and lack of video and Sony gets a ‘good, but could do better' this time around.

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