Sony Alpha SLT A57 Hands-On: DSLR Performance Without A DSLR Price

Sony's latest $800 Alpha camera sure looks like a budget DSLR, huh? Well, it is, but our hands-on today has us thinking it might just perform above its paltry price tag.

The A57 handles as well as any budget DSLR we've ever tried -- even better at times. The camera is a tweaked version of the 2010 A55 -- except that Sony actually made the camera larger rather than smaller. Equipped with an updated 16.1MP, APS-C sensor and Bionz processor, improved low-light handling to ISO 16,000, continuous shooting at 10FPS, built-in digital viewfinder, and 1080p recording at both 24 and 60 FPS. It may not seem like they changed a lot, but the little things add up.

And there are cosmetic changes too, including an improved grip and larger body. It seems counterintuitive, I know, but the result is that the camera feels sturdier to hold -- like a real, big kid's camera, and not just like something you cheaped out on.

What do you get? Well first of all, you get a freaking fast camera. This A57's shutter release peels off frames as fast as any other we've tried. Pardon the lofty comparison here, but the 10FPS, machine-gun continuous shooting is the closest thing we've felt to the crazy-fast $6000 Nikon D4 we tried back at CES.

Unlike Sony's NEX cameras, which ditch the mirrored design altogether, this camera uses Sony's Alpha-series lenses, which means the camera can get better, faster autofocus than other-post DSLR shots. I used the camera to shoot a bunch of quickly moving subjects in super-fast continuous mode, and I was very impressed at how quickly the camera could adapt to changing conditions.

The major downside of single-lens translucent (SLT) cameras is that they have digital rather than the optical viewfinders on single-lens reflex cameras. Digital viewfinders are far from ideal, and they drive purists crazy, but I actually found the SLT's viewfinder to be quite good and very usable.

As for image quality -- that's what this is all about at the end of the day -- our limited time with the camera was far from enough for a final verdict. We didn't get to test the camera's supposedly beastly low-light performance, but in good lighting conditions the camera delivered sharp-looking images.

Without doing a full review, it's hard to say whether SLTs might be the future of the budget DSLR -- but from what we've seen, we're pretty confident it might be.