Hands-on: Sony Alpha A7 review

The NEX is dead. That's right, the new Sony Alpha A7 compact system camera represents Sony's decision to push the Alpha brand forward. And it does so in style.

The key feature of the A7 is that it has a full-frame sensor yet compact body, the likes of which we've never seen before. It's the first full-frame compact system camera, something that's been talked about for a long while. And the fact it's smaller than the Olympus E-M1 Micro Four Thirds camera is quite staggering. Just think about that for a moment.

READ: Hands-on: Olympus OM-D E-M1 review

Better still is that its price point which, while by no means cheap, is genuinely affordable. At £1,300 it's the most budget full-frame offering on the market.

A new sensor size means new lenses are a necessity to provide ample coverage of that large sensor. Sony's been clever here, by maintaining the E-mount fit, but introducing a new "FE" group to offer full-frame coverage. There's a standard 24-70mm kit lens, alongside new Zeiss glass to cater for the pros. Or, if you've got Alpha glass, then that's compatible via the new LA-EA4 adaptor.

We've been handling the Alpha A7 at a Sony launch event and it feels great in the hand. Almost like a lightweight RX1 compact camera with interchangeable lenses and a built-in 2.4m-dot electronic OLED viewfinder.

READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX1 review

Despite the small size everything fits to the hand well. There's a dual thumbwheel system as most DSLR systems offer, although each sits rather squarely against the body. That's a style thing if anything - everything's very angular. Indeed, and to reiterate our mention of the Olympus E-M1, there are some visual similarities here to some extent.

As well as a mode dial to access all the manual and auto shooting modes there's also a dedicated exposure compensation dial. It doesn't lock, so you might find it knocks a little too easily from time to time - something to keep an eye on. 

The Alpha A7 introduces a new hybrid autofocus system with 117 phase-detection areas, divided into 25 selectable points. It's really very swift in operation too, a million miles beyond a compact camera.

Shooting in and around City Hall in London and nothing posed a problem to zip into focus. Whether single or continuous autofocus, multiple area of manual single point, the choice is yours. And if manual control is your forte then that's no problem too - best handled by the Zeiss FE lenses, but of course.

Whether using the rear LCD screen or the built-in electronic OLED viewfinder the autofocus system remains the same on both counts. The viewfinder has a short delay before it activates, which is typical of eye-level activation of any electronic finder that we've seen, but the preview image seemed smooth in motion, bright and clear.

If the rear LCD is more your thing then it's tilt-angle ability will come in handy for waist-level shots, as it can be positioned horizontally by pulling it out some 90-degrees - ideal when resting the camera on a surface to snap a frame. It's not possible to tilt the screen so steeply in the other direction for over-head shots, however, but the 45-degree downward angle will still come in handy.

Image quality we've only had a brief look at by zooming in on the rear screen. And things are looking very fine indeed from this 24-megapixel offering. Depth of field is shallow, as it typical with a full-frame sensor, while detail looks to be top quality.

Video mode is also offered at 1080p60 in the AVCHD holder format and the model includes both headphone and microphone 3.5mm jacks for live monitoring and recording. Add full, live manual control and that silky smooth continuous - and fast - autofocus and this looks as though it could be a videographer's dream too.

For now the A7 is a pre-production so we can't conclude anything concrete about the resulting quality based on the short time we've had with the camera, but it looks like something to get excited about. We are.

The Sony Alpha A7 will be available from December, priced £1300 body only. That Christmas list just got a whole lot pricier.