This time last year the first-generation Sony A7 took the Pocket-lint Awards gong for best interchangeable lens camera. As a small-scale full-frame model with Sony's E-mount lens fitting, it had innovation clearly in its sights. But it wasn't quite perfect in every way.
The evolution of that product brings its logical continuation in 2014: the Sony A7 II. A complementary model to the now-four-strong range, rather than a straight successor to the original, it's a camera that tweaks the design into an altogether more manageable body, while adding autofocus improvements and a new 5-axis image stabilisation system.
We got our hands on Alpha A7 II ahead of its January 2015 launch to see whether it elevates the full-frame Alpha range up yet another notch.
The first thing that can be clearly felt is the enlargement of the A7 II's grip compared to the first-gen model. A necessary adjustment when trying to balance the model with a larger chunk of glass attached to the front. It's this which adds to the depth dimension of the product, as at 59.7mm it's 11.5mm deeper than the first-gen model.
But that's not the only design change. The shutter button has also moved forward into a more logical position, which feels less compact camera and more compact system camera in its operability.
With the shutter placed further forward, the arrangement of front- and rear- thumbwheels has also been moved slightly. The front thumbwheel is still present, but it's hidden more into the body rather than the large stylised dial of the original model to make way for the shutter button's new home. A small change, but an important one.
The A7 II also introduces an additional function button - which can be user assigned - meaning C1 and C2 reside on the top of the camera, while C3 sits to the rear. In our arrangement a tap of the C2 button could be used for switching between autofocus area options, in conjunction with the rear rotational d-pad - the third rotational control on the body.
And it's autofocus where the A7 II arguably sees its biggest push forward. Eagle-eyed readers will see the 117-point phase-detection system, paired with 25-area contrast detection, reads the same as it did in the original A7. It's the same system, but with algorithm tweaks inherited from the A6000.
Sony's stance: the A7 II can recognise subjects and backgrounds more quickly, therefore knowing which direction to drive the autofocus, with a 30 per cent jump in speed.
That's all well and good, but is it actually better? We got to play with the original A7 and the A7 II and did find the new model to be quicker. Perhaps most notably in continuous autofocus, where it's automated adjustment between subjects at different distances wasn't as far behind our Nikon D810 (which we also had in tow) as the earlier system.
Part of the appeal of the A7 II is that, via an A-mount adaptor, it's possible to use a variety of Sony lenses. With the LA-EA4 adapter connected and a Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 A-mount lens attached, the 15-point phase-detection system is centrally arranged - perhaps too much so.
With E-mount lenses attached (i.e. no adapter) the arrangement of autofocus points is better spread, although again the phase-detection section is more centralised.
Is it a big enough boost to warrant jumping from A7 to A7 II? Part of that will depend which lenses you're using and on an unknown entity: the Mark II's price. We'll have to wait until January 2015 to discover that.
The headline-grabbing feature in the A7 II is its inclusion of 5-axis image stabilisation. Olympus already has this in its Micro Four Thirds cameras, and Sony is the first to implement it in a full-frame sensor model. Interestingly the system will work in combination with lens-based image stabilisation where available, to get the best possible preview to the viewfinder (EVF), while adjusting for pitch, yaw and roll on the free-floating sensor. If there's no lens-based stabilisation then the sensor will cater for it all.
The sensor itself is the very same 24.7-megapixel offering as in the original model, with tweaks to signal processing made for supposed better image quality. Various lovely example shots were on display, but we'd warrant you won't notice a difference between first-generation and the follow-up MkII model. Still, that large size, significant depth-of-field control and big resolution was already a winner.
There are other design points of note, with the 3-inch, 1.23m-dot WhiteMagic screen said to perform better in sunlight. Not that the UK winter feels like dishing out much of that at the moment. We've seen the tech in other Sony screens, such as that on the RX100 III compact, and it is impressive. But in the case of the Sony A7 II it's how the slim screen nestles into the body that's most standout. It doesn't look as though it can tilt 107-degrees down and 41-degrees up, indeed it doesn't look like it pulls away from the body at all. Perhaps that's because it's a little fiddly to get a finger around to pull it outward.
In the viewfinder department things are the same as the original: the 0.5-inch OLED panel delivers 1.23m-dots of resolution and looks great. Auto activation from the eye-sensor when switching between LCD and EVF isn't immediate, but it's as fast as these things come. The only change is a softer rubberised eyecup to make things altogether less stressful for those who wear glasses.
Then there's movie recording. Although 4K capture is absent from the list - something the sister model A7S can perform via HDMI out only - the addition of XAVC S format (50Mbps at 1080p60/50/30/25/24fps), S-log2 gamma and time code will add Brownie points to the videographer's arsenal. There are 3.5mm headphone out and microphone inputs already on board, making for a decent rig.
If, that is, you have a spare battery or two. Despite an increase in the A7 II's scale, the same NP-FW50 battery as used in the first-gen model is utilised. Great for upgraders, but we'd like a more capacious battery for a longer-lasting capacity. Official figures state you'll get the same 270 shots per charge when using the EVF as before - not bad considering the in-body stabilisation system, but it's the area we were most disappointed with in the original lineup, and that still stands now with the A7 II.
The Sony Alpha A7 II is an E-mount evolution. The first model was forward-thinking, the A7 II one year on takes that concept and shows off Sony's alternative approach, complete with some welcome enhancements. We hope the price is accessible too - then we'll be onto a full-frame winner.