The Sony Alpha 390 is a subtle upgrade over the previous A380 incarnation. With essentially the same specs as its predecessor, albeit with a full and proper grip to replace the difficult-to-hold sunken mishap of the A380. So is the A390 a DSLR released to do anything more than stylistically align itself with the current range?
The Sony A390 is a 14.2-megapixel entry-level DSLR that certainly packs in the resolution card at a decent and affordable price point. Its main "confusion", so to speak, is the manufacturer's significant population of the market - with the A290 and A330 still available in the range plus the discontinued A230, A280 and A380 still available, Sony's approach in the last year has certainly been to saturate the market place.
There are few unique standpoints between these models and the differences between the A390 and its previous A380 model are entirely cosmetic, so this shouldn't be seen as an upgrade model for existing users. However, by replacing the sunken grip of the A380 with a proper and full grip, the A390 does provide new customers with a fuller experience and greater ease of use.
The A390 has a solid feature set, with Quick AF Live View providing a secondary sensor for class-leading autofocus when in the full-time preview live view mode. Burst rate allows for up to 2.5 frames per second to be fired off, captured in either RAW or JPEG (or both simultaneously). Sony's SteadyShot INSIDE - a sensor-shift internal image stabilisation system - also features in order to keep shots sharp, whichever lens you have attached to the camera's front. As Sony bought out Konica-Minolta some years ago, the Alpha lens mount is the very same fitting, meaning that older Minolta lenses can fit to the front. This may be an attractive feature for those with old lenses lying around the house that are considering stepping up to a digital model.
The LCD screen on the rear is a fair 2.7-inches (at 230k-dot resolution) but also has a tilt-angle capability meaning it can be moved through vertical angles to face directly up or down for waist-level or over-the-head shooting.
In shops the A390 with an 18-55mm kit lens can be picked up for around the £400 mark, which offers very good value for money. With the nearest competitors including Canon's 1000D and Nikon's D3000, the Sony offers an improved spec for an extra £50 that you should expect to pay. The Nikon D3000, for example, doesn't have live view functionality and the 1000D's 2.5-inch screen doesn't have the tilt-angle capability of the A390's larger 2.7-inch version.
The build quality perhaps leaves something to be desired, as the body is of a plastic finish and doesn't feel especially luxury, yet is sturdy and as expected at this price point.
The overall layout of the camera is sensible and easy to use. The mode dial sits to the top left-hand side for quick adjustment between manual, auto and scene modes. Live view and the optical viewfinder forms of shooting can be toggled between by using a large switch to the camera's top right. To the rear is a standard D-pad with AF, display, ISO, flash and continuous shooting controls and also an Fn (function) button above this for quick-accesses to a variety of modes such as Metering and AF control. It's with the internal menus and visual displays where things continue to be comprehensive thanks to the visual display style that helps beginners to see the relationship with shutter and aperture values by looking at an easy to understand graph-like display. Plus all the key shooting values are quickly viewable on the LCD screen to ensure good reference when in any manual shooting mode.
In use the A390 acts relatively well, though its 9-point AF system can struggle in low light, partly due to the lack of an AF-assist lamp. The flash can be used for AF assist by pre-flashing, though this is generally bright and obtrusive and it seems a shame that an AF-assist lamp isn't included. Furthermore, for low light shooting, the Auto ISO function fails to select from the higher settings, which will then usually require manual intervention to select from ISO 1600 or 3200 depending on the lighting conditions. Brighter conditions are much more the A390's forte - though capturing fast-moving subjects can be a little tricky with the AF system not always rapidly responsive, though not entirely different from many other entry-level models on the market.
The A390 successfully delivers well and evenly exposed images with natural colour, much like the A380 before it. To jazz up proceedings there is a Creative Style option for selecting Black & White, Vivid and other similar options. Exposure can also be "boosted" using the D-Range Optimiser that exposes for both shadows and highlights by auto-adjusting the results in post-production.
Although images aren't always uber-sharp with the basic kit lens, they are still of good quality and the variety of additional lenses available offer wide variety for picture taking.
The A390's ISO sensitivity ranges from 100-3200 and generally image noise is kept to a minimum. Although ISO 1600-3200 certainly exhibit signs of both colour and luminance noise, the noise reduction process keeps it to a level that means shots are still usable, albeit a little softened due to this process. ISO 100-400 offer the best results, with smooth gradients and little image noise, though the entirety of the ISO range offers acceptable use, which is commendable when considering some competitor cameras' poorer high ISO results.
The A390 is essentially an A380 rewrapped in a new body. Grateful though we should be for this - as the new, more substantial grip is essential for extended use of a DSLR camera - it fails to offer much "new". Of course, for those first time buyers this will be of little consequence as the A390 is an affordable, well-specced DSLR that takes decent pictures of good, usable quality throughout its entire ISO 100-3200 range.
The build quality is a little bit "plasticy", though this is a fairly small sacrifice at this price point. While Canon's EOS 450D may be deemed a close competitor for those with a little extra cash, the A390 generally holds its own by offering class-leading live view thanks to Sony's Quick AF Live View system. The same cannot be said about its standard AF system however, which is a little slow, though not beyond the expectations of an entry-level model such as this.
Overall, a good, well-rounded camera, if not a little unremarkable in places due to lack of new innovation. It's good to see a few small errors from previous models ironed out, and although little is new here the A390 still has got a lot to offer with the basic kit option available for around the £400 mark.