Sony Alpha A37 review

4.5 out of 5
£460

For

Nippy autofocus, impressive continuous autofocus, affordable, decent image quality

Against

15-point AF system is centrally arranged, build is a little plasticky, electronic viewfinder won't suit all tastes, small LCD screen and light-reflective issues, limited battery life, no 60/50p movie mode

Sony’s been pushing its SLT - or single lens translucent - range for some time now. Although touted as an "entry level" model, the Sony Alpha SLT-A37 has an arm-length list of features - many of which better the nearest big brand DSLR cameras.

For under £500 the Sony’s translucent mirror technology offers burst shooting at up to seven frames per second (7fps) and continuous autofocus in 1080p movie mode that’s unrivalled in its class. Can the Sony A37 do no wrong?

Acronym party

DSLR? SLT? What’s that all about? If you’re confused by these acronyms, or more importantly the difference between the two, then don’t be.

The SLT concept is similar to a DSLR in many respects. The A37 has a Sony Alpha lens mount which means you can chop and change between Sony’s Alpha lenses (or older Minolta ones), but the camera’s translucent mirror means an optical viewfinder isn’t possible in its design.

Instead - and in addition to the rear LCD screen - the A37 features an electronic viewfinder, rather like a mini LCD you can put your eye up to.

But the major upside of a translucent mirror is that it needn’t flip up out of the way when taking a picture in order to expose the sensor. Instead the A37’s technology can focus and capture images simultaneously. This is great for burst shooting or in movie mode because the camera doesn’t need to “re-think” focusing between frames: subjects are far more likely to stay in focus wherever they happen to move throughout the frame.

Think of the SLT market in a similar light to the DSLR market and the toss up is: do you want a faster and more accurate continuous autofocus system and burst mode, or are electronic viewfinders so heinous in your mind that a DSLR’s optical version is an absolute essential? It’s one or the other.

You can only have something similar to both if you shell out thousands of pounds at the top end of the DSLR range. And here’s one of the A37’s winning points: it’s less than five hundred quid. Yup, £460 with the 18-55mm lens is a bargain if you ask us.

Entry-level?

The Alpha A37 replaces the A35, making it the most affordable Sony SLT on the market. In fact its suggested price is less than its predecessor. Irrespective of the price point, there are a number of features that stand out and raise the A37’s status above some of its pricier competitors.

The camera’s 15-point autofocus system is arranged towards the centre and, while we would prefer a broader spread, what’s on offer is still very impressive. The autofocus system can be set to single, continuous or automatic - a hybrid of the two that responds only when its senses subject movement - and arranged in either 15-point wide, three-zone (left/centre/right), centre spot or local settings - the last allowing the user to select from any of the 15 available AF points.

Thanks to the SLT’s design the speed of focus is swift. It’s not the fastest out there with the included 18-55mm lens but let’s not lose sight of the fact this is a budget, entry-level camera.

Pop continuous autofocus on and the A37 really shines. It’s rare that a camera will successfully grasp subjects in movement, but the A37 is on form for the most part. Better still all the focus area modes described above can be used and there’s also an object tracking mode - great for unusual subject placement and maintaining focus as your subject moves.

However the aforementioned 7fps burst mode is available only if the "speed priority" mode is selected. This isn’t a major problem for all scenarios, but it does mean continuous autofocus isn’t available with full manual control. But the up to 5.5fps burst rate available in combination with any other settings is still fast.

Another fun feature is the inclusion of a built-in magnifier that Sony calls "clear image zoom". Hit the zoom button on top of the camera and it’s possible to select between a 1.4x and a 2x magnifier – so it’s possible effectively tondouble the focal length, and the camera upscales shots so they’re still output at 16 megapixels. They obviously don’t have the exact same clarity as a standard shot, but it’s still a very useful feature to have if you’re unlikely to buy many or any additional lenses.

Performance weaknesses

In order to keep the price down Sony has lowered some of the A37’s specifications compared to its A35 predecessor.

For example, the rear screen is a 2.7-inch, 230k-dot resolution - smaller and less resolute than the A35’s 3-inch, 921k-dot one. It does feel small by today’s standards, and some finer details do flicker as the resolution struggles to portray images in their best light. It’s also not that great to use outside - sunlight bounces around en force and makes composing pretty tricky, despite the cool tilt-angle mount that helps avoid light reflections to some degree and is also useful for composing shots above and below eye level.

Of course there is the built-in electronic viewfinder if sunlight is too much of an issue. Electronic viewfinders still divide opinion – some love them, others don’t mind, but those used to optical viewfinders may find the electronic screen’s slightly laggy preview when panning a frustration. We’re okay with the viewfinder in general, though it is also a little contrasty, can be slow to activate to the eye (it’s not always available like an optical one is) and image preview in low light is unavoidably poor because of the presence of image noise.

Its 1,440k-dot resolution may sound impressive, but it’s not a patch on the Sony A77’s 2.36-million-dot OLED version and, in pixel terms, the A37’s viewfinder only equates to an SVGA resolution. Though that’s one better than the rear LCD’s VGA resolution.

Then there’s the battery life. With continuous autofocus, sensor-based image stabilisation as well as two effective screens there’s a lot of juice-sucking tech here. So much so that the 450 shots per charge, while not awful, doesn’t compare to its nearest DSLR competitors by a good hundred shots.

There’s not much to moan about in terms of build quality, though this light camera does feel a little plasticky. Not in a flimsy way, just in terms of finish.

Image Quality and movie mode

The A37’s 16-megapixel APS-C-size sensor - or 16.1 effective megapixel sensor if we’re going to be specific - delivers familiar images. Think Sony NEX-5N quality.

The A37’s ISO 100-16,000 equivalent range is exceptional at the lower ISO settings, and it’s even still good come ISO 1600. It’s by ISO 6400 when detail begins to get rather smudged and process-sharpened edges show as processing aretfacts. ISO 12,800-16,000 don’t have much use, particularly shots with lots of shadow detail, but they’re not a complete write-off.

Focus on the low-mid and the lower levels of the high ISO settings and it’s plain sailing stuff. We’re impressed.

When it comes to movies the A37 is also more than proficient. As well as the impressive autofocus - whether single or continuous, including full access to the focus area controls – the camera also has a 3.5mm microphone input. We’re even more impressed.

The 1080i50 mode also transmits data at up to 24Mbps which makes for decent looking shots. It’s not “broadcast quality”, nor is it the 50p 28Mbps as incorrectly described on the Sony website, but it’s on par or better than the competition out there and looks good to us. There’s also a 25p option in 24/17Mbps.

However the sensor-based image stabilisation system limits recording to nine minutes to avoid overheating, and even then that doesn’t always work. We’ve hit some heat problems, usually in enclosed rooms where the ambient temperature continues to rise. Our advice: when inside, switch the SteadyShot off, unless you’re only grabbing short clips from time to time.

Verdict

The A37 is a patchwork of other Sony SLT cameras past and present. Its ultimate goal: to be as budget as possible. And it achieves that with bells on.

But not only is it affordable, the A37 is also a great camera. The continuous autofocus system will outdo anything at a similar price point, and the same can be said for movie mode’s swift autofocus (just a shame it’s 50i, not 50p). Then there’s the 7fps burst shooting mode that’s unrivalled for this kind of money.

Sure the small screen and electronic viewfinder might not suit all, and the limited battery life is an annoyance, but these amount to the cost to pay for a fast, techy camera.

The A37 is a viable DSLR alternative; it’s a DSLR beater in many respects and epitomises how far the apparent “entry level” market has come in just a few short years.