The Sony A500 offers a fast frame rate for a camera in it's market niche, with up to 5fps burst speeds with the optical viewfinder or 4fps when using Live View. The A500 also allows you to use any Sony Alpha or Minolta Autofocus mount lens (including 20+ year old lenses from Minolta that were designed for the Minolta Maxxum and Dynax film cameras). As with all other Sony dSLR models, any lens you use on the A500 is stabilized, thanks to the built in SSS (Super Steady Shot) image stabilization system, reducing camera shake to allow slower shutter speed photos that would normally be possible without using a tripod. The viewfinder also displays a Super Steady Shot bar graph (so you can tell how hard the stabilization system is working to combat your camera shake), making it easier to predict the results you'll get for the conditions you're shooting in if you can't use a tripod.
In addition, the A500 offers some very interesting HDR (High Dynamic Range) features, including an Auto HDR feature that lets you take two photos (one photo exposed for the shadows, and another photo exposed for the highlights), combining them into a single image in camera, even when using the camera without a tripod (as the image processing is designed to account for minor framing differences between the images being combined). It also offers multiple choices for single shot Dynamic Range Enhancement (allowing a user to select from 5 different levels plus Auto). For greater versatility that could appeal to point and shoot users upgrading to a dSLR, the Sony A500 offers dual card slots. This feature allows a user to load SDHC and/or MS Pro Duo media, then change between them with a simple flick of a switch. The A500 uses a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery and has a CIPA rating of 1050 shots before a recharge is needed. We did not observe a low battery indication in a single shooting session while using this camera. One thing the A500 is missing is the ability to record video (something we're starting to see on more and more dSLR models). But, so far, Sony is not including video capture in it's current dSLR line-up, despite the best Live View implementation on the market in a dSLR (much faster Autofocus compared to it's competitors when using Live View).
The size of the A500 is very appealing, offering more grip surface compared to the entry level Sony dSLR models like the A330 and A380, which I thought made the A500 easier to hold and use for longer periods of time, with a comfortable weight of approximately 21.1 ounces before adding the lens and battery. It's penta-mirror optical viewfinder is an improvement over the A330 and A380, offering a larger and brighter view. The A500's tilting LCD is also quite nice, especially when using Live View for waist level type shooting or shooting with a tripod. I found that the LCD display remained quite usable in most conditions, only starting to get grainy in very low light levels. The Auto Gain function helped to keep the LCD usable in tough conditions. Note that you only have around 90% frame coverage when using fast Autofocus Live View, since the dedicated Live View sensor is located in the viewfinder housing. That allows a bit of room for cropping. But, you can change to what Sony calls Manual Focus Live View and get full frame coverage using the camera's main imaging sensor for closeup work if you require more accurate framing and can also magnify the view by 7x or 14x for greater manual focus accuracy. One thing I did notice was that the A500 did not have a standard video connection. Instead this Sony model offers a mini-HDMI port. That's great if you have a newer display or HDTV with an HDMI input. But, the lack of a standard video output could may be limiting if you are still using an older TV or display with a composite/RCA type input. Also note that the HDMI cable was not included (it's sold separately).
The A500's performance is quite robust, with power on to first shot running around 5/10 of a second. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image was approximately 1/10 of a second when prefocused; with Autofocus Shutter lag running approximately 2/10 to 3/10 of second when using a Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 DT SAM lens with either the Optical Viewfinder or Live View. Shot to shot times using Single Shot drive mode ran less than 1 second without flash, or 1 to 2 seconds with flash (depending on subject distance), using either Live View or the Optical Viewfinder. Shooting JPEG Fine versus Extra Fine with Drive Mode set to Continuous High, I was able to capture 137 images in 30 seconds (4.5fps) without any indication of a slowdown with Autofocus set to AF-S (Single Shot AF) and DRO set to off. Switching to AF-C (Continuous Autofocus), and Drive Mode set to Continuous High using the Optical Viewfinder, the camera captured 56 images in 12 seconds (approximately 4.7fps, slightly slower than advertised, probably due to the focus system's predicative AF algorithms when using AF-C), still capturing 117 images over 30 seconds (averaging approximately3.9fps over a longer period of time) . When using Live View with Continuous Autofocus (AF-C), the A500 was still able to capture 100 images over 30 seconds (approximately 3.3fps) Switching to RAW with the Optical Viewfinder, I was able to capture 20 images in 4.2 seconds (approximately 4.8fps) before the camera slowed down, still capturing 81 images over 30 seconds. Shooting RAW using Live View, I was able to capture 26 images over 8 seconds (approximately 3.3fps), still capturing 70 images over 30 seconds. A full buffer took approximately 7 seconds to clear. A Sandisk 8GB 30MB/Second Pro-HG Duo card was used for testing.
As for shooting control, the A500 has a wide range of options available, including Manual Exposure, Programmed AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority; and a variety of Scene Modes including Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Sunset and Night Portrait. The control layout of the A500 made it easy to change modes with confidence, with dedicated buttons for frequently used features like Dynamic Range Optimization Mode, ISO speed, and Drive Mode. It's Fn (Function) key allowed rapid access to most other features. Anyone accustomed to another Sony dSLR should have no problem picking up an A500 and enjoying it after a short amount of time to become familiar with it's controls and menus, while the A500's beginner friendly screens make it easy for first time dSLR owners to appreciate this camera, too.
The Sony A500 also offers a wide variety of Creative Styles, and even has the ability to store multiple Custom White Balance settings (in addition to the numerous presets available for different conditions like Tungsten, Sunny, Flash, Shade, Cloudy and a manual color temperature). All white balance presets are individually tunable with blue/amber compensation. As with most other dSLR models in this price range, you can also switch between Metering Options including Spot, Center Weighted and Multi-Segment (Matrix).
The A500's focus system worked nicely, easily tracking moving subjects, performing better than expected. The only minor complaint was that the frame rate was not quite as fast as advertised when using Continuous Autofocus (the camera slows down just a bit when shooting rapidly moving subjects, apparently to help insure greater accuracy). Overall, we found that it was a fast and reliable system, giving a high percentage of in focus images in tougher conditions.
The A500 has very good image quality at lower ISO speed settings, even using the standard default settings. Fine grained noise is noticeable in shadow areas at ISO 800, but it's still quite low and comparable to other cameras in it's class. Thanks in part to the high resolution APS-C size 12.3MP CMOS sensor, the impact of noise in images is negligible at print or viewing sizes most owners would use. High ISO NR (Noise Reduction) kicks in at ISO speeds over ISO 800, and can be set to Normal or High, allowing a user to achieve a better balance between detail and noise. We were very pleased with the results at higher ISO speeds at typical print and viewing sizes, including 8x10" prints, and found this system to work quite well, with lower noise levels than we've seen from previous Sony models at the same ISO speed settings. Users wanting larger than 8x10" print sizes when using ISO 3200+ may prefer leaving high ISO NR set to Normal and shooting in RAW for even better control using software based tools later. Note that we'd have preferred that Sony included a Noise Reduction Off Setting for even more flexibility (versus the Normal or High settings currently available with the A500). Also, when reviewing our sample images, we noticed what appeared to be a spot caused by sensor dust on some photos. However, this spot later vanished on similar images, which suggests that the anti-dust system was successful at removing it at some point during our camera tests.
Bottom Line - The Sony A500 is a camera with a wide variety of interesting features, including very fast Autofocus when using Live View (something you don't find with competing dSLR models), and a unique Hand Held Auto HDR mode. Yet, the A500 still offers a number of features that appeal to first time dSLR owners, too (including a variety of scene modes, and easy to navigate screens for other camera settings). We only had a handful of minor complaints, and found that the A500 was fun to use with it's nice ergonomics, easy to use control layout, and performance oriented features, making it a great choice in it's market niche for virtually any type of still photography. With a current MSRP of only $749, we can easily recommend this camera to dSLR owners looking for a unique product in this already crowded dSLR segment.