Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New Firmware for Sony A77 and A65

When is an update really an update?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011, arrived for me with nearly as much anticipation as did October 21, 2011. The latter was the date I purchased my Sony A77 and the former was the release date for the (much needed) firmware update. The Sony user community had already compiled lists of firmware wishes even before the camera was available, these wishes being based on the preceding model, the A700. Then users of the new camera began noticing bugs that they thought should be removed with a new firmware update.
Firmware is the software of the camera. If you've ever re-installed the operating system on your computer, you know how scary it can be to lose all your files if you mess things up. With horror stories coursing through the internet about camera crashes (they wouldn't function after a certain sequence of buttons had been accidentally pressed), I was not the only one who was afraid to upgrade after the new firmware 1.04 was made available. Some brave (?) souls had already downloaded it from a Chinese server (!) and reported that it worked fine. Some software experts in the forums confirmed that the two versions were indeed identical. As for me, the promise of improvements in performance (for free!) outweighed my fear.

1600 ISO with Firmware version 1.04
When normal consumers speak of improvements in software or firmware, we project a lot of hope onto the software engineers, some of whom had, in this case, certainly been informed of the users' update desires. However, I imagine that many of the desired update functions could not be simply tweaked into the existing software. As anyone knows who has ever looked at a piece of computer programming, software is very detailed and cannot always be improved without running the risk of creating bugs elsewhere. Compromises must be made until a big update is made.
Here are the improvements that were supposed to be made, according to an official in the German Club Sonus:
1. Better response time when changing the settings using the (front and) rear control dials.
2. Improvement of the lighting using ADI flash mode.
3. Improvement of the MR mode (A77).
    a) The saved settings won't be changed when you leave the MR mode.
    b) The white balance settings from other shooting modes won't influence  the WB in the MR settings.
    c) The settings in the MR modes will not be kept when changing to other shooting modes.
4. The LCD won't be turned on when the camera is being turned off.
5. Change in the function of the AEL button when using spot metering: "AEL" will no longer be shown when AEL is pressed.
6. Change in the usage of the rear control dial when the shutter button is pressed down half-way: The rear control dial can be used for the the program shift function.
7. The Auto ISO settings can now be changed with the front control dial.

Those were the relatively exact changes that were announced beforehand. These are the vague ones that Sony reported when they actually released the new firmware 1.04:
  1. The number of automatic compensation compliant lenses supported has been expanded.
    • Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 ZA (SAL1680Z)
    • DT 16-105mm F3.5-5.6 (SAL16105)
  2. Functional improvements.
    • Improvement of response time.
    • Improvement of picture quality.
    • Improvement of usability.
Here are my thoughts on these changes: Any new camera these days will probably have a few bugs when it first hits the market. The Nikon D90 had a much criticized video mode, even though it was the first DSLR to include video capabilities. The A77 is not the first SLT camera from Sony, yet it was supposedly fitted with a new processor at the last minute, which could explain some of the problems in the software. I cannot determine whether they were actually able to fix all the announced bugs. Number 1 may have improved a bit, though I seem to be the only one to report a positive result here. I've read that Number 2 has not been markedly improved. Number 4 seems to have gotten worse (see below). I can't judge whether Number 5 has changed. Number 6 seems to work sometimes; perhaps you have to develop a feel for which dials and buttons to turn and press. 
I did not purchase my A700 until firmware version 4.0 was on it, so I did not have to suffer that camera's teething problems. One of my A700s has recently developed the typical control dial problem, in which one click of the dial can send the settings God-knows-where. But that seems to be a mechanical problem that can be easily - if expensively - repaired.
The improvements which Sony has claimed the new firmware will produce in the A77 are for the most part invisible to me up to now. Not only that, I've had a couple of errors in the past couple of days which I had not seen during the first weeks of camera usage. Once "Camera Err" appeared on the top display panel. My young daughter had reached over and taken a picture and had perhaps pressed another button simultaneously. I honestly don't want to find out how it happened. After turning the camera off and on again, it worked fine. 
Since making the update, I've noticed that when I turn the camera off, it still sometimes displays what is in front of it (obviously only if you leave off the lenscap) until the camera has finally clicked off after the usual 8 seconds. That seems to happen when you turn the camera on and then off without having taken a picture. It is a bit disconcerting.
In addition, I noticed that when you toggle the manual focus to the ON position, the auto focus clicks back on when the power save time is up. This problem can be bypassed by setting the focus mode dial on MF when you are out shooting in MF mode. But toggle is supposed to mean toggle and tickle!
Speaking of the power save mode and tickling, once the camera has gone into the power save mode, the only way to wake it back up is by pressing the shutter (and waiting up to 3 seconds!). On the A700, any of the buttons would wake it up (quickly!).
Another thing that has been bothering me is that the supplied software Picture Motion Browser (great name, eh?) won't import my videos. And in order to be able to edit the AVCHD films, you need this software (or another kind that must be purchased).
Finally, the auto-focus has left me in the lurch several times. With its "TTL phase-detection system with 19 points (11 points cross type)", the camera was said to be very fast to focus. Perhaps this dark time of year has seen me taking more pictures than usual in dark settings - a real challenge for any auto-focus system - but I've been changing to MF more often than I ever did with the A700. I like the new three-zone system because it is much easier to position someone or something in the outer third of the picture without having to focus and then move the camera.

OK - I'm going to leave this post as it is and promise to continue with some of my favorite features and more pictures next time. I hope that the bugs I've described above are all either fixed by Firmware 2.0 or by more fiddling with the camera and getting to know it better.


    1. I am on my third Sony A77. It could be that firmware versions before 1.04 caused the problems but this version has not completely cured them. The problem was with the microphone. At first the internal mic was not working and may be this happened after a while. With update 1.04 the external mic did not work. The internal mic was on all the time. This can be cured by resetting the camera (menu movie play) while the external mic is plugged in. This seems a funny way of fixing the switching problem but it worked. Well I say worked but there is something funny with this. I had the problem return the first time I switched the camera off but reset with external mic in worked again and it is more or less right all the time now. I don't think that I am 100% confident that the internal / external mic switching is always working. The camera is very good as far as I am concerned for photos and videos due to it's sensitivity and stabilizers both mechanical and electrical. The later is used in movie mode and due to a red spot that has appeared on the sensor during dim video scenes I can see how much movement it compensates for.
      That is my next problem to solve. A red spot on dark movie scenes.....

    2. Thank you for your comment, Martin! I haven't noticed any problems with my microphone except that the lens focussing noises are picked up during filming unless you are using an SSM lens.
      I'm not sure what you are referring to with the red spot. Could it have something to do with your shutter speed settings? Does the spot appear on the final movie or just in the viewfinder? If it is the latter, it could just be the focus peaking feature.

    3. Thank for for reviewing this update.

      I think I may wait until the next version. I don't personally find the camera interface to be sluggish and don't see any other significant improvements.

    4. hmm I'm currently downloading the update now. I bought the camera yesterday. So far everything has been fine. A problem I have been having is that sometimes (around 3 times) when I turn the camera on it doesn't turn on and when I pull the battery out and reinsert it it seems to work fine. I have been looking all over the internet and it seems people reckon the new firmware should fix that! Well fingers crossed!

      Quite love this camera. The EVF is excellent and takes amazing photos! The only issues I have had is with the somewhat slight noise with higher ISOs and the annoying lens focussing noises during movie mode. I still think it is a much much better camera for photos and movies than the Canon 600D or the Nikon 5100 but lets not start that debate ;)

    5. Good luck, Sam. I haven't experienced the problem you described concerning the camera not turning on, but in the German Sony User Forum people described that problem with firmware 1.03.
      The EVF is indeed good. However, if you want to take pictures using wireless flashes and you want to trigger the flash(es) with a radio transmitter (and not the pop-up flash), you may want to change the settings for the Live View Display from Setting Effect ON to OFF or it will be so dark that you won't be able to compose your shot.
      The lens focusing noise is not a problem with SSM lenses.
      Enjoy your A77!

    6. Can someone help? I've had the A77 for 20 months. I started to download photos to laptop and not all downloaded but are still on the memory card. When I reconnected the camera to the laptop it is saying no new photos so I can get the ones off still left in the card and I need to!!