At its heart the A290 employs a 14.2-megapixel APS-C sized CCD sensor and Sony's BIONZ image processor. In addition to the standard DSLR quartet of Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual shooting modes, the A290 also offers a fully Automatic point-and-shoot mode along with a number of specific scene modes. This gives the novice user the flexibility to learn the ropes by taking control of the camera, with the safety net of a point-and-shoot mode when required.
Given that the A290 is aimed at users without much, or indeed any, prior experience of using a DSLR, Sony has attempted to simplify its operation as much as possible. To this end the camera's Help Guide explains in simple terms how the various settings and shooting modes affect images. The Graphic Display on the rear screen offers an easy-to-understand graphical representation of how the chosen shutter speed relates to still or moving objects, and how aperture affects depth of field. To an advanced user the Graphic Display will probably look overly simplistic, but to someone picking up a DSLR for the first time it's a handy reference point, especially when taking the camera off of its fully automatic mode for the first time.
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Another useful feature in the A290's armoury is the inclusion of Sony's proprietary SteadyShot Inside image stabilisation technology. This sensor-shift based technology counteracts motion blur, allowing the user to shoot at much slower shutter speeds than would normally be possible. We even managed to shoot as low as 1/15th second with perfectly acceptable results. Because the technology is already inside the camera, there's no need to pay extra for image stabilised lenses either. On the downside longer lenses don't benefit from a live feed of stabilisation through the viewfinder, but those using older lenses will find the sensor-based version most useful indeed.
On the back of the camera is a 2.7in LCD that displays at a resolution of 230k-dot. This is about the norm for an entry-level camera like this; the Nikon D3100 does offer a 3in screen of the same definition, but this will cost around £100 more. In real-world use we found the A290's screen perfectly adequate to review images with. In addition to displaying a histogram and shooting data for each captured image, there's also a zoom function to check image sharpness with, while screen brightness can be altered to suit conditions via the menu.