Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sony Cyber-shot WX1 Review

Sony Cyber-shot WX1 Review

Point and shoot digital cameras have come a long way in the past decade - most are now capable of capturing high quality images outdoors in good light. But digital cameras generally don't do as well in low-light situations, indoors, and after dark. Digital images shot in low light environments often show lots of noise and display flat, dull colors. Sony's new Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 was designed to change that.

The WX1 utilizes an innovative new back-illuminated CMOS sensor that Sony claims will capture sharper, more detailed images in low/dim lighting - images with less noise and more vibrant colors than those shot with standard CMOS and CCD sensors.

Standard front-illuminated CMOS sensors are constructed so that light (after passing through the lens) must then pass through a metal wiring grid before striking the light-sensitive pixel receptors. Consequently, some light is lost. Back-illuminated sensors position the wiring grid beneath the light sensitive pixel receptors - increasing light gathering capability by up to 200% over traditional CMOS sensors. This makes the diminutive WX1 a superb tool for capturing images in available light environments - an especially useful ability indoors, after dark, and in poor weather.


Design-wise the WX1's main claim to fame is its innovative Exmor R CMOS sensor, which works hand-in-glove with Sony's new faster Bionz processor and Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization system to produce high quality images in dimly-lit shooting venues. The metal-alloy bodied WX1 appears to be robustly built and seems tough enough to stand up to typical wear and tear.

The "minimalist" look WX1 is an attractive (my test unit was black with silver trim) little digicam - diminutive, quite thin, and easily pocketable. The WX1 supports Memory Stick Pro Duo image storage media and provides 11MB of built-in memory.

Ergonomics and Controls

The svelte (0.75 inches thick) lozenge-shaped WX1 looks similar to just about every other ultra-compact "thin" digicam out there. It's comfortable to use over long periods and it feels solid in the hand. The WX1 is a pocketable digital camera that can easily be taken along everywhere the user goes. Sony's newest Cyber-shot is an auto exposure only digital camera with no manual exposure capability, however the WX1 does permit some user input into the image making process.

Even though the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed (in Program mode) users can manipulate sensitivity (ISO), white balance, and exposure compensation. The WX1's flat body is smooth with no protrusions - meaning no handgrip or thumbrest - so keeping the wrist strap looped around your hand when using the camera is probably a good idea.

The WX1 is a small camera, but the control array/user interface does not seem busy or cluttered. Dedicated controls have been kept to the minimum. All controls are logically placed and come easily to hand for right-handed shooters. The WX1's on/off switch is too small and often requires a second push to power up or power down the camera.

The compass switch (4-way controller) is also a bit too small and gives off a fiddly tactile feel - which doesn't inspire confidence (especially for users with large fingers) in its responsiveness. The mode dial is located in the exact spot where most right-handed shooters will rest their thumb when shooting (and the mode dial is easily turned) meaning users will have to suffer through occasional accidental mode changes.

I like the placement of the menu and review button, and both functioned exactly as expected. The delete button is also conveniently placed - but users can't immediately delete an image - images can only be deleted in review mode.

Menus and Modes
The WX1's menu system is logical, user-friendly, and fairly easy to navigate, but it isn't as simple in use as most of the competition. The reasonably large 2.7 inch LCD and sensible font size make reading the various menus painless. The WX1's playback menu provides a nifty Retouch mode allowing users to crop and sharpen captured images.

Here's a breakdown of the WX1's shooting modes:

* Easy: Point-and-shoot mode - the camera selects all exposure parameters - coupled to Sony's Intelligent Scene Recognition (Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Twilight with tripod, Portrait, Landscape, or Macro) technology to optimize camera settings for the specific scene (and conditions) in front of the camera and displays basic advice/useful information on the LCD.
* Intelligent Auto: Auto exposure incorporating Intelligent Scene Recognition plus Burst mode, EV compensation, Smile Detection and Face Detection options, and Red Eye Reduction. Sony's Intelligent Scene Recognition technology (available in Easy and iAuto modes) provides users with two options - Auto or Advanced. The Auto setting captures one exposure with optimized settings while the Advanced setting captures one exposure identical to the auto setting and a second exposure with an alternate set of optimized settings.
* Program: The camera selects exposure parameters, but allows substantial creative input - users control sensitivity (ISO), white balance, metering, focus, image stabilization on/off, and exposure compensation.
* Scene: High sensitivity, soft snap (blurs the background), landscape, twilight portrait, twilight, gourmet, pet, beach, snow, fireworks, underwater.
* Hand-held Twilight: The camera captures up to six exposures and then combines them - via pixel matching - to create a composite image with minimal noise.
* Anti-motion blur: Similar to Hand-held Twilight, except the camera captures up to six exposures at the highest practical shutter speed and the highest practical sensitivity (up to ISO 3200) and then combines them - via pixel matching - to create a composite image to freeze motion.
* Sweep Panorama: This shooting mode doesn't have a dedicated position on the mode dial - users must decide first whether the panorama they want to shoot is horizontal or vertical and whether it goes from left to right or from right to left - then just press the shutter button and sweep the camera in a half circle arc and the WX1 will combine all the captured exposures into a single seamless extra wide panorama.
* Dynamic Range Optimizer: The DRO mode (menu enabled) is designed to improve shadow detail and contrast in images captured in difficult lighting. There are three options: Off, Standard (D-R), and Advanced [D-R+). I tried DRO a couple of times and didn't notice any obvious differences - in my opinion judicious use of the Exposure Compensation function will accomplish more dependable (and predictable) results.
* Movie: The WX1's Movie mode captures HD (High Definition) and Standard Definition video clips - 1280x720 Fine (720p), 1280x720 Standard, and VGA (640 x 480) all at 30fps (with monaural audio). The 5x zoom can be used during video capture. Users also control White Balance, Sensitivity, Metering, DRO, and Image Stabilization settings in video capture mode.

Like most currently available point and shoots, the WX1 doesn't provide an optical viewfinder - so the LCD must be used for all framing and composition, image review, and menu access. The WX1's 2.7 inch wide-viewing angle LCD is relatively sharp (230k pixels), fairly bright, and fluid, but colors displayed on the LCD (in review mode) are not the colors you'll see when reviewing the images on your monitor.

The differences are not major, but saved images (when seen on your computer monitor) will have more intense colors than those seen on the LCD. The WX1's info display provides all the data most of the camera's users are likely to need. The LCD gains up (automatically increases brightness) in dim lighting and can be adjusted to the individual shooters' brightness preferences.

I have no complaints with the WX1's performance. I shot pictures with the pocket-sized camera in a variety of low light environments including indoors, outdoors after dark, and in gloomy weather with heavily overcast skies. The WX1 consistently and dependably captures very good images in poor lighting. On the other side of the equation, the WX1 doesn't manage bright outdoor lighting with the same level of efficacy - sometimes burning out highlights. There are also some minor (and infrequent) auto white balance anomalies that negatively affect color accuracy.

The WX1 is very quick and consistently comes in at (or very near) the top of the list speedwise - noticeably quicker than most of its competition. Shutter lag is 0.01 seconds. AF Acquisition is a very snappy 0.26 seconds. The WX1's continuous shooting mode (which allows users to capture several images in quick succession) is 11.4 fps.

Shot-to-shot intervals were impressive at about 1.5 seconds and the WX1 moves its 5x zoom from the wide angle setting to the end of the telephoto range in under 2 seconds. Flash recycle time is 5 seconds (after a full-power discharge).

Shooting Performance
The WX1 provides two Image Stabilization options - first via Sony's optical SteadyShot IS which functions by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the 5x zoom to compensate for camera movement during exposure. Digital Image Stabilization boosts sensitivity (up to ISO 3200) and increases shutter speed to help freeze subject movement during exposure.

The WX1's contrast detection Intelligent Auto Focus system provides center-weighted AF, multi (9) AF point Auto Focus, and Spot AF. AF is consistently very quick and dependably accurate. Most Point and Shoot systems provide quick and accurate auto focus outdoors in good light - the WX1 does them one better and provides quick and accurate AF indoors and in poor light as well.

The WX1's built-in multi mode Flash provides a fairly standard set of external lighting options including Auto, Forced On, Forced Off, and Slow Synch. The Red-Eye Reduction option must be accessed via the Main menu. Sony claims the maximum flash range is (at the wide angle setting) about 16.4 feet at auto ISO.

The WX1 is powered by a Sony NP-FG1 3.6 volt InfoLITHIUM G - Lithium-ion battery. Sony claims the battery is good for 350 exposures. It's very difficult for me to keep track of the number of exposures I shoot because I do a lot of shoot, review, delete, and re-shoot, but I only had to charge the battery twice in two weeks of fairly heavy shooting so the numbers seem pretty accurate to me.

Lens Performance
Most ultra-compact digicams sport 3x zooms, so one of the nicest features of the WX1 is its very good and slightly faster than average f/2.4- f5.9 4.25mm-21.25mm (equivalent to 24mm -120mm) 5x Sony "G" (6 elements in 5 groups, including 5 aspheric elements) zoom. The WX1 starts at the equivalent of 24mm - which is impressive, since most ultra-compact digicams zooms start at around 35mm to 38mm.

When the camera is powered up, the lens automatically telescopes out of the camera body. When the camera is powered down the lens is fully retracted into the camera body and a built-in iris style lens cover protects the front element. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and flare is remarkably well controlled.

Barrel distortion (straight lines bowing out from the center) is very well controlled - check out the Moorish Mausoleum sample image. I shot that image at the 24mm (equivalent) setting and while there is some visible distortion at the edges of the frame, it isn't egregious at all. Pincushion distortion (straight lines bowing in toward the center) at the telephoto end of the zoom is also very well controlled.

Contrast is very good at the wide end of the zoom, but at the telephoto end of the zoom contrast and sharpness are slightly lower. The WX1 doesn't provide a dedicated Macro Mode - minimum focusing distance is 1.9 inches - so this is not a best choice camera for those who like to shoot bugs and flowers. I counted eleven steps in the 5x zoom range. Zooming is smooth, silent, and very quick.

Video Quality
The WX1 really shines in movie mode - 1280x720 fine (720p) at 30fps (9 MBps bit rate) with monaural audio and you can use the 5x zoom in video capture mode. Maximum video duration is up to 29 minutes (about 2GB). Users can also record 1280x720 (720p) at 30fps (6 MBps bit rate) video in the standard HD mode and at 640x480 at 30fps in the VGA mode.

Sony doesn't include an HDMI video cable, so you'll have to pony up an extra forty bucks to watch HD video on your wide-screen TV. The sample video (of Louisville's famous cookie lady in action) was shot in a dimly lit old building - so not only can you use the zoom while filming, but you can also utilize all the WX1's low light capabilities, enable Image Stabilization, adjust white balance, and manipulate the exposure compensation function.

Image Quality
Outdoors the WX1 (like most compact digital cameras) does a very nice job - image quality is dependably very good to excellent. Exposures are dependably accurate, but there is a slight tendency toward over exposure and burned out highlights. Indoor image quality is excellent - equal to or better than anything currently available.

The WX1 provides an impressive selection of white balance options including: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash, Underwater 1, Underwater 2, and One Push White Balance (the WX1's ONLY manual control) which allows users to manually calibrate WB with a white or gray card.

The WX1's auto white balance mode was generally very accurate, however in a couple of cases I came up with some inaccurate colors. Check out the two WB demo images below - the daylight WB setting produced the more accurate color. The WX1's default color interpolation is actually pretty close to neutral - unlike most of its competition.

Noise levels are quite reasonable up to ISO 800, but noise levels increase noticeably at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200. Low light image quality is the WX1's main claim to fame and this camera offers users unprecedented (for a P&S digicam) automatic noise management. Colors are hue accurate and chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled at both ends of the zoom.

I really enjoyed using the WX1 and I captured some interesting images with it, but I also found the camera a bit frustrating - it sometimes appears to have been designed by a committee. On the one hand, the WX1 provides a lot of nifty features that were clearly added to appeal to more advanced shooters - it has a very good zoom that starts at a wide angle equivalent of 24mm, a manual White Balance mode, a 720p video mode, and enhanced low light shooting capabilities.

On the other hand, the camera is auto exposure only (which limits user input into the creative process), it has no optical viewfinder and, unlike similar digicams from other manufacturers, doesn't provide direct access (via shortcut menu) to the most commonly changed/adjusted camera settings and functions like white balance, sensitivity, and exposure compensation. The WX1 is also ultra-compact, easy to use, has loads of neat features, and it's stylish in a minimalist sort of way - all reasons why it should appeal to casual photographers and snap-shooters.


* Impressive noise management
* Excellent 5x zoom
* 720p movie mode


* Slight tendency toward over-exposure
* No direct access to the most commonly changed/adjusted camera settings and functions