Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

I first got my hands on Sony's current flagship ultrazoom, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1, all the way back at PMA 2009. A lot can change in the camera world in nine months, but when you're talking about a point-and-shoot (albeit an expensive one) that can fire off full-res frames at a rate of ten per second, the HX1 hasn't lost much of its allure in nearly a year since its release.

We reported in some depth back in January on the camera's high-speed shooting functions, and just in case you were waiting anxiously, we won't keep you in suspense: yes, this camera is as fast as they say it is. In fact, if sports or wildlife shooting is your focus but you don't have the cash for a high-speed, high-end DSLR, the combination of 20x zoom and 10 fps makes the HX1 the obvious front-runner among this year's ultrazooms. In this case, the better question becomes how the camera performs for the rest of us, shooting in a lot of more "everyday" environments.

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is a new ultrazoom, extending the basic platform of Sony's long-lens H-models into the realms of high-speed shooting and 1080p HD video capture. Under the hood, the biggest change for the HX1 compared to older H cameras comes in the form of the new model's 9.0 megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor. Boasting slightly lower resolution than Sony's current H20 ultrazoom (which rings in at 10.1 megapixels), the HX1's CMOS chip promises some distinct advantages - lower noise, (much) faster continuous shooting, and high-def video.

Sony coupled this new imager to a 20x optically stabilized Sony G lens. Covering the equivalent of 28-560mm, the new glass is competitive with the current crop of 18-24x long-zoom cams out there, though it's worth noting that Sony has reverted to its own high-end "G" branding for this optic, rather than designing the glass in conjunction with long-time optics partner Carl Zeiss. With 10 element/13 group construction and built-in checks on optical concerns like chromatic aberration, though, the new lens promises exceptional sharpness across an impressive range - a promise that the HX1 definitely keeps, according to our performance testing below.

The rest of the HX1's feature set is standard fare for a high-end Sony, including advanced face detection, the previously mentioned multi-mode optical image stabilization, and panorama shooting mode, and automatic scene recognition. Supporting the Cyber-shot's advanced video functions, you'll find a stereo mic built in between the camera's flash and electronic viewfinder. The HX1 draws power from one of the more long-lasting lithium-ion packs I've encountered in a while (consistently good for more than 400 shots in our field tests). HD video output is provided via an onboard HDMI connector, which works in conjunction with the HX1's frighteningly enormous multi-connection cable.

Of course, buying a Sony - unless it's a newer Alpha DSLR - still requires coming to terms with the manufacturer's proprietary Memory Stick storage format. We've griped enough over the use about Sony's dogmatism in this area that it's hardly worth rehashing here: after all, how and where a camera stores its files (generally) has next to no impact on how well it functions as a picture-taker. That said, it is worth noting that the HX1's use of the small-format Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo cards means you may have trouble finding a card reader to accept your storage media without an adapter. (To wit, shots from a friend's wedding languished on the card for more than a month until I was finally able to dig up the required, and until recently, misplaced, converter.)

Ergonomics and Controls
In hand, the HX1 feels very much like previous Sony H cams - and similar to a lot of other models in this class floating around out there these days. Construction is mostly plastic, with a slick polished metal surround on the lens barrel, and feels quite robust on all counts. In spite of lots of zoom range and relatively bright apertures (the HX1 registers f/2.8 at 28mm), the Cyber-shot's retracting lens doesn't dominate the rest of the camera in terms size, weight, or balance, and on the whole, the device is actually slightly smaller than most of its competition. It's not quite pocket size, but it's also significantly easier to stuff in a purse or small backpack than a lot of 20x ultrazooms.

Controls are logically placed, if not always logically labeled. And if you're phobic about devices with lots of buttons, the HX1 will definitely have the power to raise your blood pressure. With a lot of dedicated buttons - including keys for setting focus and drive modes, toggling between the viewfinder and EVF, changing flash and macro settings, as well as user-defined custom button - the HX1 takes some getting used to, though the most commonly used of these controls seemed to "find a home" under my fingers fairly quickly.

The HX1 combines a heads-up display with basic shooting controls like exposure compensation with both sidebar and page menus for more in-depth settings and setup work. If you're the kind who eschews reading manuals, accessing the parameters displayed on the shooting screen - crucial options like exposure compensation and ISO, as well as shutter and aperture settings in the camera's manual modes - may be baffling at first. The secret to getting at these basic adjustments? The HX1's thumbwheel (which sits just behind the mode dial) functions as both dial and button: press in on the wheel to "click in" to the menu, and click again to jump between available options within the menu. Somewhat more logically, the dial itself allows you to adjust the selected value up or down.

Menus and Modes
No big changes here: the HX1's sidebar and page menus are similar to what we've seen on previous Sony Cyber-shots. Graphically, they are very slick, with lots of icons and multi-tier layering. Functionally, they've never been my favorite. Without lots of high-level divisions, it's not always easy to find the option you're looking for - doubly so if you're trying to make a rapid settings change in order to capture "the shot." The press-to-enter page menu, which contains most of the camera's top-level setup options, retains the confusing structure seen in previous Cyber-shots.

It's not surprising that a camera with lots of buttons also packs in lots of modes. Designed to meet the needs of newbies and enthusiasts in generally equal measure, the HX1 combines low-input options like Sony's trademark Easy mode with P/A/S/M options for shooters seeking full control.

To the casual observer, the HX1's inclusion of panorama, twilight, and anti-shake modes don't seem to do much to set the HX1 apart from other cameras in this class. Cast your memory back to the HX1's launch announcement, though, and you'll remember that this camera uses its CMOS sensor and copious processing power to offer a unique take on these settings. The most novel (and, amazingly, useful) of these three, in my view, is the panorama option. Rather than requiring the shooter to engage in the onerous task of lining up the camera carefully in order to stitch three or more shots together, the HX1 exploits its rapid-fire abilities to pull together some pretty impressive captures.

What's unique is not the panorama itself, but how it's created: simply set up the camera at one end of the shot you want to frame, press the shutter release, and quickly sweep the camera horizontally (or vertically - the HX1 does portrait panoramas as well). The Cyber-shot takes several shots in rapid succession and then stitches them together in-camera to produce the final shot. In addition to being one of the more seamless images I've seen from an in-camera panorama mode, the ease of use scores the Sony big points for this more-than-a-novelty feature.

The HX1 also packs in a low-light shooting option, which takes advantage of a similar process of overlaying several images to produce a single low-noise shot. As with the panorama mode, the results are surprisingly good - though we found this mode finicky if anything moves too much within your frame during the capture.

Finally, the anti-shake mode takes advantage of the same kind of multi-shot recombination utilized in the other two modes. In this case, I had trouble finding a situation in which this mode was able to provide more of an advantage than what you get from the camera's optical image stabilization alone. And as before, anti-shake mode doesn't deal with subject motion well - a potentially important consideration in this case.

The HX1 features a 3.0 inch, 230,000 dot LCD as its primary composition aid. While specs aren't class-leading, this screen proves to be crisp, fluid, and extremely bright in real-world testing. The display also tilts along the horizontal axis using a two-point pivot. While this movement lacks the range of motion found in Canon's latest tilt-swivel ultrazoom display designs, for instance, excellent side-to-side viewing angles mean you hardly miss the camera's inability to rotate the screen left and right - when shooting in landscape orientation, at least.

A dedicated button calls up the HX1's electronic viewfinder in place of the camera's main LCD. It's tiny, a bit blocky, and not nearly as fluid as the larger display. To Sony's credit, though, the viewfinder retains all of the on-screen information from the larger display, making it a versatile option in situations where working from the screen is impractical (i.e. in direct sunlight).


Shooting Performance
Just in case we weren't clear the last several times we've said it: when it comes to basic shooting performance, the HX1 is about as fast as cameras in this class get.

Under studio conditions, autofocus comes in just beyond DSLR speed. And as claimed, the HX1 is good for ten full-res shots at a full 10 fps - which puts this Cyber-shot on par with flagship pro-grade cameras for continuous shooting speed. Incidental timings - the time it takes for the camera to power on, or clear a full buffer, for instance - certainly aren't on par with a DSLR; this is still a point-and-shoot after all. But in good light with a static subject, the camera feels as quick as it looks.

Taking advantage of features like full 1080p video capture and extreme continuous shooting puts a lot of the HX1's performance burden back on the camera's autofocus system. As noted, baseline performance is much better than average for a camera of this class. Zoomed to a full 560mm equivalent, you won't get nearly as much speed as the camera offers at full wide-angle, but performance is consistent and competitive just the same.

In low light - and especially, in low light and at longer zoom lengths - the HX1 really begins to feel less SLR and more point-and-shoot, and taking the camera along to shoot an evening soccer match had me looking for an alternative to the Cyber-shot's default multi-area AF. High-speed shooting situations (and video capture) are where the HX1's semi- and full-manual focusing options, which allow you to set the camera's focusing distance either approximately or exactly, become a huge advantage - speeding up performance by nearly a full second at the long end of the zoom under poor light. But while the camera has one of the best face detection systems we've played with, there's no subject tracking mode either.

The HX1's pop-up flash is nothing to write home about - either to praise or to gripe about. With an effective range some under 20 feet, you get the kind of performance one expects from a point-and-shoot flash, with the camera tending toward slight but consistent underexposure in most indoor flash shots. The HX1 includes a slow-sync option for drawing in more ambient light, as well as a flash power compensation control in the sidebar menu. As we've come to expect, built-in red-eye mitigation worked when called upon. Although it likely only matters to a small percentage of potential HX1 buyers, it doesn't seem unreasonable to ask for a hot shoe on a camera at this price - and on this point, the HX1 disappoints, if only mildly.

Lens Performance
It seems that even 20x zoom ranges have, in the days of 24x and 26x ultrazooms, become rather ho-hum. Nonetheless, the HX1 packs some considerable power into its optics, starting with the fact that you get the equivalent of 28-560mm without having to change lenses.

Optically, it's hard to find nits to pick with the HX1's Sony G glass. Chromatic aberration was well controlled, distortion at both ends of the spectrum was hardly an issue, and more serious concerns like flare and vignetting were basically nonexistent in our test shots. The HX1's long lens barrel can cause some flash problems for close-up subjects, but that's about the most I can find to fault the Sony for in terms of overall optical performance.

Close-up performance is equally nice. Although this camera, unlike many previous Sonys, doesn't have an explicit "Super Macro" setting, it still allows close focusing to the point that you'll nearly touch your subject with the lens - with consistent lock possible at some under half an inch in full-time macro mode.

Video Quality
The HX1 is one of a handful of still cameras - both among DSLRs and point-and-shoots - that can claim full 1080p HD video performance. Of course, having this kind of serious resolution is only as good as it sounds if the images filling this space are smooth and crisp. And on this count, the HX1 more than holds its own.

Although low-light shooting all around isn't this camera's strong suit, the above sample shows off a number of things that this camera does well simultaneously. Choose your focus mode carefully, take advantage of the HX1's long lens and in-movie zooming capabilities, and the camera rewards with smooth, nearly camcorder quality clips that bring surprisingly clear stereo audio besides.

It's not all perfect with the HX1's movie mode: subject speed or rapid panning can cause some visual warping, zooming is slow during video capture, and frustratingly, the camera's AF seems to hunt more when shooting videos than stills. All of that said, if shooting movies is a big part of what you want from a still camera, the HX1 is one of the few (fairly) affordable offerings that we've shot with to date that seems capable of delivering serious HD video performance.

Image Quality
Small-sensor cameras are all about compromise, trading absolute image quality for reductions in size, weight, and cost. And all things considered, the HX1 walks this fine line better than the majority of point-and-shoots out there.

The HX1's captures evidence a careful balance, presenting overall results that are sharp and processed without, in general, looking too much so.

Sony's decision to pack a CMOS imager into the HX1 raised some hopes that overall image quality and detail capture would show dramatic improvements over the manufacturer's previous (and somewhat indifferently regarded) CCD-equipped cameras. As with Canon's foray into small CMOS sensors, however, the overall results are slightly if not dramatically improved from previous attempts.

Users who like to tweak their shots in-camera will appreciate the fact that the HX1 provides several processing presets, with fairly distinct tone curves in each case. Color is accurate throughout, if somewhat oversaturated all around (especially reds). For those who like extreme saturation, the HX1 gives enough processing options to really punch things up to near "pop art" levels if you're feeling so inclined.

Default multi-area metering is more of a mixed bag, with the camera clipping highlights more frequently than some competitors we've looked at when left to its own devices. Typical options for overriding the HX1's metering decisions exist for the benefit of the camera's sizable enthusiast buyer segment.

The HX1 sports one of the more adaptable auto white balance presets out there, coming closer than many point-and-shoots to neutralizing the excessive warmness imparted by incandescent light in particular. There are also several presets (of widely varying quality/accuracy) to choose from, and for even more control, the HX1 offers a user-set custom white balance option as well.

In spite of all of the chatter about CMOS sensors and cleaner images, in general, the HX1's shots show a lot of noise reduction from the lowest sensitivity settings all the way on up. In spite of the fact that it actually packs less resolution than previous Cyber-shot H cameras, the HX1 really doesn't improve performance - and may even lose a step at ISO 800 and beyond.

The Sony Cyber-shot HX1 proves to be a veritable Swiss Army Knife of a midsize camera. Need to grab some sports shots? It has the lens and the speed to do it. Headed to the zoo? Again, you're covered. Summer vacation at the Grand Canyon? The HX1 counters with perhaps the most useful panorama mode ever installed on a digicam. Plus, you can get video clips worthy of your 42-inch HDTV from the same device. It really is hard - doubly so if you exclude extreme low-light shooting - to find a situation where the HX1 won't be able to turn in nice shots with ease.

In truth, the HX1's biggest detractor may not come from its performance so much as its price. An entry-level DSLR certainly lacks the Cyber-shots versatility. But in terms of across-the-board shooting speed and outright image quality, a large-sensor, interchangeable-lens camera wins hands down. And given that the HX1, which lists at nearly $500, will set you back nearly as much as a basic SLR kit, potential buyers may have good reason to think twice.

As a technological achievement, though, the HX1 truly shines. Sony has always been known for their gadgetry: lately, it seems, they're figuring out how to make all of this novel tech less novel and more useful. And with phenomenal continuous shooting, a nifty panorama mode, and home-movie-ready HD video capture, the HX1 makes some giant leaps in fusing uniqueness and utility.


* Fast
* Fast
* Did we mention fast?
* Stunning panorama mode
* Exceptional HD video
* Super-sharp 20x lens


* Menus and controls could use clean-up
* EVF isn't the best
* Expensive

(Source: digitalcamerareview.com)