DCRP

GPS-Equipped Compact Ultra Zoom Cameras Review

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V is the follow-up to the DSC-HX5V from early 2010. This latest model features Sony's new 16 Megapixel, back-illuminated CMOS sensor, plus a more powerful lens, a sharper LCD, new 3D shooting modes, and 1080/60p video (compared to 60i).

Basics

Let's crack open the box to see what's inside:

  • The 16.2 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V digital camera
  • NP-BG1 rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • AC adapter
  • Wrist strap
  • Multi-use terminal USB cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Picture Motion Browser and Music Transfer software
  • 31 page basic manual (printed) + full manual (on CD-ROM)

The HX9V has 19MB of memory, which holds a whopping three photos at the highest quality setting. Sony gives you the choice of memory card formats on their cameras -- SD/SDHC/SDXC or Memory Stick Pro Duo -- though I'd recommend sticking with the former. Still shooters will want a 4GB card, while those taking a lot of movies will need at least 8GB. As with all of these cameras, a high speed card is strongly recommended, especially if you'll be taking a lot of movies.

You also have your choice of two batteries for the DSC-HX9V: the included NP-BG1 or the optional NP-FG1. Both of them have the same amount of energy (3.4 Wh), with the FG1 offering InfoLithium support, which means that the camera will tell you exactly how many minutes of battery life remain. You can expect 300 shots per charge with this battery, which is the best of the bunch. The battery is charged internally via the included AC adapter, which takes a whopping 270 minutes. I highly recommend picking up the optional external battery charger (listed below) to get both faster charging and to eliminated the need for the camera to be tethered.

Speaking of accessories, here's what's available for the DSC-HX9V:

  • VMC-MD3 multi-use terminal cable (from $19): like the cable that came with the camera, but with composite A/V output
  • BC-TRN battery charger (from $39): a fast external charger for the NP-BG1/FG1 batteries
  • IPT-DS2 PartyShot ($99): a motorized stand that uses face and smile detection to automatically take photos of people

The HX9V is the only camera in the group that does not support an underwater case.

Sony includes their Picture Motion Browser software with the Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V. This Windows-only product will take photos off of your camera, help you organize and retouch them, and then share them on popular social media sites. You can also burn AVCHD movies to a DVD or Blu-ray disc. Something else you might want to do with PMB is upload "GPS assist data" to the camera, which is supposed to reduce satellite acquisition times.

While the documentation situation on the HX9V is similar to the other two cameras, it's worse in one respect, which I'll get to in a second. Inside the box is a short, printed manual to get you up and running. When you need more details, you'll have to load up the manual on an included CD-ROM. Unlike other manufacturers, Sony has put their manual into HTML format, instead of PDF. What that means is that you can't print the whole thing or just certain sections -- you have to go page-by-page, and there are hundreds of them. Neither of the manuals are even remotely user-friendly, either.

Look and Feel

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V has a fairly compact body made mostly of metal. Build quality is good, though the door over the battery/memory card compartment is a bit flimsy. Holding the camera with one hand is a piece of cake, thanks to a rubberized front grip and a little spot for your thumb on the back of the camera. While controls are well-placed, I had some issues with several of the buttons. The buttons on the back of the camera are too small, and the movie recording button is too flush with the body and hard to press. On the top of the camera, the power and custom buttons are nearly identical, so you need to check to make sure you're pressing the right thing.

While the other two cameras in this comparison come in multiple colors, the HX9V comes in just one: black.

The DSC-HX9V features an F3.3-5.9, 16X Sony G lens. Sony considers these "G" lenses the top-of-the-line models -- yes, better than the Carl Zeiss lenses on their other cameras (which aren't actually Zeiss lenses to begin with). When I first got the HX9V and Panasonic ZS10 side-by-side, I swore they had the same lens, but upon further inspection, they're different. Anyhow, the focal length of this lens is 4.28 - 68.48 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 384 mm.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but the HX9V has a lens-shift image stabilizer, complete with "active" mode for reducing heavy camera shake in movie recording. Do note that active mode will change the focal range in movie mode by a few millimeters (that goes for all of the cameras). I should also mention that the DSC-HX9V is the only camera in the group on which you cannot turn off the IS system, which is something you want to do on when using the camera on a tripod. The camera make know when it's on a tripod, though, because none of those photos can out blurry, as can often happen when you forget to turn image stabilization off.

The HX9V features Sony's new 16.2 Megapixel Exmor R back-illuminated CMOS sensor that is appearing in several of their 2011 cameras. This sensor allows for fast continuous shooting, Full HD video recording, and (according to Sony, at least) low noise at high sensitivities. We'll have to see about that last one!

To the upper-right of the lens is the HX9V's pop-up flash, which is released electronically as needed. This is the most powerful flash in the group (at Auto ISO, at least), with a working range of 0.25 - 5.6 m at wide-angle and 1.2 - 3.0 m at telephoto. The HX9V does not support an external flash.

The only other thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp, located just below the Sony logo. In addition to helping the camera focus in low light situations, this lamp also lights up when the self-timer is counting down, or when the Smile Shutter feature (discussed later) is active.

The majority of the back of the HX9V is taken up by its 3-inch LCD. This is the highest resolution screen of the three cameras, with 921,600 pixels. As you'd expect, everything's nice and sharp. The screen is number two in the outdoor visibility department -- the Panasonic does a little bit better. The DSC-HX9V had the worst low light visibility of the three cameras, though you still should be able to make out your subject.

At the upper-right corner of the photo is the HX9V's dedicated movie recording button, which I found hard to press (too small, too flush). It's also a little laggy (the whole camera is, actually), so there's a bit of a delay between the time you press the button and when the movie is actually recording. Beneath that button is a handy resting spot for your right thumb.

Continuing downward, we have the playback button, followed by the four-way controller / scroll wheel combo. Both of these are used for navigating menus, adjusting exposure, and reviewing photos you've taken. The four-way controller can also be used for the following:

  • Up - Display - toggles the information shown on the LCD
  • Down - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs, 1 person, 2 people) - the last two items wait for either one or two people to enter the frame before taking a photo
  • Left - Drive (Single, burst, bracket) - I'll talk about the burst mode later in the review; the bracket mode takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure; the camera can also bracket for white balance (see below)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, fill flash, slow synchro, off)
  • Center - Tracking focus - pick an object to track as they move around the frame


The overlay-style shortcut menu

The last two buttons on the back of the camera are for entering the Menu system and for opening the In-Camera Guide or deleting a photo. The menu that you get when you press the button of the same name is sort of a shortcut menu, with these options being the highlights:

  • White balance: the HX9V has all the usual presets, plus a "one-push" mode that lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color in mixed lighting
  • White balance shift: fine-tune the white balance in the green-magenta and/or amber-blue directions
  • Focus: in addition to multi-area, flexible spot, and center AF, the camera also has semi and full manual focus, though I can't figure out the difference between the two
  • Bracket setting: choose from 0.3, 0.7, or 1.0 EV; here you can also turn on a white balance bracketing function
  • Smile Shutter: the camera will wait until someone in the frame smiles, and then it'll take a photo; it'll keep doing so until you run out of memory, or turn the feature off; the sensitivity of the smile detection can be set in the following menu item
  • Face detection: while all three cameras have this feature, only the Sony can give priority to adults or children
The In-Camera Guide main menu This entry explains subject tracking AF

The In-Camera Guide is probably the most elaborate feature of its kind that I've seen. It'll give you tips on taking pictures, or what you can do with them in playback mode. It can explain what all the icons on the screen mean, and help you with common problems. There's a ton of information here, so you'll have lots of lists to scroll through, but I think it's worth it. Kudos to Sony for adding this feature.

The first thing to see on the top of the camera is the flash, which is in the closed position. If the camera thinks it needs it, it'll pop up the flash. Thankfully you can push it right back down. Normally I don't like having the flash in this spot, as it can take up valuable finger space. Thankfully, there's enough room left when the flash is raised for you to get a solid grip on the camera.

At the center of the photo are the HX9V's stereo microphones. Under that are the nearly identical power and custom buttons. The custom button can adjust one of five things: exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering mode, and whether Smile Shutter is turned on.

Next up is the zoom controller, which has the shutter release inside it. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide to telephoto in 2.5 seconds. I noticed that there was a delay between when I pressed the button and when the lens actually moved when I was at either end of the focal range (otherwise it was fine). There are over thirty steps in the 16X zoom range.

The last thing on the top of the camera is a big one: the mode dial. Here's a summary of the options that you'll find on it:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with automatic scene selection. Most options are locked up.
Superior Auto mode Similar to Intelligent Auto mode but with addition of three multi-image layering scenes: handheld twilight, anti motion blur, and backlight correction HDR.
Program mode Automatic exposure, with full menu access. As with the other cameras, there's no Program Shift option.
Full manual (M) mode Select both the aperture and shutter speed at the same time. Aperture range is F3.3 - F14, but you can only select from two apertures at any given time. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/1600 sec. No bulb mode is available.
Memory Recall (MR) mode Store up to three sets of camera settings to this spot on the mode dial
Intelligent Sweep Panorama Pan the camera from side-to-side and a huge panoramic image will be created instantly
Movie mode While you can take a movie in any shooting mode, this one always shows the scene at 16:9 and also limits the menu to only movie-related options.
3D mode Choose from 3D still image, 3D sweep panorama, or Sweep Multi-Angle (which isn't really 3D). See below for more.
Scene mode You pick the scene and the camera uses the proper settings. Choose from soft skin, soft snap, anti motion blur, landscape, backlight correction HDR, twilight portrait, twilight, handheld twilight, high sensitivity, gourmet/food, pet, beach, snow, fireworks, and advanced sports shooting.
Background defocus Blur the background of your photos without having to know what aperture means. This effect is actually created by combining two exposures into one.

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V has quite the collection of automatic controls -- several of which are really cool. For basic point-and-shoot action, you can use the Intelligent Auto mode (yes, same name as Panasonic), which will select a scene mode for you. The Superior Auto mode goes one step further. It will combine multiple exposures into a single image to handle motion, low light, or heavily backlit scenes -- all without a tripod. These same scene modes can be selected manually in the scene menu, as well.

The Intelligent Sweep Panorama feature is one of my favorite innovations in digital photography in recent years. Other camera manufacturers must agree, as many of them have copied it. Just "sweep" the camera from side-to-side (or up/down) and the camera will combine all those shots into a single, huge panorama. The camera is smart enough to not chop people in half, or have them appear in multiple places, too.


A rather challenging sweep panorama example

The HX9V can also take 3D sweep panoramas, or just "regular" 3D stills, using the same shooting technique. You'll need a 3D television to view either of those. There's also a pseudo-3D feature called sweep multi-angle, which lets you tilt the camera back and forth, with the image on the screen appearing to rotate in 3D.

In addition to a boatload of scene modes, the camera also has one more special shooting mode, called background defocus. This will produce photos with a sharp subject and blurry background, which is magically created by combining two exposures. It's a pretty convincing effect.

The camera's manual exposure controls are, sadly, more limited. There's only one manual exposure mode, and there you'll be limited to just two aperture choices at any one time. That's because there camera is using a neutral density filter to adjust the aperture. For the same reason, there's no aperture priority mode on the DSC-HX9V.

Here's one side of the HX9V, with the flash popped up. I don't know if the GPS is actually on this side of the camera, but the label sure is. The lens is at the wide-angle position here.

On the other side of the camera is its mini-HDMI port, which is covered by a plastic door. Where are the other I/O ports? You'll see in a moment.

The HX9V's big 16X lens is at full telephoto here.

On the bottom of the DSC-HX9V is the metal tripod mount, battery/memory card compartment and, yes, that last I/O port. I think the port is down here in order to make the camera work with the PartyShot accessory, but still, plugging the USB or A/V cable into the bottom of the camera isn't very convenient. The door that covers the battery/memory card compartment is of average quality. As you can see, you won't be able to get to that dual SD/MS Duo memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod.

The good old NP-BG1 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.

Features


The HX9's regular menu system

I've hit on most of the features on the DSC-HX9V in the previous section. Here are a few more that I pulled from the camera's main menu, which you get to from the shortcut menu I showed you earlier. This menu is relatively easy to navigate, though I wish it would "wrap" instead of going to the next tab when you reach the bottom of a submenu (if that makes any sense). There are descriptions of each menu item, so you have an idea of what each setting does -- and don't forget about that In-Camera Guide, either. Anyhow, the menu items of note are:

  • Wind noise reduction: perfect for recording movies outdoors
  • Redeye reduction: fires the flash a few times before the photo is taken to reduce redeye; an auto mode uses face detection to decide when to do it
  • Custom button: assign a function to the button on the top of the camera; choose from exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering mode, and Smile Shutter
  • Beep: only mentioning this because the beep sound is insanely loud, and you can't turn it down -- only off
  • Download music: you can transfer your favorite songs from your Mac or PC to the camera for use in slideshows using the included software

As for the GPS, there's really only one option: on or off. You can see the current location and number of satellites received by selecting the GPS option in the overlay-style menu. The DSC-HX9V is somewhat unique (in this group at least), in that it has a compass, and records the direction in which you took a photo was taken, in addition to the coordinates. Not something I've ever cared about, but there you go. You can load "assist data" onto the camera using Picture Motion Browser, which is supposed to reduce satellite acquisition times, but it was still pretty darn slow. The GPS is only on when the camera is, so the HX9V doesn't track your movements like the Canon and Panasonic.

Now let's talk about the HX9V's movie mode which, like the other cameras, is Full HD. You can record video at 1920 x 1080 at 60 interlaced frames per second (sensor output is 60p) for up to 29 minutes. Sound is recorded in stereo, and you've also got full use of the optical zoom and image stabilizer (complete with an "active mode").

There are two movie codecs to choose from: AVCHD and MPEG-4. As I mentioned in the Panasonic section of this review, AVCHD movies have long recording times, easy viewing on an HDTV, and can be quickly burned to Blu-ray discs. Negatives include difficult video editing and sharing. MPEG-4 movies have lower resolutions, larger file sizes, and shorter recording times, but they're easier to edit and share on your PC. Here's a summary of all of the movies resolution options on the DSC-HX9V:

  • AVCHD - all of these are recorded at 60i and have a 29 minute recording time limit
    • 1920 x 1080 - 28 Mbps bit rate
    • 1920 x 1080 - 24 Mbps bit rate
    • 1920 x 1080 - 17 Mbps bit rate
    • 1440 x 1080 - 9 Mbps bit rate
  • MPEG-4 - all of these are recorded at 30p
    • 1440 x 1080 - 12 Mbps bit rate - 20 min time limit
    • 1280 x 720 - 6 Mbps bit rate - 29 min time limit
    • 640 x 480 - 3 Mbps bit rate - 29 min time limit

As with the other two cameras, movie recording is fully automatic, save for a wind cut filter.

Playback menu, with view mode feature highlighted here replace me

The DSC-HX9V has an average playback mode, with the usual standard features plus a few extras. One basic feature that I found slightly annoying was the playback zoom feature, which lets you enlarge an image. The HX9V smoothly zooms into the photo, which looks cool, but makes the whole process feel a bit sluggish. That said, here are the playback features of note:

  • View mode: view photos by date, or file format
  • Retouch: you can crop, remove redeye, or sharpen a photo; images can be rotated via a separate menu item
  • Send via TransferJet: if you're using a TransferJet-enabled Memory Stick Pro Duo card, you can send a photo wirelessly to another TransferJet device (which is probably a Sony laptop)

While you can grab a still frame from a movie, there's no way to remove unwanted footage from a clip, which is too bad.

That'll do it for the DSC-HX9V. Let's start comparing the three cameras now, shall we?

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