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DCRP Review: Sony
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: June 4, 2005
Last Updated: January 9, 2008
The Cyber-shot DSC-H1 ($499) is Sony's first true ultra zoom camera (the DSC-F828 doesn't count in my opinion). Featuring a 5.1 Megapixel CCD, 12X optical zoom lens with image stabilization, a large 2.5" LCD display, and full manual controls, the H1 is aimed squarely at the likes of the Canon PowerShot S2 and the Panasonic DMC-FZ20 (and the FZ5 as well). While I haven't reviewed the S2 yet, I can tell you that the FZ20 is my favorite ultra zoom camera, so the DSC-H1 has its work cut out for it. How did it perform? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The DSC-H1 has an above average bundle. Inside the box you'll find the following:
With their 2005 models Sony has started going the route of so many other camera manufacturers by not including a memory card with the camera. Instead they've built 32MB of memory right into the camera. That holds about twelve images at the highest image quality setting, so consider a memory card to be a mandatory purchase. The camera uses Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro cards, and I'd say that a 256MB card is a good size for most people to start out with. Do note that Memory Sticks tend to be on the expensive side when compared with CompactFlash and SD.
The DSC-H1 uses two AA batteries for power, and Sony includes NiMH rechargeables in the box. The included batteries have 2100 mAh of energy which is decent but not the best it could be in 2005. Using the included batteries Sony estimates that you can take 290 shots per charge, which is about average. Using 2500 mAh batteries (which Sony sells for about $9) will boost that number to 320. Compare that with 550 shots on the Canon PowerShot S2, 420 shots on the Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5, and 300 and 240 shots on the Panasonic DMC-FZ5 and DMC-FZ20, respectively.
Longtime readers will know that I'm a big fan of cameras that use AA batteries. You can use NiMH rechargeables which cost less than the proprietary lithium-ion batteries used by some other cameras and quote often last longer, too. And whenever those die you can drop in some alkalines to get you through the day.
When it's time to charge the batteries just place them into the included charger. This charger is very slow, taking six hours to fully charge the battery (buying a faster charger may not be a bad idea). This isn't one of those chargers that plugs right into the wall, either -- you must use a power cable.
The H1 includes a rather clunky lens cap which fits on the lens, lens hood, and conversion lens adapter.
And speaking of which, here are both the lens adapter and the lens hood.
There are quite a few accessories available for the H1, which I've put into this handy chart:
Not too shabby, in my opinion!
Picture Package viewer (Windows only)
Sony includes Picture Package v1.6 for Windows as the main image viewing application. It's a pretty basic image viewer and doesn't compare to things like ACDSee, Photoshop Elements, or even the software designed by other camera manufacturers.
Picture Package Editing
Editing functionality is new to v 1.6 of Picture Package it's pretty basic (and as poorly designed as the rest of the software). You can remove redeye, adjusting brightness and contrast, and crop/resize your photos. You can also e-mail them at the click of your mouse.
ImageMixer VCD2 (Mac only)
Mac users don't get to use PicturePackage (you can use the camera with iPhoto just fine). Instead, they get ImageMixer VCD2 (don't worry WIndows users, you get it too). ImageMixer is used to create a Video CD from your images. Video CDs are kind of like a poor man's DVD -- not as good, but usable.
Cyber-shot Life (Windows only)
The Cyber-shot Life tutorial (now up to version 2.3) is a very helpful tool for learning to use the camera. It goes way beyond the manual and teaches some very useful techniques, like how to take night shots like the one later in this review. You can also do a simulation of various camera settings like ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance to see how they work. Now if only there was a Mac version too!
If the one included with the DSC-H1 is any indication, it appears that Sony is putting more effort into their camera manuals. They're a little more user friendly than they used to be, though they still have a ways to go. They need whoever made that tutorial to design their manuals too! One thing I don't like about the new manual design is how they've moved some useful information into this fold-out "Read This First" pamphlet, and that's the only place to find it.
Look and Feel
The Cyber-shot DSC-H1 is a fairly bulky camera made of a mix of plastic and metal. It feels very solid especially compared to the DiMAGE Z5. Even the battery compartment door is sturdy! With a large right hand grip I found the camera easy to hold, and the important controls were all easy to reach.
Now let's see how the H1 compares in terms of size, volume, and weight when compared to the competition:
As you can see, the DSC-H1 is the second largest and heaviest of the bunch. Only the FZ20 is bigger!
Enough numbers, let's begin our tour of the H1 now.
The DSC-H1 has an F2.8-3.7, 12X optical zoom lens. The focal range of the lens is 6.0 - 72 mm, which is equivalent to 36 - 432 mm. The lens barrel is threaded though you'll need the included conversion lens adapter to do anything with it. That adapter gives you access to the lens accessories I mentioned earlier as well as any 58 mm filter.
One interesting thing about this lens is that it's the first one I've seen in ages without the Carl Zeiss name on it. That doesn't bother me too much, as most people (myself included) have always assumed that Sony is just licensing the Zeiss name anyway (in other words, Sony, not Zeiss, makes the lens). I do have to wonder why the name wasn't used here, though.
Deep inside that lens you'll find Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilizer. Like the systems used by Canon and Panasonic, sensors inside the camera detect motion (from "camera shake", which most often occurs near the telephoto end of the lens) and an element in the lens is actually shifted to compensate. How well does it work? Have a look:
Here's a shot taken at 1/10 sec at maybe 3X zoom, and as you can see, it's on the blurry side. Now let's take this shot again with image stabilization turned on.
That's a lot better! Same slow 1/10 sec shutter speed but now things are sharp. This is not a Photoshop trick -- these are two different photos.
In case the big images don't convince you, how about these close-ups? For one last example I put together a movie taken with and without image stabilization. The difference should be quite noticeable!
Remember that image stabilization is not a miracle worker. If your photos are blurry because your subject is moving it won't make a bit of difference. But if it's camera shake that's the problem it will help, letting you use slower shutter speeds than a non-stabilized camera.
Back to the tour now. Directly above the lens is the H1's powerful pop-up flash, which can be raised automatically by the camera or manually by your fingers. The flash has a very impressive working range of 0.3 - 6.8 m at wide-angle and 0.9 - 5.2 m at telephoto. That's comparable to the flash on the FZ20 and better than the one on the PowerShot S2, DMC-FZ5, and the DiMAGE Z5. I was surprised to see that the DSC-H1 lacks a hot shoe -- which is something that most of the competition has. You can attach Sony's external slave flash if you want, though.
The other items on the front of the H1 include an AF-assist lamp (which doubles as the self-timer lamp) and the jog dial (used for adjusting manual controls and exposure compensation [-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments]). For those who don't know, the AF-assist lamp is used by the camera for focusing in low light situations and is always a welcome feature. I did find it a little too easy to accidentally bump the jog dial, thus adjusting camera settings inadvertently.
The DSC-H1 has a 2.5" LCD that's big in terms of size but small in terms of resolution. Its 115,200 pixels is about the same number that you'd expect on a smaller screen, though it didn't bother me in real world usage. Most cameras in this class have 1.8" or 2.0" screens so the big screen on the H1 was a nice change from the norm. Outdoor visibility was about average while low light viewing was good, but not great. The screen brightens some in low light, but not as much as on some other cameras.
Above the LCD you'll find an electronic viewfinder, something that is found on all ultra zoom cameras. The EVF is like a tiny LCD that you view as if it was an optical viewfinder. Unfortunately it's not nearly as sharp as the real thing, but that's life with an ultra zoom camera I'm afraid. The EVFs 115k resolution is average (unfortunately) and visibility in low light was about the same as the LCD. A slider beneath the viewfinder will adjust the focus so those of you without perfect vision can still use it.
To the right of the EVF are buttons for switching between the LCD and EVF as well as one for turning the image stabilizer on and off. Continuing to the right we find the zoom controller. This moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.6 seconds. By quickly pressing the controller you can make (fairly) precise adjustments to the focal length.
To the right of the LCD you'll find the Menu button as well as the four-way controller. The four-way controller used mainly for menu navigation, but it also does the following: time
The last two buttons to see on the back of the camera include one for Display (toggles what is shown on the LCD/EVF) and another for adjusting the image quality or deleting a photo.
The first thing to notice on the top of the camera is that there's no hot shoe. Not the end of the world but I would've liked to have seen one. At the center of the photo is the power button with the microphone to its upper-right. The next item over is the mode dial, which has the following options:
As you can see, the DSC-H1 has full manual control over exposure as well as plenty of automatic modes for the beginner.
Above the mode dial are buttons for focus and drive.
Pressing the focus mode button toggles between these four options: multi-point AF, center AF, flexible spot AF, and manual focus. The flexible spot AF feature lets you use the four-way controller to choose a focus point anywhere in the frame, except for a margin around the edges. This comes in handy when the camera is on a tripod. In manual focus mode you'll use the left and right buttons on the four-way controller to set the focus distance. A guide showing that distance is shown on the LCD/EVF and the center of the frame is enlarged so you can ensure proper focus.
There are three continuous shooting modes on the camera: burst mode, exposure bracketing, and multi burst mode. Burst mode took nine shots in a row at 1.3 frames/second (in my testing) which is average at best. For the sake of comparison, the Canon PowerShot S2 can take an infinite number of photos at 2.3 frames/second while the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 can do the same but at 2 frames/second. Exposure bracketing takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure which you can set in the menu. Finally, multi burst takes 16 shots in a row at the interval of your choosing and puts them into a single 1 Megapixel image (like a collage).
The last thing to see on the top of the camera is the H1's shutter release button.
The only thing to see here are the H1's I/O ports, which are kept under a plastic cover. The ports include A/V out and USB. The H1 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.
There's nothing to see on this side of the camera, unless you count that rubber door at the bottom-left. This is what you'll feed the power cable through if you're using the optional AC adapter. Unlike cameras that have a DC-in port, the H1 uses what is called a DC coupler, which is essentially a battery with a power cable coming out of it.
The lens is at the telephoto end in this shot.
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the DSC-H1. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery / memory card compartment.
The door covering the battery and memory card slot isn't just sturdy, it's also very clever. It can open all the way (as seen in the previous photo) or you can open just part of it to get to the memory card slot only. And yes, I know that the memory card is in backwards in this shot! Thanks to this design you can swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.
Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1
It takes just under two seconds for the DSC-H1 to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures -- not bad.
A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode
Focus speeds were very snappy at the wide-angle end of the lens, with a delay of only 0.1 - 0.3 seconds in most cases. Those numbers rise a bit as you zoom in more, but even then I was pleased with the responsiveness of the focusing system. Low light focusing was good thanks to the H1's AF-assist lamp.
Shutter lag was very low, even at slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.
Shot-to-shot speed was excellent, with a delay of a little over a second before you can take another shot (assuming the post-shot review feature is turned off).
You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must use the Quick Review feature first.
Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the H1:
The DSC-H1 does not support the RAW or TIFF image formats, but then again, neither does the competition.
The file numbering system used by Sony is quite simple. Files are named DSC0####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The numbering is maintained as you erase and swap Memory Sticks.
The H1 uses the same menu system as other recent Sony cameras. The menu is overlay-style -- meaning that its shown on top of the image you're preparing to shoot -- and it's pretty easy-to-use. Now, here is the full recording menu on the H1 -- remember that all of these options may not be available in some shooting modes:
I hope everything up there was self-explanatory. Let's move on now to the setup menu.
There's also a setup menu (accessible from the record or playback menu), which has the following options:
A few of those items require further explanation. I'll start with the AF modes.
Single AF is just like you're used to: press the shutter release halfway and the camera locks focus. Monitor AF lets the camera focus constantly, even without the shutter release pressed. Continuous AF focuses before and after the shutter release is halfway pressed. Those last two modes help reduce focusing delays but they'll put an extra strain on your battery.
The camera has two types of digital zoom. Precision digital zoom is the same old "enlarge the center" system that you should avoid. Smart Zoom lets you enlarge the image without a loss in quality, with the catch being that you can't use much of it unless you're at a low resolution. The lower the resolution, the more smart zoom you can use. In fact, you can't even use Smart Zoom at the 5M setting!
The two SteadyShot options are similar to those on other cameras with image stabilization. The continuous mode is always stabilizing things, while the shooting option only does it when you halfway press the shutter release. The shooting option will result in superior image stabilization and won't suck up your battery as much.
Let's move on to our photo tests now, shall we?
The DSC-H1 produced a very smooth and saturated photo of our usual macro test subjects. As with most Sony cameras, the reds are especially vibrant.
In macro mode you can get as close to your subject as 2 cm at wide-angle and 90 cm at telephoto, both of which are quite good.
The H1 did a beautiful job with our night test shot. The camera took in plenty of light and all the buildings are nice and sharp. Noise levels are good, though purple fringing is worse than average. You could try to use a smaller aperture to reduce this, but I didn't find that to be terribly helpful in my daytime shots. With full manual control over shutter speed long exposures like this are easy. Just remember two things: use a tripod and turn off the image stabilizer.
Using that same scene, let's take a look at how adjusting the ISO sensitivity affects the noise levels in images:
ISO 100 looks much like ISO 64, while ISO 200 is still very usable. I'd say you could probably make smaller-sized prints at ISO 400 using noise reduction software like Noise Ninja or the like.
There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the H1's lens. I see no evidence of vignetting or blurry corners.
Wow, no redeye. Nice job Sony!
Overall the photo quality on the DSC-H1 is very good, kept from excellence by above average purple fringing levels. While most ultra zooms suffer from this annoyance (see the flag pole in this picture for an example), the DSC-H1 has it worse than the competition. In most cases using a smaller aperture (higher F-number) reduces this, but I didn't find this to be the case on the H1. Even at F8.0 the purple fringing was still very visible, and not much better than with the aperture wide open. Purple fringing won't really affect your print quality unless you're printing huge, and you probably won't even notice it unless you're viewing at 100% on your computer screen.
Otherwise the news is good. Exposure and color were generally good, and noise levels were reasonable. Image sharpness could be a bit better in my opinion, but that's easy to adjust by using the sharpness option in the recording menu.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery and decide if the photo quality meets your expectations. I also encourage you to print the photos, just like you would if they were your own.
The DSC-H1 has the same, top-notch movie mode as Sony's other digital cameras. The MPEG Movie VX Fine mode takes VGA resolution video (that's 640 x 480) at 30 frames/sec until the memory card is full, with sound. The VX Fine mode requires a Memory Stick Pro card and it cannot be used with the built-in memory. A 1GB MS Pro card can hold about 12 minutes of video at the VX Fine setting.
Two other movie quality settings are also available. You can use the VX Standard mode, which is still VGA, just at 16 frames/second. A much lower resolution option is also available, recording at 160 x 112. Neither of these modes require a Memory Stick Pro card and the internal memory can be used as well. All the movies are saved in MPEG format.
As is usually the case, you cannot use the zoom lens during filming (the Canon S2 is the big exception here). The image stabilizer is active during filming.
Here's a sample movie for you, taken at the highest quality setting. Yes, it's the train once again! Be warned, this is a huge download and is not for those with dialup connections!
Click to play movie (19.1 MB, 640 x 480, VX Fine mode, MPEG format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.
The Cyber-shot DSC-H1 has a pretty standard (though well-implemented) playback mode. Basic features include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll". The camera is PictBridge-enabled, allowing for direct printing to compatible photo printers.
The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom up to 5X into your photo (in 0.3X increments), and then scroll around in it. This is useful for checking the focus in a photograph.
Some of the more advanced playback features include:
By default, the H1 doesn't tell you much about your photos. But press the Display button and you'll see a lot more, including a histogram (see above).
The camera moves between images very quickly in playback mode. If you go one image at a time, the next one appears instantly, without any low resolution placeholder. If you really start flipping through them, you'll see a low res placeholder followed by the high res image a half second later.
How Does it Compare
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H1 is a very good ultra zoom camera that isn't quite as good as the best models in this class (the Panasonic FZ5 and FZ20), mainly because of its above average purple fringing levels. It does offer a lot, though, and if you look past the purple fringing you'll find a very capable camera.
The DSC-H1 is a pretty bulky camera but I found it very easy to hold and operate. It's well built, the controls are easy to use, and I like the clever two-door cover over the battery and memory card compartment. The camera has a large, but not terribly high resolution 2.5" LCD display which has average visibility in both bright and dim light. My only design-related complaint is that the jog dial is a little too easy to accidentally bump, which can result in using something like Program Shift when you didn't want to. Oh, and a hot shoe would be nice too, though most of the competition doesn't have one either.
In terms of performance the H1 is up to the task. It starts up very quickly, shot-to-shot delays were minimal, and I was impressed with its focusing speeds, even at the telephoto end of the lens. Low light focusing was good thanks to the H1's AF-assist lamp. Transferring photos is snappy too thanks to the camera's support for the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.
Photo quality was very good, though as I mentioned, purple fringing levels were higher than they should be. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of redeye from the H1's powerful flash. The camera's movie mode was also very good, though a Memory Stick Pro card is required for the highest quality movies.
The big story here isn't any of that, though -- it's the big lens and image stabilizer. The H1's 12X zoom lens (which strangely lacks the Zeiss name) isn't the fastest one out there (the Panasonic FZ20 wins that award) but it still covers a lot of range and it brings in plenty of light. The optical image stabilization system will let you use slower shutter speeds than you could otherwise and it will smooth out your movies as well.
About the only other complaints I can think of are the crummy software that's included and the so-so burst mode compared to the Canon and Panasonic cameras.
If the camera had a little less purple fringing it would be right up there in the #2 position with the Panasonic FZ5, but instead the DSC-H1 lands in third place on my list. I haven't reviewed the Canon S2 yet, so I can't say how it compares with the H1. However, I can point you to our PowerShot S2 vs DSC-H1 shootout, where you can see how the two cameras performed side-by-side. The DSC-H1 gets my recommendation, but be sure to check out the competition carefully, as they are very capable (if not more so) cameras too.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Some other ultra zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot S2 IS, Fuji FinePix S5100, Kodak EasyShare Z7590, Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5, Nikon Coolpix 4800, Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5 and DMC-FZ20. Of those, only the Canon, Minolta, and Panasonic cameras offer image stabilization.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-H1 and its competitors before you buy!
See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery. Also, don't miss our PowerShot S2 vs. Cyber-shot DSC-H1 shootout for even more photos!
Want another opinion?
Feedback & Discussion
If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.
To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.
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