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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 Review

How Does it Compare?

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is a super zoom camera with a lot of unique and compelling features. Sony clearly put a lot of effort into giving the HX1 its top-notch burst mode, one-of-a-kind sweep panorama feature, and its two anti-blur modes. If they had spent some more time on image quality, then Sony would've really knocked one out of the park. Unfortunately, they did not -- the HX1's photo quality is just fair, with lots of room for improvement. If you're sticking to small prints and like all the unique features that the HX1 offers, then it's worth a look. Those of you who'll be making large prints or viewing the images on your computer may want to look at another super zoom model.

The DSC-HX1 is a midsize super zoom camera made of a mixture of plastic and metal. It feels pretty solid for the most part, save for the usual flimsy door over the battery and memory card compartment. The proximity of the tripod mount to this door means that you won't be able to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod. I found the camera exceptionally easy to hold, with the important controls within each reach of my fingers. I found the shutter release button to be very sensitive, though it may just be my particular camera with that issue. The HX1 features a 20X optical zoom Sony "G" lens, which an impressive focal range of 28 - 560 mm. If that's not enough zoom power for you, Sony offers a 1.7X teleconverter that boosts the top end to a whopping 952 mm. As you'd expect, the HX1 features an optical image stabilization system, which reduces the risk of blurry photos. On the back of the camera you'll find a large 3-inch LCD that can tilt up or down (I would've preferred a rotating display). While the screen is big, the resolution is the same old 230k pixels that you can find on smaller displays. The LCD is very easy to see outdoors, and low light visibility is good, but not great. The HX1 also has a tiny electronic viewfinder, which is half the size of the EVF on the Canon PowerShot SX1 (the HX1's main competitor). Some users may also find the "rainbow effect" on the EVF to be distracting. While the DSC-HX1 supports HDMI output, a clunky "dongle" is required in order to actually do anything. Why Sony didn't built in a mini HDMI port is beyond me.

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is chock full of features, some of which are one-of-a-kind. I figure that most people will use the Intelligent Auto mode, which automatically selects a scene mode for you. The HX1 has face, smile, and blink detection, and all work exceptionally well. The camera is smart enough to remember certain faces, and it can even distinguish between adults and children. If you want manual controls, the HX1 has them, from aperture and shutter speed to white balance to focus. You can bracket for exposure, white balance, and color mode, as well. While there's a custom mode on the back of the camera, it has very limited options. Two things missing in the manual control department are 1) support for the RAW format and 2) the ability to control the image compression. The HX1's playback mode is quite elaborate, with numerous ways to view your pictures, a fancy slideshow feature, and plenty of retouching options available.

Now let's talk about some features that everyone will like, regardless of their skill level. First up is the "sweep panorama" feature, which lets you create nice-looking panoramic images simply by "sweeping" the camera from one side to the other. It takes just a few seconds to create some really impressive photos, though there may be stitching errors, just like if you were doing it on your PC. Two related features are the anti motion blur and handheld twilight modes. In these modes, the camera takes six photos in very rapid succession, and combines them into a single image. The resulting image should be blur-free, though it won't be noise free. I found these photos good enough for printing at 4 x 6, but don't expect to go any larger. Another nice feature is the HX1's high definition movie mode. The camera records video at 1440 x 1080 and interpolates it up to full HD (1920 x 1080), with sound recorded in stereo. You can keep recording until you hit the 2GB file size limit, which takes about 21 minutes at the highest quality setting. You can operate the zoom lens while you're recording and, naturally, the image stabilizer is available as well. The HX1 lacks the much-needed wind filter and audio level controls of its Canon competition. Even so, the DSC-HX1 still does a nice job at recording movies, especially for a digital still camera.

The DSC-HX1 is a solid performer in almost all respects. The only thing that seemed a little slow was its startup time of 2 seconds -- the Canon SX1 has it beat by 0.8 seconds. Focus times were very good, ranging from 0.2 - 0.4 seconds to 0.6 - 1.0 seconds. Low light focusing was good most of the time, usually hovering around one second. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were brief (even if you're using the flash). The DSC-HX1's burst mode is, in a word, awesome. You can take up to ten photos at 2, 5, and an unbelievable 10 frames/second. The LCD and EVF keep up with the action, so tracking a moving subject is easy. The only downside is the lengthy (15+ second) write time after a burst is taken. The HX1's battery life is average for a super zoom camera.

As I mentioned, the DSC-HX1's image quality is disappointing. Like Sony's other recent point-and-shoot cameras, the HX1 suffers from too much noise reduction. This smudges low contrast details such as grass, hair, trees, sand, and water, and also gives the image as a whole a soft, fuzzy appearance. Lowering the noise reduction helps a bit, though photos will then have a more traditional grain style of noise. The HX1 also has quite a bit of purple fringing (so much for the fancy lens), and highlight clipping is an issue, as well. On a more positive note, overall exposure quality was good, and color accuracy was top-notch. The camera has a bit of a redeye problem, even when using the preflash feature, but you can remove it using a tool in playback mode.

I've got a couple of final issues to mention before I wrap things up. Two things that really annoyed me were 1) how quickly the camera retracts the lens when you switch to playback mode and 2) the incredibly annoying and loud "beep" sounds (yes, I know you can turn them off). The HX1 has a miniscule amount of built-in memory, there's no Mac photo editing software included, and the full camera manual is only on the included CD-ROM.

If you want a super zoom camera with HD video recording and lots of bells and whistles (some of which are quite cool), then it's worth taking a look at the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1. If image quality is more important than a 10 fps burst mode and easy panorama shooting, then I'd take a look at the PowerShot SX1 instead. It costs $100 more and has its share of issues as well, but it's the better of the two cameras in most respects. If you don't need HD movie recording at all, then you can save a bundle by buying a "regular" super zoom camera. I've listed all of the competitors below for your convenience.

What I liked:

  • Decent photo quality for the 4 x 6 crowd, especially in good light
  • 20X optical zoom lens with great 28 - 560 mm range
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Tiltable 3-inch LCD display with good outdoor visibility
  • Very snappy performance in most respects
  • Full manual controls
  • Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene mode for you
  • Continuous shooting as fast as 10 frames/second
  • Super-cool sweep panorama feature, plus handy anti-blur mode
  • Impressive face and smile detection features
  • Full HD (sort of) movie mode, with optical zoom and image stabilizer available while recording
  • Elaborate playback mode
  • HDMI and component video output (though see below)
  • Optional teleconverter gives you 34X zoom power

What I didn't care for:

  • Heavy noise reduction smudges fine details and gives images a soft, fuzzy look, even at low ISOs
  • Fairly strong purple fringing; some highlight clipping, as well
  • Some redeye (though you can remove it in playback mode)
  • Tiny electronic viewfinder; rainbow effect can be annoying
  • No RAW format support; amount of image compression not adjustable
  • Movie mode not native 1080p; lacks wind screen and editing functionality
  • Lens retracts way too quickly when you switch to playback mode
  • Clunky "dongle" required in order to use HDMI output
  • Very loud and annoying "beep" sounds
  • Flimsy door over memory/battery compartment; cannot access memory card when camera is on a tripod
  • Very little built-in memory
  • No Mac software included; Full manual only on CD-ROM

Some other super zoom cameras worth considering include the Canon PowerShot SX1 and SX10, Casio Exilim EX-FH20, Kodak EasyShare Z980, Nikon Coolpix P90, Olympus SP-590UZ, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28, and the Pentax X70.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 and its competitors before you buy.

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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.