printer-friendly reviews are for non-commercial use only
DCRP Review: Sony
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: October 18, 2005
Last Updated: October 11, 2008
I have completed our review of the DSC-N1 using a production model camera. Product photos have been re-shot where necessary, and all sample images are from the production camera. Thank you for your patience.
At first glance the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1 ($499) looks like another ultra-thin camera. But the N1 is more than just a camera: Sony has designed it to be both a camera and a portable photo viewer. The N1 can display up to 500 of your photos, organized in albums. They can be viewed individually or in slideshows complete with music on the DSC-N1's huge 3-inch LCD display. Each time you take a picture it's automatically added to the album (which is stored in internal memory), so putting photos in the album is totally brainless.
Other features on the N1 include an 8.1 Megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens, limited manual controls, VGA movie mode, and an AF-assist lamp.
Is this the ultimate pocket-sized camera? Find out now!
What's in the Box?
The DSC-N1 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
As is the case with Sony's other recent cameras, the N1 does not include a memory card. Instead, Sony has built 26MB of memory right into the camera (plus 26MB more for the photo album and 6MB for slideshow music). The internal memory holds just six photos at the highest quality setting, so buying a high capacity memory card is a necessity (I'd suggest 512MB or 1GB as good starter sizes). The N1 uses Memory Stick Duo cards, which are smaller than regular Memory Sticks (an adapter is included so you can use them in things with regular MS slots). MS Duo cards currently top out at 2GB.
The DSC-N1 uses the all new NP-BG1 lithium-ion battery. This battery packs 3.4 Wh of energy, which is fairly typical for an ultra-compact camera. Strangely enough this is NOT an InfoLithium battery like Sony's other li-ion-based cameras, and I'm not sure why. That means that the camera can't give you the exact number of minutes of battery life left -- too bad!
Anyhow, here's how the N1 performs against the competition in terms of battery life:
The DSC-N1 is darn close to the best battery life in its class. Alas, the Casio Z750 takes that award by a nose. I do have to hand it to the Sony engineers who managed to get this kind of battery life out of a camera with a 3-inch LCD.
The usual caveats about proprietary batteries apply here. They're expensive ($45 a pop) and you can't use "regular batteries" to get you throw the day in an emergency. Unfortunately these batteries are standard features on ultra thin cameras like the N1.
When it's time to charge the N1's battery, just pop it into the include external charger. This is my favorite type of charger -- you just plug it right into the wall. The typical charging time is 270 minutes, which is pretty slow.
As is the case with most ultra-thin cameras, you'll find a built-in lens cover on the DSC-N1. As you can see, it's a pretty small camera.
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
Sony includes a rather unusual-looking stylus with the N1 so you can keep your greasy fingers off of the LCD. The stylus doesn't stow inside the camera like the one on the Kodak EasyShare One, so you'll need to carry it around with you or use your fingers instead.
Let's talk accessories now. The most interested of the N1 accessories is the MPK-NA underwater case ($200), which lets you take the camera up to 40 meters (132 ft) deep!
There's also the CSS-TNA Cyber-shot Station camera dock ($80), which can charge your battery, hook into a television (a remote control is included), and transfer photos to your computer. The dock is NOT a requirement to fully enjoy the camera, as you can do the same things without it.
If you want more flash power and less redeye then check out the HVL-FSL1B external slave flash ($75). This attaches to the camera via the tripod mount and is triggered by the built-in flash.
Other accessories for the N1 include an AC adapter ($35), car power adapter ($45), and a soft carrying case ($30).
Picture Package viewer (Windows only)
Sony includes Picture Package v1.6.1 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
While older versions did not have them (believe it or not), the latest version of PP has basic image editing tools. 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.
Music Transfer software (Mac version)
You'll also use PicturePackage to transfer your own music to the camera for use in the slideshow feature.
Mac users don't get PP, but they do get a separate music transfer application (shown above), but it worked. As you can see, up to four tracks can be stored on the camera, and the software can grab them from MP3 files (which didn't work for me) or from an audio CD.
The DSC-N1's documentation is divided into two parts. First there is a fold-out "Read This First" guide that covers just about everything you'll need to know in order to start taking pictures. For more details you'll need to open up the 129 page User's Guide, which answers any possible question you may have about the camera. The fold-out guide is well presented, though the User's Guide still has a lot of fine print (though less than previous Sony manuals).
Look and Feel
The Cyber-shot DSC-N1 has a design unlike any of Sony's other ultra-thin cameras. The body is made entirely of metal, and it feels very solid in your hands. There are very few buttons on the camera, with most things controlled via the touchscreen LCD that you'll see in a moment. While it's thicker than the T-series cameras, it will still fit in your smallest pockets with ease.
One thing you'll have to get used to is fingerprints on that big LCD -- since it takes up so much real estate, you're bound to have a finger or two on it when you pick up the camera.
Now let's see how the N1 compares in terms of size, volume, and weight with the competition:
While it's not even close to being the smallest camera in its class, the N1 is still plenty small in my opinion.
Enough numbers, let's start our tour of the camera now!
The DSC-N1 has an F2.8-5.4, 3X optical zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens. The focal length of the lens is 7.9 - 23.7 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 114 mm. The lens is not threaded, nor would I expect it to be.To the upper-left of the lens is the N1's AF-assist lamp, which is also used as the visual countdown for the self-timer. The AF-assist lamp helps the camera focus in low light situations.
Just above the AF-assist lamp is the built-in flash. Unlike the T-series cameras, Sony actually put a fairly powerful flash on the N1. The working range (at Auto ISO) is 0.2 - 5.0 m at wide-angle and 0.34 - 2.6 m at telephoto. If you want more flash power and less redeye there's always the external slave flash that I mentioned earlier.
The DSC-N1 is one of just three digital cameras on the market with a 3-inch LCD display. It's huge! And it's not just big -- it's touch-sensitive too. Virtually all camera functions are controlled via this screen, and you can use your fingers or the included stylus (see picture earlier in review).
Here's a little more about that huge LCD. The screen resolution is decent, with 230,400 pixels on board, though the post-shot review images doesn't seem to take advantage of all those pixels (it's nice and sharp in playback mode).. Outdoor visibility is very good (which is important since there's no optical viewfinder) and the screen is just as visible in low light conditions, as it brightens automatically.
Normally I'd complain about the lack of an optical viewfinder on the N1, but let's not kid ourselves: there's no way they're going to fit one in on this camera.
At the top-right of the photo you'll find the zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in under 1.3 seconds. I counted nine steps throughout the 3X zoom range.
Below that you'll find the mode switch, which moves the camera between movie, still, and playback mode. Below that are two buttons: menu and display (which toggles the info shown on the LCD). I'll describe the menus in full detail later in the review.
On top of the N1 you'll find the microphone as well as the power and shutter release buttons.
Here's the speaker...
On the other side of the N1 you'll find the battery and memory card compartment. These are kept under a plastic door that's on the flimsy side. As I said earlier, the N1 uses Memory Stick Duo cards (regular or pro varieties), and an adapter is included to get the Duo card into a regular MS slot.
The included NP-BG1 battery is shown at right.
As you can see, the DSC-N1 has a metal tripod mount. To the left of that is the dock connector, which is also used for USB, A/V, and DC-in (all with the same cable, too). The N1 supports the fast USB 2.0 High Speed standard.
Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1
It takes the DSC-N1 about 1.6 seconds to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. That's about average for this class.
A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode
The DSC-N1 focuses very quickly, with typical wide-angle focus times of 0.1 - 0.3 seconds. At telephoto it takes a bit longer, and if the camera really has to work to lock focus it may take a second or more. The N1 focused well in low light conditions thanks to its AF-assist lamp.
As with Sony's other cameras, shutter lag was not noticeable, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.
Shot-to-shot speeds were 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 enter playback mode.
Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the N1:
The DSC-N1 does not support the RAW or TIFF image formats.
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 menu system works a bit differently on the N1 than it does on other cameras. Pressing the light up menu button on the back of the camera brings up the above screen. The available options here include:
The manual shooting mode is where you'll find the N1's manual exposure controls. You set both the aperture and shutter speed yourself -- there are no "priority" modes on the camera. At any given focal length you'll have three apertures to choose from: F2.8/F4/F8 at wide-angle and F5.4/F8/F16 at telephoto (there will be other options in between those two). The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/1000 sec.
There are several focus modes to choose from on the N1. Multi AF automatically selects the area in the frame on which to focus. Center frame always focuses on the center of the frame, while the spot AF feature lets you choose the area in the frame to focus on simply by touching the LCD in that spot. This feature has been on Sony's camcorders for a couple of years.
Pressing the menu button opens up the secondary menu that you see above. I found navigating it with your finger (or the stylus) to be a bit strange... perhaps it takes a while to get used to. Here are the items in this menu:
As you can see, the N1 can crank the sensitivity as high as ISO 800. We'll see how it does at that setting later in the review.
It's worth mentioning that the LCD "blacks out" briefly between shots in burst mode, which can make tracking a moving subject a bit difficult.
The setup menu adjusts a mix of mundane and useful functions on the N1. They include:
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. This helps reduce the time required to take a picture.
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. This is similar to the "extended optical zoom" feature on Panasonic's newest cameras.
There are various tools to manage the album and music features on the camera. In order to download music to the camera you need to use that "Download Music" option when you connect the camera with the USB cable.
Let's move on to our photo tests now, shall we?
I had the same white balance issues on the DSC-N1 as I did with the DSC-T9. SImply put, the camera's white balance system was unable to handle my studio lamps, hence the reddish cast. Here's where a custom white balance feature would really come in handy. It's too bad about the color cast, as our usual subject is nice and sharp. Please note that this color cast issue will only be a problem if you shoot under unusual lighting conditions. For regular shots you won't have to worry about any of this, but if you frequently shoot under unusual lighting conditions you may want to find a camera with custom white balance.
Just like I did for the DSC-T9 I ran the photo through the Auto Color filter in Photoshop CS2. The color cast is gone and things look much better:
The minimum focus distance in macro mode is 6 cm at wide-angle and 34 cm at telephoto, both of which are about average.
Results were better for the night test shot. The camera took in plenty of light thanks to its manual control over shutter speed (something the T-series cameras lack), and the buildings are nice and sharp. Noise levels are reasonable considering the resolution of the camera, and purple fringing was not a problem.
Below is the first of two ISO tests in this review. First, let's use the night scene to see how the camera performs at high ISO sensitivities:
The ISO 100 crop isn't much worse than the ISO 64 one. At ISO 200 things start getting fuzzy, and it's all downhill from there. At ISO 400 details are really starting to go, and they're basically gone at ISO 800 (watch how the US Bank sign disappears). I was able to clean up that ISO 800 shot with NeatImage and make an acceptable 4 x 6 inch print, though.
Barrel distortion is mild at the wide end of the DSC-N1's lens. While I didn't see any vignetting (dark corners) here, I did see some blurriness in the corners of the test shot, which you'll encounter occasionally in real world situations as well.
You shouldn't be surprised with the results of our redeye test. Compact cameras almost always have a problem with this, and the N1 is no exception. You can expect to be cleaning this out of your photos at least some of the time.
Now it's time for the second ISO test in the review. Above is our test scene, which has the same color cast as the macro shot since the camera can't seem to get the white balance right in my studio. I've cropped out a section of the scene so you can quickly compare the noise levels, though I do recommend viewing the full size images for the complete picture (no pun intended).
And with that, let's look at the crops!
You'll be hard-pressed to see the difference between the ISO 64 and 100 shots. There's a bit more grain in the ISO 200 shot, but you really don't start to notice the noise until ISO 400. The ISO 800 shot is on the noisy side, but like the night shot it made a nice 4 x 6 inch print after some work in NeatImage.
I was very pleased with the photo quality on the DSC-N1 -- it's quite good for a compact camera like this. Photos were generally well-exposed (though it blew out the highlights in a few shots) with accurate color and a comfortable level of sharpness. Noise levels are comparable to other cameras in this class, and purple fringing was not a major problem. My only real complaints are regarding the small amount of corner blurriness as well as the white balance issue that I described earlier.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, printing the photos if you'd like, and decide if the N1's photo quality meets your expectations!
The DSC-N1 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 Duo card, and you cannot use the internal memory at that setting either. A 1GB Pro Duo card can hold about 12 minutes of video at the highest quality setting.
If you don't have a Memory Stick Pro Duo card, don't fret. You can quadruple the recording time by using the VX Standard mode, which is still VGA, just at 16 frames/second. An even lower resolution mode is also available: 160 x 120 at 8.3 frames/second, which boosts recording time by a factor of fifty seven!
As is usually the case, you cannot use the zoom lens during filming. Movies are saved in MPEG format.
Here's an exciting sample movie for you:
Click to play movie (14.9 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, MPEG format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime.
The DSC-N1's playback mode is quite a bit fancier than what comes on most cameras. The basic features are here, of course, like thumbnail viewing, zoom & scroll (playback zoom), DPOF print marking, and image protection. You can also rotate, resize, and crop your photos. A movie editing feature lets you trim unwanted footage.
And, of course, the N1 is PictBridge-enabled for direct printing to the photo printer of your choice.
The slide show feature is much fancier than what most of the competition offers. You can choose from five "effects" (transitions), including normal, active, stylish, nostalgic, and simple. These effects are not just fades, either: here's one example for you. You can also select four music tracks (or just turn off the sound), and Sony includes some sample music with the camera. If you want your own music, use the music transfer application to move your MP3s to the camera. Do note that this software only works on Windows PCs.
Now let's talk about the album feature. Each time you take a picture, a 640 x 480 version of the photo is put into the album, which has its own 26MB memory bank. Even if you delete your photo from the camera, it's remains in the album. Photos in the album operate on the "first in, first out" system, so the oldest photos get "bumped" from the album when the 500 image limit is reached. You can protected album photos to keep them from being automatically removed.
While some cameras let you organize your photos by name or category, the N1 does it by date and time (see picture).
One feature that I don't have a picture of is the paint feature. This lets you use the stylus (or your finger, I suppose) to digitally draw on top of a picture. There are various pens and stamps you can use, and there are several colors to choose from. I can't see this being used very often after the initial curiosity dies down.
By default, the N1 doesn't tell you much about your photos. But press the Display button and you'll see a lot more, including a histogram.
The camera moves between images 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
Although it's a bit thicker than other ultra-compact cameras, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1 takes advantage of that extra room by packing an ultra large LCD display, more powerful flash, and superb battery life into its metal body. Throw in limited manual controls, a nice movie mode, and great picture quality and the DSC-N1 is easy to recommend.
The DSC-N1 is a compact (but not super thin) metal camera that is closer in size to things like the Canon SD550 and Kodak EasyShare One. Build quality is very good for the most part, save for the usual flimsy cover over the battery and memory card slot. The N1 has just four buttons on its body, with most camera functions controlled via the enormous 3-inch LCD display. This LCD has pretty high resolution, and it's visible both in bright outdoor light as well as dimly lit rooms. Not only is the LCD big, it's also a touchscreen. The on-screen menus take some getting used to, and you're going to have fingerprints all over the screen, but it's a nice change from the button clutter found on many other cameras. The N1 has an 8.1 Megapixel CCD, 3X zoom lens, and AF-assist lamp in addition to it's monster LCD.
In terms of features, the DSC-N1 has a mix of automatic and manual controls. For users who want ease-of-use, there are numerous scene modes to choose from. Those demanding more control will appreciate the manual aperture and shutter speed controls and the sort-of-manual focus feature. One thing the N1 really needs is a custom white balance feature, as some of the test shots proved. Movie lovers will enjoy the VGA (30 frame/second) movie mode, which records until the memory card is full. One of the other big features on the N1 is its album feature. Each time you take a photo it is automatically placed into the album, which is stored in a separate memory bank in the camera. The album stores the last 500 photos you took, and they're all organized by date. The enhanced slideshow feature can show your photos with music (which you can provide) and fancy transitions.
Camera performance was very good in most areas. The N1 starts up in about 1.6 seconds, it focuses quickly, and shutter lag was not noticeable. The camera cycles between shots quickly, and playback speeds were snappy as well. Battery life was well above average for a camera in this class. The only weak spot in terms of performance is the N1's continuous shooting mode, which was on the slow side, with the LCD blacking out between shots.
Photo quality on the camera was very good, assuming that you stay away from unusual lighting. Photos were usually well-exposed, with accurate colors, good sharpness, and low noise and purple fringing levels. If you shoot under unusual lighting conditions -- as I do for my test photos -- then the lack of custom white balance may be a deal breaker. The DSC-N1 can crank up the ISO sensitivity as high as 800, and I was able to get usable 4 x 6 inch prints after cleaning things up with noise reduction software. Finally, as is the case with most cameras in this class, redeye was a problem on the DSC-N1.
About the only other complaints I have about the N1 are the lack of an optical viewfinder and photo editing software for the Mac. Yeah, there aren't too many negatives to come up with here! If you're after a stylish and compact camera with a BIG LCD, great photo quality, and a built-in photo album, then the DSC-N1 is for you. Heck, even if you don't want the albums, fancy slideshows, and "photo painting" features it's still one of the best cameras in its class.
What I liked:
What I didn't care for:
Some other ultra-thin cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SD550, Casio Exilim EX-S500 and EX-Z750, Fuji FinePix Z1, Kodak EasyShare One and V550, Konica Minolta DiMAGE X1, Nikon Coolpix S3, Olympus Stylus 800, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX9, Pentax Optio S6, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-N1 and its competitors before you buy!
See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!
Want another opinion?
Read other reviews at Steve's Digicams, CNET, and PC Magazine.
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.
Home | News | Digital Camera Reviews & Info | Forums | Buyers Guide | Shopping | FAQ | About | Advertising
All content © 1997
- 2012 Digital Camera Resource Page LLC (R)
All trademarks are property of their respective owners.