DCRP First Look: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P31
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002
Last Updated: Monday, July 8, 2002

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This is a "preview" of the Sony DSC-P31. The camera described here is a pre-production model, and features and look-and-feel are subject to change. When a production model is available, I will update the review and provide a conclusion.

The Cyber-shot DSC-P31 is the new entry level camera from Sony. Along with the P31, there's now the P51 and P71 as well. These replace the DSC-P20, P30, and P50. The P51 is a 2 Megapixel camera with a 2X optical zoom, while the P71 is a 3.2 Megapixel camera with a 3X zoom. I've covered the P71 in a separate review.

The DSC-P31 ($220) is a 2.0 Megapixel camera with a fixed focus lens. There's a 3X digital zoom available, but keep in mind quality goes down quickly when it is used. The body is totally new, and pretty small too. The camera is expected to ship in late March.

Find out all about the P31 in our special preview! Note that since the cameras are so similar, I've copied some pieces from the P71 review to save time.

What's in the Box?

The DSC-P31 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 2.0 (effective) Mpixel Cyber-shot DSC-P31 camera
  • 8MB Memory Stick
  • 2 AA NiMH rechargeable batteries
  • NiMH battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Pixela ImageMixer software and drivers
  • 108 page manual

So what's the big news with the three new P-series cameras? Sony has ditched the proprietary battery! While the old P-series cameras gave you the option of using AA or proprietary, the new cameras use two AA batteries. Sony includes two high capacity 1750 mAh batteries, plus a charger with the camera.

Sony says you should be able to shoot for over 2 hours on these batteries before needing a recharge.


Yippee!

I see this is a big win for the consumer. While proprietary batteries do last a long time, they are expensive, and you can't just buy another one at Disneyland when your first one dies.

Sony estimates that you'll have two hours of shooting time, with the LCD off. One feature that disappeared when the InfoLithium batteries went away was the handy timer showing how much battery life you had left, down to the minute. Now it's just a little battery symbol, and when it gets empty, it's time to recharge.

The DSC-P31 includes an 8MB Memory Stick in the box. You'll probably want to buy a 32MB card when you start taking lots of pictures.

The camera has a built-in lens cover, so no lens cap is needed.

I'm not sure about what accessories will be available for the new P-series cameras. Once I find out, I'll update this review.

The P31 is compatible with Mac OS X, iPhoto, and WindowsXP.

Here's more great news: the new P-series cameras have an improved manual! It's a much more user friendly manual compared to other Sony cameras I've tested in that past, and I'm very happy to see it. Perhaps my complaining had something to do with this improvement, in some small way?

Look and Feel

The DSC-P31 is Sony's smallest camera. In fact, it approaches the size of the Canon Digital ELPH. The body is made mostly of plastic. The P31 is super-easy to use with one hand or two, and it fits in any pocket.

The dimensions of the P31 are 4.25 x 2.75 x 1.56 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs just 231 grams with battery and Memory Stick installed!

The DSC-P31 has an F2.8, fixed focal length lens (5 mm). That's equivalent to 33 mm. Any zooming you plan on doing with this camera will be done digitally -- meaning the quality won't be nearly as good as it would be if you used a real optical zoom.

Above the lens is the AF illuminator, which helps to light up the subject in low-light situations, to assist in focusing.

Over to the left is the flash, which has a working range of 0.4 - 3.8 m. Not surprisingly, there's no support for an external flash on the P31.

Here's the back of the DSC-P31, which should look familiar if you've used a Sony camera before.

The 1.6" LCD is smaller than those found on most cameras, but it's still bright and easy to see, except outdoors (as is the case with all LCDs). Nose smudges may be a problem if you use the optical viewfinder with your left eye.

The optical viewfinder, located the top left in the photo, is on the small side. Also, there is no diopter correction to help focus the image for those of us with less than perfect vision.

Just above the LCD of the viewfinder is the mode wheel, which has five choices:

  • Scene Mode
  • Record Mode
  • Playback Mode
  • Movie Mode
  • Setup Mode

The Scene mode has three choices: landscape, night scene, and night scene/portrait (flash slow sync). I'll have more on the other modes later in the review.

Just to the left of the mode wheel is the power save button. Turning on this feature does three things:

  • Dims the LCD a bit; won't let you change the brightness
  • Turns the flash off by default
  • The camera only focuses when shutter release button is pressed halfway

On the opposite side of the mode wheel, you can see the zoom controls. Since there's no real zoom (it's only digital), there's no noise, and the digital zoom is smooth. Keep in mind my warnings from earlier in the review, however.

On the left side of the LCD are more buttons. The Menu and Display/LCD buttons are self explanatory, as is the four-way switch below.

In addition to controlling the menu system, the four-way switch also does the following:

  • Flash
  • Macro
  • Self-Timer
  • Quick Review (shows the last shot taken)

Under plastic covers, you'll find the I/O ports. On the left side, you'll see the Video Out and USB ports. The DC in port (for optional AC adapter) is on the right side.

Lastly, there's a tiny speaker just to the left of the optical viewfinder. None of the new P-series cameras have a microphone, however.

There isn't too much to see on the top of the P31. The power button and shutter release can be found over to the right, and that's about it. The lack of an LCD info display means that you'll have to use the main LCD when you want to check settings and shots remaining.

There's not much to see on this side of the camera...

... but on the other side, you'll find the battery compartment, as well as the Memory Stick slot. Let's open those up.

Here, you can see where the 2 AA batteries go, as well as the Memory Stick. Note that the P31 includes an 8MB Stick, and not the 16MB one shown here.

Last, but not least, here's the bottom of the P31. The only thing of note down here is the metal tripod mount. There's also a mysterious "reset" hole down here as well.

Using the Sony DSC-P31

Record Mode

Since the P31 has no lens to extend, it starts up very quickly -- in just two seconds. Auto-focus generally takes under a second, though it can take a bit longer if the AF illuminator is used. Shutter lag is not noticeable on the P31. Shot-to-shot speed is excellent -- just a second elapses before you can take another shot.

The new Sony cameras released at PMA 2002 have three noise reduction systems to make your pictures better. There's one for chrominance (Clear Color NR), another for luminance, and finally, one for noise (Slow Shutter NR). When shutter speeds drop below 1/2 sec, the "Slow Shutter NR" noise reduction mode kicks in. This results in a longer wait for the image to be recorded, but you'll be rewarded with a less noisy image.

Here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the P31:

Image Size # photos on included 8MB Memory Stick
Fine Quality Standard Quality
1600 x 1200 8 15
1600 (3:2) 8 15
1280 x 960 12 22
640 x 480 48 118

On the new P-series, the uncompressed TIFF mode has gone the way of the dinosaur. I'm not sure why (maybe since few people actually use it?), but it's gone now. Some of the other Record Modes (Text, GIF, etc) seem to have disappeared as well.

The DSC-P31 uses the familiar Sony "overlay-style" menu. It's easy enough to figure out. Here's what you'll find in the menus:

  • Exposure Compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Focus (Multi AF, Center AF, 0.5m, 1.0m, 3.0m, 7.0m, infinity) - more below
  • White Balance (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent) - lots more options here than on old models
  • Spot Metering (on/off)
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
  • Image Size (1600 x 1200, 1600 (3:2), 1280 x 960, 640 x 480)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, Standard)
  • Rec Mode (E-Mail, Normal) - E-mail is a 320 x 240 photo saved with a regular full size image
  • Flash Level (High, Normal, Low)
  • Photo Effects (Solarize, Black & White, Sepia, Negative Art, Off)
  • Sharpness (-2 to +2)

The white balance mode has been expanded on the new P-series. No more indoor, outdoor, or hold choices. There are new auto-focus (AF) modes as well: multi-area and center. The multi-area is 3 points, though the camera will pick what point it focuses on.

In Setup Mode, there are a number of other options available. Here are the interesting ones:

  • Moving Image (MPEG Movie, ClipMotion, Multi-Burst) - explained below
  • Date/Time (Day & Time, Date, Off) - whether date/time is printed on your photos
  • Digital Zoom (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • AF illuminator (on/off)
  • File numbering (series, reset)
  • LCD brightness

The Moving Image feature has a new addition: Multi-Burst mode. This is similar to a feature found on the Nikon Coolpix cameras. It will take 16 shots in a row and put it into one 1280 x 960. I guess it's good for analyzing your golf swing. You get to choose from several between-frame intervals -- 1/7.5 sec, 1/15 sec, and 1/30 sec. I'll try to get a sample of something interesting when I get the final production-level camera. There is also a movie-like feature called ClipMotion which will take 10 images and put them into an animated GIF for you.

Since this is a pre-production camera, I won't be doing any of the usual test photos. Those will be posted when I get a production unit. In the meantime, I've posted some sample photos in the gallery. Keep in mind that this is not a production camera!

Movie Mode

I have good news and bad news about the movie mode on the new P-series. The good news is that you can use a new "HQX" mode (MPEGMovie HQ + MPEGMovie EX = HQX). This lets you record higher quality video (320 x 240, 16 fps) until the card is full! On a large 128MB Memory Stick, that's over 5 minutes of HQX video.

The bad news is that no sound is recorded on the new P-series cameras. Maybe the HQX will work it's way into the higher end models soon?

I know I sound like a broken record, but once I get a production model, I'll put up a sample movie here.

Playback Mode

The DSC-P31's playback mode goes beyond the basic features found on most point-and-shoot cameras. The basic features include slideshows, DPOF print marking, protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll".

Some of the "bonus features" include:

  • Resize - change an image's size
  • Rotate
  • Divide - splits movies in half
  • Trim - when zoomed into an image, you can crop the image down to the selected area. You choose the resolution of the new image (the old one is kept). The only thing to remember here is that if you take a small area of an image and then blow it up, you'll lose image quality.


(photo from DSC-F707)

You can get more information about photos by zooming out twice. You'll get a scrollable list of information that you can see above.

I would have liked a delete button on the camera itself, rather than having to invoke the menu every time I want to remove a photo, but that's a minor gripe. You can, however, delete a group of photos. Put the camera into thumbnail mode (zoom out once), invoke the menu, and choose Delete, then Select and you'll see what I mean.

The P31 instantly moves between photos in playback mode. As soon as you release the button, another picture has appeared.

How Does it Compare?

Again, once I get a production level camera, I'll post my usual final thoughts here, plus a list of other cameras to check out.

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!
These are pre-production images!

Want a second opinion? How about a third?

Coming soon.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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