DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S85
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2001
Last Updated: Friday, October 26, 2001

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I first got a taste of Sony's DSC-S85 at a private "show and tell" with Sony, high up in a San Francisco skyscraper. Like a magic trick slowly unfolding, things got better and better as the presentation went along. At first, I figured it was just an enhanced DSC-S75 with a black body (hey, it worked for Olympus). But then, the presenter removed his thumb, revealing "4.1 Mega Pixels" on the body. Wow, the first consumer-level 4.1MP camera, I exclaimed.

They asked me, "how much do you think something like this would cost?". I hate questions like that. I first thought of the only 4 Megapixel camera I could recall -- the Olympus E-10. But that's too expensive, I figured, so I guessed $899. They replied, "we wish we could charge that!". Uh oh, too low I guess. "$999" I replied. Nope, wrong again.

"$799", they told me. I couldn't believe it! With all the features this camera promised, at a great price, I figure they'll be flying off the shelves. But does it live up to the sales pitch? Keep reading...

What's in the Box?

The DSC-S85 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 4.1 Mpixel Cyber-shot DSC-S85 camera
  • 16MB Memory Stick
  • NP-FM50 InfoLithium battery w/charger and AC adapter
  • Lens cap w/ strap
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring MGI PhotoSuite software and drivers
  • 102 page manual

There really isn't much to comment here since the bundle is good. The only real negative (in my mind) is the Memory Stick. It's a proprietary, Sony-only (at least in digital cameras) format. Also, the 16MB is a bit small for a camera that takes such large pictures.

Like all of Sony's cameras and camcorders, the S85 uses the InfoLithium battery. This battery tells you how many minutes are left until the battery dies. The included NP-FM50 battery will last for roughly 165 minutes before needing a charge. Recharging the FM50 takes about 150 minutes.

Additional kudos to Sony for including a lens cap with strap.

Updated 6/20/01: The DSC-S85 is indeed Mac OS X friendly. First, though, you must visit the Setup Menu and change the USB Mode to "PTP". Once that's done, the Image Capture app. will launch when the camera is connected under Mac OS X.

I find Sony's manuals not very user friendly. The layout and organization needs work -- they're just like the one included with your VCR.

Look and Feel

The DSC-S85 is pretty traditional looking and should be easy for first-timers to pick up and use. The body is a mix of metal and plastic and feels solidly constructed. It is a bit bulky so don't expect to keep it in your pants pocket. The dimensions of the camera are 4.625 x 2.875 x 2.625 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs 462 g (1 lb) fully loaded. This is the same as the S75.

Let's begin our tour with the front of the DSC-S85. The "Carl Zeiss" lens looks familiar -- I think we've seen this one before on Canon, Epson, and Toshiba cameras. This F2.0 lens has a focal range of 7 - 21mm, which is equivalent to 34 - 102mm. The lens is threaded (52mm) and a number of filters and lenses are available from Sony.

The S85's flash has an effective range of 0.3m - 3.0m.

The other item of note on the front is the AF illuminator, using for focusing in low light situations. It's just left of the optical viewfinder.

The back of the DSC-S85 is where most of the action is. The 1.8" LCD is bright and fluid, though it liked to collect thumb prints. Nose prints will be a problem for those of you who use your left eye with the optical viewfinder.

Above the LCD is the info display most often found on top of most cameras. In the shot above, it shows battery life, shots remaining, aperture, shutter speed, and flash setting.

Just right of that is the zoom control, which is well-placed for easy thumb access. To the right of the zoom control is the thumb wheel (which is also a button) that is used for adjusting manual settings such as shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation.

On the other side of the LCD info display you'll find an optical viewfinder. The size is just right, and there's diopter correction for our fellow glasses-wearers.

Below that you'll find the four-way switch, which is use for menus and basic camera functions as well. This includes:

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

Below that you'll find buttons for:

  • Menu
  • LCD on/off
  • Exposure compensation
  • Spot metering
  • Focus (Auto/Manual)
  • AE Lock

At the lower right of the photo, you can see (under a rubber cover) the port for the AC adapter (included with camera).

On the top of the camera, you'll find the mode wheel, shutter release button, microphone, and a shoe for an external flash.

I found the shutter release button to be a bit sensitive at times-- I accidentally took photos on several occasions.

The flash shoe is "cold" and uses a proprietary flash sync port that you'll see on the side of the camera in a second. You can use Sony's HVL-F1000 flash ($120) for sure -- I'm not sure if any others are compatible.

The mode wheel (which has the power switch below it) has a very "notchy" feeling (that's a good thing) and has the following options:

  • Setup
  • Scene Mode
  • Full Manual
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Auto Record
  • Playback
  • Movie Mode

Some further explanation on these:

  • Scene Mode: Choose between Twilight, Portrait, and Landscape. The camera picks the best settings for these situations. I don't like how you have go to to the Setup Mode to change this though.
  • Aperture Priority: You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The choices range from F2 - F8 and will vary a bit depending on the focal range used.
  • Shutter Priority: exactly the opposite, you choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. You can choose from a number of speeds ranging from 8 sec - 1/1000 sec.
  • Full Manual: You choose both the shutter speed and aperture. The values available are the same as above.

On this side of the camera, you can see the speaker, accessory port (for an external flash), USB port, and A/V out port. Those last two ports are kept under a sturdy plastic door.

Not much is happening on the other side of the camera. Where's that Memory Stick slot then?

It's down at the bottom of the camera, with the battery! Underneath that plastic door, you'll find the slot for the FM50 battery as well as the Memory Stick. The Stick slot is spring-loaded, so it's easy to remove. You'll find a metal tripod mount down here as well.

Using the Sony DSC-S85

Record Mode

The camera turns on with much fanfare and takes about four seconds to get ready to take photos. When you depress the shutter release button halfway, it can take up to a second to lock focus. When you press the button all the way down, the photo is taken with no delay. Recycle time is very quick on the S85 -- about two seconds -- which is impressive considering the size of these images. Writing a TIFF file takes considerably longer, locking up the camera for nearly 40 seconds.


Record Mode

The zoom controls were fine, though the lens continued to move a bit after the button is released.

The DSC-S85 has a number of choices for image size and quality. Check out this table which describes them:

Image Size # photos on 16MB Memory Stick
Standard Quality Fine Quality
2272 x 1704 14 8
2272 (3:2) 14 8
1600 x 1200 30 16
1280 x 960 44 24
640 x 480 240 96

The S85's menu system is pretty simple, since many functions are buttons rather than menu choices. Let's take a look at the various menu items and what they do:

  • White Balance (One push, Auto, Indoor, Outdoor)
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
  • Image Size (2272 x 1704, 2272 (3:2), 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, Standard)
  • Rec Mode (TIFF, Text, Voice, E-Mail, Exposure Bracketing, Burst3, Normal) -- more on this below
  • Flash Level (High, Normal, Low)
  • Photo Effects (Solarize, Black & White Sepia, Negative Art, Off)
  • Sharpness (-2 to +2)

The "one push" white balance mode is indeed a manual WB mode. Shoot a piece of white paper or whatever you want to be white, and you'll be able to get accurate color in almost any lighting.

Here's more details on those Rec Mode choices:

  • TIFF: uncompressed large image - only one fits on 16MB Stick.
  • Text: records a GIF in black & white
  • Voice: Records an audio file along with a still image
  • E-mail: Records a 320 x 240 image in addition to the recorded image
  • Exposure bracketing: three shots in a row with different exposure compensation values. This feature is new to the S85.
  • Burst3: Records three images continuously, at a interval of about 0.6 sec. There is no "real" continuous shooting mode on this camera, due to a lack of buffer memory.

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

  • Scene Mode Selection (twilight, landscape, portrait)
  • Moving Image (MPEG Movie, ClipMotion) - explained later
  • Digital Zoom (on/off)
  • Bracket Step (1.0EV, 0.7EV, 0.3EV) - for auto bracketing function
  • Red-eye reduction (on/off)
  • AF illuminator (on/off)
  • File numbering (series, reset)
  • Conversion lens (on/off)
  • LCD brightness
  • USB connect (normal, PTP) - put it in PTP mode for Mac OS X only.

It took me many tries to get a good macro shot, but I finally got the sample you see above. I tried auto-bracketing, manual ISO, and finally succeeded in aperture priority mode (F8.0) with manual white balance. You can shoot as close as 4cm in wide-angle, or 20cm in full telephoto, in macro mode on the S85.

The camera was about average in the nightshot test. The color is a bit off on the lights (though messing with White Balance settings may have helped), and it's a bit dark (of course, so is the SF skyline, lately). Aside from that, there are no "unnatural stars" in the sky or other noise.

The photo quality on the S85 was excellent, with accurate color, no major chromatic aberrations, and good sharpness. Take a look at our photo gallery to judge for yourself.

Movie Mode

Sony's movie modes is one of the best out there: the video and audio quality is very good, and you can fill up the Memory Stick with video in non-HQ modes. The only downside is that you cannot use the zoom (optical or digital) during filming.

There are three sizes available in movie mode:

Movie Size # of seconds on 16MB Memory Stick
320 (HQ) 40 (clips can be 15 sec max)
320 x 240 160
160 x 112 640

The quality is highest in 320 (HQ) mode, but you're limited to 15 second clips. In the other modes you can record until the Stick fills up.

I finally have exciting sample movies to show you! No more panning past buildings, or watching cars go by! This time, it's roller coasters!


Shot in MPEG-EX mode. 32 seconds, 2.8MB


Shot in MPEG-HQ mode. You'll have to turn your head to view this the way it was intended. 9 seconds, 3.2MB

There is also a feature called ClipMotion which will take 10 images and put them into an animated GIF for you.

Playback Mode

The DSC-S85's playback mode goes beyond the basic features found on most cameras. Those include slideshows, DPOF print marking, protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll".

These advanced features include:

  • Copy - copies an image
  • 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.

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 also would've liked a delete button, rather than having to invoke the menu every time I want to remove a photo.

The S85 moves between images quickly in playback mode, and it shows a low res version before a high res one replaces it. The low-res image shows up almost instantly, with the high res arriving about three seconds later.

How Does it Compare?

What can I say? The DSC-S85 is the first 4 Megapixel camera priced for the masses, and it's excellent. The photo quality, features, and price are all standouts. My major concern with many of Sony's cameras, is the Memory Stick format. I'm not a fan of proprietary storage formats (not to mention batteries), but this probably won't bother most people. Other quibbles include the underwhelming nightshots, and lack of true continuous shooting. Aside from that, the Sony DSC-S85 gets my enthusiastic approval!

What I liked:

  • 4 million pixels for under $800!
  • Feature packed
  • Very good photo quality
  • Very good bundle (except for Memory Stick)
  • Manual white balance
  • Great movie mode with sound!

What I didn't care for:

  • No zoom in movie mode
  • Proprietary Memory Stick, external flash port, and battery
  • Nightshots could be better
  • No true continuous shooting mode

As of this writing, the only other announced 4 Megapixel cameras under $1000 are the Casio QV-4000EX, Olympus C-4040Z, and the Toshiba PDR-M81.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DSC-S85 and its competitors (if there are any when you're there) before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion? How about a third?

Check out Steve's Digicams review of the DSC-S85. If that's still not enough, Imaging Resource has one too.

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not ask for personal camera recommendations.
 

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