DCRP

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 Review

How Does it Compare?

Like many of you, I was quite intrigued by the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 when it was announced. Sony combined a fast lens (at least at wide-angle) with a new sensor design that promises "twice the sensitivity of traditional image sensors" and put them into a compact point-and-shoot camera. Unfortunately, the WX1's image quality is lacking, the lens is a disappointment, and the camera is missing the features found on cheaper W-series models (save for the HD movie mode). While the new Exmor R CMOS sensor allows for fast continuous shooting and a cool sweep panorama feature, there's only a modest improvement at higher ISOs compared to "regular" cameras. All-in-all, the DSC-WX1 didn't live up to the hype for me, which is why I have a hard time recommending it.

The DSC-WX1 is an ultra-compact camera with a body made mostly of metal, and it feels pretty solid. Ergonomics aren't great: your thumb rests on the mode dial, the four-way controller is very small, and the power button is easy to press accidentally. One of the big selling points for the DSC-WX1 is its 5X, 24 - 120 mm Sony "G" lens. That's a nice range, and the lens is a bit faster than normal at wide-angle (F2.4). That said, the lens is slow at the telephoto end of things (F5.9), and there's a lot of blurring around the edges of the frame (especially the corners). The camera has an optical image stabilization system that reduces the risk of blurry photos -- and it'll smooth out your videos, too. On the back of the WX1 is a 2.7" LCD display with 230,000 pixels. Considering that the cheaper DSC-W290 has a 3-inch screen, I would've expected the same on the WX1, but no dice. The LCD offers good outdoor visibility, but I found it difficult to see my subjects in low light situations. Like all ultra-compact cameras, the WX1 lacks an optical viewfinder.

Despite being the top-of-the-line camera in Sony's W-series line, the DSC-WX1 feels a bit striped-down in terms of features. The essentials are covered: you've got an Intelligent Auto mode that selects a scene mode for you, a Program mode with full menu access, and face, smile, and blink detection (all of which work very well). The only manual control is for white balance, and the WX1 lacks most of the image retouching options found on the DSC-W290. Some unique features that are available thanks to the camera's CMOS sensor include sweep panorama, handheld twilight, and anti motion blur. The first one is a favorite of mine: you simply point the camera at your starting point, press the shutter release, and then "sweep" the camera in the desired direction. The result is an automatically stitched panorama that looks pretty good. The handheld twilight and anti motion blur features are quite similar in that they both take six photos in rapid succession and combine them into a single, blur-free photo. While the feature reduces blur, the resulting images are very noisy. The WX1 has an excellent HD movie mode, which is able to record 720p video and sound for up to 29 minutes. Both the optical zoom and the image stabilizer are available while you're recording.

Performance is one of the DSC-WX1's strong suits. It starts up in 1.2 seconds, focuses very quickly, and has no shutter lag of note. Shot-to-shot delays are brief, even with the flash. The WX1 has the same burst mode as the DSC-HX1 super zoom, which means that it can take photos continuously at frame rates as high as 10 frames/second (there are 2 and 5 fps options, as well). Regardless of the selected shooting speed, the camera always stops after taking ten photos. The image on the LCD keeps up well with the action, which will allow you to track a moving subject with ease. Sony cameras always post good battery life numbers and the DSC-WX1 is no exception -- it does quite a bit better than other cameras in its class.

The area in which the DSC-WX1 disappoints the most is where I was hoping it would excel, and that's image quality. At its base ISO of 160, the WX1's photos show noticeable detail loss (due to noise reduction), lots of shadow noise, and substantial blurring near the edges of the frame. At sensitivities between 200 and 800 the WX1 performs somewhat better than conventional cameras, but the Fuji FinePix F200EXR still does a lot better. At ISO 1600 and above, the DSC-WX1's images have too much detail loss to be of much use. The camera also tends to overexpose (not too common) and clip highlights (common). Colors were generally pleasing, though on some occasions things just looked washed out to me. As with nearly all ultra-compact cameras, redeye is a problem, but the WX1 does offer a tool in playback mode to get rid of this annoyance. Purple fringing levels were fairly low.

The last couple of things that I want to mention are mostly bundle-related. First, I'm not a fan of the basic manual in the box + full manual on CD-ROM thing. The manuals aren't terribly detailed, either. Second, the 11MB of built-in memory isn't much, so you'll need to factor in the cost of a Memory Stick Duo card into the initial price of the WX1. Speaking of memory, there's no way to adjust the amount of compression applied to an image, as you can on nearly every other camera. The included battery charger is very slow, and the only Mac software included is for transferring music to the camera for use in slideshows (the camera works fine with iPhoto, don't worry).

In the end, the Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 just didn't do it for me. I like its performance, well-implemented face and smile detection system, cool sweep panorama feature, and HD movie mode. However, the WX1's disappointing image quality and so-so ergonomics coupled with the fact that it costs more than the DSC-W290 but has fewer features makes me think that your money could be better spent on another camera.

What I liked:

  • Modest improvement at middle ISOs over conventional sensors
  • 5X, 24 - 120 mm lens in an ultra-compact body
  • Lens is faster than average at wide-angle
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Snappy performance, great burst mode
  • Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene mode for you
  • Cool sweep panorama feature
  • Impressive face and smile detection features
  • 720p movie mode with long recording time, use of optical zoom and image stabilizer
  • Above average battery life
  • Optional underwater case

What I didn't care for:

  • Heavy noise reduction and lots of shadow noise at base ISO
  • Significant blurring in corners (and sometimes edges) of frame
  • Camera tends to overexpose; colors can sometimes be drab
  • Redeye a problem, though you can remove it in playback mode
  • Lens is slow at the telephoto position; not many steps in 5X zoom range
  • Ergonomics aren't great; thumb sits on mode dial (which you can accidentally turn), four-way controller is tiny, power button easy to bump
  • Many features found on cheaper DSC-W290 missing here: manual focus, photo retouching, 3-inch LCD, conversion lens support
  • More manual controls would be nice
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Can't adjust image quality (compression)
  • Very little built-in memory
  • Slow battery charger
  • No Mac software included; Full manual only on CD-ROM

Some other compact, mid-zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot S90, Casio Exilim EX-FC100, Fuji FinePix F200EXR, Nikon Coolpix S640, Olympus Stylus 7010, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, and the Samsung TL320.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 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.