Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 Review
Look and Feel
The Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 is an ultra-compact camera with an all-black, mostly metal finish. Build quality is very good for the most part, though the mode dial feels a bit cheap. Ergonomics are just okay. While the camera can be held with one hand, your right thumb sits right on the mode dial, which isn't terribly desirable. The controls on the back of the camera are quite small, most notably the four-way controller. The burst mode button is oddly placed on the top of the camera and is difficult to locate.
Now let's see how the WX1 compares to other ultra-compacts in terms of size and weight:
As you can see, the DSC-WX1 is the smallest and lightest camera in the group. One may ask why I chose the DMC-LX3 over smaller Panasonic cameras, and the answer is simple: the LX3 is famous for its low light shooting abilities.
Ready to tour the WX1 now? So I am, so let's get started!
The first thing to see on the front of the WX1 is its 5X optical zoom Sony "G" lens. Sony says that this lens is superior to the "Carl Zeiss" lenses typically found on their compact cameras (which aren't made by Zeiss in the first place), and we'll see how it performs later in the review. This lens is a bit faster at wide-angle than your typical lens, with a maximum aperture of F2.4. By the time you hit the 5X position, the lens is on the slow side, with an aperture of F5.9. The focal range is quite nice: 4.25 - 21.25 mm, which is equivalent to 24 - 120 mm. The lens is not threaded and, unlike the cheaper W-series cameras, conversion lenses are not supported.
Comparison of traditional sensors and the back-illuminated Exmor R sensor
Diagram courtesy of Sony
Behind the lens is an all-new sensor design, which Sony calls "Exmor R". This CMOS sensor is back-illuminated, which means that all the wires and circuits have been moved behind the photo diodes (which receive the light coming through the lens). This allows the sensor to collect more light, leading to higher sensitivity and less noise. And, being a CMOS sensor, you also get very fast continuous shooting, which Sony has taken advantage of in a number of ways (but more on that later).
Inside that lens is Sony's optical image stabilization system, which they call Optical SteadyShot. Sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of your hands that can shake the camera just enough to blur your photos, especially in low light or at the telephoto end of the lens. The camera shifts one of the lens elements to compensate for this motion, allowing for a higher likelihood of a sharp photo. Image stabilization systems can't work miracles: they won't freeze a moving subject, nor will they allow you to take night photos without a tripod. Even so, they're still way better than nothing at all. Want proof? Have a look at these:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
I took both of the above photos at 1/8th of a second, right around the midpoint of the zoom range. It's pretty obvious that the IS system helped a great deal here, though I think I may have had too much caffeine in the first shot. You can also use the image stabilizer in movie mode, and you can judge its effectiveness in this brief sample movie.
To the upper-right of the lens is the camera's AF-assist lamp, which is used as a focusing aid in low light situations. This same lamp also serves as a visual indicator of the self-timer and Smile Shutter features.
Moving to the opposite side of the lens we find the built-in flash and the microphone. The flash on the WX1 has typical numbers for an ultra-compact camera, with a working range of 0.2 - 5.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.0 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO). You cannot attach an external flash to the DSC-WX1, unless you count the macro ring light.
On the back of the camera you'll find a 2.7" LCD display with 230,400 pixels. I was a bit disappointed to find a relatively small screen on Sony's flagship compact camera -- a 3-inch display would've been nicer. Sony does provide another option for those who want a larger screen, and that's the DSC-TX1. This camera has the same Exmor R sensor as the WX1, a 3-inch touchscreen LCD, and a more conventional 35 - 140 mm lens. Anyhow, I found the screen on the WX1 to be bright and sharp, with a wide viewing angle. I found outdoor visibility to be very good, though the same can't be said for low light visibility -- it was frequently very difficult to see anything in those situations.
You don't have to be a professional digital camera reviewer (whatever that is) to notice that the DSC-WX1 lacks an optical viewfinder. The fact is, nearly all ultra-compact cameras are in the same boat. Thus, if you want a viewfinder, you'll need to buy a larger camera.
Now let's talk about all those buttons and dials to the right of the LCD. The first is the zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 1.8 seconds. I counted eleven steps in the 5X zoom range, which is fewer than I would've liked.
Below that is the somewhat plasticky mode dial, which has the following options:
As you can see, the DSC-WX1 is a 100% point-and-shoot camera, with no manual controls to be found. You've got your usual set of scene modes, and in the Intelligent Auto and Easy modes, the camera will pick the scene mode for you. Intelligent Auto mode also has an Advanced mode in which the camera will take two photos in certain situations. For example, if it is using the backlight portrait scene, it will take one photo with the flash, and another with the dynamic range optimizer set to the "plus" setting.
If you want to select a scene mode yourself, you have several options to choose from. The only one I want to mention is the high sensitivity scene mode, which cranks the ISO up as high as 3200, which can result in some pretty noisy photos (even with the new sensor design).
Now let's talk about the three features that take advantage of the camera's Exmor R CMOS sensor. The most fun is called sweep panorama, and it allows you to create a huge panoramic image simply by panning the camera from left-to-right (it works in other directions, too). A guide displayed on the screen assists you with the process, making sure you capture the whole scene. In the background the camera is taking photos in rapid succession, and automatically stitching them together. You can create a "regular" panorama (4912 x 1080), or an even wider one (7152 x 1080). The results are generally quite good, with the only caveats being that you don't have the individual images to work with if the camera itself didn't do a great job, and that the lens is locked at the wide-angle position.
The next two features are very similar. Both anti motion blur and handheld twilight mode work by taking six photos in rapid succession (often at high sensitivities), and then combining them into a single photo. The point of these features is to produce a sharp photo in situations where low light or a moving subject would otherwise result in blurring. The feature does produce a sharp photo, but they're quite noisy, as you can see in the handheld twilight sample above, as well as in this photo taken in anti motion blur mode (the camera used ISO 3200 for each of them). These two samples are too noisy for even a 4 x 6 inch print, though you may have better results if the camera uses a lower sensitivity.
Getting back to the tour now, the next item of note is the button for entering playback mode. Under that is the four-way controller, which I found to be too small. In addition to its menu navigation duties, the does the following:
- Up - Display - Toggles what's shown on the LCD
- Down - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs)
- Left - Smile shutter (on/off)
- Right - Flash (Auto, flash on, slow sync, flash off)
My niece's has sent the smile detector over the threshold -- a photo is about to be taken
Smile Shutter is Sony's name for smile detection. If I'm not mistaken, Sony was the first to put this feature on a digital camera. When Smile Shutter is activated by pressing left on the four-way controller, the camera will wait until a person in the frame smiles (it only takes one smile). It will keep taking photos of smiling people until the memory card fills up, or you press the left button again. You can select how sensitive the system is via the record menu. I'll have more on the WX1's face detection system a bit later in the review.
Below the four-way controller are buttons for entering the menu system and deleting a photo.
There's not a whole lot to see on the top of the WX1. On the left is the speaker, followed by the power, shutter release, and burst mode buttons.
I can't think of a better time to talk about the burst mode on the DSC-WX1, so here goes. The camera's CMOS sensor allows it to take photos at frame rates as high as 10 frames/second, for up to ten shots. And yes, that's at full resolution. There are three speeds to choose from on the camera: low, medium, and high. The camera performed exactly as advertised, firing away at 2, 5, and 10 frames/second for each of those speeds, respectively. The LCD keeps up very well with the action, so tracking a moving subject is a piece of cake.
Buried in the burst mode menu is the WX1's AE bracketing option. This will take three photos in a row, each with a different exposure value. The interval between each shot can be 0.3, 0.7, or 1.0 EV.
And that's it for the top of the camera!
Nothing to see on this side of the camera. The lens is at full wide-angle here.
There's nothing on the other side either, unless you count the wrist strap anchor. The lens is at the full telephoto position in this shot.
On the bottom of the WX1 you'll find a metal tripod mount, the multi-connector port, and the battery/memory card compartment. The multi-connector port is where you'll plug in the included A/V+USB cable, as well as the optional A/V+USB+power and component video out cables. The plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment is of average quality, and you should be able to open a tripod, unless your quick release plate is very large.
The included NP-BG1 lithium-ion battery can be seen at left.