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DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F88  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: July 27, 2004
Last Updated: January 9, 2008

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The Cyber-shot DSC-F88 ($450) brings an unique Sony camera design back to life. Long ago there were the DSC-F1, DSC-F55, and DSC-F77 (the latter was never sold in the U.S.), all of which had a clever inner-rotating lens. The DSC-F88 is the next generation version, using that same lens design but adding a 5.1 Megapixel CCD, manual controls, and a VGA movie mode.

While it may look like a big camera in pictures, the F88 is actually quite compact. It's not as small as Sony's DSC-P100 but it's still smaller than most cameras. The rotating lens is just an added bonus!

How does the F88 hold up in our tests? Find out now.

What's in the Box?

The DSC-F88 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.1 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-F88 camera
  • 32MB Memory Stick card
  • NP-FR1 InfoLithium battery
  • Battery charger / AC adapter
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Sony Picture Package software and USB drivers
  • 129 page camera manual (printed)

Sony includes a 32MB Memory Stick card with the DSC-F88. That doesn't hold a whole lot of 5 Megapixel photos, so you'll want a larger card right away. I'd suggest 128MB as a good starter size (though a larger card wouldn't hurt!). You can use regular Memory Sticks (limited to 256MB) or the new Memory Stick Pro cards, which have a larger capacity (up to 1GB) and higher transfer rates. Memory Stick Pro cards tend to be a little more expensive than other formats (such as CompactFlash).

The F88 uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery known as the NP-FR1. This battery has a fairly average 4.4 Wh of energy, which translates into spending 165 minutes (330 photos) in record mode and 400 minutes in playback mode. Those are pretty good numbers for a smaller camera, comparable to Sony's DSC-W1 which uses AAs batteries.

Speaking of which, as you know I'm not a huge fan of proprietary batteries like this. They're expensive ($50 each) and you can't just pop in some AA alkalines to get you through the day. With that in mind, I highly recommend purchasing a spare battery. One thing I like about Sony's InfoLithium batteries is that they tell you precisely how many minutes are left before you're out of juice.

When it's time to charge the battery, plug the included AC adapter into the camera. It takes approximately 200 minutes to fully charge the battery. The AC adapter can also be used to power your camera in a studio setting or when you're transferring photos to your PC.

Instead of a lens cap or cover, you just rotate the lens to the closed position. Pretty neat!

The F88 on the optional camera dock. Image courtesy of Sony Electronics

One interesting accessory for the F88 is the Cyber-shot Station camera dock ($70). It serves three purposes:

  • Charges your battery while the camera is on the dock
  • Connects to your television for viewing slideshows. A remote control is included.
  • Can connect to PictBridge-enabled printer for quick photo printing

Optional wide-angle conversion lens. Image courtesy of Sony Electronics

There are several other accessories available for this camera. If you're frustrated with the 38 mm wide-angle end of the lens then consider the VCL-07FEB 0.77X wide converter ($50), which lowers the lower end of the focal range down to 29 mm. Another cool accessory is the SJK-FEC weather resistant sport jacket ($40). This will let you use the camera out in the elements (you know: rain, sleet, snow) without worrying about damaging it. Keep in mind that this is NOT an underwater case (Sony does not offer one for this camera). Two non-weatherproof leather carrying cases are also available, with a price range of $27 - $37.

Some power accessories worth mentioning include a portable, compact battery charger (model# BC-TR1, $50) as well as a car battery charger (model# DCC-L1, $60).

The last accessory of note is the ACC-CFR Accessory Kit ($70). This gives you a spare battery, carrying case (not the leather one described above), and a memory stick carrier.

Picture Package viewer (Windows only)

Things have changed in the software department, though not necessarily for the better. Sony now includes Picture Package for Windows as the main image viewing application. And "viewing" is about all it does -- it's supposed to let you print and rotate images, but it never gave me that option. Another thing PP can do is save your images on CD-R discs. Unfortunately the software couldn't detect the CD writer in my new PC, so that didn't work. Finally, Picture Package can create slideshows complete with music.

ImageMixer VCD2 (Mac only)

Mac users are really left out in the cold. Before we used to get ImageMixer 1.5, which wasn't Mac OS X native, but it still worked. Now you get ImageMixer VCD2, which burns images to video CDs (and that's it). It's OS X native, as well. Mac users should look to iPhoto for image viewing instead.

Cyber-shot Life (Windows only)

The best part of the software package is the Cyber-shot Life tutorial, which is Windows only (groan). Here, a girl and her dog show you how to use your camera. While it's a little cheesy, the tutorial is far more useful for learning the ins and outs of your camera than the manual. Do note that it's not camera-specific: this is the same tutorial that came with the DSC-W1.

The manual included with the DSC-F88 is average at best. Expect lots of fine print and a cluttered layout, just like the manual that came with your VCR or DVD player.

Look and Feel

The DSC-F88 has a unique design that will certainly get attention wherever it goes. It has an internal-rotating lens, kind of like the ill-fating Nikon Coolpix 2500 and 3500 from a few years ago.

The lens can rotate a total of 300 degrees, from pointing straight down (which is the closed position) to straight up to backwards (great for self-portraits). As was the case with the Nikon inner-swivel cameras, moving the lens feels a little awkward but you get used to it. I should add that to turn the camera on you just rotate the lens out of the closed position.

The rotating lens comes in handy in many situations. Want to shoot over the heads of people in front of you? Taking pictures of pets or kids at ground level? With the rotating lens these shots are easy.

The F88 is made of a mixture of metal and plastic. While it feels different in your hand that most cameras it's still comfortable and the main controls are easy to get to. The camera isn't terribly small but it will fit in most of your pockets.

The official dimensions of the DSC-F88 are 97.8 x 74.4 x 25.6 mm / 3.9 x 3.0 x 1.1 inches (W x H x D) and it weighs 163 grams / 5.7 ounces empty.

Let's take a closer look at this unique camera, starting with the front.

Here's the camera with the lens pointing forward. The lens on the F88 is a fairly slow F3.5-4.2, 3X optical zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar model. The focal length is 6.7 - 20.1 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 114 mm. The lens is not threaded but you can add a wide-angle conversion lens which clips onto the rotating part of the camera body.

The two circles above the lens are the AF-assist lamp and optical viewfinder. The AF-assist lamp is used for focusing in low light situations.

To the left of the lens is the built-in flash. This flash has a fairly small working range of just 0.15 - 2.2 m at wide-angle and 0.25 - 2.0 m at telephoto. Keep this in mind if you take a lot of flash pictures. You cannot attach an external flash to this camera.

Below the Sony logo is the camera's microphone.

The DSC-F88 has a 1.8" LCD display with 134,000 pixels. This high resolution screen is plenty sharp, and motion is fluid as well. Brightness is adjustable in three steps in the setup menu. The camera does not automatically brighten the image on the screen in low light conditions, making it difficult to compose shots in those situations.

At the top-left of the photo is the optical viewfinder, which is average-sized. There is no diopter correction knob, though, which is used to focus what you're looking at.

Directly to the right of the LCD are the display (toggles LCD and what's shown on it on/off) and menu buttons. Continuing to the right, we find the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation, adjusting manual settings, and changing the following:

  • Up - Flash (Auto, forced flash, slow synchro, no flash)
  • Right - Macro
  • Down - Self-timer
  • Left - Quick Review (shows the last photo you took)

To the lower-right of the four-way controller is the image size / delete photo button.

The final item to mention here is the zoom controller, which is at the far right of the photo. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.3 seconds. What impressed me most was just how quiet the lens was -- it's virtually silent. Quick presses on the controller can make precise adjustments in the focal length as well -- you can move in 0.1X increments pretty easily.

The only thing to see on the top of the camera is the shutter release button. I did not care for the feel of the button. The button was very mushy, with no defined halfway point (which is where the focus would lock). I found myself pressing it down all the way when I really wanted to pause halfway. Since this could just be on my camera, your mileage may vary.

The only thing to see here is the DC-in port, which is under a plastic cover. You can get an idea about how thin the F88 is in this shot.

On the other side of the camera you'll find the mode dial (with power button inside it) as well as the memory card and battery compartments.

The items on the mode dial include:

  • Auto record - point-and-shoot, some menu items locked up
  • Program mode - still point-and-shoot but with full menu access
  • Manual mode - you set the shutter speed and the aperture; choosing from shutter speed range of 30 - 1/500 sec and aperture range of F3.5 - F9.0; at each zoom position you will have three apertures to choose from: at wide-angle they are F3.5/F5.6/F8.0 and at telephoto its F4.2/F6.3/F9.0. In between there may be different values available
  • Scene mode - you choose the situation and the camera uses the proper settings
    • Magnifying glass mode - described below
    • Twilight mode
    • Twilight portrait mode
    • Landscape mode
    • Soft snap - warm color tones plus soft focus
    • Snow mode
    • Beach mode
    • High-speed shutter mode (for action shots)
    • Fireworks mode
    • Candle mode
  • Setup - described later
  • Movie mode - more later
  • Playback mode - more later

As you can see, the F88 has a manual exposure mode. My only complaint about it is that you only have three apertures to choose from at any one time.

What is the magnifying glass mode? I'm not sure how it works, but it will enlarge objects by up to a factor of 2.1. The closer you get to the subject, the more it is magnified. The focal range in this mode is 1 - 20 cm, which is closer than you can get in macro mode (perhaps this is Sony's version of the "super macro mode" found on other cameras?). The lens is locked at the wide-angle position, though.

Back to the tour now. Beneath a plastic cover of questionable strength is the battery compartment and memory card slot. The F88 can use Memory Stick or Memory Stick Pro cards. The included battery is shown at right.

The final stop on our tour if the bottom of the DSC-F88. Here you'll find the dock connector (which is also where you'll plug in the USB and A/V out cables) as well as a metal tripod mount and the speaker.

The F88 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard. Don't worry, it will still work if you're still using USB 1.1.

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F88

Record Mode

By the time you've rotated the lens into position, the F88 is ready to start taking pictures.

A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode

The DSC-F88's autofocus was about average. It took about 0.6 seconds to lock focus at wide-angle, and 1.1 seconds when it had to "hunt" for focus on telephoto subject. Using Monitor AF can help reduce these times. The camera focused well in low light thanks to its AF-assist lamp.

Shutter lag was very low, even at slower shutter speeds, as has been the case with other Sony cameras this year.

Shot-to-shot speed was excellent, with a delay of around a second between shots (assuming the post-shot review feature is turned off).

To delete a photo right after it is taken, you must enter the QuickReview mode.

Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the DSC-F88:

Image Size # photos on included 32MB Memory Stick
Fine Quality Standard Quality
(2592 x 1944)
12 23
5M / 3:2 ratio
(2592 x 1728)
12 23
(2048 x 1536)
20 37
(1280 x 960)
50 93
(640 x 480)
196 491

There's no RAW or TIFF mode on the F88.

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 F88 uses the same menu system as the other 2004 Sony cameras. The menu is overlay-style, meaning that its shown on top of the image you're preparing to shoot. I think most people will find it very easy to use. Here are the menu options on the F88 (keeping in mind that you may not see all of them in Auto Record mode):

  • Scene (Candle, fireworks, high-speed shutter, beach, snow, soft snap, landscape, twilight portrait, twilight, magnifying glass) - only displayed when mode dial set to SCN
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Focus (Multi AF, center AF, 0.5/1.0/3.0/7.0 m, infinity) - the Multi AF mode automatically chooses one of five focus points
  • Metering mode (Multi, spot)
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten) - no manual white balance to be found
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, standard)
  • Rec Mode
    • Normal - regular shooting
    • Burst - takes up to 9 shots in a row at the highest quality setting, at a rate of around 1 frame/second (not great)
    • Multi burst - takes 16 shots in a row (at interval selected in menu) and compiles them into one 1 Megapixel image (like a collage)
  • Multi-burst interval (1/30, 1/15, 1/7.5 sec) - for the multi-burst feature described above
  • Flash Level (Low, normal, high)
  • Photo Effects (Off, black & white, sepia)
  • Saturation (Low, normal, high)
  • Contrast (Low, normal, high)
  • Sharpness (Low, normal, high)

The F88 has a pseudo-manual focus feature, where you can choose a preset focus distance. It's not as nice as real manual focus, but it's still better than nothing. The three focus modes in the same menu control which autofocus mode the camera uses.

There's also a setup menu, which has the following options:

  • Camera
    • AF mode (Single, monitor) - see below
    • Digital zoom (Off, smart, precision) - see below
    • Date/Time (Off, date, day & time) - whether date/time is printed on your photos
    • Redeye reduction (on/off)
    • AF illuminator (on/off)
    • Auto Review (on/off) - shows images on LCD after it is taken
  • Memory Stick Tool
    • Card format
    • Change/create rec folder - manage folders on the memory card
  • Setup 1
    • LCD backlight (Bright, normal, dark)
    • Beep (Shutter only, on, off)
    • Language (English, Japanese [I assume], Spanish, French, Italian)
  • Setup 2
    • File number (Series, reset)
    • USB connect (PictBridge, PTP, normal) - you may need to change this depending on the operating system on your computer
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • Clock set

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, which helps reduce the time required to take a picture.

The F88 has two types of digital zoom. Precision digital zoom is the same old "enlarge the center of the frame" system that you should avoid at all costs. 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. For example, at 3M, you can only use about 1.2X -- but at the VGA resolution, you can use 4X.

Let's move on to photo tests now.

The DSC-F88 produced a very "smooth" rendition of our famous macro subject. Colors look very close to the original. Despite not having a custom white balance feature, the F88's tungsten mode worked well with my 600W quartz studio lamps.

In macro mode you can get as close to your subject as 8 cm at wide-angle and 25 cm at telephoto -- pretty average. For ever closer shots you'll want to use the Magnifying Glass mode I described earlier.

I had a bit of trouble with the night shots on the F88. My first attempt in the usual spot resulted in a very yucky image. It shouldn't be blurry due to camera shake: I used a tripod, self-timer, and infinity focus. But all 12 of my photos looked that bad.

I attempted to reshoot the Treasure Island night shot but unfortunately the whole city was fogged in (it is summer, after all). Since I now live 50 miles away it's not so easy to go back whenever I want anymore. So I went for plan B and got a nice shot:

The F88 did a great job with SF's amazing City Hall. As you can see, it was pretty foggy here too. The exposure is nice and noise levels are low. I did use the tungsten white balance to get more accurate color than what auto white balance was producing. Something else that surprised me: no purple fringing. Usually this shot brings out the worst in a camera. Good job Sony!

I can't explain what happened on Treasure Island that night -- hopefully it was just a fluke. The image above shows what the F88 is capable of.

Using the night shot above, here's a look at how changing the ISO sensitivity affects image noise:

ISO 100
View Full Size Image

ISO 200
View Full Size Image

ISO 400
View Full Size Image

All things considered I'd say that the F88 does a pretty good job at keeping noise levels down, even at ISO 400.

While it had less of a redeye problem than I expected, you should plan on removing redeye in software if you buy the F88. Other suggestions: add more light to the scene or take the photo two times (the second time should have less redeye).

The F88 has mild barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the lens. I didn't see any vignetting (dark corners) or blurry corners.

Overall, image quality on the DSC-F88 was good but not great. Color and exposure were both accurate, and purple fringing levels were quite low. What bothered me the most were the muddy/fuzzy details and above average noise levels. Things like grass and trees look like they've been grabbed from a video camera, with fine details washed away (giving images a "soft" look). For small prints this will not be an issue, but I printed gallery photo #9 at 8 x 10 and some of the foliage detail was lost, so you've been warned. Noise levels seemed a bit high as well, most notably in shadow areas. This picture is a great example of both issues.

Only you can be the judge of the camera's photo quality. Check out our photo gallery and print them if you'd like. Then decide for yourself if the F88's pictures meet your expectations!

Movie Mode

The DSC-F88 features Sony's MPEGMovie VX mode, but not the "Fine" mode found on some of their cameras. You can still record at 640 x 480 (with sound) until the memory card fills up, but the frame rate is 16 fps instead of 30 fps as you'd find in Fine mode. The included 32MB Memory Stick holds a grand total of 87 seconds of video at this quality, so you'll want a larger memory card if you're serious about movies.

A low resolution movie mode is also available. You can store almost 22 minutes of video at this 160 x 112 size.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming, which surprised me since the lens moves so quietly. Movies are saved in MPEG format.

Here's a fun sample movie for you, taken at the VGA setting:

Click to play movie (2.1 MB, 640 x 480, QuickTime format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The DSC-F88 has a pretty standard (though well-implemented) playback mode. Basic features include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll". The F88 is PictBridge-enabled, allowing direct printing to compatible photo printers.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom up to 5X into your photo, and then scroll around in it. This us useful for checking the focus in a photograph. When zoomed in, you can also use the trimming feature I'll describe in a second.

Some of the more advanced playback features include:

  • Resize - change an image's size. The original image is not deleted.
  • Rotate
  • Divide - cut sections of movies
  • 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).

I do appreciate how the F88 lets you delete a group of photos, instead of just one or all of them. (To do this, you must be in thumbnail mode.)

The F88 gives you quite a bit of information about your photos, including a histogram.

The camera moves between images extremely quickly in playback mode, instantly moving from one photo to the next.

How Does it Compare

For those people looking for a smaller camera with a high resolution CCD and the very useful rotating lens, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F88 is a good choice. I just wish the photo quality was better.

First let's talk about the good stuff. The F88 has a fairly compact body with a lens that can rotate 300 degrees. While it may sound like a gimmick, it's a really nice thing to have. Most folks will find the camera easy to hold and operate, despite its unconventional design. In terms of performance, the camera is above average in most areas. Startup time is very quick, with the camera ready to shoot by the time you have rotated the lens into position. Shutter lag was short and shot-to-shot speeds were good. Thanks to its AF-assist lamp, the F88 focused well in low light. The camera has a fair amount of manual controls, though it could use more. It features selectable shutter speeds ranging from 30 - 1/500 seconds and three aperture choices. The F88's movie mode is good, but not as good as other Sony cameras with the MPEGMovie VX Fine mode.

Now the bad news. While image quality is good overall, it's kept from greatness for two reasons. Number one is that images have a fuzzy, "video capture" look to them, which tends to blur out details. Secondly, shadow noise seems a bit high. These issues will be a concern only if you're printing 8 x 10's or larger, or viewing your photos at 100% on-screen. I will compliment Sony on their good color and low purple fringing, though. As I mentioned, the F88's manual controls are a bit limited. I would have liked to have seen more aperture choices, custom white balance, and a real manual focus feature. While I like the F88's design there are two things that annoyed me a bit: the mushy shutter release button and flimsy plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment. The F3.5 - F4.2 lens is on the "slow" side, as well.

Despite its flaws I do recommend the DSC-F88 but mostly for those seeking the rotating lens. If you're set on a smaller 5 Megapixel camera you'll get better image quality from something like the Sony DSC-W1 or Canon S500.

What I liked:

  • Slick body design, rotating lens
  • Super-fast performance
  • Low noise levels at high ISOs
  • Limited manual controls
  • VGA movie mode (though only 16 fps)
  • Supports wide-angle conversion lens
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Histograms in record and playback mode
  • Nearly silent lens movement (but still no zoom in movie mode!)

What I didn't care for:

  • Images tend to be fuzzy, lacking detail; some shadow noise as well
  • Some redeye
  • Fairly short flash range
  • More manual controls would be nice
  • LCD difficult to see in low light
  • Flimsy plastic door over memory card / battery slot
  • Mushy shutter release button (could just be my camera, though)
  • Unimpressive software bundle (except for tutorial); not very Mac friendly either

No other cameras in this class have the rotating lens. Some other compact 5MP cameras worth checking out include the Canon PowerShot S500, Fuji FinePix F450, HP Photosmart R707, Kodak EasyShare CX7530 and LS753, Konica Minolta DiMAGE G500 and X50, Nikon Coolpix 5200, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC80, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P93, DSC-P100, DSC-T1, and DSC-W1.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DSC-F88 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the photo quality in our gallery!

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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.

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