Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 Review

Look and Feel

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is a midsize ultra zoom camera made of a mixture of plastic and metal. The camera feels pretty solid for the most part, with the only weak spot being the plastic door over the memory card/battery compartment. The HX1 is easy to hold, thanks to a good-sized right hand grip. The camera has a decent amount of buttons, but they're well-labeled and tend to stick to a single function.

Now, here's a look at how the DSC-HX1 compares to other super zoom cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS 5.0 x 3.5 x 3.6 in. 63 cu in. 585 g
Canon PowerShot SX10 IS 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.4 in. 58.3 cu in. 560 g
Casio Exilim EX-FH20 4.8 x 3.2 x 3.3 in. 50.7 cu in. 483 g
Kodak EasyShare Z980 4.9 x 3.5 x 4.1 in. 70.3 cu in. 415 g
Nikon Coolpix P90 4.5 x 3.3 x 3.9 in. 57.9 cu in. 460 g
Olympus SP-590 Ultra Zoom 4.3 x 3.5 x 3.9 in. 58.7 cu in. 373 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ28 4.6 x 3.0 x 3.5 in. 48.3 cu in. 370 g
Pentax X70 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.9 in. 54.9 cu in. 391 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 4.6 x 3.4 x 3.6 in. 56.3 cu in. 453 g

The HX1 is right in the middle of the pack for both size and weight. It's certainly not a "pocket camera" (not even close), but it does travel well on your shoulder, or in a camera bag.

Ready to tour the DSC-HX1 now? So am I, so let's begin!

One of the highlights on the Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is undoubtedly its F2.8-5.2, 20X optical zoom lens. This isn't a "Carl Zeiss" lens like on most Sony cameras (quotes intentional). Instead, it carries the Sony "G" label, which I'm told makes it a higher quality lens than its Zeiss-branded counterpart. The focal range of the lens is 5.0 - 100.0 mm, which is equivalent to a whopping 28 - 560 mm. Not enough zoom power for you? Then you can pick up that 1.7X teleconverter that I mentioned earlier, which gives you an unbelievable 34X total zoom power. Both the lens and the barrel that surrounds it are threaded, but Sony doesn't disclose the size, or offer any filters. There are some third-party options out there, if you are so inclined.

Inside that lens is Sony's optical image stabilization system, which they call 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. OIS systems can't work miracles: they won't freeze a moving subject, nor will they allow you to take night photos without a tripod (though Sony has another trick up their sleeve for that), but it's way better than nothing at all. Want proof? Have a look at these:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of the photos above were taken at the slow shutter speed of 1/4 second. As you can see, the photo with image stabilization turned on is noticeably sharper! As you'd expect, you can also the OIS system in movie mode, as you can see in this brief sample movie.

Right above the lens is the HX1's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. This is a powerful flash, with a working range of 0.3 - 9.2 m at wide-angle, and 1.5 - 5.1 m at telephoto. Keep in mind that, as always, these numbers are with the ISO set to Auto, which may not always be desirable. You cannot attach an external flash to the DSC-HX1.

The only other thing to see on the front of the camera is the AF-assist lamp. The camera uses this lamp as a focusing aid in low light situations, and it also lights up during smile detection or self-timer usage.

The HX1 has a large, 3-inch LCD display that can pull away from the back of the camera, and then tilt up or down. This feature, found on some of Sony's previous ultra zooms, allows you to shoot over the heads of people in front of you (or take ground-level photos) with ease. The screen can tilt 90 degrees upward, or 160 degrees downward. It's not quite as handy as an LCD that flips out to the side and rotates, but most will agree that it beats having a fixed display.

Back of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

Here's that 3.0" screen in a more traditional position. While the screen is large, the resolution of 230,400 pixels is the same as smaller 2.5" and 2.7" displays. The LCD offers very good outdoor visibility, and in low light, the screen brightens automatically, though not as much as I would've liked.

Directly above the LCD is the camera's electronic viewfinder, or EVF. The EVF is as tiny LCD screen that you view as if it was an optical viewfinder. You can see the same things on the EVF as you can on the LCD, and there's no parallax error to deal with. Unfortunately, EVFs never come close to optical viewfinders in terms of brightness and sharpness. The one here is tiny -- just 0.2" in size (half the size of the Canon PowerShot SX1's EVF), and it has a resolution of 201,000 pixels. Since it uses LCOS technology, you may notice a "rainbow" effect when you blink, or rapidly move the camera. You can adjust the focus of the EVF by adjusting the diopter correction knob on its right side.

To the right of the EVF are the playback and custom buttons. By default, the custom button turns on the Smile Shutter feature, though you can also have it adjust white balance or metering mode, instead. Continuing to the right, we find the camera's command dial, which you'll use for adjusting the ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation, shutter speed, and aperture. To move from one setting to the next, just press the button inward.

Below the command dial are two more buttons, plus the four-way controller. The buttons are self-explanatory: one enters the menu system, while the other deletes a photo. The four-way controller is used for menu navigation, reviewing photos you've taken, and also:

  • Up - Display - Toggles what's shown on the LCD/EVF
  • Down - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs)
  • Left - Macro (Auto, on)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, flash on, slow sync, flash off)

And that's it for the back of the DSC-HX1!

Top of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

The first thing to see on the top of the Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is the button at the far left that switches between the EVF and the LCD. To the right of that is the stereo microphone, which is practically a necessity on a hybrid camera like this. One thing you won't find here (that you will find on the PowerShot SX1) is a hot shoe.

Keep moving right and you'll find the lit-up power button, with the mode dial next to it. The mode dial is packed with options, some of which are quite unique. Here's the full list of them:

Option Function
Easy mode A very basic shooting mode, with only two menu options
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with auto scene selection; some menu options are locked up
Program mode Still point-and-shoot, but with full menu access; a Program Shift feature lets you use the command dial to move through various aperture/shutter speed combinations
Shutter priority mode You choose shutter speed and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture and the camera picks an appropriate shutter speed. Range is F2.8 - F8.0
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself; same ranges as above
Movie mode I'll have lots more on this later
Scene mode You pick the situation, and the camera uses the proper settings. Available scenes include high sensitivity, portrait, advanced sports shooting, landscape, twilight portrait, twilight, gourmet, beach, snow, fireworks
Sweep panorama mode A unique feature that lets you pan the camera to create a panoramic image; more below
Anti motion blur Both of these modes take several shots sequentially, combining them into a single, blur-free photo
Handheld twilight

Easy menu

Plenty to talk about before we can move on. The Easy mode is about as simple as you can get. You get just two options: image size (large or small) and flash (auto or off).

If you want something a little more elaborate, without delving into manual controls, then you can use the Intelligent Auto mode. In this mode, the camera will select a scene mode for you, selecting from portrait, macro, landscape, backlight, backlight portrait, twilight, twilight with tripod, and twilight portrait. You can also turn on the iSCN Advanced feature, which will take two photos in a row, giving you two different effects. For example, in backlight portrait mode, it will take the first shot with the flash, and the second with the dynamic range optimizer (DRO) set to "plus" (more on that later).

Don't want the camera picking the scene mode for you? Then just set the mode dial to "SCN", and you have ten scenes to choose from. I'd recommend passing on the high sensitivity mode (which boosts the ISO as high as 3200), as it can result in poor quality photos. The advanced sports shooting mode combines fast shutter speeds with predictive autofocus.

If you want full manual control over exposure, you've got it. Unlike the PowerShot SX1, the DSC-HX1 gives you the full shutter speed range in all shooting modes. The only thing missing here is a spot on the mode dial to save your favorite camera settings.

Using the sweep panorama feature

The last three options on the mode dial are probably the most interesting. The HX1's "sweep panorama" feature is one of the best innovations on a digital camera I've seen in a long time. Simply point the camera where you want to start your panorama, press the shutter release button, and then "sweep" the camera in the direction of the arrow. The camera stitches the photos in real-time -- no software needed! You can record a standard panorama (40:9 aspect ratio), or a wide view which has an aspect ratio of 60:9, covering 224 degrees!

As you can see from the samples above, the results are spectacular. The camera does a pretty good job of stitching things together, though you'll spot "seams" here and there, especially if you're a little sloppy when you're doing "the sweep".

Taken in handheld twilight mode

The anti motion blur and handheld twilight modes work in a similar way: the camera takes a rapid sequence of photos (six, I believe), and combines them into a single image. Anti motion blur mode is for shooting indoors (when light levels are poor), while handheld twilight lets you do the impossible: take night scenes (like the ones in my reviews) without using a tripod. The resulting images are filled with noise and noise reduction, so don't plan on printing anything larger than 4 x 6, but if you really need the shot, these modes are definitely worth a try.

Manual focus

Getting back to the tour, now: right above the mode dial are two buttons. One adjusts the focus mode, while the other controls the burst and bracketing modes. The focus choices on the HX1 include multi-point, center, and flexible spot AF, and there are semi and full manual options, as well. The flexible spot AF mode lets you select one of 108 spots in the frame on which to focus, which comes in handy when you're using a tripod. The semi and full manual focus options may look similar, but only one is truly manual. In semi-manual mode, you pick a distance, and the camera's autofocus system tries to lock onto a subject at roughly that distance. For complete control, you'll need to use the full manual AF mode, where you'll set the AF distance yourself, without any intervention from the camera. For both of these manual focus modes, the center of the frame is enlarged, and a guide showing the approximate focus distance is shown on the LCD or EVF.

One of the other big features on the DSC-HX1 is its burst mode, which you access via the Burst/Bracketing button above the mode dial. There are three difference burst speeds to choose from: low, mid, and high, which shoot at 2, 5, and an unbelievable 10 frames/second. Regardless of the speed, the camera will take up to ten photos in a row. The LCD keeps up very well with the action, so following a moving subject is no problem. About the only thing I can find to complain about is the amount of time that it takes to save the images to your Memory Stick Duo card -- about fifteen seconds.

The HX1 allows you to bracket for exposure, white balance, or color. In each case, the camera records three images, each with a different exposure (0.3EV, 0.7EV, 1.0EV), color tone (current, bluish tint, reddish tint), or color mode (normal, real, vivid). Since the HX1 lacks a RAW mode, bracketing is a good way to insure proper exposure and white balance, assuming that you have space on your memory card.

The last thing to see on the top of the camera is the shutter release button, which is surrounded by the zoom controller. I did find the shutter release to be too sensitive, though it could just be my particular camera with that issue. The zoom controller is variable speed, and at maximum warp it travels from wide-angle to telephoto in about two seconds. I counted over fifty steps in the HX1's 20X zoom range -- nice!

Side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

On this side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports, and you can also catch a glance at the diopter correction knob for the electronic viewfinder. The ports here include DC-in (for the optional AC adapter) as well as a proprietary port used for the combo USB+A/V cable as well as the HDMI dongle.

DSC-HX1 with HDMI dongle

That's right, I said HDMI dongle. Inside of just putting an actual mini-HDMI port on the HX1, Sony included a clunky adapter that plugs into the proprietary I/O port on the camera. The HDMI port itself is full size, and a cable is not included.

Side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

There's nothing to see on this side of the HX1. The lens is at the full telephoto position here.

Bottom of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

On the bottom of the camera you'll find an off-center metal tripod mount, the memory card/battery compartment, and the speaker. The door over the battery/memory compartment is on the flimsy side, and a locking mechanism wouldn't have hurt, either. Do note that you cannot access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NP-FH20 battery can be seen at right.