Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 Review

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

Record Mode

It takes about two seconds for the DSC-HX1 to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. The HX1's closest competitor, the Canon PowerShot SX1, does the same in just 1.2 seconds.

A histogram is available in record mode

The HX1 is a quick performer when it comes to autofocus. In good light, it'll lock focus in 0.2 - 0.4 seconds at wide-angle, and 0.6 - 1.0 seconds at telephoto. Low light focus times generally stayed under a second, though once in a while it took slightly longer.

You wouldn't expect any shutter lag on this fast-shooting camera and, sure enough, it wasn't noticeable.

Shot-to-shot speeds are excellent. With the flash disabled, you can take another photo in one second. With the flash, the delay is slightly longer -- roughly two seconds.

You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must enter playback mode to do so. Something that drove me nuts about the HX1 is that it retracts the lens way too quickly when you enter playback mode. What's the rush?

Most cameras let you adjust both the size and the amount of compression applied to photos, but the HX1 only lets you do the former, which is disappointing on this pricey camera. Here are the available image sizes on the camera:a

Resolution # images on 11MB on-board memory # images on 2GB memory card (optional)
3456 x 2592
2 448
8M (3:2)
3456 x 2304
2 445
6M (16:9)
3456 x 1944
2 445
2592 x 1944
3 595
2048 x 1536
7 1253
2M (16:9)
1920 x 1080
11 2005
640 x 480
70 12030

And now you see why I recommended buying a large memory card earlier in the review! Another image quality related disappointment is that the HX1 doesn't support the RAW image format. As you'll see, the camera uses a lot of noise reduction, so having a RAW option would've been a way to work around that.

The file numbering system used by Sony is quite simple. Files are named DSC0####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The numbering is maintained even if you erase your memory card.

The menu system on the DSC-HX1 is a lot more traditional than those found on Sony models from the last few years. Gone is the confusing and totally unnecessary "Home" menu, leaving separate record, playback, and setup menus. The menus are attractive and fairly easy to navigate, and a description of each item is displayed when you select it. Keeping in mind that some of these options aren't available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of items in the record menu:

  • Movie shooting mode (Auto, high sensitivity) - only shown in movie mode
  • Shooting direction (Right, left, up, down) - only shown in sweep panorama mode
  • Image size (see above chart) - you'll also select the panorama and movie size here
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, fluorescent 1/2/3, incandescent, flash, one push, one push set) - see below
  • Metering mode (Multi, center, spot)
  • Bracket set (±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, ±1.0EV, white balance, color mode) - discussed earlier
  • Scene recognition (iSCN, iSCN+) - whether camera takes two shots in Intelligent Auto mode; see earlier discussion for more
  • Smile detection sensitivity (Slight, normal, big smile)
  • Face detection (Off, auto, child priority, adult priority) - see below
  • Flash level (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • Anti-blink (Auto, off) - see below
  • Redeye reduction (Auto, on, off) - discussed later
  • Dynamic Range Optimizer (Off, standard, plus) - see below
  • Noise reduction (Low, standard, high)
  • Color mode (Normal, vivid, real, sepia, black and white) - I believe "real" is neutral
  • Color filter (Off, red, green, blue, warm, cool) - virtual filters
  • Color saturation (Low, standard, high)
  • Contrast (Low, standard, high)
  • Sharpness (Low, standard, high)
  • SteadyShot (Shooting, continuous, off)
  • Setup - see below

While most of those are pretty obvious, some of the items up there deserve a little discussion. The DSC-HX1 has a custom (one push) white balance mode, which lets you use a white or gray card to get accurate color under mixed or unusual lighting.

The HX1 found all six faces

The HX1 supports face, smile, and blink detection. The camera is capable not only of finding up to eight faces in the scene -- it can also differentiate between adults and children, and give one or the other focus priority. Sony's implementation of this feature works exceptionally well, with the camera easily finding all six faces in our test scene. You can select a face to "register" in the camera's memory, and that person will be giving priority in future photos.

Not enough of a smile to trigger a photo

Sony was the first to bring smile detection into the world of digital photography with their Smile Shutter feature. To activate this feature, press the Custom button on the back of the camera (assuming that you didn't redefine its function). The camera then watches the scene, waiting for someone to smile (giving priority to anyone you've registered). Once that smile passes the set threshold, the HX1 will snap a photo. The camera will keep taking pictures until you hit the Custom button again.

The anti-blink feature works when the camera is in portrait mode (regardless of whether you pick it, or the camera does). The HX1 takes two photos instantly, and selects the one without any closed eyes. If eyes were closed in both photos, the camera will display a warning on the LCD.

The Dynamic Range Optimizer feature attempts to improve overall image contrast. The default (DRO standard) setting is your everyday auto contrast system. When you have more difficult exposures you may want to set the camera to DRO plus, which breaks the image into smaller segments, adjusting the contrast for each individually. While you will notice brighter shadows in photos taken with DRO (versus nothing at all), the difference between DRO standard and DRO plus is rarely noticeable. Do note that you can only use DRO in the P/A/S/M shooting modes.

The last thing I want to mention is the SteadyShot option in the record menu. Continuous mode has the IS system running all the time, so you can compose your photo without the effect of camera shake. Shooting mode only activates IS when the picture is actually taken, which results in more effective stabilization. You can also turn the IS system off entirely, which is a good idea if you're using a tripod.

Now, here's a look at what items you'll find in the HX1's setup menu:

  • Shooting Settings
    • AF illuminator (Auto, off)
    • Grid line (on/off)
    • Digital zoom (Off, precision, smart) - see below
    • Conversion lens (Off, telephoto)
    • Flash sync (Front, rear)
    • Auto orientation (on/off) - whether portrait photos are automatically rotated
    • Auto review (on/off) - post-shot review
    • Expanded focus (on/off) - center-frame enlargement in manual focus mode
    • Custom button (Smile Shutter, white balance, metering mode) - define what the "C" button does
  • Main Settings
    • Beep (Off, low, high, shutter) - see below
    • Language setting
    • Function guide (on/off) - describes each menu setting
    • Initialize - returns camera to default settings
    • Demo mode (on/off)
    • HDMI resolution (Auto, 1080i, 480p/576p)
    • Control for HDMI (on/off) - whether you can control the camera over HDMI on select Sony televisions
    • Component (HD/1080i, SD)
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • Wide zoom display (on/off) - sets aspect ratio to 16:9 for video output
    • USB connect (Auto, PictBridge, PTP/MTP, Mass Storage)
    • Download music - from the Music Transfer application
    • Format music - deletes all slideshow music
  • Memory Stick Tool
    • Format
    • Create folder
    • Change folder
    • Delete folder
    • Copy - from internal memory
    • File number (Series, reset)
  • Internal Memory Tool
    • Format
    • File number (Series, reset)
  • Clock setting
    • Area setting (Home, destination)
    • Date and time setting

I just want to mention two of the setup options before we move on to the photo tests. First, what are those two digital zoom choices all about? Precision digital zoom is the one I always tell people to avoid. It just blows up the center of the image, which results in a noticeable drop in image quality. If you're going to use digital zoom, use Smart Zoom. You'll have to lower the resolution, but you'll be able to get more zoom power without a loss in image quality. For example, lowering the resolution to 3 Megapixel, you can get a total zoom power of 33X.

I don't think I've ever talked about the "beep" option in a camera review before, but the HX1's beeping drove me so crazy that I had to mention it. Even at the "low" setting, the sounds are so loud and awkward that people would look over at me with a nasty look on their face. If you're looking for a place to turn it off, it's in the Main Settings submenu. The "shutter" option lets you hear the fake shutter click, but I wish it would play the focus confirmation sound, as well.

Alright -- enough menus, let's talk photo quality now.

Standard noise reduction Low noise reduction

I threw in two photos of our macro test subject, who recently had his arm reattached. Since the photo taken at default settings seemed a little "fuzzy" to me, I took it again with the noise reduction set to low. You can see the difference quite easily -- you're trading smooth and sometimes smudged with default noise reduction for a somewhat grainy appearance when the setting is "low". You'll see later that it may be worth dealing with a little grain. Anyhow, the colors here look great -- no complaints from me. The subject is soft with default NR, but much nicer (in my opinion) at the low NR setting.

The DSC-HX1 is always able to focus at macro distances. You can make close-up shooting a priority by changing the macro setting from "auto" to "on". The minimum focus distance in either mode is just 1 cm at wide-angle, and 1.5 m at telephoto.

[Photo reshot 5/26/09, discussion below updated]

The DSC-HX1 turned in an average performance with our night test scene. There's quite a bit of noise reduction at work here, eating up fine details. You'll also find some fairly strong purple fringing here (so much for the G lens) and some occasional highlight clipping. The color is a bit "browner" than I would've liked, as well. While its night shooting abilities are a lot more restrictive than the HX1, I think that the PowerShot SX1 definitely does the better job here.

Now, let's use that same scene to see how the DSC-HX1 performs at higher ISO sensitivities. We'll start with the base setting of ISO 125 and go all the way to ISO 3200.

ISO 125

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

There isn't a huge difference between the ISO 125 and 200 crops. The same can't be said for the ISO 400 photo, where the corners of the US Bank building start to disappear due to noise and noise reduction artifacting. Thus, I wouldn't take the DSC-HX1 above ISO 200 in low light. Things continue to go downhill at ISO 800 and above, to the point where the buildings start to blend into the background because there's so much detail loss.

We'll see if the Cyber-shot HX1 performs better in normal lighting a bit.

There's remarkably little barrel distortion at the wide end of the HX1's 20X zoom lens. I did not find vignetting (dark corners) or blurry corners to be a problem, either.

Straight out of the camera

After using removal tool in playback mode

If you're using face detection, the camera will automatically fire the flash a few times before a photo is taken, in order to shrink the pupils and, in theory, reduce redeye. As you can see from the top photo, that didn't help. If you have the same result as I did, then you can head over to playback mode and use the tool there, which did a fine job at getting rid of this annoyance.

Now, here's our studio ISO test. This scene is taken with consistent lighting, so you can compare it with other cameras I've reviewed over the years. While the crops below give you a quick idea as to the image quality at each ISO sensitivity, viewing the full size images is definitely a good idea.

ISO 125

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

Once again, there's little to differentiate the ISO 125 and 200 crops. If you look closely, you can already see the effects of noise reduction, even at these low sensitivities: the wood frame of the test scene looks a bit like a watercolor painting. Even so, midsize and large prints shouldn't be a problem. Noise reduction picks up noticeably at ISO 400, eating away at more fine details, but there's enough left for a 4 x 6 print. There's a drop in color saturation and even more noise at ISO 800, so I'd save this setting for desperation only. The ISO 1600 and 3200 settings have too much detail loss to be usable, in my opinion.

Now, it's time for a few comparisons using this same test scene. The first thing I wanted to see was whether it was worth turning the noise reduction down a notch at higher ISOs. There are three crops below, all taken at ISO 800. The first is with standard noise reduction, the second with low NR, and the third with low NR plus some cleanup in Photoshop.

ISO 800, standard noise reduction

ISO 800, low noise reduction

ISO 800, low noise reduction + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

As you can see, the photo taken with low noise reduction is sharper, but more detail, but a lot more visible noise. After running the photo through NeatImage and Unsharp Mask in Photoshop, I ended up with a photo that I think is better than the original. If you agree, it may be worth doing some post-processing to get the best photo quality out of the HX1, especially at higher ISO sensitivities.

The other comparison that I wanted to make is between the DSC-HX1 and its closest competitor, the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS. Below is just a selection of the full "test scene battle" that I recently performed -- you can see the whole thing here.

ISO 400

PowerShot SX1

Cyber-shot DSC-HX1
ISO 800

PowerShot SX1

Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

I think the PowerShot SX1 comes out on top in this comparison. The Canon shots have less visible noise, though one could argue that they have less detail, as well. Color is a lot better on the SX1, as the color saturation drops once the DSC-HX1 reaches ISO 400.

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is one of those cameras that does better in the studio than it does in real life. On the positive side, the HX1 does a pretty solid job at properly exposing photos. It definitely clips highlights more than I'd like, though. Colors looked great, whether it was a red hibiscus flower, a green valley, or an orange sunset, the DSC-HX1 never disappointed. The camera also handled my studio lamps perfectly. The HX1's biggest problem is that Sony applies too much noise reduction to photos. That means that even at the lowest ISO setting (125), you'll find smudged details, especially in shadows or low contrast areas of a photo. You'll especially notice this on things like grass, water, and trees, which get so smudged that they look like impressionist paintings at times (I think this photo is a great example of what I'm talking about). As you might imagine, this all gets worse as the ISO sensitivity increases. If you're sticking to small prints, you shouldn't notice this detail smudging. But if you're making 8 x 10's, or viewing the images at 100% on your computer screen, you certainly will. Another issue to mention is purple fringing; Despite the camera's "professional quality G-lens", the HX1 has more fringing than your typical ultra or super zoom camera.

Don't just take my word for all this, though -- have a look at my gigantic DSC-HX1 photo gallery first. View the full size images, print a few if you can, and then decide if the HX1's photo quality meets your needs.

Movie Mode

Another one of the big features on the Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is its high definition movie mode. The camera doesn't record natively at 1080p (unlike the PowerShot SX1) -- rather, it captures video at 1440 x 1080, and then upscales it to 1920 x 1080. The HX1 is capable of recording at that resolution at 30 frames/second, with stereo sound. You can keep recording until the file size reaches 2GB which, as you might imagine, arrives quickly. At the highest quality setting, the bit rate is 12 Mbps, which means that you'll hit the file size limit in a little over 21 minutes. For longer movies you can switch to standard quality, which reduces the bit rate down to 7 Mbps, and increases the recording time to the camera's maximum of 29 minutes.

There are two other resolutions available, as well. You can record movies at 1280 x 720 (720p) or 640 x 480, with maximum recording times of 29 minutes for each. A "high sensitivity" mode is available for shooting in low light, though movies may appear noisy.

As you'd expect on a hybrid camera like this, you can operate both the optical zoom and the image stabilizer while you're recording a movie. Unlike on the PowerShot SX1, there's no manual audio level control or a wind filter available. The HX1 also lacks the ability to take a still photo while recording a movie at the same time.

Movies are saved as MP4 files, using the efficient H.264/AVC codec. For those of you using card readers, you won't find the movies in the usual spot: they're in the MP_ROOT folder on the memory card.

Here's a sample video for you, taken at the highest quality setting. As you'll see, I used the optical zoom while I was recording. Be warned, this file is huge!

Click to play movie (36.9 MB, 1920 x 1080, 30 fps, MPEG-4 format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 has a pretty elaborate playback mode. Basic features are covered, which include DPOF print marking, image protection, slideshows, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. The zoom and scroll feature lets you enlarge a photo (by as much as 8X) and then move around in it -- perfect for checking for proper focus, closed eyes, etc. The slideshow feature is extra-fancy, with transitions and the background music of your choosing (and you'll want to change the music that comes with the camera, trust me).

Calendar view Event view

Photos can be viewed in a number of ways, in addition to one-at-a-time or as thumbnails. You can view them by date (see above), by "event" (similar to by date), and you can also view pictures you've tagged as favorites. The camera also has the ability to filter by faces: you can have it show only photos with people, children, infants, or smiles.

Images can be rotated, resized, and cropped right on the camera. There are also a number of special effects you can apply to photos, including soft focus, partial color, fisheye lens, cross filter, radial blur, and "retro". There's even a creepy "Happy Faces" option, which distorts a face until the person is smiling. In this same Retouch menu you'll also find the camera's redeye reduction tool, which I demonstrated earlier.

Despite this being a movie-centric camera, there's are no video editing tools to be found in the HX1's playback mode.

The camera shows you a decent amount of information about your photos in playback mode, including a histogram. Something that's always irked me about Sony cameras of late is that they don't display the histogram if a photo has been rotated automatically (by the camera). If you took a burst of photos, they're put into a single group which you can "browse", which keeps things a bit less cluttered.

The HX1 moves through photos with a delay of just a fraction of a second.