Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V Review

Design & Features

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V is a compact ultra zoom camera whose black body is a mixture of metal and plastic. The camera is well put-together, though some of the design decisions are a bit frustrating. The buttons on the back of the camera are very small and tightly packed, while the handy custom button on the top is hard to reach. There's no room for your fingers when the flash is popped up, and Sony's placement of the USB port on the bottom of the camera is bit puzzling. Thankfully, these things were just minor annoyances, and didn't make using the camera more difficult.

Hard to believe there's a 20X lens in that compact body

Now let's take a look at how the HX20V compares to our group of travel zooms in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SX260 HS 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 13.1 cu in. 208 g
Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.8 cu in. 209 g
Nikon Coolpix S9300 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 in. 14 cu in. 215 g
Olympus SZ-31MR iHS 4.2 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 18.1 cu in. 226 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 4.1 x 2.3 x 1.3 in. 12.3 cu in. 185 g
Pentax Optio VS20 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 in. 15.8 cu in. 213 g
Samsung WB850F 4.3 x 2.4 x 1.0 in. 10.3 cu in. 227 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 15.1 cu in. 221 g

The HX20V is one of the larger cameras in our group, but not by much. I found it very easy to carry around, in my jeans pocket or just with the wrist strap.

Let's tour the DSC-HX20V now, using our tabbed interface:

Front of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V uses an all new F3.2-5.8, 20X optical zoom Sony "G" lens. This lens has a focal range of 4.45 - 89.0 mm, which is equivalent to a very useful 25 - 500 mm. As you might imagine, the lens is not threaded, so conversion lenses and filters are not supported.

As you'd expect, the camera has an optical image stabilization system (which Sony calls Optical SteadyShot), which reduces the risk of blurry photos in low light, or at the telephoto end of the lens. In movie mode, an "active" IS feature further reduces shake in your videos, with the ability to reduce motion in three directions, including rotational.

Behind the lens is an 18.2 Megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor, which Sony brands "Exmor R". This is the highest resolution sensor that you'll find in a compact camera, and we'll see how the image quality looks later in the review.

To the upper-right of the lens is the camera's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The working range of the flash is 0.4 - 7.1 m at wide-angle and 1.5 - 3.9 m at telephoto (at Auto ISO), both of which are above average. You cannot attach an external flash to the HX20V (the same is true for all of the competition).

The only other item of note on the front of the camera is its AF-assist lamp, which is to the upper-left of the lens. In addition to its main task (helping the camera focus in low light), the lamp also lights up when the self-timer and Smile Shutter features are being used.

Back of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V

The main thing to see on the back of the HX20V is its high resolution 3-inch LCD display. With 921,000 pixels at its disposal, everything is incredibly sharp. Outdoor visibility is average, and the screen could be brighter in low light situations, as well. You can increase the ISO to boost the screen brightness, though this will result in noisier photos.

Now let's talk about buttons and dials. And thumb rests. Next to that nice spot for your right thumb is the camera's dedicated movie recording button, which allows you to record videos in any shooting mode.

Under the thumb rest is the button for entering playback mode, with the four-way controller / scroll dial below that. The four-way controller / dial is a bit small, but it gets the job done. You'll use these for menu navigation, adjusting exposure, and flipping through photos. The four-way controller also offers direct buttons for Display (what's shown on the LCD), Photo Creativity mode (more on that later), and the drive and flash modes.

Underneath that stuff you'll find one tiny button for entering the menus, and another for deleting a photo or seeing a help screen.

Top of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V

At the far left of the photo is the pop-up flash, which is down here. Do note that there's very little real estate left for your fingers when it's popped up.

At the center of the photo is the stereo microphone, followed by the power and custom buttons. I'll tell you what features can be assigned to the custom button later in the review.

Moving upward we have the shutter release button, which is surrounded by the zoom controller. The zoom controller moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.2 seconds. The lens moves at variable speed, so if you barely tap the controller, it'll move just a tiny bit. Bump it a bit more, and the lens will travel further. If you're really precise, you should find more than 50 stops in the 20X zoom range.

At the far right of the photo is the camera's mode dial, which is chock full of options. I'll go into more detail about those after the tour as well.

Left side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V

There's nothing to see here, other than to point out that the flash is up, and the lens is at the wide-angle position. I have no idea if the GPS receiver is actually located where the label is.

Right side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V

On the right side of the HX20V is its micro-HDMI port, which is under a rubber door. If you're wondering where the USB port is, then head on over to the next tab.

The lens is at its full telephoto (20X) position in this shot.

Bottom of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount, which is neither centered nor in-line with the lens. To its right is the battery/memory card compartment, which is protected a plastic door of average quality. In-between the two is a very poorly placed micro-USB port.

As you might imagine, you won't be able to access anything down here while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NP-BG1 battery can be seen at right.

A live histogram is available when composing photos

Now it's time to talk about the features on the DSC-HX20V, starting with those found on the various buttons and dials on the camera. I'm going to begin with the four-way controller, which has two items of note: drive modes and Photo Creativity mode. Here's a quick rundown of the most interesting drive mode options on the HX20V:

  • Continuous shooting: shoot as fast as 10 frames/second; more on this later
  • BKT (bracket): the camera takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure; you can select the exposure interval in the menu system; the camera can also bracket for white balance
  • Self-portrait timer: the camera will wait for one or two people to enter the scene and then takes a photo 2 seconds later
  • Self-timer continuous shooting: takes a burst of ten shots after a 10 second countdown
  • Self-timer bracket: starts bracketing after a 10 second countdown; every camera should have this!

Photo Creativity mode -- only available in Intelligent or Superior Auto mode -- allows you to adjust the brightness, color, and vividness without having to know the somewhat more technical terms of exposure compensation, white balance, and saturation. These items are adjusted using slider controls on the LCD, as you can see above. Here you'll also find various Picture Effects, which I'll go over when we get to the menu discussion.

Now let's move on to the items found on the camera's mode dial:

Option Function
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot operation, with automatic scene selection and Photo Creativity controls. Some menu options are locked up.
Superior Auto mode Similar to the above, but will take multi-exposure shots (handheld twilight, HDR, anti motion blur), as well.
Program mode Still point-and-shoot, but with full menu access. Sorry folks -- no Program Shift feature here.
Full manual (M) mode Select both the shutter speed (30 -1/1600 sec) and aperture (F3.2 - F14) at the same time. Do note that you can only choose from two apertures at any given time, due to the camera's use of an ND filter. Thus, at wide-angle you can only choose between F3.2 and F8.
Memory Recall (MR) mode Quickly access up to three sets of your favorite camera settings here.
Intelligent Sweep Panorama Sweep the camera from one side to another and a single panoramic image is created. More below.
Movie mode While you can record movies at any time, this dedicated mode offers more options. More details on this later.
3D Still Image Record 3D stills or panoramas here. The Sweep Multi-Angle feature records an image in the same way as Sweep Panorama, and when you play it back you get sort of a faux 3D effect on the LCD.
Scene Selection mode Choose the situation and the camera will use the appropriate settings. Select from soft skin, b, soft snap, anti motion blur, landscape, backlight correction HDR, night portrait, night scene, handheld twilight, high sensitivity, gourmet/food, pet, beach, snow, fireworks, and advanced sports shooting (predictive AF). See below for more.
Background defocus Keeps the subject in the foreground in-focus, while blurring the background. This is a digital effect.

The camera has a pair of Auto modes (Intelligent and Superior), both of which feature auto scene selection. They can tell when you're using a tripod, and even distinguish between adults, children, and infants. There's also an Easy mode available, which enlarges the font and greatly reduces the available options. The Superior Auto mode does everything that Intelligent Auto does (except for Easy mode), plus adds multi-shot layering through features like Anti Motion Blur, Handheld Twilight, and HDR. More on those in a bit. Both of the auto modes also allow you to use the Photo Creativity interface that I described above.

The HX20V has a limited set of manual controls. While you can adjust the aperture and shutter speed, you have to use the full manual mode to do it (there are no "priority" modes). In addition, you can only choose from two apertures at any time, due to the camera's use of a neutral density filter. On a more positive note, the camera offers both semi and full manual focus, plus white balance bracketing and fine-tuning. One feature you won't find on the HX20V is support for the RAW image format.

Sony cameras have some of my favorite bells and whistles out there. The HDR, Anti Motion Blur / Handheld Twilight, and Sweep Panorama features are very useful features which allow you to take photos in difficult lighting, and record huge panoramas with very little effort. I'll go through each of those features now.

The backlight correction HDR (high dynamic range) feature, combines three exposures -- under, over, and normal -- and puts them into a single image with much improved dynamic range (contrast). The camera shoots the burst quickly that a tripod is not needed -- unlike on some other cameras. While Sony's NEX interchangeable lens cameras allow you to adjust the interval between each exposure, the HDR feature on the HX20V is totally automatic. Below is a real world example that I took while writing this review in a -- guess where -- Starbucks. I did some Photoshop trickery to line up the shots, as they were not taken with a tripod.

Standard photo
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HDR photo
View Full Size Image

You don't need to be a camera expert to see the huge difference between the two shots. With such a heavy backlight, the normal photo is almost completely dark in the foreground. The HDR features lets you see the foreground, without sacrificing the background detail. It's definitely one of my favorite features on Sony's high zoom cameras.

Anti Motion Blur and Handheld Twilight are very similar features. Both combine six exposures into a single image, which reduces both blur and noise. The difference between the two is that AMB tends to use higher ISOs than handheld twilight, so photos taken in that mode may be a bit noisier. Here's an example of the Handheld Twilight feature:

The example above is certainly not going to win any awards when viewed at 100%. However, it does look better than what you'd get if you just set the ISO to 6400 or 12800, thanks to the use of multiple exposures. Even so, both Handheld Nightshot and Anti Motion Blur are best suited for small prints.

Let's take a look at some panoramas now!

A standard sweep panorama - the camera handled this difficult scene well

A high resolution sweep panorama (I didn't go as far to the right as I could have)

If I'm not mistaken, Sony was the first manufacturer to release a camera with a "sweep panorama" feature. Their latest revision, Intelligent Sweep Panorama, can shoot both 2D and 3D panoramas, plus special high resolution panos that you take in the portrait orientation. Taking panoramas couldn't be easier: just pan the camera from one side of the frame to the other, following the arrow on the LCD. The image is stitched together almost instantly. The quality of the standard panoramas is good but not fantastic. The high resolution versions are a whole lot more impressive. While the camera tries not to chop people in half, or have them appear in multiple places at once, it does happen on occasion.

Main menu of the camera guide One of the very detailed help screens, this one for white balance. You can jump directly to that menu option using the highlighted button.

If you need a little extra help when using the camera, then just press the question mark button on the back of the HX20V. The guide tells you how to accomplish virtually every conceivable task, whether it's focusing, subject tracking, storing camera settings, or displaying a histogram. Another option lets you choose an icon on the LCD, and the guide will tell you what it means. They even cover the various error messages that may pop up when you're using the camera. You can also press the ? button when you're in a menu, and the camera explain what the selected option does. Very nice!

Alright, now let's get into the menus. The first menu you encounter is an overlay-style menu that sits on the left side of the screen. The menu is quite long, and it can take a while to scroll all the way to the bottom. The notable options here include:

  • Picture Effect: special effects include HDR painting, rich-tone monochrome, miniature effect, partial color, and more; many of these can be fine-tuned to your liking
  • White balance: choose from the usual presets, plus a custom option for using a white or gray card; you can fine-tune things by using the white balance shift or bracketing features
  • Focus: select from multi-point, center, flexible spot, semi-manual, and full manual
  • Smile Shutter: waits for one of the people in the frame to smile, and then takes a picture; you can select how big of a smile is required
  • Face detection: a standard feature on all cameras these days, though the Sony has the added ability to give children or adults focus priority
  • Noise reduction: you might want to fool with this option (with choices of low, standard, and high) to improve the HX20V's image quality
  • GPS position info/logging: check out your signal strength and current location, and turn on the logging feature (which will put an extra strain on your battery)
  • MR set: saves current camera settings to the MR spot on the mode dial; you can store up to three different groups of camera settings

I suppose now's a good of a time as any to talk about the DSC-HX20V's built-in GPS receiver. Unlike cameras from Fuji and Panasonic, the HX20V's GPS system is no-frills, with no fancy landmark databases or maps. You get your location and direction (courtesy of a built-in compass), and that's it. Satellite acquisition is decent outdoors (30-60 second acquisition times), and not-so-good when you're in big cities, which is typical. You can reduce these delays a bit by loading "assist data" onto the camera using the included software, though it won't help when you're shooting in cities.

If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the overlay-style menu, you can access the HX200's other menu system. This one looks nice, but is a bit of a main to navigate because each "tab" of settings doesn't "wrap" around (this makes more sense when you use it). The camera gives a quick hint as to what each option does, and you can press the ? button for a longer explanation. The items of note in this menu include:

  • Clear Image Zoom: this doubles your zoom power, with a minimal reduction in image quality (see below)
  • Wind noise reduction: for shooting movies outdoors
  • Mic level: choose from normal or low; for movies, obviously
  • Blink Alert: warns you when your subject's eyes are closed
  • Custom button: define what function this button handles; choose from exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering mode, or Smile Shutter
  • Display resolution: choose high or standard, with the latter sacrificing LCD/EVF quality for battery life
  • Beep: normally I wouldn't mention this but the HX20V has the world's loudest beep sound, so here's where you turn it off
  • Download music: using the included Music Transfer program and this option, you can provide your own soundtrack for slideshows
  • Airplane mode: turns off all functions related to the GPS and TransferJet
  • GPS assist data: load data from your PC to the camera using this option -- it'll reduce satellite acquisition times
  • Auto clock/area adjust: let the GPS set the time and time zone for you

The only thing from that menu I want to tell you about is the Clear Image Zoom feature. This feature can be found on other cameras under different names, like Intelligent Zoom (Panasonic). The Clear Image Zoom feature will boost the zoom power by 2X, with "close to the original image quality" using some digital trickery which Sony calls "By Pixel Super Resolution technology". At full resolution, that means that you now have a 40X, or 1000 mm, zoom lens! If you lower the image resolution, you can go even higher. Here's an example:

Full telephoto (500 mm)
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Full tele + clear image zoom (1000 mm)
View Full Size Image

As you can see, the Clear Image Zoom feature really lets you get close to your subject! It's always hard to judge how much image quality deteriorates, due to the atmospheric distortion that occurs at this kind of focal range. That said, I'd probably save this feature for smaller prints only.

Let's talk about movies now! The HX20V is one of very few compact cameras that can record Full HD video (that's 1920 x 1080) at 60p. It does this using the AVCHD Progressive format, which may not be supported by all devices or video editing suites. Sound is recorded in Dolby Digital Stereo, as you'd expect. If you don't need 1080/60p video (along with its 28 MBps bit rate), you can also choose from 1080/60i (at 17 or 24 MBps) or 1440 x 1080 @ 60i. The maximum recording time for all of those is around 29 minutes.

While AVCHD movies look great on your HDTV, editing and sharing them isn't so easy. Heck, just finding them on your memory card is a pain. Thankfully, Sony also supports the MPEG-4 codec, which is much easier to work with. Choose from 1440 x 1080, 1280 x 720, or 640 x 480 resolutions, all at 30 frames/second. Recording will stop when the file size reaches 2GB, which takes about 15 minutes at the highest quality setting.

The HX20V allows you to use the optical zoom during movie recording. The lens moves smoothly and quietly, to keep the motor noise from being picked up by the stereo microphones. Continuous autofocus will handle movie subjects fairly well, and the optical image stabilizer is also available, complete with an "active" mode that provides more shake reduction than standard IS.

Movie recording is totally point-and-shoot on the HX20V. You can turn on a wind filter and adjust the mic level, but that's about it. You can take 13 Megapixel stills while you're recording a movie, but not at the 1080/60p setting. While you can take a movie in any shooting mode, there is a dedicated spot on the mode dial where you can let the camera pick a movie scene for you, or you can select one for yourself. Most of the camera's Picture Effects can be used for movies as well as stills.

Below is a sample movie that I took at the 1080/60p setting. I converted it using Final Cut Pro X into a QuickTime movie, but don't worry: the original MTS file is available for download, too.

Click to play converted movie (1920 x 1080, 60 fps, 41.9 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Download original MTS file (47.9 MB)

Nice quality!

The Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V's playback mode is about average by compact camera standards. You've got your slideshows (for which you can supply your own background music), redeye removal (which you'll probably need), sharpening, and a couple of special effects. You can jump through photos by date, folder, or by movie codec. Unlike Sony's NEX cameras, the HX20V doesn't separate movies from stills in playback mode -- and thanks a good thing.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, if you press "up" on the four-way controller, you'll get a lot more, including a histogram and the location where your photo was taken.

The DSC-HX20V flips through photos instantly. One thing I think could be a lot better is the playback zoom feature -- it sort of "glides" rather than "jumps" when it zooms in, which is pretty, but sluggish.