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DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: May 9, 2005
Last Updated: May 17, 2012

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Sony's S-line of cameras has returned in 2005 after a nearly four year hiatus. The new S models, the Cyber-shot S40, S60, and S90 are the replacements for some of the P-series models from last year. All three models share the same 4.1 Megapixel CCD. The S40 ($199) is a compact model with a 3X zoom and a small 1.5" LCD display. The S60 ($250) offers a larger body, 2-inch LCD, and support for conversion lenses. The S90 ($300) is just like the S60 except for a 2.5" LCD.

In this review I'm taking a look a the DSC-S90. How does it perform? Find out now!

What's in the Box?

The DSC-S90 has a nice bundle. Inside the box you'll find:

  • The 4.1 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-S90 camera
  • Two AA NiMH rechargeable batteries
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Sony Picture Package software, ImageMixer VCD2, USB drivers, and Cyber-shot Life tutorial
  • 101 page camera manual (printed)

With their 2005 models Sony has started going the route of so many other camera manufacturers by not including a memory card with the camera. Instead they've built 32MB of memory right into the camera, which isn't too bad for a 4 Megapixel camera. That said, you should probably buy a larger memory card right away -- I'd say that 256MB is a good starter size. Do note that the Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro cards used by the S90 tend to be on the expensive side when compared with CompactFlash and SD.

The DSC-S90 uses two AA batteries to supply power and with the proper batteries this camera can shoot forever. With the included pair of 2100 mAh NIMH batteries you can take a whopping 420 photos, which is pretty amazing. Putting in more powerful batteries will help even more: two 2500 mAh batteries will allow for 490 shots per charge (all numbers measured using the CIPA standard). Sony offers a NiMH battery pack that can apparently be charged in-camera, though you'll need the optional Cyber-shot Station in order to actually charge it.

Longtime readers will know that I'm a big fan of cameras that use AA batteries. You can use NiMH rechargeables which cost less than the proprietary lithium-ion batteries used by some other cameras and they last a long time too. And whenever those die you can drop in some alkalines to get you through the day.

When it's time to charge the batteries just place them into the included charger. This charger is very slow, taking six hours to fully charge the battery (buying a faster charger may not be a bad idea). This isn't one of those chargers that plugs right into the wall, either -- you must use a power cable.

The DSC-S90 has a built-in lens cover so there are no clumsy lens caps to worry about.

Despite being a relatively low-end camera, Sony offers quite a few accessories for the S90. They include:

Accessory Model # Price Why you want it
Wide-angle lens VCL-DH0730 $80 Brings the wide end of the lens down by 0.7X to 27.3 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Telephoto lens VCL-DH1730 $80 Boosts focal distance by 1.7X, up to 198.9 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Super telephoto lens VCL-DH2630 $110 Boosts focal distance by a whopping 2.6X, up to 304.2 mm; requires conversion lens adapter
Conversion lens adapter VAD-PEB $25 Lets you use 30 mm filters and conversion lenses
Polarizing filter kit VF-30CPKS $45 Two polarizing filters in one package; requires conversion lens adapter
Special effects filter kit VF-30SC $35 Soft focus and star filters; requires conversion lens adapter
Neutral density filter VF-30NK $20 ND and MC protector included; requires adapter
External slave flash HVL-FSL1B $80 Get much better flash photos and less redeye; this is a slave flash so it fires when the camera's built-in flash does
Sports pack SPK-SA $90 Take your camera up to 3 feet underwater. Good for the pool or the beach.
Cyber-shot Station CSS-SA $80 Connect to your computer, show pictures on your TV, and charge the NP-NH25 battery pack (optional, $14).
AC adapter AC-LS5K $35 Power your camera without using batteries
Accessory kit ACC-CN3TR $40 Includes two 2500 mAh batteries, a travel charger, and a soft case.

Not bad, eh?

Picture Package viewer (Windows only)

Sony includes Picture Package v1.6 for Windows as the main image viewing application. It's a pretty basic image viewer and doesn't compare to things like ACDSee, Photoshop Elements, or even the software designed by other camera manufacturers.

Picture Package Editing

Editing functionality is new to v 1.6 of Picture Package it's pretty basic (and as poorly designed as the rest of the software). You can remove redeye, adjusting brightness and contrast, and crop/resize your photos. You can also e-mail them at the click of your mouse.

ImageMixer VCD2 (Mac version)

Mac users don't get to use PicturePackage (you can use the camera with iPhoto just fine). Instead, they get ImageMixer VCD2 (don't worry WIndows users, you get it too). ImageMixer is used to create a Video CD from your images. Video CDs are kind of like a poor man's DVD -- not as good, but usable.

Cyber-shot Life (Windows only)

The Cyber-shot Life tutorial is now up to version 2.0. Much of the content is the same, but now it's split for the P and W series models. This helps explain things a lot better than the camera manual ever could. I'd like to see things like this included with all cameras!

It seems that Sony is starting to put more effort into their camera manuals. They're a little more user friendly than they used to be, though they still have a ways to go. They need whoever made that tutorial to design their manuals too!

Look and Feel

The DSC-S90 is a fairly compact camera made mostly of plastic. Despite being plastic, the camera feels quite solid. In terms of size, the S90 is equivalent to something like the Canon PowerShot A520 or the Nikon Coolpix 5900. The camera fits well in your hand and all the important controls are well placed.

Now let's see how the S90 compares in terms of size, volume, and weight when compared to the competition:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot A520 3.6 x 2.5 x 1.5 in. 13.5 cu in. 180 g
Fuji FinePix E500 4.0 x 2.4 x 1.3 in. 12.5 cu in. 175 g
Kodak EasyShare Z730 4.0 x 2.7 x 1.6 in. 17.3 cu in. 224 g
Nikon Coolpix 4600 3.3 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 11.1 cu in. 130 g
Nikon Coolpix 5900 3.5 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 11.8 cu in. 150 g
Olympus D-595Z 4.1 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 13.4 cu in. 150 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS1 3.7 x 2.5 x 1.2 in. 11.1 cu in. 142 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 3.9 x 2.6 x 1.6 in. 16.3 cu in. 202 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W5 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 in. 12.1 cu in. 197 g

As you can see, the DSC-S90 is one of the larger cameras in this class. It's more coat pocket than back pocket, if you know what I mean.

Enough numbers now, let's start our tour of the S90 now!

The DSC-S90's F2.8-5.2, 3X optical zoom lens should look familiar to you. That's because it's been used on many other Sony cameras, including the DSC-P150/200 and the DSC-W5/7. This Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens has a focal range of 6 - 18 mm, which is equivalent to 39 - 117 mm. That's not very wide-angle, so keep that in mind if you take a lot of indoor shots. Sony does offer a wide-angle conversion lens, but not everyone wants to carry it around with them. Speaking of which, to add conversion lenses to the S90 just remove that shiny plastic ring from around the lens and attach the conversion lens adapter and then the lens itself. Easy!

That dark circle to the upper-right of the lens is the S90's AF-assist lamp, which is also used as a visual countdown for the self-timer. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as focusing aid in low light situations.

Just above the AF-assist lamp is the camera's built-in flash. The flash has a pretty decent working range of 0.2 - 4.5 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.5 m at telephoto. While you can't attach a flash that integrates with the camera, you can use the Sony slave flash, which attaches via the tripod mount. Being a slave flash, it fires when the camera's main flash does.

The big step-up feature from the DSC-S60 is that big 2.5" LCD display. This screen has 115,200 pixels which isn't great for a screen of this size, but I didn't find it to be a problem. The LCD has above average visibility outdoors, and in low light situations the screen "gains up" so you can still see what you're looking at.

Directly above the LCD is the camera's optical viewfinder, which is average-sized. It does lack a diopter adjustment dial, which is used to focus what you're looking at. Over to the left of the viewfinder is the S90's speaker.

At the top-right of the photo you'll find the zoom controller. This moves the lens silently from wide-angle to telephoto in just 1.7 seconds. I counted nine steps throughout the 3X zoom range.

Below that you'll find the Display and Menu buttons. The Display button is used to turn the LCD on and off, and also chooses what information is shown on the screen. You can probably figure out what the Menu button does.

Continuing downward we find the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation, adjusting manual settings, and for:

  • Up - Flash setting (Auto, flash on, slow synchro, flash off) - redeye reduction is turned on in the setup menu
  • Down - Self-timer (on/off)
  • Left - Quick Review (shows the last photo taken so you can review or delete it)
  • Right - Macro (on/off)

The last thing to see on the back of the camera is the Image Quality /Delete Photo button.

On top of the S90 you'll find the power and shutter release buttons, the microphone, and the mode dial (which is around the shutter release). The mode dial has the following options:

Option Function
Auto recording mode Point-and-shoot, most menu items locked up
Program mode Still automatic, but with full menu access
Full Manual mode You pick the aperture and shutter speed. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/1000 sec. Aperture range is F2.8 - F10. See below for more.
Twilight These are all scene modes
Twilight portrait
Soft snap
Movie mode More on this later
Playback mode More on this later

Fans of point-and-shoot cameras will be pleased to hear that the S90 has a fully automatic mode as well as several scene modes available. There's no "action" or "sports" mode, though.

The DSC-S90 has limited manual exposure control, like the DSC-W7 that I just reviewed. There's no shutter or aperture priority mode -- rather there's just a full manual mode. There you can set the shutter speed and the aperture at the same time, though there's a catch. The catch is that at any one time you can only select between two apertures. At wide-angle that's F2.8 or F5.6 and at telephoto it's F5.2 or F10. In between wide and telephoto you'll have different values. I guess this is how Sony gets you to upgrade to their more expensive models?

Nothing to see here. I hate taking pictures of cameras with mirrored panels!

The only thing worth mentioning here is that rubber flap toward the bottom of the picture. The DSC-S90 uses a "DC coupler" to supply power from the AC adapter. This is like a battery with a wire coming out of it that plugs into the adapter. The wire passes through that hole in the side.

On the bottom of the S90 you'll find the battery / memory card compartment, a metal tripod mount (hidden behind the door here), and the connector for the optional Cyber-shot Station. The plastic door covering the battery/memory compartment is fairly sturdy. Do note that you cannot swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod, for obvious reasons.

The dock connector is also where you'll plug in the USB and video output cable (one cable for both functions). The S90 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

The included rechargeable batteries are shown at right.

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90

Record Mode

It takes about 2.4 seconds for the S90 to extend its lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. That's quite a bit slower than the DSC-W7 that I just reviewed.

A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode

Focus speeds were good, ranging from 0.3 - 0.5 seconds at the wide end of the lens and slightly longer at the telephoto end. If the camera has to "hunt" to lock focus these times can be around one second. Low light focusing was good thanks to that AF-assist lamp.

Shutter lag was very low, even at slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.

Shot-to-shot speed was excellent, with a delay of a little over a second before you can take another shot (assuming the post-shot review feature is turned off).

You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must use the Quick Review feature first.

Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the S90:

Resolution Quality # images on 32MB built-in memory # images on 256MB card (optional)
2304 x 1728
Fine 16 119
Standard 30 216
4M (3:2 ratio)
2304 x 1536
Fine 16 119
Normal 30 216
2048 x 1536
Fine 20 148
Normal 37 264
1280 x 960
Fine 50 357
Normal 93 649
640 x 480
Fine 196 1428
Normal 491 3571

The DSC-S90 does not support the RAW or TIFF image formats, nor would I expect it to.

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 DSC-S90 uses the same menu system as other recent Sony cameras. The menu is overlay-style -- meaning that its shown on top of the image you're preparing to shoot -- and it's pretty easy-to-use. Here are the menu options on the S90:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Focus (Multi AF, center AF, 0.5 m, 1.0 m, 3.0 m, 7.0 m, infinity)
  • Metering mode (Multi, spot)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, fluorescent, incandescent) - no custom option to be found
  • ISO (Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, standard)
  • Rec Mode
    • Normal - regular shooting
    • Burst - took four shots in a row at about 1.5 frames/second at the highest JPEG quality (based on my tests using a 256MB MS Pro card)
    • 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, sepia, black & white)
  • Saturation (Low, normal, high)
  • Contrast (Low, normal, high)
  • Sharpness (Low, normal, high)
  • Setup - See below

I should mention that the LCD "blacks out" briefly between each shot while shooting in burst mode.

I suppose the DSC-S90 has a fair number of manual controls for a camera in its class (full shutter speed, partial aperture, pseudo-manual focus), though it's surpassed by the Canon PowerShot A520 which doesn't compromise in this area.

There's also a setup menu (accessible from the record or playback menu), which has the following options:

  • Camera 1
    • 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) - turns the AF-assist lamp on and off
    • Auto Review (on/off) - shows images on LCD after it is taken
  • Camera 2
    • Enlarged icon (on/off) - a visual aid for changing camera settings
  • Internal Memory Tool
    • Memory format
  • Memory Stick Tool
    • Card format
    • Change/create rec folder - manage folders on the memory card
    • Copy - copies all images from the internal memory to the memory card
  • Setup 1
    • LCD backlight (Bright, normal, dark)
    • Beep (Shutter only, on, off)
    • Language (English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Italian)
    • Initialize - reset the camera to defaults
  • Setup 2
    • File number (Series, reset)
    • USB connect (Normal, PTP, PictBridge) - 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. This helps reduce the time required to take a picture though it'll put more strain on your battery.

The camera has two types of digital zoom. Precision digital zoom is the same old "enlarge the center" system that you should avoid. 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. The lower the resolution, the more smart zoom you can use.

Let's move on to our photo tests now, shall we?

Overall the DSC-S90 did a nice job with our macro test shot. Colors are accurate and saturated, and the subject is sharp. The only weird thing I noticed was some strange yellow fringing around some of the edges (check the ears). Haven't seen that one before.

In macro mode you can get as close to your subject as 10 cm at wide-angle and 50 cm at telephoto, which is nothing to write home about.

Overall the DSC-S90 did a pretty good job with our night scene. The camera took in plenty of light (thanks to the manual shutter speed control), there's not much purple fringing, and noise levels are under control. It would be nice if things were a little sharper, but that can be fixed up in software or by turning the in-camera sharpening up a notch.

Using that same scene, let's take a look at how adjusting the ISO sensitivity affects the noise levels in images:

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

Admittedly these are a little darker than I would've like so it's hard to see how noisy things are, but here's what we can conclude from these images. ISO 80 and ISO 100 look a lot alike -- that's a good thing. ISO 200 is a little noisier but still totally usable. Details are getting destroyed at ISO 400 but I think with decent noise reduction software you could still use a photo taken at that setting.

There's mild barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the S90's zoom lens. The test shows a little vignetting, but I did not find this to be a problem in my real world shots. One thing it didn't show was corner softness (which wasn't in my photos either), which is strange since it shares the same lens as the DSC-W7 which did have a bit of it.

Okay, so this image is a little grainy (sorry), but the silver lining is that there really isn't much redeye to speak of, which is something that certainly surprised me.

Overall I found the DSC-S90's image quality to be very good. Images were sharp and well exposed with good color and respectable purple fringing levels. There was a bit of a "grain" to the photos, but it wasn't of concern to me.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery and decide if the photo quality meets your expectations. I also encourage you to print the photos, just like you would if they were your own.

Movie Mode

The DSC-S90 has the same top-notch movie mode as Sony's other digital cameras. The MPEG Movie VX Fine mode takes VGA resolution video (that's 640 x 480) at 30 frames/sec until the memory card is full, with sound. The VX Fine mode requires a Memory Stick Pro card and it cannot be used with the built-in memory. A 1GB MS Pro card can hold about 12 minutes of video at the VX Fine setting.

Two other movie quality settings are also available. You can use the VX Standard mode, which is still VGA, just at 16 frames/second. A much lower resolution option is also available, recording at 160 x 112. Neither of these modes require a Memory Stick Pro card.

As is usually the case, you cannot use the zoom lens during filming. Movies are saved in MPEG format.

Here's a big 'ol sample movie taken at the highest quality setting. Yes, it's the train again!

Click to play movie (14.6 MB, 640 x 480, VX Fine mode, MPEG format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The Cyber-shot DSC-S90 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 camera is PictBridge-enabled, allowing for direct printing to compatible photo printers.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom up to 5X into your photo (in 0.3X increments), and then scroll around in it. This is useful for checking the focus in a photograph. Sony's done a good job at making this feature nice and snappy.

Some of the more advanced playback features include:

  • Resize - change an image's size
  • Trim - crop a photo
  • Rotate
  • Divide - cut out sections of movies that you don't want

By default, the S90 doesn't tell you much about your photos. But press the Display button and you'll see a lot more, including a histogram.

The camera moves between images very quickly in playback mode. If you go one image at a time, the next one appears instantly, without any low resolution placeholder. If you really start flipping through them, you'll see a low res placeholder followed by the high res image a half second later.

How Does it Compare

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 is a very nice midrange camera that compares nicely with the Canon PowerShot A520, a camera which I consider the best-in-class. The S90 features a 4.1 Megapixel CCD which takes good quality pictures, with accurate color and reasonable noise and purple fringing levels. Images are slightly grainy, but this did not concern me. Camera performance is very good, though not quite as good as the DSC-W7 which I just reviewed. Most people will find the camera responsive and easy-to-use. Battery life is exceptional, especially given the fact that the S90 only uses two AA batteries.

The S90 is a midsize camera that's a little larger than the Canon A520 and similar models. While its made of plastic, I found the camera's build quality to be quite good. The S90 has a large (but not terribly high resolution) 2.5" LCD display which is viewable in dimly lit rooms and outdoors as well. Like all Sony cameras, the DSC-S90 features an AF-assist lamp which helps it focus in low light situations. If you like conversion lenses and filters then you'll enjoy the S90. You can choose from two telephoto and one wide-angle conversion lenses plus several filters. The S90 supports Sony's external slave flash as well, which attaches via the tripod mount.

The DSC-S90 has both automatic and manual controls. On the auto side you have a point-and-shoot mode as well as seven scene modes. The camera has a number of manual controls, though they're more limited than what the Canon A520 offers. I would've liked to have seen full aperture control, a real manual focus mode, and manual white balance, which would bring the S90 on par with the A520. One area in which the S90 beats most of the competition is in the movie mode department. You can record movies at 640 x 480 (30 fps) until the memory card is full. Do note that this requires a Memory Stick Pro card. On a related note, Memory Sticks tend to be more expensive than most other memory card formats.

There aren't too many other downsides aside from those that I just mentioned. The camera's bundled software is pretty lousy, save for the Cyber-shot Life tutorial. The continuous shooting mode isn't great, but they rarely are on cameras in this class.

Overall the DSC-S90 gets my recommendation -- it's an impressive camera for the money. If you want to save $50 and don't mind a smaller LCD, the DSC-S60 is basically the same camera, except that it gets even better battery life.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Good value
  • Huge 2.5" LCD is usable in bright outdoor light and in low light too
  • Very good performance
  • AF-assist lamp; good low light focusing
  • Excellent movie mode
  • Redeye was not a problem
  • Support for conversion lenses and filters
  • Excellent battery life; rechargeable batteries included
  • Live histogram in record mode
  • USB 2.0 High Speed supported

What I didn't care for:

  • More manual controls would be nice
  • Unimpressive burst mode
  • Memory Sticks cost more than other card formats
  • Except for the tutorial, bundled software is lousy
  • Can't swap memory cards while camera is on a tripod

Some other cameras in this class include the Canon PowerShot A520, Fuji FinePix E500, Kodak EasyShare Z730, Nikon Coolpix 4600 and 5900, Olympus D-595Z, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LS1, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W5.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-S90 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!

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.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.