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DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W1  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: August 29, 2004
Last Updated: May 19, 2012

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The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W1 ($399) is an ultra-compact 5 Megapixel camera with a big 2.5" LCD, VGA movie mode, and robust performance. It comes in both silver and black bodies.

The W1 seems to be Sony's answer to things like the Canon PowerShot S500 Digital ELPH. How does it perform? Find out in our review!

What's in the Box?

The DSC-W1 has a very good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.1 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-W1 camera
  • 32MB Memory Stick card
  • Two AA NiMH rechargeable batteries
  • Battery charger
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Sony Picture Package software and USB drivers
  • 127 page camera manual (printed)

Sony includes a 32MB Memory Stick card with the W1. 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 or the new Memory Stick Pro cards, which have a larger capacity (up to 1GB). Memory Stick Pro cards tend to be a little more expensive than other formats (such as CompactFlash).

You're all set in the battery department, as Sony includes two rechargeable NiMH cells in the box, plus an external charger. These two batteries are plenty powerful, too, with 2100 mAh each. Sony estimates that you can spend about 170 minutes in record mode (equal to 340 pictures) with the LCD on, or 340 minutes in playback mode. That's pretty good for a small camera.

It's also nice to see a compact camera that doesn't use a proprietary battery. If your rechargeables ever die in the field, you can always stuff a pair of regular alkaline AAs into the W1 to get you through the day. By the way, I'd recommend picking up an extra set of batteries to carry around.

When it's time to charge the battery, just put the batteries into the included charger. It takes a sluggish 6 hours to fully charge them, though. This isn't one of those "plug it right into the wall" chargers -- you must use a power cable.

The design of the W1 includes a built-in lens cover, so there's no lens cap to worry about. As you can see, this is a pretty small camera.

The DSC-W1 has a surprising number of accessories for a compact camera. Let's start with lenses, where you have three choices: the VCL-DH0730 0.7X wide-angle lens ($99) brings the wide end of the W1's lens down to 26.6 mm, while the VCL-DH1730 1.7X telephoto lens ($99) brings the tele end to 193.8 mm. Still not enough zoom power for you? Then consider the VCL-DH2630 2.6X super telephoto lens ($129), which brings the tele end up to a whopping 296.4 mm -- amazing for a tiny camera like this! All three of those lenses require the use of the VAD-WA conversion lens adapter ($30), which also lets you attach 30 mm filters. Speaking of filters, Sony sells three filter sets: special effects, polarizing, and neutral density.

But wait, there's more. The W1 also supports an external flash -- sort of. Just pick up the HVL-FSL1B external slave flash ($99). It attaches to the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera, and is activated by the firing of the camera's main flash. Using an external flash will give you much better flash range and less redeye.

Other W1 accessories include carrying cases (three to choose from), a starter kit, and an AC adapter ($39).

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 brand 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. The camera will mount when connected to your Mac or PC.

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.

Speaking of which, the manual included with the camera 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-W1 is a compact and stylish all-metal camera that can go virtually anywhere. It's easy to hold, and the important controls are all within easy reach of your fingers.

The official dimensions of the W1 are 91 x 60 x 36.3 mm / 3.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 inches (W x H x D) and it weighs 189 grams / 6.9 ounces empty. The closest competitor, the Canon PowerShot S500 is both smaller and lighter: 3.4 x 2.2 x 1.1 inches and 185 grams.

Let's take a closer look at the W1 now, starting with the front.

The DSC-W1 has an F2.8 - F5.2, 3X optical zoom lens, which is a bit "slower" than the F2.8 - F4.9 lens on the S500. The focal range is 7.9 - 23.7 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 114 mm (versus 36 - 108 mm on the S500). The W1 supports conversion lenses -- unlike the S500. To attach a conversion lens, you just screw the adapter into the ring around the lens, and then attach the lens to the adapter. Easy!

Directly above the lens is the W1's built-in flash. It's not going to win any awards for power, with a working range of 0.2 - 3.5 m at wide-angle and 0.3 - 2.5 m at telephoto. As I mentioned, the W1 supports an external flash.

TO the left of the flash is the microphone. Below that is the AF-assist lamp, a feature also found on the S500.

The back of the camera is where you'll find the "big" feature on the DSC-W1: its 2.5" LCD display. While the size is big, the resolution isn't: it has just 123,000 pixels. By comparison, the S500's 1.5" display has 118,000 pixels. Despite not having a high resolution, the screen seemed plenty sharp to me, and motion was fluid as well. I also found it easier to see outdoors than your average LCD.

Sony didn't leave off the optical viewfinder to make room for the big screen -- it's just to the upper-left of the LCD. It's not huge, but it does the job. There's no diopter correction (which focuses what you're looking at), but then again, most ultra-compacts don't have one either.

To the right of the LCD are a whole mess of buttons. At the top-right, you'll see the zoom controller, which moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 2 seconds. Quick presses of the buttons allow for precise lens movements.

Below the zoom controller are the display button (toggles LCD and what's shown on it on/off) and the menu button. Continuing downward, 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 (jumps to playback mode)

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

Up on top of the W1 you'll find the power button, mode dial, and shutter release button. The items on the mode dial include:

  • Auto record - point-and-shoot, most menu items locked up
  • Program mode - still point-and-shoot but with full menu access
  • Manual mode - you set both the aperture and shutter speed; aperture range is limited -- you only have two choices: at wide-angle they are F2.8/F5.6 and at telephoto they are F5.2/F10 (there are other options in the middle of the zoom range); the shutter speed range is 30 - 1/1000 sec
  • Twilight - the rest of these are scene modes
  • Twilight portrait
  • Candle
  • Landscape
  • Beach
  • Soft snap - warmer tones, soft focus

It would've been nice to have shutter and aperture priority modes as well as more aperture options, but keep in mind that the main competition (the S500) has no manual controls at all (aside from white balance).

On this side of the W1, you'll find the I/O ports and Memory Stick slot. They're kept behind a flimsy plastic door that doesn't fit in with the otherwise great build quality of the camera.

The I/O ports in question are DC-in (for optional AC adapter) and A/V out. The DC-in port has a little door that opens so you don't have to open the main door when you're using it.

The memory card slot supports Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro cards. The included 32MB card is shown on the right.

On the other side of the camera you'll find the USB 2.0 (high speed) port. Don't worry, it'll still work if you have USB 1.1.

Finally we reach the bottom of the W1. Here you'll find the battery compartment, metal tripod mount, speaker, and reset button.

The batteries are kept behind a fairly sturdy plastic door. The W1 uses two AA batteries. The included NiMH rechargeables are also shown.

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W1

Record Mode

The DSC-W1 starts up very quickly, taking just 1.5 seconds to extend the lens and "warm up" before you can start taking pictures.

A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode

The W1 was very snappy in the autofocus department. In good light, the camera usually locked focus in 1/2 second. If the camera had to hunt or use the AF-assist lamp, it took slightly longer -- maybe one full second. Speaking of which, the AF-assist lamp helped the camera focus well in low light. I did find the LCD to be unusable in those conditions (too dark), so you'll want to use the optical viewfinder.

Shutter lag was very low, even at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speed was excellent, with a delay of around a second between shots (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.

Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the W1:

Image Size # photos on included 32MB Memory Stick
Fine Quality Standard Quality
(2592 x 1944)
12 23
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 TIFF or RAW mode on the W1 (nor is there on the S500).

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 W1 uses the new Sony menu system that is also featured on the DSC-F828 and DSC-T1. The menu is overlay-style, meaning that its shown on top of the image you're preparing to shoot. Here are the menu options on the W1:

  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Focus (Multi AF, center AF, spot AF, 0.5/1.0/3.0/7.0 m, infinity) - more below
  • Metering mode (Multi, spot)
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten, flash) - 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 1.2 frames/second
    • 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 W1 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 useful. The three focus modes in the same menu control which autofocus mode the camera uses. The multi AF mode automatically selects one of five points to focus on.

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. This helps reduce the time required to take a picture. The W1 lacks the continuous AF feature found on other Sony models.

The W1 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 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 VGA, you can use 4X.

Let's move on to photo tests now.

Since the DSC-W1 lacks a custom white balance feature, I was a little worried about how it would perform under my quartz studio lamps. Thankfully, the tungsten WB setting worked just fine. The photo that the W1 took is good, though Mickey's red outfit seems almost fluorescent to me. The whole image has a "smooth" quality to it.

You can get as close to your subject as 6 cm at wide-angle and 30 cm at telephoto, which is comparable to the range on the S500.

The W1 took a nice shot of the SF skyline, though I suppose I could've exposed it for a little longer. Noise level are low and the buildings look pretty sharp. One thing I do notice is a bit of purple fringing, which is a bit surprising considering the aperture of F5.2. One way to reduce this is to use a smaller aperture, but the W1 doesn't give you too many choices: my only other option at that focal length was F10.

With full control over shutter speed, you can take can night shots just like this. Just remember to use a tripod. (I must say it humors me to watch people taking handheld, flash pictures of this same scene.)

Using that night shot, 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

I was pleased with the high ISO performance on the W1. Even at ISO 400 things really aren't that noisy. The W1 did a better job than the S500 in this regard.

Not surprisingly, the W1 has quite a bit of redeye. And it's pretty hard to avoid it on ultra-compact cameras like this one (the S500 was just as bad). Your options? Take the shot again, add more lighting, or clean it up in software.

The W1 has mild barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the lens. There's a slight hint of vignetting (dark corners), but it's very minor, and I didn't see it in any of my real world shots.

I was very pleased with the photo quality on the DSC-W1: it holds up very well against the PowerShot S500. Photos are quite sharp, colors are accurate, and noise levels are low. Another thing that's low is purple fringing -- there wasn't much to be found. Photos had a smooth look that reminded me a lot of -- guess what -- Canon cameras.

Only you can decide if the DSC-W1's image quality meets your expectations. So please have a look at the photo gallery where you can judge for yourself! The PowerShot S500 gallery is also available, but the shots were taken at different times/locations.

Movie Mode

The W1 has the same, top-notch movie mode as Sony's top of the line DSC-F828 camera. 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. This mode requires a Memory Stick Pro card. A 1GB Pro card can hold about 12 minutes of video at this quality. Sound is recorded along with the video.

If you don't have the Pro memory card, don't fret. You can still use the very nice VX Standard mode, which is still VGA, just at 16 frames/second. The included 32MB card holds about 1.5 mins at VX Standard quality. A much lower resolution (160 x 112) is also available.

The PowerShot S500 can also record VGA movies, but only for 30 seconds, and at a paltry 10 frames/second.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming on the W1 or the S500.

Here's a sample movie for you. I barely got the camera turned on before the train went by. Be warned, this is a large download:

Click to play movie (11.9 MB, 640 x 480 Fine, QuickTime format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The DSC-W1 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 W1 is PictBridge-enabled (as is the S500), 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 W1 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 W1 gives you quite a bit of information about your photos, including a histogram.

The W1 moves between images extremely quickly in playback mode -- showing a low res version instantly, with the high res image showing up a second later.

How Does it Compare

While not as small as its main competitor (the Canon PowerShot S500), the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W1 is a very impressive compact digital camera. It packs a 5 Megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens, and large 2.5" LCD into a stylish, all-metal body.

While the S500 is a point-and-shoot camera, the DSC-W1 offers a handful of manual controls, including shutter speed, aperture, and focus (though the last two are limited). The one control missing from the W1 that the S500 has is manual white balance, which is quite useful. The W1 is a very responsive camera, with a near-instant startup time, and fast focus and shot-to-shot speeds. The AF-assist lamp helped it focus in low light, though you'll have to rely on the optical viewfinder in those situations, as the LCD will be too dark. Photo quality on the W1 is quite good, and is comparable to the S500, though redeye is bad on both cameras.

The W1 also offers something not available on the S500 -- or most any ultra-compact camera -- and that is expansion capability. The camera supports three conversion lenses, plus an external flash (which will help with that redeye problem). The only thing missing is an underwater case, which the S500 offers. For transferring photos directly from the camera, the W1's USB 2.0 high speed support will speed things up considerably over the S500's USB 1.1.

Both the W1 and S500 have VGA movie modes, though the W1's is much better, assuming you have a Memory Stick Pro card to take advantage of it. The memory card difference is an important one, as the CompactFlash cards used by the S500 are less expensive than the W1's Memory Sticks. The S500 also gets points for a superior software bundle.

While the S500 is a bit smaller and lighter, the W1 does give it a run for the money, and I highly recommend it. Either camera is a great choice, so I suggest trying both in person to see which is more compatible with you.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality
  • Stylish, all-metal body
  • Super-fast performance
  • Huge 2.5" LCD display
  • Limited manual controls
  • VGA, 30 fps movie mode
  • Support for conversion lenses and external flash
  • USB 2.0 high speed support
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Histograms in record and playback mode

What I didn't care for:

  • Redeye
  • More manual controls would be nice
  • LCD nearly impossible to see in low light
  • Unimpressive software bundle; not very Mac friendly either
  • Flimsy plastic door over memory card slot

Other ultra-compact cameras worth checking out include the Canon PowerShot S500, Casio Exilim EX-Z40, Fuji FinePix F700, Kyocera Finecam SL400R, Minolta DiMAGE G500, Nikon Coolpix 5200, Olympus Stylus 410 and C-60Z, Pentax Optio S4i, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P93, DSC-P100, and DSC-T1.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DSC-W1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out the photo quality in our gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Read another review at Steve's Digicams.

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.