Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 Review

How Does it Compare?

I've been a big fan of Sony's previous W-series cameras. The DSC-W50, W55, and W150 can all be found in our Buyers Guide Hall of Fame. While the new Cyber-shot DSC-W290 carries on many of the traditions on those cameras (extra zoom, big LCD, fast performance, good battery life), Sony has let image quality slip. Photos are soft and noisy, even at the base ISO of 80. That, combined with many other issues, make the DSC-W290 just an average ultra-compact camera.

The Cyber-shot DSC-W290 is an ultra-compact camera made almost entirely of metal. The only weak spot on the camera is a common one: the flimsy plastic door covering the memory card/battery compartment. Ergonomics aren't great; the controls are all stuffed together to the right of the LCD (leaving nowhere for your thumb, except the screen), and the buttons on the top of the camera are difficult to tell apart. The W290 features a 5X zoom lens, with a nice focal range of 28 - 140 mm. I did find that the zoom controller isn't very precise, with only nine steps in the entire 5X zoom range. While the W290 supports conversion lenses, finding the required adapter seems to be impossible, at least here in the U.S. Like nearly all of Sony's cameras these days, the W290 features their Optical SteadyShot image stabilization system, which does a good job of reducing blurry photos, and you can use it in movie mode, as well. On the back of the camera is a large 3-inch LCD, with a so-so 230,000 pixels. I found the screen easy to see outdoors, and pretty good in low light situations. Like most ultra-compacts, the W290 lacks an optical viewfinder.

The DSC-W290 is a 100% point-and-shoot camera, with no real manual controls, unless you count the pseudo-manual focus feature. If you want a very basic shooting experience, you can set the camera to "Easy mode", which does everything automatically, and gives you just two menu options. The next step up is the well-implemented Intelligent Auto mode, which will select a scene mode for you. If you turned on the Advanced Scene Recognition feature, the camera can take two photos, each taking a different approach to the situation. The W290 features face, smile, and blink detection, and they all work very well. The camera is even smart enough to distinguish between adults and children! The most control you can get on the DSC-W290 is in Program mode, which turns off auto scene selection and opens up the entire record menu. The W290 has a nice playback mode, with a fancy slideshow feature, many special effects, and several ways of viewing and filtering your photos. One of the camera's biggest selling points is its 720p movie mode, which records videos at 1280 x 720 (30 fps) with sound, using the efficient H.264 codec. You can record continuously for up to 29 minutes, which is pretty impressive. While the image stabilizer is active while you're recording a movie, the optical zoom is not.

The camera is generally a solid performer. Startup times were typically around 1.2 seconds, though on occasion it took several seconds, and I'm not sure why. The camera focuses very quickly in good lighting, rivaling Panasonic's best cameras in this department. Wide-angle focus times feel nearly instant, while telephoto delays aren't much longer. The only time the W290 felt slow was in low light, where it often took 1 or 2 seconds for the camera to lock focus. I didn't find shutter lag to be a problem, and shot-to-shot delays were low by compact camera standards. The DSC-W290 has a standard-issue burst mode, capable of taking 6 photos in a row at 1.7 frames/second. I did find that the LCD lagged way behind the action, which makes tracking a moving subject very difficult. Sony's W-series cameras have always had above average battery life, and the W290 continues that tradition.

So far I've described a lot of nice features, but none of that matters if the camera doesn't take good quality photos. Unfortunately, photo quality is the W290's weak spot. On the positive side, exposure and color were good in most situations, save for some highlight clipping (common on compact cameras) and difficulty with my studio lamps (due to the lack of manual white balance). The not-so-good news is that the camera has soft, noisy images, with noticeable detail loss even at low ISOs. Whether it's trees, grass, hair, or other low contrast details, the W290 makes them look awfully fuzzy. And forget about the high ISO settings -- once you cross ISO 400, things go downhill rapidly. Like most compact cameras, the DSC-W290 has a redeye problem, but at least there's a tool in playback mode to get yourself of that annoyance. I also noticed moderate levels of purple fringing in the W290's photos.

There are a few other things to mention before I wrap things up. Like the majority of Sony's recent cameras, you cannot select the image quality (compression) on the W290 -- only the resolution (image size). The camera's flash is quite weak which, while not uncommon on ultra-compacts, is still worth pointing out. The lens retracts way too quickly when you switch over to playback mode, and you can't access the memory card slot when the camera is on a tripod. Finally, in the bundle department: there's very little built-in memory, no Mac software is included, and the full manual is only available on an included CD-ROM disc.

In a world of very capable ultra-compact cameras, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 is decidedly average (at best). I like having the 5X zoom in a small package, the 720p movie mode, and the good battery life, but the mediocre image quality and a myriad of other issues make the W290 a camera I'd probably pass on.

What I liked:

  • Good color and exposure in most situations
  • 5X zoom in a compact metal body
  • Optical image stabilization
  • 3-inch LCD with good outdoor visibility
  • Snappy performance in most respects
  • Intelligent Auto mode picks a scene mode for you
  • Impressive face and smile detection features
  • 720p movie mode with long recording time
  • Elaborate playback mode
  • Above average battery life
  • Lots of optional extras, though conversion lens adapter seems impossible to actually buy

What I didn't care for:

  • Heavy noise reduction smudges fine details and gives images a soft, fuzzy look, even at low ISOs
  • Redeye and purple fringing are problems, though you can remove the former in playback mode
  • LCD lags behind the action in burst mode
  • Not enough steps in zoom range, which makes precise adjustments difficult
  • Weak flash
  • Lens retracts way too quickly when you switch to playback mode
  • No optical viewfinder
  • Manual controls would be nice, especially white balance
  • Can't adjust image quality (compression)
  • Flimsy door over memory/battery compartment; cannot access memory card when camera is on a tripod
  • Very little built-in memory
  • No Mac software included; Full manual only on CD-ROM

Some other ultra-compact cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SD960 IS, Casio Exilim EX-FC100, Fuji FinePix J250, GE E1255W, Kodak EasyShare M380, Nikon Coolpix S620, Olympus Stylus 7000, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25, and the Samsung SL820.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Cyber-shot DSC-W290 and its competitors before you buy.

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!

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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.