Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 Review

Look and Feel

The Cyber-shot DSC-W290 is an ultra-compact camera made almost entirely of metal. The body feels quite solid, save for a flimsy plastic cover over the memory card/battery compartment. While the W290 can easily be held with one hand, I found the controls to be both small and cluttered. Since there's no dedicated space for your thumb, quite often it ends up on the LCD, leaving a fingerprint.

Every compact camera has to come in multiple colors, and the W290 is no exception. Sony has gone relatively subdued with their top-end W-series camera, offering it in black, dark blue, bronze, and silver.

Now, here's how the DSC-W290 compares to other ultra-compact cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon PowerShot SD960 IS 3.9 x 2.1 x 0.9 in. 7.4 cu in. 145 g
Casio Exilim EX-FC100 3.9 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 8.1 cu in. 156 g
Fuji FinePix J250 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 151 g
GE E1255W 3.6 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.5 cu in. 145 g
Kodak EasyShare M380 3.9 x 2.3 x 0.8 in. 7.2 cu in. 125 g
Nikon Coolpix S620 3.5 x 2.1 x 0.9 in. 6.6 cu in. 120 g
Olympus Stylus 7000 3.8 x 2.2 x 1.0 in. 8.4 cu in. 132 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS25 3.8 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.9 cu in. 126 g
Samsung SL820 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.9 in. 7.7 cu in. 155 g
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 3.9 x 2.4 x 0.9 in. 8.4 cu in. 145 g

The DSC-W290 is tied with the Olympus Stylus 7000 as the largest camera in the group. Don't worry though, it'll still fit into your small pockets with ease.

Okay, let's start our tour of the W290 now, shall we?

The Cyber-shot DSC-W290 features an F3.3-5.2, 5X optical zoom lens. That maximum aperture range is on the "slow" side, but it's fairly common for ultra-compact cameras like this. The focal range of the lens is 5.0 - 25.0 mm, which is equivalent to a nice 28 - 140 mm. While the lens itself isn't threaded, you can buy the conversion lens adapter to add a wide or telephoto lens -- if you can find it.

Inside that lens is Sony's optical image stabilization system, which they call Optical SteadyShot. Sensors inside the camera detect the tiny movements of your hands that can shake the camera just enough to blur your photos, especially in low light or at the telephoto end of the lens. The camera shifts one of the lens elements to compensate for this motion, allowing for a higher likelihood of a sharp photo. OIS systems can't work miracles: they won't freeze a moving subject, nor will they allow you to take night photos without a tripod. EVen so, they're still way better than nothing at all. Want proof? Have a look at these:

Image stabilization off

Image stabilization on

Both of the above photos were taken at a shutter speed of 1/6 second. As you can see, the SteadyShot system did its job, producing a much sharper photo. You can also use the image stabilizer in movie mode, and you can see its effects in this short sample movie.

To the upper right of the lens is the camera's microphone and its AF-assist lamp. The W290 uses the AF-assist lamp to illuminate subjects in low light, which improves focusing performance in those situations. This lamp also illuminates when the Smile Shutter feature is active, and while the self-timer is counting down.

Moving to the opposite side of the lens, we find the W290's flash. Don't expect much from this small flash: it has a working range of just 0.2 - 3.0 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 1.9 m at telephoto (both at Auto ISO). You cannot attach an external flash to the DSC-W290.

Back of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

The main event on the back of the DSC-W290 is its large 3-inch LCD display. While the screen is big, the 230,400 pixel resolution isn't any higher than what you'd find on a 2.5 or 2.7-inch screen. Sharpness was as expected -- good enough for most folks, but not spectacular. Outdoor visibility was pretty good, and in low light the screen brightens automatically, so you can still see your subject.

As you probably noticed, there's no optical viewfinder on the DSC-W290. This feature has grown less and less common as the LCDs on ultra-compact cameras have gotten larger, for better or for worse. Some folks love their viewfinders, but I figure that the typical buyer of the W290 won't even notice.

Moving now to the controls on the right side of the LCD, the first thing to talk about is the zoom controller. The controller, which is on the small size, moves the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in 1.5 seconds. There are just nine steps in the 5X zoom range, which isn't nearly enough for precise lens control.

Next up is the camera's mode dial, which has just a few options.

Option Function
Scene mode You pick the situation, and the camera uses the proper settings. Available scenes include high sensitivity, soft snap, landscape, twilight portrait, twilight, gourmet/food, beach, snow, fireworks, underwater
Easy mode A very basic shooting mode, with only two menu options
Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with auto scene selection; some menu options are locked up
Program mode Still point-and-shoot, but with full menu access
Movie mode More on this later

As you can see, the DSC-W290 is a 100% point-and-shoot camera, with no manual controls to be found. You've got your usual set of scene modes, and in the Intelligent Auto and Easy modes, the camera will pick the scene mode for you. Intelligent Auto mode also has an Advanced mode in which the camera will take two photos in certain situations. For example, if it is using the backlight portrait scene, it will take one photo with the flash, and another with the DRO feature cranked all the way up.

One scene mode I always recommend passing on is the High Sensitivity mode, as the resulting images can be quite soft and noisy.

Continuing downward, we find the button for entering playback mode, with the four-way controller under that. You'll use the four-way controller for navigating menus, and also:

  • Up - Display - Toggles what's shown on the LCD
  • Down - Self-timer (Off, 2 or 10 secs)
  • Left - Macro (Auto, on)
  • Right - Flash (Auto, flash on, slow sync, flash off)

Below the four-way controller are buttons for entering the menu system, and for deleting a photo.

Top of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

There's not a whole lot to see on the top of the W290. On the left is the speaker, followed by the power, shutter release, and Smile Shutter buttons (which are kind of hard to tell apart).

The camera is about to take a photo of my smiling niece

Press that Smile Shutter button and Sony's elaborate smile detection feature swings into action. The camera will detect the faces in the frame, and wait until one of those people smiles. You can adjust how sensitive the feature is using the menu system -- slight, normal, and big smiles being the options. I've tested this feature on many occasions, and it works very well.

Side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

Nothing to see on this side of the camera. The lens is at full wide-angle here.

Side of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

There's nothing on the other side either, unless you count the wrist strap anchor. The lens is at the full telephoto position in this shot.

Bottom of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

In case you've been wondering where the camera's I/O ports are, they're here, on the bottom of the camera. That port at the lower-right of the photo is where you'll plug in the multi-connector cable that comes with the camera, and the optional component video cable goes here as well. I would've expected this HD-capable camera to have an HDMI port, but no such luck. Having the I/O port on the bottom of the camera is a bit inconvenient, as well.

Other items here include a metal tripod mount and the battery/memory card compartment. The door over this compartment is quite flimsy. As you can probably tell, you won't be able to access the memory card slot while the camera is on a tripod.

The included NP-BG1 lithium-ion battery can be seen at left.