Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 Review

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

Record Mode

The DSC-W290's startup times seemed to vary, and I'm not sure why. In most situations, it would extend its lens and prepare for shooting in just 1.2 seconds, which is very quick. On other occasions, it would stick on the welcome screen for several seconds, possibly because it is rebuilding the album data files used in playback mode.

A histogram is available in record mode

In almost all situations, the W290 is super-fast at focusing. In good light, expect wide-angle focus times ranging from 0.1 - 0.3 seconds. Telephoto times aren't much worse, usually staying between 0.4 and 0.7 seconds. The only time the camera felt sluggish was when focusing in low light situations, where delays often exceeded one second (but the camera would lock eventually).

Shutter lag wasn't a problem, even at the slower shutter speeds where it can sometimes occur.

Shot-to-shot speeds were good. With the flash off, you take another shot in about 1.5 seconds. With the flash, add another second or so.

You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must enter playback mode to do so. Something that I don't like about the W290 and other recent Cyber-shot cameras is how they retract the lens way too quickly when you enter playback mode. This becomes a real pain in the rear when you're trying to maintain the same composition for several shots, and just want to a review a photo you've taken.

Most cameras let you adjust both the size and the amount of compression applied to photos, but the DSC-W290 only lets you do the former. Here are the available image sizes on the camera:

Resolution # images on 11MB on-board memory # images on 2GB memory card (optional)
4000 x 3000
2 351
11M (3:2)
4000 x 2672
2 380
9M (16:9)
4000 x 2248
2 390
3264 x 2448
2 493
2592 x 1944
3 595
2048 x 1536
7 1253
2M (16:9)
1920 x 1080
11 2005
640 x 480
70 12030

See why I recommended buying a memory card right away?

The DSC-W290 doesn't support the RAW image format, nor would I really expect it to.

Easy Menu

Let's talk menus now. If you're shooting in Easy Mode, then you'll see the menu above. It doesn't get much simpler than that!

Standard record mode menu

In other shooting modes, you'll find an improved version of the menu system used on previous W-series cameras. Gone is the unnecessary Home menu -- now there's just a traditional overlay-style menu. My only complaint is that navigating the menu feels slower than on most other cameras. Keeping in mind that some of these options aren't available in all shooting modes, here's the full list of menu options:

  • Movie shooting mode (Auto, high sensitivity, underwater) - only shown in movie mode
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • REC mode (Normal, burst, bracketing [±0.3, ±0.7, ±1.0 EV])
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • ISO (Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, fluorescent 1/2/3, incandescent, flash) - no manual mode here
  • Focus (Multi, center, spot AF, 0.5, 1.0, 3.0, 7.0 meters, infinity) - you can set the focus distance manually... kind of
  • Underwater white balance (Auto, underwater 1/2) - for use with one of the u/w cases
  • Metering mode (Multi, center, spot)
  • Scene recognition (iSCN, iSCN+) - whether camera takes two shots in Intelligent Auto mode; discussed earlier in the review
  • Smile detection sensitivity (Slight, normal, big smile)
  • Face detection (Off, auto, child priority, adult priority) - see below
  • Flash level (Low, normal, high)
  • Anti-blink (Auto, off) - see below
  • Redeye reduction (Auto, on, off) - discussed later
  • Dynamic Range Optimizer (Off, standard, plus) - see below
  • Color mode (Normal, vivid, sepia, black and white)
  • SteadyShot (Shooting, continuous, off)
  • Settings - see below

Let's talk about some of those REC mode options. In burst mode, the camera took six shots in a row at 1.7 frames/second, which is about average for an ultra-compact camera. I did notice that the image on the LCD lagged quite a bit, so tracking a moving subject will be challenging. The auto bracketing feature lets you take three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. This is a good way to ensure proper exposure on every shot, assuming that you've got the space on your memory card.

The W290 found all six faces

The W290 supports face, smile, and blink detection. The camera is capable not only of finding up to eight faces in the scene -- it can also differentiate between adults and children, and give one or the other focus priority. Sony's implementation of this feature works exceptionally well, with the camera easily finding all six faces in our test scene. You can select a face to "register" in the camera's memory, and that person will be giving priority in future photos.

The anti-blink feature works when the camera is in portrait mode, regardless of whether you or the camera selects it. The W290 takes two photos instantly, and selects the one without any closed eyes. If eyes were closed in both photos, the camera will display a warning on the LCD.

I described the Smile Shutter feature a bit earlier in this article.

The Dynamic Range Optimizer feature attempts to improve overall image contrast. The default (DRO standard) setting is your everyday auto contrast system. When you have more difficult exposures you may want to set the camera to DRO plus, which breaks the image into smaller segments, adjusting the contrast for each individually. Quite honestly, I had a difficult time noticing any major differences while playing around with this option.

The last thing I want to mention is the SteadyShot option in the record menu. Continuous mode has the IS system running all the time, so you can compose your photo without the effect of camera shake. Shooting mode only activates IS when the picture is actually taken, which results in more effective stabilization. You can also turn the IS system off entirely, which is a good idea if you're using a tripod.

There's also a setup menu, which is accessible via the record and playback menus. For some reason it takes a couple of seconds to load up. Here are the options you'll find in the setup menu:

  • Shooting Settings
    • AF illuminator (Auto, off)
    • Grid line (on/off)
    • Digital zoom (Off, precision, smart) - see below
    • Conversion lens (Off, wide, telephoto)
    • Auto orientation (on/off) - whether portrait photos are automatically rotated
    • Auto review (on/off) - post-shot review
  • Main Settings
    • Beep (Off, low, high, shutter)
    • Language setting
    • Function guide (on/off) - describes each menu setting
    • Initialize - returns camera to default settings
    • Demo mode (on/off)
    • Component (HD/1080i, SD)
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • Wide zoom display (on/off) - sets aspect ratio to 16:9 for video output
  • Memory Stick Tool
    • Format
    • Create folder
    • Change folder
    • Delete folder
    • Copy - from internal memory
    • File number (Series, reset)
  • Internal Memory Tool
    • Format
    • File number (Series, reset)
  • Clock setting
    • Area setting (Home, destination)
    • Date and time setting

The only thing worth mentioning here are the digital zoom options. Precision digital zoom is the one I always tell people to avoid. It just blows up the center of the image, which results in a noticeable drop in image quality. If you're going to use digital zoom, use Smart Zoom. You'll have to lower the resolution, but you'll be able to get more zoom power without a loss in image quality. For example, lowering the resolution to 3 Megapixel, you can get a total zoom power of 9.8X.

Alright -- enough menus, let's talk photo quality now.

The DSC-W290 didn't impress with its photo of our standard macro test subject. First off, there's a noticeable color cast, since the camera's preset white balance settings couldn't handle my studio lamps (here's where a manual WB mode really helps). Second, the image has visible noise, giving the figurine a fuzzy appearance (and we're only at ISO 80). You can also see some softness at the top of the "hat", though I'm not sure if that's caused by noise or the lens.

The W290 has an automatic macro mode, so when you get close to something, it'll switch over automatically. If you want to give priority to close-up subjects, you can change the macro setting from "auto" to "on". Don't expect to get too close to your subject in macro mode -- the minimum focus distance is 10 cm at wide-angle, and 50 cm at telephoto.

It took almost a month, but I finally managed to get a clear night in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the DSC-W290 couldn't really take advantage of it, because of its lack of manual controls. The only way to take long exposures like this is to use the twilight scene mode (which either you or the camera can select), where the slowest shutter speed available is 2 seconds. That's not long enough to bring in enough light, so the above image is quite dark. It's also on the soft side, with noise reduction smudging away detail. Purple fringing levels were fairly low.

Night shot added on 8/5/09

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the DSC-W290's 28 -140 mm zoom lens. You can see what this does in the real world by looking at the building on the right in this photo. I saw some mild corner blurring at times, though vignetting (dark corners) was not a problem.

Straight out of the camera

After using the redeye removal tool in playback mode

If you're using face detection, the camera will automatically fire the flash a few times before a photo is taken, in order to shrink the pupils and (in theory) reduce redeye. As you can see from the top photo, that didn't help. If you have the same result as I did, then you can head over to playback mode and use the tool there, which did a great job at getting rid of this annoyance.

Now, here's our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is consistent, you can compare it with other cameras I've reviewed over the years. While the crops below give you a quick idea as to the image quality at each ISO sensitivity, viewing the full size images is definitely a good idea. Here we go!

ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

You can spot some noise in the ISO 80 shot, and a bit more is present at ISO 100. Detail loss begins as ISO 200, with once-sharp edges turning fuzzy. There's more detail loss at ISO 400 than I would've expected, and this is as high as I'd take the DSC-W290 in good light, and only for smaller-sized prints. I suppose you could use ISO 800 in emergencies, but ISO 1600 and 3200 are best left untouched.

The overall image quality on the Cyber-shot DSC-W290 gets mixed reviews from yours truly. Exposure was generally solid, save for the highlight clipping that is commonplace on compact cameras. The W290 did a great job with color, except in our studio tests, where the lack of manual white balance became an issue. Sharpness and detail is the W290's weak spot. The camera produces photos that are soft, noisy, with plenty of detail loss (especially on trees, grass, and low contrast items) -- even at the lowest ISO setting. If you'll be sticking to 4 x 6 or 5 x 7 inch prints, then you probably won't notice any of this. But if you're making large prints or viewing photos on your computer screen, the "fuzziness" of the photos is hard to miss. Purple fringing levels were moderate.

Don't just take my word for all this, though -- have a look at our DSC-W290 photo gallery. View the full size images, print a few if you can, and then decide if the W290's photo quality meets your needs.

Movie Mode

One of the nice features on the DSC-W290 is its ability to record video at 720p -- that's 1280 x 720 -- at 30 frames/second. Sound is recorded along with the video. You can record continuously for up to 29 minutes, which is quite a while for an HD mode. There are two HD qualities: fine and standard, with 9 and 6 MBps bit rates, respectively. If you don't need HD video, you can also record at 640 x 480 (30 fps), as well.

As is usually the case, you cannot use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie. The optical image stabilizer is available, however. I should also point out that you lose the wide-angle capability of the lens when recording movies. It jumps to 31 mm at the 1280 x 720 resolution and 37 mm at 640 x 480.

Movies are saved as MP4 files, using the efficient H.264/AVC codec. For those of you using card readers, you won't find the movies in the usual spot: they're in the MP_ROOT folder on the memory card.

Here's a sample movie taken at the usual spot, this time from a different angle. The quality is pretty good, I'd say!

Click to play movie (22.2 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, MPEG-4 format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Cyber-shot DSC-W290 has a pretty elaborate playback mode. Basic features are covered, which include DPOF print marking, image protection, slideshows, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. The zoom and scroll feature lets you enlarge a photo (by as much as 8X) and then move around in it -- perfect for checking for proper focus, closed eyes, etc. The slideshow feature is extra-fancy, with transitions and the background music of your choosing.

Calendar view

Photos can be viewed in a number of ways, in addition to one-at-a-time or as thumbnails. You can view them by date (see above), by "event" (similar to by date), and you can also view pictures you've tagged as favorites. The camera also has the ability to filter by faces: you can have it show only photos with people, children, infants, or smiles.

Images can be rotated, resized, and cropped right on the camera. There are also a number of special effects you can apply to photos, including unsharp mask, soft focus, partial color, fisheye, cross (star) filter, retro, and radial blur. There's also a somewhat creepy "Happy Faces" option, which distorts a face until the person is smiling. In this same Retouch menu you'll also find the camera's redeye reduction tool, which I demonstrated earlier.

Despite the fancy 720p movie mode, there are no movie editing tools on the DSC-W290.

The camera shows you a decent amount of information about your photos in playback mode, including a histogram. Something that's always irked me about Sony cameras of late is that they don't display the histogram if a photo has been rotated automatically by the camera.

The DSC-W290 moves through photos without delay.