Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 Review

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1

Record Mode

It takes about 1.2 seconds for the DSC-WX1 to extend its lens and prepare for shooting. That's pretty snappy.

A live histogram is available in record mode

The WX1 focuses quickly and accurately for the most part. At wide-angle, focus times of 0.2 - 0.4 seconds were common, with telephoto delays ranging from 0.6 - 0.9 seconds. In low light situations, focus times stayed around a full second, and the camera was able to lock focus on subject that you couldn't even see on the LCD.

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

Shot-to-shot speeds were excellent. You'll wait for a little over a second before you can take another shot with the flash off, and for about 2 - 2.5 seconds with the flash on.

You cannot delete a photo immediately after taking it -- you must enter playback mode first. Something that bothers me about the WX1 and other recent Sony cameras is how quickly it retracts the lens when you enter playback mode. If you want to make a quick check of a photo you just took, the lens retracts in probably 30 seconds. When you press the shutter release to return to shooting, the zoom goes back to its default (wide-angle) position. Quite frustrating when you're trying to keep things consistent!

Most cameras let you adjust both the size and the amount of compression applied to photos, but the DSC-WX1 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)
3648 x 2736
2 412
8M (3:2)
3648 x 2432
2 406
7M (16:9)
3648 x 2056
2 409
2592 x 1944
3 595
2048 x 1536
7 1253
2M (16:9)
1920 x 1080
11 2005
640 x 480
70 12030

And now you see why I recommended that you buy a large memory card right away.

The DSC-WX1 does not support the RAW image format, which isn't entirely surprising.

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 the other shooting modes you'll have a more traditional overlay-style menu. There's a brief description of each menu option, so you'll have an idea as to what each of them does. Keeping in mind that some of these options will be unavailable in certain shooting modes, here's the full list:

  • Scene selection (High sensitivity, soft snap, landscape, twilight portrait, twilight, gourmet, pet, beach, snow, fireworks, underwater) - only shown in SCN mode
  • Movie shooting mode (Auto, underwater) - only shown in movie mode
  • Shooting direction (Right, left, up, down) - for sweep panorama feature
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • Burst (Off, high, mid, low, bracket) - discussed earlier
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, in 1/3EV increments)
  • ISO (Auto, 160, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, fluorescent 1/2/3, incandescent, flash, one push)
  • Underwater white balance (Auto, underwater 1/2, one-push)
  • Focus (Multi, center, spot AF) - no manual option here, unlike most other Sony compacts
  • Metering mode (Multi, center, spot)
  • Bracket settings (±0.3, ±0.7, ±1.0 EV)
  • 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
  • Dynamic range optimizer (Off, standard, plus) - see below
  • Anti-blink (Auto, off) - see below
  • Redeye reduction (Auto, on, off) - discussed later
  • SteadyShot (Shooting, continuous, off)
  • Settings - see below

The only manual control you'll find on the DSC-WX1 is for white balance. You can use the one-push option with a white or gray card, which allows for accurate color in mixed or unusual lighting. Strangely enough, the WX1 lacks the pseudo-manual focus of Sony's other compact cameras.

The WX1 found all six faces

The WX1 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. By pressing the center button on the four-way controller, you can select a face to track as they move around the frame.

There is also a blink detection feature on the WX1. In normal shooting modes, the camera can put up a warning that one of your subjects had their eyes closed (Blink Alert). If you're using the soft snap scene mode and turn on the Anti Blink feature, the camera will take two photos, and will save whichever one is blink-free.

I told you about 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. I've tested this feature many times on the WX1 and other compact Sony cameras, and have been hard-pressed to see much of a difference between any of the DRO modes (which is why I don't bother posting an example).

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. Here are the options that you'll find there:

  • Shooting Settings
    • AF illuminator (Auto, off)
    • Grid line (on/off)
    • Digital zoom (Off, precision, smart) - see below
    • Auto orientation (on/off) - whether portrait photos are automatically rotated
    • Blink alert (on/off) - warns you if your subject's eyes were closed
  • Main Settings
    • Beep (Off, low, high, shutter only)
    • Language setting
    • Function guide (on/off) - describes each menu setting
    • Demo mode (on/off) - for stores, I guess
    • Initialize - returns camera to default settings
    • Component (HD/1080i, SD)
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • USB connect (Auto, PictBridge, PTP/MTP, Mass Storage)
    • Download Music - transfer music from your computer for slideshows
    • Format Music - or get rid of it
  • 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 8.9X.

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

I wasn't very impressed with how the DSC-WX1 performed in our macro test. First, color accuracy was a big problem. Using the custom white balance setting (which is what you see above), the image comes out too blue and washed out, while the auto and tungsten settings were way too brown. This tells me that the WX1 may not be a good choice for those of you who shoot in mixed or unusual lighting conditions. The second issue is softness near the top and bottom of the figurine. I took the photo countless times, checked to make sure image stabilization was off, and cleaned the lens, and it didn't help. Looking at the photos in the gallery, softness around the edge of the frame seems to be par for the course! The whole image has a soft, fuzzy feel to it, as well.

The DSC-WX1 doesn't really have a dedicated macro mode. It can focus on close subjects, but there's no button you need to press to do it -- it all happens automatically. Sony doesn't actually tell you what the minimum focus distance is, but after some digging around, I think it's 5 cm at wide-angle and 50 cm at telephoto.

Since the DSC-WX1 doesn't have any manual controls, the only way you can take a night scene like I normally do is use the scene modes. In iAuto mode, the camera detected that I was taking a night portrait on a tripod, which I assume disables the image stabilizer. Whether shooting in Program, iAuto, or twilight portrait mode, the results were the same: too dark. It seems that the slowest shutter speed the camera will use is 2 seconds, which isn't nearly enough for this kind of photo. You could trying cranking up the sensitivity, but that's just going to eat details. Since the image isn't terribly bright it's hard to draw a lot of conclusions about the WX1's performance in these kinds of photos, but the buildings seem relatively sharp and purple fringing is nonexistent.

I was unable to perform the low light ISO test, due to the lack of manual controls on the WX1. Look for the studio ISO test in a moment.

Considering how wide its lens is, the WX1's barrel distortion isn't that bad. As I mentioned in the macro test discussion, the WX1 has pretty substantial corner blurring, as illustrated in this photo. So much for the "Sony G" lens! At least vignetting (dark corners) wasn't a problem.

Straight out of the camera

After using redeye removal tool in playback mode

The WX1 uses the standard pre-flash method of reducing redeye in your flash photos. If you're using face detection, it'll usually do the pre-flash routine automatically, but you can also force it to happen manually, as well. Unfortunately, this method of reducing redeye almost never works on compact cameras, as you can see in the first crop above. Thankfully the folks at Sony were kind enough to put a tool in playback mode that removes it digitally, and it worked here -- maybe a little too well.

And now it's time for our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare the photos from camera to camera. One note before we go on: when the camera reached ISO 800, the image got a lot darker, so I bumped the exposure compensation up a third of a stop to keep things consistent. Alright, on with the show!

ISO 160

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

Normally I don't have much to say about the photo taken at the base ISO, but that's not the case with the DSC-WX1. The first thing to note is that the base ISO is higher than you'll find on most cameras, starting at ISO 160. The second thing (which requires actually viewing the full size image) is that the photo quality isn't all that great at the base setting. You'll see the blurry edges and heavy noise reduction that make the WX1's photo quality less-than-appealing (and there's something that bothers me about the contrast, too).

Going up to ISO 200 doesn't really change things, though at ISO 400 detail loss becomes more noticeable, and there's a drop in color saturation, as well. ISO 800 is where you get the drop in exposure (my 1/3-stop adjustment may not have been enough) and even more noise reduction artifacting. Once you get the exposure figured out, you could probably make a smaller sized print at this sensitivity, but I wouldn't go any higher than that. The ISO 1600 shot has a lot of detail smudging, and a even bigger drop in color saturation. I wouldn't even bother with ISO 3200.

Since Sony advertises the DSC-WX1 and its Exmor R sensor as "high sensitivity", I thought I'd put it to the test. In this comparison, I'll show you the studio test at ISO 400, 800, and 1600 from the WX1 and three other cameras: the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 (with a normal CCD), the Fuji FinePix F200EXR (the reigning low light champ), and the Canon PowerShot G11 (filling in here for the PowerShot S90). Let's see how things shake out:

ISO 400

Canon PowerShot G11

Fuji FinePix F200EXR

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1
ISO 800

Canon PowerShot G11

Fuji FinePix F200EXR

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1
ISO 1600

Canon PowerShot G11

Fuji FinePix F200EXR

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1

At ISO 400, the best looking photo comes from the FinePix F200EXR. The PowerShot G11 is probably in second place, though the image is a bit soft. It's kind of a toss-up between the Sony W290 and WX1: the W290 has nicer color but has a soft and fuzzy appearance, while the WX1 has dull color and noise reduction artifacting. The FinePix F200EXR continues to be the best of the bunch at ISO 800, with the G11 again in second place. Here the WX1 surpasses its sibling, though it's still way behind the F200 at this point. ISO 1600 is rarely useful on compact cameras, and all four of the cameras faired poorly here. The F200EXR could still pull off a small print at this setting if you were using the high sensitivity / low noise mode (sample), though the resolution is "only" 6 Megapixel. The bottom line here is that the DSC-WX1 doesn't break any new ground in high ISO photography, at least in this reviewer's opinion.

Overall, I was disappointed with the image quality on the DSC-WX1, especially given the hype about the Exmor R sensor and the Sony G lens. I was hoping for low noise and a tack-sharp lens, and both were a let down. On the exposure front, the WX1 tends to overexpose by at least 1/3 of a stop, and it clips highlights fairly easily, as you can see here and here. Color was a mixed bag: sometimes I was happy with it, while other times photos seemed "washed out". Subject detail is probably the biggest image quality issue on the WX1. At the base ISO of 160, you'll find heavy noise reduction (which smudges details and makes the sky blotchy), lots of shadow noise, and blurring around the edges of the frame (see these examples). At midrange ISOs (400-800) the camera performs somewhat better than conventional compact cameras, but you need not bother with the highest sensitivities. On a somewhat more positive note, purple fringing levels were low in most situations.

Don't take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, view some full size images, and maybe print a few of them if you can. Then you should be able to decide whether the DSC-WX1's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

After being disappointed by the DSC-WX1's image quality, I was pleased to see that it does a lot better when it comes to movie recording. The camera can 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. At the highest quality setting, the file size tops out at around 2GB when the time limit hits. If you don't need HD video, you can also record at 640 x 480 (30 fps), as well.

Much to my surprise, the WX1 lets you use the optical zoom while you're recording a movie. The lens moves slower than it does when you're taking still pictures, and it's fairly quiet. Even so, you may hear the zoom motor in your videos if you;re recording a quiet scene. As you'd expect, you can also use the image stabilizer in movie mode.

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 for you, taken at the highest quality setting. The quality is pretty good in my opinion!

Click to play video (12.3 MB, 1280 x 720, 30 fps, MPEG-4 format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The DSC-WX1's playback mode is fairly standard, and a step down from what's offered on the less-expensive DSC-W290. Basic features here 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 on the fancy side, with transitions and the background music of your choosing.

Calendar view

Images can be viewed one at a time, as thumbnails, or by date (broken down by month or day). The WX1 can't filter for images with faces like the W290 could. In terms of editing tools, there are just a few. You can rotate or crop an image, sharpen it, or remove redeye. No fancy special effects here, again unlike the W290. There aren't any movie editing tools, either.

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-WX1 moves through photos without delay.