These days, there's not a lot of love for small point-and-shoots that don't have long zoom lenses or big image sensors. That's understandable since a 5x zoom such as the one on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX50 doesn't provide that much more range than a smartphone's fixed-lens camera, and its small sensor doesn't improve photo quality enough for enthusiasts.
However, in picture and video quality it's still better than a smartphone because of things like a bright f2.6 25mm wide-angle lens with optical image stabilization and Sony's Exmor R BSI (backside-illuminated) CMOS sensor and Bionz image processor. It doesn't have all the control you'd get from a higher-end enthusiast compact, but it's overflowing with automatic shooting options.
Shooting performance for a point-and-shoot is excellent, too, so if you want something better than your phone, but still small and light enough to take everywhere, put the SX50 on your short list.
With its f2.6 maximum aperture and BSI CMOS sensor, the WX50's photo quality is very good indoors and out. What's disappointing is that photos aren't very sharp, even at its lowest ISO, and they really aren't usable at full size because subjects just look soft and painterly. Basically, you won't want to do any enlarging and heavy cropping, but photos up to ISO 400 look very good and can be printed up to 13x9.
Noise reduction kicks in more at ISO 800, though, which smears details and dulls colors some. There's a noticeable increase in noise and noise reduction at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200, making colors look more washed-out and subjects appear even more painterly; you'll probably want to reserve these two highest sensitivities for emergencies when you need to shoot in low-light conditions or get a faster shutter speed regardless of the results. Forget about using ISO 6400 and ISO 12800; I'm pretty sure they're included just for marketing purposes.
On the other hand, if you're shooting a stationary subject, the WX50's Handheld Twilight mode improves low-light results by reducing noise and blur from hand shake. In fact, there's a mode to help with just about every typical shortcoming of point-and-shoots. You might not be able to make huge prints or do a lot of heavy cropping, but for snapshots the results are excellent.
Part of the reason the WX50's photos are so nice is its color performance. While blues and reds may not be as accurate as other colors, they are bright and vivid. Plus, they're consistent up to ISO 800; above that, things get slightly washed out and muddy-looking. Exposure and white balance are good as well, though highlights tend to blow out. The camera does have shooting options to help with those things.
Movies captured by the WX50 are excellent as well, on par with a very good pocket video camera or high-end smartphone. The 60i frame rate and image stabilization make for some smooth movement, too. You will see some ghosting with fast-moving subjects, though, and things look a little oversharpened on occasion. It won't replace a high-end HD camcorder, but if you'd like a single device for capturing good photos and videos, this is one of the better options available. The optical zoom does work while recording (though you may hear it moving in quiet scenes), and the stereo mic is a nice extra.
Editors' note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance information, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures, we will not be posting comparative performance charts.