Sony's 3-megapixel, 3X-zoom entry in its budget P series, the Cyber Shot DSC-P72, offers fast performance, vivid images, and a moderate number of easy-to-use features--qualities high on mainstream photographers' lists. The DSC-P72 provides extended-length movie clips and comes with a set of long-life nickel-metal-hydride batteries and a charger, further sweetening the deal. But if you're an avid photographer who's serious about creative control, or if you're looking for top-notch 3-megapixel photo quality, keep shopping.
The P72 looks and feels like preceding Cyber Shot P models: it has a sturdy plastic body, a brushed-silver finish, and black trim. The lens barrel is offset to the extreme right, so the camera's edge follows the curve of the lens. At 9.1 ounces, the compact P72 is fairly lightweight, and since the 3X zoom lens retracts completely behind a built-in cover, no awkward angles or protrusions prevent the device from sliding nicely into a shirt pocket.
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|The four-way controller provides menu navigation and quick access to flash settings, macro mode, the self-timer, and playback of the last image you shot.|
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|In shooting mode, you can change the resolution easily using the button at the bottom.|
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The simple mode dial on the back lets you switch between shooting, playback, video capture, and camera setup.
Overall, we were happy with the physical controls. We liked navigating the LCD menu with four separate arrow keys surrounding a select button rather than with a four-way rocking pad, which often frustrates thick-fingered users. The slightly recessed power switch means the camera isn't likely to accidentally activate in your backpack. Only the switch's close proximity to the shutter release was an occasional nuisance; despite the fact that they differ in size and feel, we still managed to confuse them.
When you hit the Menu button, a row of icons and abbreviations appears along the bottom of the screen. Scrolling to one expands it into a text label--a break for novices. For example, you don't have to know that the rectangle with a dot inside represents metering mode. You click an item in the row to bring up its corresponding menu of settings. The system is efficient, although the red-eye-reduction flash option is inconvenient; you have to toggle it on and off from within the setup menu.
The rubber pad on the back serves as both a cover for the input and output ports and a comfortable grip.
There are snapshots, and then there are, ahem, photographs. The P72's feature list is geared toward the casual snapshooter, emphasizing convenience over artistic control. Most significant, exposure is fully automated--you don't get the independent aperture and shutter selections that a photo hobbyist might want.
On the other hand, the five scene modes optimize aperture and shutter speed, as well as other image parameters, for problematic lighting conditions; Night and Snow are two examples. The camera also offers selectable ISO settings, exposure compensation, a spot meter, four white-balance presets, three flash levels, and Sony's usual palette of picture effects: Black And White, Sepia, Solarize, and Negative Art.
The camera's 3X zoom lens has a range of 39mm to 117mm (the 35mm-camera equivalent) and a maximum aperture of f/2.8 to f/5.6, which means its low-light capabilities are just average. The semimanual focus mode is actually a choice of five preset focal distances. It will get your intended subject in focus if you're trying to shoot through a foreground of tall grass, for example. The surprisingly bright autofocus-assist lamp is a boon when you're taking photos in a dim location, such as a restaurant or a bar.
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The P72 supports Sony's new Memory Stick Pro media, which is available in sizes up to 1GB. The original Memory Stick has a 128MB limit.
You can capture 16-frame-per-second video clips with sound at an unusually large 640x480-pixel resolution, and clip length is limited only by your Memory Stick's capacity. The Animated GIF mode lets you turn consecutive 160x120 stills into a stop-motion animation that you can upload to the Web. The Multi Burst mode records 16 shots in quick succession and saves them in one frame. File options for still images are limited to two levels of JPEG compression.
We were slightly annoyed that the P72 ships with a Memory Stick of only 16MB. That's a bit stingy for a 3-megapixel camera. Fortunately, the included nickel-metal-hydride batteries and charging unit counterbalance this shortcoming. The money you might have otherwise spent on rechargeable AA cells can be put toward more capacious media.
The P72's onboard buffer memory is apparently ample enough to minimize the processing time between photos. With the camera set to its best-quality picture setting, shot-to-shot time in good light ran about 1.8 seconds. Using the flash drags out the wait to 5 seconds, but that's obviously not a memory limitation. On average, the unit took a little longer than 3 seconds to get from power-on to the first shot.
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We got impressively long life from Sony's included AA nickel-metal-hydride batteries. They lasted for 775 shots with the LCD on and the flash firing about a quarter of the time.
We were a little disappointed by the autofocus in subdued indoor light; for example, under one or two 60-watt incandescent bulbs. Its performance was variable, even with the assist lamp on. At distances of more than 5 or 6 feet, the autofocus sometimes couldn't quite fix on the intended subject--even though the useful flash range extends as far as 12 feet, depending on how far you've zoomed in. The zoom lens, for its part, operates a bit noisily, and it goes from wide to 3X telephoto in roughly eight fixed steps (no matter how light your touch on the toggle switch) rather than continuously.
The LCD is sharp enough that we could easily make out letters on signs when reviewing photos, and it covers about 100 percent of what the camera actually captures, as opposed to the optical viewfinder's 84 percent. You can adjust the brightness of both the display and its backlight, which is especially helpful when you're shooting in bright light. We would've preferred the ability to adjust LCD brightness with a dedicated knob instead of via the setup menu.
The P72's snapshots were pleasing overall but had a few notable flaws. Under bright indoor or outdoor light, exposures were even, and colors were generally true to life and vivid without being oversaturated. The automatic white balance adjusted well to bright sunlight; the whites it yielded weren't overly blue. Edges were often immaculately crisp in near-focus still lifes, but the outlines suffered a little on subjects a few meters away.
Using the automatic white balance under indoor tungsten lights produces a look that's pleasantly warm and not too orange.
As we mentioned in thesection, the P72 doesn't always rise to the challenge of lower light levels. Images taken under subdued indoor lighting and in the shade tend to look soft and grainy, the result of a less-than-decisive autofocus and increased electronic noise. Of course, the larger you print your photos, the more visible these flaws will be.
It's not just our fake flowers that look like they've just had a protein shake--even brownstones pop off the screen with Sony's characteristically vivid color rendition.
Barrel distortion makes straight lines look curved, particularly at the extreme edges of a frame. The effect was apparent in some of the P72's close-up shots, but it wasn't any worse than what you'd likely get from any other model in this price range. We saw conspicuous purple-blue fringing at high-contrast borders, such as the sides of white lane markers on an asphalt road. This chromatic aberration detracted from some otherwise good shots, and it came up a bit more than we'd like even with a budget model.
In low incandescent light with the flash firing, noise and artifacts make our poor cat's fur look like it's painted on, even at ISO 160.