When Sony describes the Cyber-shot DSC-HX7V as a high-performance camera, it isn't joking. Shooting 16.2-megapixel stills and 1080i video at 50 frames per second, it's certainly a versatile option for the more ambitious photographer. At around £250 online and no larger than a pack of cards, it's not a pocket or wallet buster either.
The HX7V is so feature-rich, its rivals must surely be blushing. As well as GPS for geotagging your photos, there's a super-smart focusing system that switches modes automatically to match what the camera sees through the lens. Leave everything set to automatic and move closer to a flower, and the camera switches from landscape to macro, and then back again when you move away.
This feature is a boon for beginners, and a considerable time-saver for snappers who routinely find themselves mopping up scenery as they pass it by. With no need to choose the right mode yourself, this camera gives you a better chance of catching flighty wildlife at close quarters than almost any other. It's very easy to get a fix on objects close at hand too, so you won't spend much time rocking back and forth to find the camera's focal sweet spot, either.
Combine this capability with the camera's 16.2-megapixel resolution and 10x optical zoom, and you have a compact that comes close to rivalling low-end digital SLRs for versatility, albeit without the interchangeable lenses.
The ISO range stretches from 125 to an impressive 3,200, with +/-2.0EV in 1/3EV steps. As well as regular white-balance settings for daylight, cloudy and auto, there are two manual modes and three different options for various kinds of fluorescent light. Shutter speeds span 1/1600 to 2 seconds.
Perhaps the biggest revelation arises when you turn the camera upside down and open the battery compartment, which also houses the media slot. Like other Sony compacts, the HX7V takes the company's Memory Stick Pro Duo and Pro-HG Duo media, but also accommodates class 4 SD, SDHC and SDXC cards, courtesy of a neat double-sided arrangement whereby the contacts for each media type are positioned on opposite sides of the slot. This is great news for anyone looking to upgrade from a rival snapper and take their memory cards with them.
The battery charges in about four and a half hours using the bundled adaptor. When charged, the camera's good for around 300 shots or 70 minutes of video capture.
So what's the HX7V like to use? Two words: a joy. It's well balanced, comfortable in the hand and extremely flexible, giving you every option you need to turn out some first-class shots.
We spent most of our time in the 'intelligent auto' mode, which handles exposure, shutter speed and sensitivity while you get on with framing and shooting. There are three focus modes -- multi, centre-weighted and spot -- with matching metering modes. We used multi throughout our tests.
Nature scenes look suitably bucolic, and, although a little more saturated than we might have expected, scenes dominated by large amounts of foliage are particularly lush. They stay on the right side of saccharine.
There's slight evidence of chromatic aberration in the most demanding shots -- branches or thin window frames against a bright sky, for example -- but, in less challenging conditions, the results are pin-sharp when zoomed to 100 per cent, with each part of the spectrum converging as we'd expect.
Transitions between areas of similar tone, such as blue skies, which are darker away from the sun, are handled with smooth gradations, while those that involve a sharp contrast, such as the sky and blue balloons in our sample movie, are clearly differentiated.
In the test shot below, the HX7V retained good detail across the frame. There was evidence of light compression around the edge of black characters on a yellowing page, but you have to zoom in to 200 per cent to see it clearly. We left all focusing decisions up to the camera itself in this test, and the results are impressive, with the scene in focus through its whole depth.
The lens is both sharp and well crafted, with only the barest barrel distortion detected when shooting head-on. Even then, it's only discernable when tested against a perfect grid. The camera's aperture range doesn't sound greatly exciting, running from a wide-angle f3.5 to telephoto f5.5, until you realise that the zoom is equivalent to 25-250mm on a 35mm frame, at which point f5.5 sounds -- and is -- a great deal more impressive.
This 10x zoom really comes into its own when you use it outdoors, as you can see in the comparison scene below, shot once at a wide angle and again when zoomed to the camera's maximum optical length.
For more creative users, Sony has integrated its impressive 'sweep panorama' feature, requiring only that you press the shutter and move the camera from left to right across the scene. A progress meter on the bottom of the display fills up as you move and the camera's clever enough to spot when you've not moved it at all. When you're done, the HXV7 takes a couple of seconds to process the file, balancing the various exposures across the elongated frame to present the finished product.
It's evident that the camera uses the movie subsystem to achieve this, as the result is a fairly conservative 5 megapixels -- at 4,912x1,080 pixels, the same height as its native video format. But, as you're unlikely to print panorama photos, this shouldn't be too great an issue. If you want to produce anything of a higher resolution, you'll have to resort to the traditional method of shooting individual frames and stitching them together in Photoshop.