Where compact pocket cameras like this are concerned, the objects most often used to describe their size are decks of cards or cigarette packets. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W690 is smaller still.
It's slim, good looking, and boasts some impressive specs. The camera has also been stripped of complex controls to appeal to novice photographers.
Features for beginners
If what's left to tweak is still beyond your abilities, then switch to easy mode to enlarge the menu font and strip it down to a single option: image size. The larger font is great for anyone with a visual impairment, but it's a shame Sony hasn't applied it across the board -- when you press a hardware control to switch on the flash or activate the timer, it uses the same small font as usual.
The one concession it makes to more advanced controls is the program setting, which gives you access to white balance, focus, metering mode and sensitivity (from ISO 80 to ISO 800 in this mode, although the absolute maximum in other modes is ISO 3,200, with an auto setting for general use and compensation of +/-2EV in 1/3EV steps). You can't manually pick your aperture or shutter speed though.
Low-light performance is good, with colours reproduced accurately at ISO 800. There is a fair degree of dappling at this level, and some grain in areas of flat colour. Both of these impact clarity when zoomed to 100 per cent, but shouldn't be greatly limiting unless you want to crop very tightly onto a detail. Elements such as fine writing on a small bottle remained legible in my tests (see below).
The W690 has 11 scene modes for shooting portraits, landscapes, night shots and so on, and four creative filters covering off toy camera, high colour, partial colour and soft high key effects.
Its specs are impressive, considering the size of the chassis. The sensor tops out at 16.1 megapixels (4,608x3,456 pixels), and it has a 10x zoom, equivalent to 25-250mm on a conventional 35mm camera. Maximum aperture at wide angle is f/3.3, narrowing to f/5.9 at full telephoto. Both of these are pretty much par for the course on a compact.
Minimum focusing distance is 5cm in wide-angle macro mode and 1.5m at full telephoto. Again, both are fair but not exceptional.
Macro performance is good though, with the W690 setting its aperture to the maximum f/3.3 to maintain a shallow depth of field. It was easy to get a fix on chosen subjects in my macro tests, and the results were consistently sharp and evenly exposed.
It takes SD/SDHC/SDXC and Sony Memory Stick, so if you're switching to this from another camera, there's a better chance you can bring your existing memory card with you. Using a Class 4 SD card, I was able to shoot five full-resolution frames in burst mode before it had to pause to offload the cache. Dropping the resolution to 10 megapixels let it carry on shooting, with a gap of around 1 second between each frame.
Naturally, there's no optical viewfinder, so all framing is done using the 3-inch rear LCD screen. Unfortunately, this has a fairly shallow viewing angle, so it's not easy to judge whether your image is accurately exposed unless you're looking at it face-on.
I performed my tests using the W690's intelligent auto mode, allowing the camera to set all its own shooting parameters, while I concentrated on angle and composition.
On first downloading the results and judging them as arbitray hits or misses, there was a higher proportion of misses than I have seen from other compacts over the last few months. Some shots exhibited over-exposed areas as it compensated for darker portions of the frame. Metering for brighter portions and then re-composing the shot usually resolved this, resulting in a properly exposed shot.
The level of detail resolved in accurately exposed shots was impressive though, with the W690's lens quick to fix onto the subject and focusing with razor-sharp accuracy. It's easy to force a shallow depth of field too, to draw the eye to a particular spot in your shot.