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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V (Black) review:

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V (Black)

The HX9V's movie mode is the best I've seen on any point-and-shoot. It's capable of recording in full HD at 1080/60p at 28Mbps in AVCHD. It'll record at lower bit rates, too, in AVCHD or you can switch to MPEG-4 at resolutions up to 1,440x1,080. While you can actually enter a dedicated movie mode, you can also just press the record button anytime you want to start shooting. Pressing the shutter release while you're recording will grab 3-megapixel stills, too.

Lastly, there are three 3D shooting modes. The 3D Sweep Panorama works just like the Intelligent Sweep, but creates both a normal panorama shot and one that can be viewed in 3D on a 3D-enabled HDTV. As you sweep the camera it shoots separate photos for the left and right eyes, which is how it's able to create 3D images with just one lens. The Sweep Multi Angle works similarly by taking 15 photos at different angles as you sweep across a scene. The camera then coverts those into one photo. By tilting the camera back and forth during playback, the camera's built-in gyro sensor displays the image in a 3D-like view on the camera's LCD. Finally, there's the 3D still image mode that quickly takes two shots, analyzes subject distance between foreground and background, and creates a single 3D photo. The results are OK, but there's definitely room for improvement. For example, the modes can't handle anything moving, so it's really just for landscapes or stationary subjects. Also, it's pretty easy to see the image slices that are stitched together. Still, if you were already planning to buy an ultracompact camera and have already started collecting 3D equipment, this is one more reason to pick up the HX9V.

As for shooting performance, the HX9V is on par with other CMOS-based compact megazooms. From off to first shot is 1.6 seconds with a shot-to-shot time of 1.4 seconds. Turning on the flash, though, slows the camera down to 4.1 seconds between shots. Its shutter lag--how quickly a camera captures an image after the shutter-release button is pressed--is good at 0.4 second in bright lighting and 0.8 second in dim conditions with less subject contrast. The camera's burst shooting mode is capable of up to 10fps, but in our more demanding test it averaged 7.6fps, which is still very good. However, this burst shooting sets focus and exposure with the first shot, and once you've fired, you're stuck waiting for the camera to save the photos, generally a second or two per photo.

With all its capabilities, Sony managed to keep the overall design and usability pretty simple. The body is bulky, but all things considered it's still remarkably compact and I was able to keep it in my back pants pocket when I was out shooting with it. The screen is large and bright, making it easy to see in bright conditions (you'll still struggle in direct sun). There's a nice rubberized grip on front and a similarly textured thumb rest on back. You'll also find a programmable Custom button on top that can be used for fast access to exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering, and Smile Shutter, Sony's smile-activated shutter release.

Menus are easy enough to navigate, and if you're not sure what something does, there's a full manual stored on the camera. Though most people familiar with digital cameras will have no problems using the HX9V out of the box, some of the shooting modes have a lot of settings. It might take some time to get acquainted with all this camera can do.

There are two design choices that bothered me a little. The flash is on top on the far left and slides up from the body when needed. If you're not careful with your grip, your finger will prevent it from rising. It seems to be motor-driven, so mostly I was concerned with damaging the raising mechanism. There is at least room behind the flash once it's up for you to hold the camera. The other thing is the placement of the movie record button. The button is small and set in above the thumb rest, making it slightly difficult to press. Moreover, since it takes a couple of seconds for the camera to start recording, there were times when I pressed it and wasn't sure it was recording, only to have it start and stop because I had pressed it a second time. So part user error and part design problem there.

There are a couple of other design things to be aware of. For some 2011 Cyber-shots, including the HX9V, Sony switched to charging the camera battery in the camera via USB. You can charge it by connecting to a computer or the included wall adapter. However, it's a proprietary port on the camera, so if you lose the cable, you'll have to buy one from Sony. Also, the battery life is a CIPA-rated 300 shots. If you're shooting a lot of video, have the display brightness cranked up, or are using a lot of the multishot modes or burst shooting, this will cut into your battery life. If you buy a backup battery you'll probably want to buy an external charger as well, or just plan ahead.

Lastly, with all of this camera's capabilities it's easy to forget that it has a built-in GPS receiver and compass. In fact, Sony even neglects to mention it on the HX9V's product page on its site. Turning on the receiver requires digging into the main menu system (since it cuts into your battery life, it really should be easier to turn on and off), but once it's on it'll start searching for satellites. That can take up to several minutes depending on how much open sky is above you. The tagging abilities aren't as full-featured as those in Panasonic's Lumix DMC-ZS10. The camera seamlessly adds the information to a photo's EXIF data, so you can use software like Picasa or Google Earth to see where you were when you took your photos.

The more I used the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V, the more fun I had. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I kept finding new modes and settings to play with. It's not quite the ultimate compact megazoom, but it's pretty close--closer than any others I've tested for 2011. And if you want something to do double duty for movie clips and photos with a versatile zoom lens in a pocketable body, you want this camera.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V
Canon PowerShot SX230 HS

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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