The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-S90 shows that you can expect a lot these days from an inexpensive camera. Equipping this model with the 4-megapixel sensor and 3X optical zoom that are now typical of entry-level models, Sony heats up the competition by adding a large LCD screen, fast response times, superior low-light performance, and above-average image quality. A few weaknesses make the S90 less suited for advanced users. They include limited manual settings and less than optimal close-up capabilities.
The S90 is the top-of-the-line model in Sony's recent makeover of its S series of digital cameras. All three S-series cameras feature a 4.1-megapixel sensor and a 3X lens. The S40 has a 1.5-inch LCD screen, and the S60 sports a 2-inch screen, while the S90 tops them with a 2.5-inch screen. The S60 and S90 also support add-on conversion lenses. The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-S90 has a nice asymmetrical shape that makes it easy to grasp and control. One side is much thicker than the other, providing a more substantial grip than it's possible to include on an ultrathin camera. The camera feels balanced when you're holding it in just your right hand. A metal ridge on the front provides traction for your middle finger, positioning your forefinger over the top-mounted shutter release and mode dial and your thumb over the back-mounted zoom toggle. All the other controls are within easy reach of your thumb as well, just below the zoom. The battery and memory card compartment door on the bottom can be difficult to open--you have to simultaneously push down a small latch button and slide the door forward.
The boxlike outer casing consists mostly of silver-colored plastic with metal accents. At 8.9 ounces with batteries and a Memory Stick installed, it has a solid feel. Even with its low price, this model doesn't appear cheap or shoddily constructed. The lens automatically retracts into the camera and is protected with a built-in cover, so you won't have to worry about losing a removable lens cap.
While the 2.5-inch LCD screen is large and bright, we were mildly disappointed with its moderate 115,200-pixel (480x240) resolution. The context-sensitive menus can be confusing if you're not used to Sony cameras. Some of the modes have distinct setup and shooting menus that are linked via the navigation buttons of the four-way controller pad. When the menus are turned off, the navigation buttons give you direct access to other functions, including flash, self-timer, quick review, and macro settings; and they assume yet another set of functions--aperture and shutter-speed adjustments--when you engage the manual mode. This may appear overly complex at first to neophytes, but the control setup seems logical once you're familiar with the camera. Primarily a snapshot camera, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-S90 has limited manual capabilities. There's no aperture- or shutter-priority mode, and there are only two manual aperture settings: You can choose f/2.8 and f/5.6 when the zoom is set to wide-angle or f/5.2 and f/10 when it's set to telephoto. Similarly, the manual focus isn't continuous. It has fixed settings for 0.5 meter, 1.0 meter, 3.0 meters, 7.0 meters, and infinity. The macro option focuses down to a hair less than inches, which is adequate at best. When macro mode is switched off, the lens focuses down to an unspectacular 19.75 inches.
Sony provides seven preprogrammed shooting modes to handle tricky lighting and exposure situations. They are Portrait, Landscape, Beach, Snow, Candle, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight. These shooting modes allow for some user preferences, such as being able to adjust the white balance with the Twilight mode or select the macro option with the Beach mode. Two burst modes are also available.
The Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 3X optical zoom lens gives you an angle of view comparable to that of a 39mm-to-117mm lens on a 35mm-film camera. That's not quite as wide an angle as we would have preferred. Sony offers three add-on conversion lenses for the DSC-S90: a 0.7X wide angle, a 1.7X telephoto, and a 2.6X supertelephoto.
All photos are saved as JPEG files, and all video captures are saved as MPEG-1 files. We were pleasantly surprised by the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-S90's fast reaction times. The camera's 2.7-second average wake-up-to-first-shot time is very good for an inexpensive point-and-shoot model. The shutter-lag times of 0.22 second in bright light and 0.34 second in dim light were among the fastest we've seen with any camera. And the shot-to-shot times of 1.14 seconds without the flash and 2.21 seconds with the flash were also very fast. The zoom lens takes about 2 seconds to travel from one extreme to the other. Its movement is smooth, except for a slight delay before the lens starts moving.
The regular burst mode fires off 4 best-quality photos in 2.6 seconds, while the multiburst mode records 16 frames in 0.5 second. The frames are viewable as separate images in the camera. Outside the camera, they merge into a single image consisting of 16 photos arranged in four rows.
In keeping with the other reaction times, we found the autofocus to be very quick in bright light and reasonably quick in low light. The built-in AF Assist Light was a big help in low light, both with focus accuracy and with illuminating dark objects on the LCD screen. Flash coverage was about average. The menus let you set the flash to a higher or lower level, though the default setting worked fine for most situations.
The LCD screen is bright and relatively sharp given its resolution. It does tend to wash out in direct sunlight. The large screen makes it easier to evaluate the shot beforehand. The built-in optical viewfinder, on the other hand, is too small and covers only about 85 percent of the frame. Once we clued into the long battery life, we stuck with the LCD screen. We snapped 655 photos before having to recharge the two supplied Sony Stamina 2,100mAh nickel-metal-hydride AA batteries. That's the good news on the batteries. The bad news? The included charger took an excruciatingly slow six hours to fully recharge the batteries. The exterior daylight photos we captured with the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-S90 exhibited realistic colors that weren't overly saturated. Their tonal range was broad and consistent, even in high-contrast situations. We saw some loss of detail in shadows and highlights, though less than we'd expect from an inexpensive camera.
The only real problem we encountered was a persistent softness to the images. Sometimes the focus was off a bit, but even in cases where the focus was accurate, we noticed a subtle lack of sharpness and detail that tarnished our otherwise outstanding photos.
In low-light situations, visual noise was minimal, even when shooting at ISO 320 or ISO 400. In extremely low light, where the color was almost completely drained, we were pleased to find the subject was still clearly defined. The flash performed well, properly illuminating objects that proved to be difficult for other cameras.
Apart from the softness, this camera pulled whatever it could from less than optimal environments. It should produce a high percentage of usable shots, both inside and outside, with or without the flash.
The best video-quality setting--640x480 at 30fps--looked very good when either the camera or the subject wasn't moving. Unfortunately, when motion was added, it consistently lost focus. The focus tended to wander in and out until the camera or the subject stopped moving. The video mode is there if you need it in a pinch, though the image quality doesn't measure up to what we've seen recently with other digital cameras.