Sony's latest jack-of-all-trades is a master of more than one. While its easy operation and versatile automated and manual exposure controls will please both beginners and more advanced photographers, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F88 boasts very good macro capabilities and a robust burst mode perfect for action photography. Only a few spotty performance figures such as atrocious shutter lag under low-contrast lighting and a middle-of-the-road feature set limit this well-rounded 5-megapixel shooter. Just about every surface of the compact, 3.9-by-3-by-1-inch, 7.1-ounce, metal-bodied Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F88 is occupied by controls, but they're easily mastered. For example, the power switch in the center of the Mode dial is optional; you can turn the camera on by swiveling the lens/flash module up into the standard picture-taking position. The lens and flash can also be tilted through a full 300 degrees for waist-level, over-the-head, or self-portrait shots (with automatic vertical-image flipping when the lens is reversed).
You'll probably want to fire this camera in two-handed mode, because a steadying left hand makes it easier to position your trigger finger on the top shutter release while your thumb rests on the zoom rocker. While the Mode dial resides on the right side of the F88, it's not necessary to turn the camera to view the settings; a virtual dial appears on the LCD screen that shows whether you've chosen Automatic, Programmed Exposure, Scene Selection, Picture Review, Movie mode, Setup, or the ultraclose Magnifying Glass option.
Unlike many recent Sony models that boast a 2.5-inch LCD, the F88's panel is a 1.8-inch TFT display flanked by a Display mode button, a Menu key, and a four-way cursor pad with embedded OK/Enter button, as well as double-duty directional keys that adjust flash options, set macro or self-timer modes, and review the last picture shot. The final control is a Trash/Quality key that deletes the currently displayed picture and toggles the quality level between Fine and Standard.
To make sure that no square inch of space goes unused, Sony tucks the DC power jack on the left side of the camera; a niche for the battery and Memory Stick media on the right side; and the tripod socket, the USB/camera-cradle port, and a speaker on the bottom. In manual or programmed shooting modes, the Menu button accesses contrast, sharpness, saturation, ISO sensitivity, white balance, and other adjustments. Twirl the top dial to Setup mode, and the Menu button invokes four nested screens of camera controls, including autofocus options, Memory Stick Pro formatting, and a selection of infrequently changed adjustments. Competing cameras may have features this model lacks, such as panorama capabilities or an extra half dozen scene modes, but the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F88's middle-of-the-road feature set is punctuated by several stand-out capabilities, including close-up photography.
If your passion is photographing nature up close and personal, or if you're a double-naught spy intent on duplicating document images on the sly, the macro capabilities of the F88's 38mm-to-113mm (35mm-camera equivalent) 3X optical zoom lens won't disappoint you. The five-area, multipoint autofocus and center-focus systems can be set to single or continuous AF to lock in focus as close as 20 inches in normal mode and from 3 inches to infinity at the macro setting. But wait--there's more! The Sony also has a Magnifying scene mode capable of focusing as close as 0.4 inch out to 8 inches, so you can grab macro images of individual stamps in your collection. There's no manual setting available for fine-tuning focus, but the lens can be locked at manual distance settings in five discrete steps of 0.5m, 1.0m, 3.0m, 7.0m, and infinity. You'll find that capability useful to prevent the autofocus mechanism from being fooled by glass panels or nearby objects that aren't the center of interest in your photographs.
Sports photography is another forte for this Sony. While there's a High Speed Shutter scene mode, enthusiasts will prefer to activate the manual mode, which allows setting both shutter speed (as fast as 1/1,000 second) and aperture (f/3.5, f/5.6, or f/8) directly. We would have preferred a shutter-priority mode for sports, but Sony's solution makes it easy to apply the burst feature. The camera also has a Multi-Burst mode that embeds 16 sequential shots in a single 1,280x960-pixel image with the frame interval between pictures being user-selectable at 1/8 second, 1/15 second, or 1/30 second.
Although Sony is stingy with scene modes, the available Night, Soft-Focus Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Snow, Beach, Fireworks, and Candle modes, in addition to Sports and Magnifier, should handle most common situations. If not, you can adjust exposure-compensation settings, use spot metering, view a histogram to fine-tune exposure in manual mode, or let the F88 select exposure for you at full automatic or programmed autoexposure settings. Special effects include the unimaginative but useful sepia and black-and-white options.
If you like to mix movies with your stills, the DSC-F88 can capture decent-quality video clips with tinny but acceptable audio at 640x480 resolution and 16fps. We grabbed 22 minutes of sound/motion on a 512MB Memory Stick. Also very cool is the camera's ability to edit your clips down in-camera, so you can perform some preliminary cutting on your minidocumentary and stretch your flash memory further between refills. Its battery life, its robust burst-mode capabilities, and its minimal shutter lag under high-contrast lighting highlight the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F88's generally better-than-average performance figures. In our performance tests, shutter-lag figures were a mixed bag, clocking in at 0.6 second under favorable, high-contrast lighting but amounting to an abysmal 1.8 seconds in low-contrast situations, despite a red-hued autoassist light that's bright enough to read by. Shot-to-shot times were average, coming in at 3.5 seconds without flash and 4.5 seconds in red-eye-reducing flash mode. Wake-up time was speedy, however, at 3 seconds from swivel to shot. We captured 852 shots on a single charge of the lithium-ion rechargeable battery, with half those exposures taken with flash and lots of zooming and picture review mixed in to eat up juice at a typical rate.
In burst mode, the camera cranked out 9 shots in about 7.6 seconds at full resolution. If you're analyzing motion rather than shooting sports snaps, the camera can capture 100 shots in a row in two minutes at 640x480 resolution.
The speaker's bottom-of-the-camera location means sound is muffled if the camera is resting on a flat surface during playback, but the quality wasn't all that good even when the speaker was unobstructed.
Sony claims that the built-in flash is good only out to about nine feet (with ISO speed set to Auto), and we found that to be the case at both wide-angle and telephoto settings.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Shutter lag (typical)||Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Typical continuous-shooting speed|
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As with most digital cameras in this class, it was difficult to retain detail in the highlights, but the images were fairly sharp and clear. A bit of noise was visible even at ISO 100 under average conditions, but when we switched to long exposures, Sony's noise-reduction feature kicked in to produce very good results, even at ISO 400. At the highest sensitivity setting, noise was definitely there but a bit less prominent than we've seen in many competing 5-megapixel models.