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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

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5 min read

OVR
7.3

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

The Good

Fast; tiltable LCD; Hand-held Twilight mode produces better-than-average photos in low light; zooms during movie capture.

The Bad

Small EVF; no raw support; HDMI output requires dongle; no standard continuous-shooting mode.

The Bottom Line

Trade-offs abound in Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 megazoom. Though it's fast and has some really novel, useful features, it just doesn't deliver the photo quality expected for its class.

Camera manufacturers seem to have chosen megazooms as their latest battlefield--and thankfully, the fight isn't just about who's got the biggest lens. In this case, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 incorporates several technologies from the Alpha DSLR products, including a 1/2.4-inch 10-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor (for 9-megapixel images) and 20X f2.8-5.2 28-560mm-equivalent optically stabilized lens based on the company's higher-quality G series optics. In theory, the combination should deliver better photo quality than we're used to seeing in this class. In practice, it doesn't. Fast performance, solid video, and some truly interesting features make it worth considering, but the specter of middling photo quality will haunt your decision like the ghost of vacation pictures past.

The design ranges along a continuum from smoothly functional to awkward. It's relatively compact for a megazoom, just over a pound with dimensions of 4.6 inches wide by 3.4 inches high by 3.6 inches deep, with a big grip that makes it comfortable to hold. The body is somewhat cluttered with buttons. On the top left you've got a button that toggles between the too-small electronic viewfinder and the tiltable but low-resolution 3-inch LCD. Behind the pop-up flash sits the stereo microphone. Next to that is the power button, with a review button and custom button that you can use as one of only three shortcuts: white balance, metering or Smile Shutter. At the front top of the grip is the shutter with a zoom switch. The zoom feels pretty typical for this class; it operates smoothly, but because it's stepped you never quite stop where you expect. In the middle lie the focus selection and drive mode buttons.

You adjust aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity via a jog dial that falls under your right thumb. I like this type of operation, and it's a blessing because the standard four-way navigation switch plus enter button is irritating to use. It's too flat, with no travel, so you always feel like you have to press harder but can't. In addition to traversing the menus, this switch toggles macro mode, flash options, self-timer, and display options. Within the top-level menus you can set image size, white balance, metering, bracket size (in third, two-third or full-stop increments) and type (exposure, white balance or color), face detection, flash intensity and red-eye reduction, Dynamic Range Optimization amount, noise reduction amount, color effects, contrast, sharpness and Steady Shot image stabilization mode.

Finally, the mode dial offers all the typical shooting modes--manual and semimanual (PASM), intelligent auto, Easy, Anti Motion Blur (raises ISO sensitivity and shutter speed), programmed scene, and movie--plus two novelties: Sweep Panorama and Hand-held Twilight. In Sweep Panorama mode, you pan the camera horizontally or vertically while it continuously snaps enough shots to build a 4,912x1,080 (standard) or 7,152x1,080 (wide) panorama, which it automatically stitches together when you lift your finger from the shutter. It's fun and amazing to play with, and the results look decent--if you don't look too closely. The 1,080-pixel limitation makes the images too low resolution to resolve any real detail, the exposure gets fixed at the beginning, which can result in blown-out highlights with bad fringing, and anything in motion produces a variety of odd effects. There's no manual but a high-resolution alternative if you'd like the shoot a better-quality panorama.

However, the Hand-held Twilight mode, for low light but flash-free shooting, fares a lot better. Here, the camera bursts several shots at a high ISO sensitivity, then combines them to produce a brighter, sharper photo with lower-than-normal noise. I was initially skeptical, but it works surprisingly well and is a compelling feature for photographic night owls.

The HX1 unequivocally leads its class for performance. It powers on and shoots in a surprisingly zippy 2 seconds, and typically focuses and shoots in 0.4 second. It's a hair slower than the SX1 at focusing and shooting in low-contrast conditions, but delivers in a still respectable 0.7 second. At 1.4 seconds for two sequential shots--1.7 seconds with flash--it's pretty fast.

And, of course, there's the 10-shot ultra high-speed burst mode, which we clocked at 10.6 frames per second. (You can also choose to scale that back to 5fps and 2fps, or drop the resolution and get faster shooting.) Keep in mind, however, that after that speedy 10-shot burst you have to wait another 16 seconds for the camera to write the photos to the card. That's with the fastest card you can currently buy, a SanDisk Extreme III MemoryStick Pro-HG Duo 30MB/sec version. Combined with the lack of a regular slow-but-steady burst that can shoot a larger number of frames, the HX1 becomes far less useful for continuous shooting than it really should be. Too bad, because the AF is quite fast and seems to keep up with the burst. And given the demands placed on the camera--large LCD, high-speed burst, HD video--the battery seems to last a relatively long time.

Alas, the photo quality is the weakest aspect of the HX1. Megazooms typically don't have the best quality, especially given their prices, and the HX1 fares a bit worse than many of its competitors in this respect, mostly from what looks like poor image processing rather than any real issue with the lens or sensor. It's capable of producing relatively sharp photos, and the lens displays little distortion or penchant for inducing fringing artifacts. The colors look good--appropriately saturated and relatively accurate--and it delivers correct, even exposures. But most nonmacro shots are a bit soft and have that smeary look associated with aggressive noise suppression at the default noise-reduction setting and even at low ISO sensitivities. As a result, shots that look nice on the camera display disappoint when viewed or printed at full size.

If you're more interested in video, the camera's 1080p movie capture looks a bit better. Though it does only 1,440x1,080, rather than 1,920x1080, at 30 frames per second, and the video suffers from the same general softness as the stills, the movies it produces (H.264 compressed MPEG-4 files) have solid exposure and focus. Like most models, the camera could really use a wind filter. But the most annoying thing about its video support is the bundled dongle--one of those add-on connectors that you're bound to lose within weeks of unpacking the camera--you need to use to make an HDMI connection to an HDTV.

At its price, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 competes directly with the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS, which isn't as fast and lacks the HD video and low-light shooting features of the HX1, but shoots better daylight photos, and the Casio Exilim EX-FH20, which matches it in the novelty features department but also has photo quality issues. While it's always a good rule to figure out what you're most likely to be shooting before choosing a digital camera, it's never been more important than with the HX1.

Shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS
1.4 
1.7 
0.6 
0.4 
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1
2 
1.4 
0.7 
0.4 
Casio Exilim EX-FH20
3.3 
1.8 
0.8 
0.5 
Canon PowerShot SX10 IS
1.5 
2.1 
0.8 
0.6 
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H50
2.3 
1.8 
1.3 
0.7 
Olympus SP-570 UZ
3.3 
2.5 
1.8 
0.8 

Typical continuous-shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

OVR
7.3

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 9Image quality 6
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