Either you'll love the idea of a touch-screen LCD or you'll find the necessity of constantly visiting the menu system totally frustrating, if not absurd; it's enough to make anyone's relationship with the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-N1 a love/hate proposition. Snapshooters frustrated with the assortment of buttons and dials on other digital cameras may find the N1's touch screen easier to use; those accustomed to changing settings via dedicated buttons or a four-way controller may reject the whole idea.
At its heart, the DSC-N1 remains a basic 8-megapixel, 3X-zoom ultracompact camera for everyday photography. It has an assortment of shooting options that will meet the needs of snapshooters, and it boasts a 3-inch LCD for displaying the 500 or so photos you can store in onboard albums.
Slightly larger than most of its Cyber Shot siblings, the DSC-N1 is small enough to fit into most pockets. Measuring less than 2.5 cm thick (96.7 by 22.7 by 61.1 mm), the brushed-silver camera weighs 151 grams with battery and Memory Stick Duo.
The front of the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-N1 doesn't look much different from that of a standard digital camera, but flip it over and you're faced with a huge, high-resolution 3-inch LCD surrounded by a slick, black frame -- and not much else. Aside from the power button and the shutter release on top of the camera, the DSC-N1 has few external controls. To the right of the LCD, you'll find a small, square zoom lever and three icons representing video, capture, and playback modes, which you select with an adjacent sliding switch. Toward the bottom sit two small, black buttons with illuminated icons: one accesses the menu, and the other scrolls through display options. Although the external controls are minimal, the lack of illumination behind the transparent mode icons makes it a little difficult to initially identify them.
In a bold move, Sony has placed all the controls in the menu system, where they're accessible only via the touch screen. The simplicity of using the touch screen may appeal to those who have trouble navigating the typical digital camera's array of external buttons and menus. Using the supplied stylus -- or even your finger -- to press one of the icons or hit the onscreen Menu bar is the easy part. Instead of quickly changing the flash mode or switching to macro via a four-way controller or a dedicated button, you have to press a button, then scroll through the menu. The pictograms for each category may confuse users unfamiliar with the standard digital-camera icons, forcing them to resort to trial and error (or the manual). Submenu options are more clearly identified with text -- Flash/Flash Off, for example -- but you still must wade through lists of items to get to the appropriate one. And while some functions are grouped together logically, others are not. For example, resolution (file size) is on the opening menu screen, but you have to drill down a level or two to change the quality (compression) setting. The system's only saving grace is that it remembers where in the menu tree your last setting was.
In addition, if you misplace the stylus or find it more convenient to use your fingers, the LCD will get smudged. The smudging wasn't as bad as we imagined, but you will need to clean the LCD frequently.
Although the stylus comes bundled with the camera, you'll need to budget for a Memory Stick Duo (the camera comes with only 26MB of internal memory); pick up the more expensive Duo Pro if you want to record movies in high resolution. The camera doesn't accept accessory lenses, but you can pick up a slave flash or a Cyber Shot Station for charging the camera, transferring photos, and viewing them on TV. There's even a wireless remote for TV viewing and PictBridge printing.
With few exceptions, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-N1 offers nothing extraordinary in the way of features but delivers enough options to provide moderate control over photo quality. It has a manual-exposure mode with a limited selection of f-stops but no aperture- or shutter-priority modes.