Sony had a hit on its hands when it released the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100. Attractive design, fast performance, and beautiful pictures made the T100 one of our top picks for compact cameras. It's hardly surprising that Sony would try to achieve that sort of success again, and it nearly does so with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200. It takes the quick shooting and most of the great design of the T100, and adds a handful of new features that range from the useful (the Smile Shutter) to the only somewhat irritating (the touch-screen interface).
When I first heard that the T200 would use a touch screen rather than the T100's conventional button controls, I'll admit I was concerned. Sony's previous attempts to put touch screens in cameras, namely the DSC-T50, the DSC-N1, and the DSC-N2, met with less than ideal results. In those cases, the screen was more of a hindrance than a useful feature. Thankfully, Sony has managed to learn from its mistakes when developing the T200.
It's still not perfect, but the T200's 3.5-inch touch-screen interface is miles better than the T50's and N2's controls. It still focuses too much on the screen itself, but the large icons and fairly direct menu system make it much more convenient than its predecessors. You can access most controls through the main screen, where large icons make easy targets, even for large fingertips. Like most new Cyber-shot cameras, the T200's system settings rest hidden in the device's PlayStation Portable-like Home menu, a slightly redundant submenu you probably won't access much except when turning off the camera's annoying beeps. Every other setting, from scene preset to ISO sensitivity, can be found with just a few taps of the screen.
The T200's 3.5-inch screen distinguishes itself as the largest we've seen so far on a T-series camera. Unfortunately, the screen completely dominates the camera's back panel and leaves little room for buttons on the device. Only the shutter release, power, playback, and zoom get their own physical buttons, relegating every other function to the touch screen. The shutter release feels comfortable enough, but the power and playback buttons sit flush with the camera's top edge, and are too narrow to push easily. Worse than that, the zoom rocker is no more than a tiny nub on the top-right corner of the camera. No larger than a grain of rice, the tiny toggle makes zooming in and out far more of a chore than it should be.
Technically, the T200 changes little from the T100 that came before it. It shares its predecessor's 8-megapixel CCD, 5x optical 35mm-to-175mm equivalent f/3.5-to-f/4.4 zoom lens, and Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization. Despite the larger LCD screen, the T200 even weighs about the same as its predecessor at just 6.5 ounces with battery and Memory Stick, compared with the T100's 6.1 ounces. If it wasn't for a small handful of quirky features, this camera would literally be a T100 with a touch screen.
Beside the usual center and 9-point autofocus modes, the T200 includes a touch-based spot autofocus. Tap the touch screen to set a spot on which the camera will then focus. The focus area has a border of about a centimeter from the top and bottom and half a centimeter from the sides of the picture, so you can't focus on edges or corners. The feature would be more useful if the camera had manual aperture control so you could set the depth of field, but it's still a nice touch, and lets you take some measure of control over the camera's focus without toggling between its four manual focus settings of 1 meter, 3 meters, 5 meters, and infinity.
Smile Shutter mode puts a unique spin on the camera's face detection feature. While in the mode, instead of pressing the shutter release to take a photo, the camera takes complete control, watching any faces in the frame and automatically taking shots when those faces smile. For the first iteration of a feature, Smile Shutter works surprisingly well. It usually takes less than a second to detect a smile and take a photo, though exaggerated grins tend to produce quicker response times. It sometimes trips up when the subject has a beard or his face is at an angle, but in general it functions admirably. Of course, now that cameras are taking photos for us, it begs the question of how long humanity will be part of photography. If Sony's next camera includes a "Find Sarah Connor" feature, we could be in trouble.