Cramming 5 megapixels, a comprehensive feature set, and a 4X zoom lens into a compact profile, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-V1 is one of the smallest prosumer digital cameras we've seen. We have a lot of quibbles, but the V1's generally good performance and pleasing picture quality make this mighty mite a top contender for enthusiasts. Although the V1 has the fairly standard silver, boxy design, we nevertheless like its look and feel. The aluminum-alloy body is slightly too large for comfortable shirt-pocket schlepping, and its weight is only average for its class, 10.3 ounces with a battery and media installed. However, this Sony is unquestionably the most portable of the prosumer competitors, such as the Canon PowerShot G5, the Olympus C-5050 Zoom, and the Nikon Coolpix 5400.
The sides of the bowl-like navigation pad are slightly too steep, making it a bit difficult to maneuver among the buttons.
The camera feels well made. Its controls are crisp and precise, but several frustrating exceptions mar their otherwise logical arrangement. The menu-navigation pad, which is also for selecting the macro, self-timer, quick-review, and flash options, is on the back of the camera in a recess too deep for your right thumb to handle easily. The Menu and Resolution keys are tiny, and the buttons for exposure compensation, manual focus, and exposure lock don't protrude far enough from the body. As a result, we often fumbled while changing settings. Furthermore, your right hand's fingers naturally block the lens when it's zoomed out to a wide angle, and your left index finger falls right on top of the pop-up flash, suppressing it.
The menus' layout and operation are in the familiar Sony style, with pop-up lists that spring from the LCD's bottom edge. We have no complaints about this basic system, but Sony gets demerits for not taking into account this camera's prosumer class. Too many functions are buried in the menus; for instance, metering, continuous shooting, white balance, and red-eye reduction should all be accessible via buttons. An extensive feature set puts the V1 firmly in the prosumer class, though the camera is missing a few niceties, including a diopter adjustment for photographers who wear glasses and a customizable power-down interval. Exposure options abound: all four essential modes; six scene modes; automatic bracketing; and multisegment, center-weighted, and spot light metering. Exposure compensation is adjustable to plus or minus 2EV; Sony's usual low, medium, and high flash exposure compensation is available; and while you're in Program mode, you can use Program Shift to select different combinations of aperture and shutter speed. In-camera sharpening, contrast, and color saturation are also tweakable.
The NightFraming and NightShot modes make the V1 especially flexible for low-light photography.
The V1 offers Sony's trademark NightFraming and NightShot modes, both of which use infrared to show dark scenes on the LCD. NightFraming shoots in color, while NightShot captures the infrared picture.
The V1 can save JPEG and TIFF stills, providing five different resolutions and two JPEG-compression levels. Unfortunately, this Sony doesn't support the RAW format, which offers smaller file sizes than TIFF and the best potential image quality for shooters too impatient for slow TIFF recording. The V1 can capture 640x480-pixel MPEG-1 movie footage with sound, as much as your Memory Stick can hold. The Clip Motion function creates animated GIFs; the Multi Burst mode takes 16 low-res photos in as little as half a second and stores them in a single file resembling a contact sheet.
The V1's 4X zoom lens bears the prestigious Carl Zeiss name and covers a sensible range: 34mm to 136mm, in 35mm-film terms. The f/2.8-to-f/4.0 variable maximum aperture is acceptable but not especially impressive for this class of camera. A threaded flange surrounding the lens accepts a special adapter for mounting supplemental lenses, filters, and other accessories with a 52mm thread. The hotshoe for external flashes supports through-the-lens exposure control when you use Sony's optional HVL-F32X flash. Overall, the V1 performed well. Start-up took a respectable 3 seconds. Shutter delay, including autofocus time, averaged a quick 0.6 second but extended to about 3 seconds when we used the Hologram AF in dim light. Shot-to-shot time for JPEG images began at an acceptable 1 second or so but lengthened to approximately 2.5 seconds after 10 shots (when the buffer choked) and 6 seconds (counting the recharging pause) with the flash. The lag was worse on the TIFF side, an almost unusable 45 seconds. Another inexplicable competitive disadvantage for the V1 is its 1-second continuous-shooting mode, Burst 3, which takes three photos--no more, no less.
The V1's battery returned good results. During our formal testing, it lasted for more than 515 shots with heavy LCD and moderate flash use.
The V1's swift shooting comes courtesy of its top-notch multipoint autofocus system, which uses five separate AF areas to determine proper focus quickly and decisively in good light and bad. In near or total darkness, Sony's impressive Hologram AF kicks in, and the camera easily focuses on objects as far away as 15 feet. You can also focus manually, if somewhat imprecisely, using the jog dial. The lens zooms quietly, and you have adequate control over its exact position.
The V1's 1.5-inch LCD, which shows 98 percent of the actual image area, didn't wow us but is acceptably sharp and usable in bright outdoor light. The relatively unimpressive optical viewfinder is a bit dim and soft, lacks parallax correction marks, and displays only about 84 percent of the scene.
Like some competitors, the V1 suffers from occasionally severe purple fringing.
The V1's images compete well with others in the 5-megapixel class. Our test shots came out quite sharp and detailed, with comparatively smooth diagonal lines and edge transitions. Colors were vivid, skin tones were pleasing, and most of our pictures had proper exposures. The barrel distortion at the lens's wide zoom position and the pincushion distortion at its telephoto end were very modest.
We wish the V1 offered ISO settings lower than 100; some competitors achieve very clean images at such sensitivities. At ISO 100, the V1 suffers from noise, but not as much as most 5-megapixel models. And compared with all other consumer digicams, the V1 produces fairly clear ISO 400 photos. But noise is quite severe at the camera's top ISO of 800. Unfortunately, Sony's postprocessing algorithms tend to make pictures look noisier than they really are by increasing the contrast in odd places.