Sony pushes its Cyber-shot W-series forward by inches, not miles, with the DSC-W90. This 8-megapixel point-and-shoot camera offers a higher resolution than its predecessor, the Cyber-shot DSC-W80, but otherwise doesn't change much of anything.
From the outside, the W90 looks almost indistinguishable from its 7-megapixel little brother. Its slim metal body measures less than 0.9 inch thick and weighs only 5.3 ounces with battery and Memory Stick Duo. Unfortunately, just like the W80, its small, flat buttons can feel uncomfortable to large-thumbed users.
Along with the same design, the W90 shares a nearly identical feature set with the W80. The 8-megapixel camera uses a 35mm-105mm equivalent, f/2.8-5.2 lens, giving it a standard 3x zoom range. Its 2.5-inch LCD screen isn't huge by today's standards, but it offers a decent view and leaves enough room on the camera for an optical viewfinder. Despite being part of Sony's budget line, the W90 incorporates a 9-point autofocus system and a face detection mode, both useful when your subject is not in the center of the frame. The W90 also includes 31 megabytes of internal memory, enough to hold a few dozen photos or about a minute and a half of fair-quality VGA footage. Invest in a Memory Stick Duo to get any shooting longevity out of this camera.
As with the W80, a generous suite of onboard retouching options help offset the W90's cookie-cutter feature set. Once you've taken a picture, you can crop it, rotate it (in 90-degree increments), or remove red eyes from portraits taken with the camera's flash. It even offers a handful of picture effects, like soft focus, fisheye, and cross filter. Most of these retouches feel more like gimmicks than actual useful features, but they can still be fun to play with.
In our lab tests, the W90 fared similar to the W80, with a quicker shutter but otherwise slightly slower performance. After a 1.7-second wait from power-on to first shot, the W90 could capture a new picture every 1.3 seconds with the onboard flash disabled. With the flash turned on, that wait more than doubled to 3 seconds. That's slower than we like to see, even for a budget point-and-shoot. The shutter lagged a scant 0.4 second with our high-contrast target, and a respectable 1.1 seconds with our low-contrast target. In burst mode, the camera captured 15 full-resolution shots in 7.4 seconds for an average rate of 2 frames per second.
The W90's photos generally look pretty good, save for a few quirks. On the review unit we acquired, the left third of the camera's photos appear distinctly softer and out-of-focus compared with the rest of the frame. It looks a lot like what happens when a lens is out of alignment, which isn't all that uncommon for budget cameras. It's likely you won't see an identical problem, though you may see something similar or your unit may have no such problem. Outside of the softened area, details appear clear and crisp at the camera's lowest ISO settings. Extremely subtle noise creeps in at ISO 200, but definitely won't show up in prints. At ISO 400, noise becomes more prominent, may show up in prints, and ever so slightly eats up some finer detail, such as hair or the texture of objects. At ISO 800, grain causes more damage to finer textures, but enough detail remains for respectable 4x6 prints. ISO 1,600 pictures get far too noisy for prints, though enough detail remains for e-mailing them or posting them to the Web. Photos taken at the camera's maximum sensitivity of ISO 3,200 are nearly unusable, becoming so covered in noise that they look like they were drawn on shag carpeting with spray paint.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W90 adds a slight resolution bump to an already good snapshot camera. If you're looking for a simple, modestly priced pocket camera that shoots quickly and produces good pictures, the W90 makes a nice choice. If you already have a Cyber-shot DSC-W80, you don't need to give the W90 much consideration; the minor increase in picture size doesn't justify getting an entirely new camera.