Sony Cyber-shot TX66: Performance

by Howard Creech Reads (887)
Editor's Rating
8.40

TG Ratings Breakdown

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 9
    • Features
    • 8
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 8
    • Performance
    • 9
    • Expandability
    • 8
    • Total Score:
    • 8.40
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

Performance

The Sony Cybershot TX66 is an attractive and fashionable little digicam, but much more important than form is function and the TX66’s unique all-closed-up industro-chic design is the perfect design for an ultra-compact P&S digicam. What I liked most about this snazzy little digicam is that it’s built for action. Close the sliding lens cover and the TX66 becomes a small very flat package that was designed to be slipped into the back pocket of a pair of Levi’s and taken absolutely anywhere and everywhere. Everyone likes to have a camera with them, just in case something neat happens, but the problem is that most cameras are a pain to carry around; they’re either weighting you down (DSLRs), in danger of being dropped or easily misplaced (ultra-compacts), or (worse) too small to be as flexible as DSLRs, but still too large to slip into a pocket (standard P&S digicams). The folks at Sony had a flash of pure genius when designing the TX series and the TX66 handily capitalizes on that packaging genius. This is the best “pocketable” camera design I have ever seen and I’ve been involved with photography for more than forty years.

Once you open the sliding lens cover and power the nifty looking little TX66 into Smart Auto mode things aren’t quite as cool. Here’s a note to Sony’s engineers and designers – shutter buttons (and the video stop/start button is a shutter button) should be dedicated controls – never ever virtual controls. The “decisive moment” is what photography is all about. Overall performance is pretty good and in the final analysis the TX66 is an adequate general purpose point-and-shoot digicam capable of dependably producing excellent still images.

Shooting Performance
There are many things to consider when buying a new digital camera, however the three most important criteria when appraising digital camera performance are timing/speed, image quality, and ergonomics. The first three or four generations of digital cameras were very slow – some with shutter lag of a full second (or longer) from the time the user pushed the shutter button until the shutter actually opened. Those days are gone and essentially all of today’s digital cameras are fast enough to capture the decisive moment, even the cheapest digicams are capable of getting the shot in all but the most extreme (professional sports, motorcycle racing, auto-sports) shooting scenarios. Image quality should, of course, always be the primary decision making criteria. I’ve been a photographer for over forty years and usability and ergonomics are almost as important to me as image quality – because a well designed camera makes the photographer’s job much easier. The camera should NEVER impede the photographer – and in my opinion the Sony TX66’s virtual video stop/start button does impede the photographer. Overall, the TX66 does a pretty good job – it’s relatively fast, provides an acceptable level of usability and produces consistently very good to excellent images.

The TX66 features Sony’s Steady Shot optical image stabilization system which works by automatically and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for camera movement during exposure. Image Stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 EV slower than would have been possible without IS and still get sharply focused (mostly) blur free images. The TX66’s optical image stabilization system is always on and cannot be turned off.

Like its predecessor, the TX66 draws its juice from a proprietary Sony LITHIUM ION NP-BN 3.6V (630mAh) rechargeable battery. I couldn’t find any CIPA data or battery life information, but I used the TX66 pretty heavily for a bit more than two weeks and only had to charge the battery three times. Battery life about average or maybe a bit below average for cameras in this class.

The TX66’s tiny built-in multi-mode flash almost seems like an afterthought – it provides only a minimal selection of external lighting options including Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Slow Synch, and Flash Off. Maximum flash range (according to Sony) is just shy of 17 feet, which seems insanely optimistic to me since the flash is so minscule.

The Sony TX66 (like its predecessor) saves images to MicroSD and Sony Memory Stick Micro formats. Earlier TX series digicams saved images to full sized SD and Sony MS PRO Duo memory media. The only logical reasons for changing memory media formats are to take advantage of new technology/increase storage capacity or (like the industry wide shift from Compact Flash to SD memory media for P&S digicams a few years back) to facilitate the ability to manufacture smaller cameras. Neither case is in evidence here.

Lens Performance
The TX66’s true wide-angle to short telephoto (equivalent) zoom doesn’t extend (protrude) from the body when the camera is powered up because the lens is housed inside the camera body, periscope style. The TX66’s 5x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar f3.5-f4.8/4.7mm-23.5mm (26mm-130mm equivalent) zoom is very good indeed, in fact it is the best periscope style objective that I’ve ever used. Periscope style zooms (wich utilize mirrors or prisms to reflect the image from the lens opening to the image sensor) are notorious for soft corners, but the TX66’s corners are no softer than its competition. Carl Zeiss’ Tessar lens formula (an improvement on the even older triplet design) made it’s debut more than 100 years ago. I’m sure that Herr Zeiss would be absolutely amazed to see how Sony’s optical engineers have adapted this venerable lens design to fit completely (with IS) inside the TX66’s tiny super flat body.

The TX66’s f/3.5 maximum aperture is a bit slow for shooting indoors, but should be more than adequate for shooting outdoors – at least in decent light. The TX66’s pint-sized form factor and real hard wired shutter button make this camera almost ideal for candid/street shooters. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn’t notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel distortion (straight lines bowing out from the center) and pincushion distortion (straight lines bowing in toward the center) seem well corrected. Contrast is balanced and colors are hue accurate. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Zooming is smooth, silent, and fairly quick – although the jog stick zoom control requires a little getting used to.

Video Quality
The TX66 captures HD video at 1920x1080p @60 fps – few dedicated camcorders offer better video capabilities – and you certainly can’t slip any of those larger units in the back pocket of your Levi’s. For those who can accept the wrong on so many levels virtual stop/start button, the TX66 constitutes one of the smallest HD video capture units currently available The sample video was shot at Louisville’s Fourth Street Wharf and shows the “Spirit of Jefferson” pulling away from the still docked “Belle of Louisville” – heading up river. Aside from a slightly jittery start (due to the awkward placement of TX66’s virtual video start/stop button) the video quality is actually pretty good – especially from a digicam that’s substantially smaller than an Altoids tin.

 

Image Quality
Every digital camera manufacturer manages color interpolation slightly differently and experts can often guess (with decent accuracy) which brand of camera captured a specific (un-manipulated) image. I’ve felt for a long time that Sonys default color interpolation was the most saturated (intense) of any of the other major camera manufacturers, sort of like the Velvia slide film doppelganger of digicams – with very intense highly saturated colors.

The TX66 doesn’t buck that Sony “wet paint” colors tradition. Images from this little camera show accurate, but far from neutral colors. I’ve seen so far from the newest generation of CMOS sensor driven digicams. Casual shooters seem to like punched up colors and Sony delivers. Overall, image quality is reliably very good to excellent and exposures are generally accurate. Many digicam exposure systems don’t handle pictures with lots of sky in an image well – with the sky fading often from blue to white. Sony’s product development folks seem to have conquered this problem and the little TX66 does a great job rendering dependably blue skies in landscape shots. Highlights are sometimes burned out in brightly lit outdoor scenes (which is fairly typical of P&S digicams) and fine detail is often missing (also fairly typical) in shadow areas. Indoors the TX66 manages noise fairly well and captures high contrast detail nicely, but dimly lit or shadowed areas are featureless. Squeezing 18 megapixels out of a sensor that’s the same size as the sensors that drove 8 and 10 megapixel digicams a few years back is an exercise fraught with peril. Noise is managed better these days than it was in the past, but there is a lot more of it now – so the cumulative gains in noise management have been pretty much wiped out by the cumulative gains in noise levels.

Here is a look at the Art Filters applied to a still scene – the filters can be applied to still images and video:


HDR Painting

Richtone Monochrome

Miniature

Toy camera

Pop Color

Partial Color

Soft High-key

Watercolor

Illustration

The TX66’s Auto White Balance mode is dependably accurate over a wide range of lighting conditions – outdoors, but it struggled a bit to find enough contrast to lock focus accurately indoors. In addition to the auto WB setting there are user selected Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent1, Fluorescent2, Fluorescent3, Incandescent, Flash, and “one push” (manual) options available.


ISO 100


ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600


ISO 3200


ISO 6400


ISO 12,800

The TX66 provides an impressive range of sensitivity options for such a tiny camera, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to ISO 12800. Low ISO images show accurate (but highly saturated) colors, slightly harder than average native contrast, and very low noise levels. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are appreciably higher and there’s a perceptible loss of minor detail. Indoor image quality is on par with competing digicams, but as sensitivity (automatically) rises to overcome lower levels of ambient lighting, noise levels rise exponentially and color accuracy suffers a bit. Noise levels are quite reasonable up to ISO 400, but they increase exponentially as sensitivity increases.

Additional Sample Images


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