I first got my hands on Sony's current flagship ultrazoom, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1, all the way back at PMA 2009. A lot can change in the camera world in nine months, but when you're talking about a point-and-shoot (albeit an expensive one) that can fire off full-res frames at a rate of ten per second, the HX1 hasn't lost much of its allure in nearly a year since its release.
We reported in some depth back in January on the camera's high-speed shooting functions, and just in case you were waiting anxiously, we won't keep you in suspense: yes, this camera is as fast as they say it is. In fact, if sports or wildlife shooting is your focus but you don't have the cash for a high-speed, high-end DSLR, the combination of 20x zoom and 10 fps makes the HX1 the obvious front-runner among this year's ultrazooms. In this case, the better question becomes how the camera performs for the rest of us, shooting in a lot of more "everyday" environments.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is a new ultrazoom, extending the basic platform of Sony's long-lens H-models into the realms of high-speed shooting and 1080p HD video capture. Under the hood, the biggest change for the HX1 compared to older H cameras comes in the form of the new model's 9.0 megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor. Boasting slightly lower resolution than Sony's current H20 ultrazoom (which rings in at 10.1 megapixels), the HX1's CMOS chip promises some distinct advantages - lower noise, (much) faster continuous shooting, and high-def video.
Sony coupled this new imager to a 20x optically stabilized Sony G lens. Covering the equivalent of 28-560mm, the new glass is competitive with the current crop of 18-24x long-zoom cams out there, though it's worth noting that Sony has reverted to its own high-end "G" branding for this optic, rather than designing the glass in conjunction with long-time optics partner Carl Zeiss. With 10 element/13 group construction and built-in checks on optical concerns like chromatic aberration, though, the new lens promises exceptional sharpness across an impressive range - a promise that the HX1 definitely keeps, according to our performance testing below.
The rest of the HX1's feature set is standard fare for a high-end Sony, including advanced face detection, the previously mentioned multi-mode optical image stabilization, and panorama shooting mode, and automatic scene recognition. Supporting the Cyber-shot's advanced video functions, you'll find a stereo mic built in between the camera's flash and electronic viewfinder. The HX1 draws power from one of the more long-lasting lithium-ion packs I've encountered in a while (consistently good for more than 400 shots in our field tests). HD video output is provided via an onboard HDMI connector, which works in conjunction with the HX1's frighteningly enormous multi-connection cable.
Of course, buying a Sony - unless it's a newer Alpha DSLR - still requires coming to terms with the manufacturer's proprietary Memory Stick storage format. We've griped enough over the use about Sony's dogmatism in this area that it's hardly worth rehashing here: after all, how and where a camera stores its files (generally) has next to no impact on how well it functions as a picture-taker. That said, it is worth noting that the HX1's use of the small-format Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo cards means you may have trouble finding a card reader to accept your storage media without an adapter. (To wit, shots from a friend's wedding languished on the card for more than a month until I was finally able to dig up the required, and until recently, misplaced, converter.)
Ergonomics and Controls
In hand, the HX1 feels very much like previous Sony H cams - and similar to a lot of other models in this class floating around out there these days. Construction is mostly plastic, with a slick polished metal surround on the lens barrel, and feels quite robust on all counts. In spite of lots of zoom range and relatively bright apertures (the HX1 registers f/2.8 at 28mm), the Cyber-shot's retracting lens doesn't dominate the rest of the camera in terms size, weight, or balance, and on the whole, the device is actually slightly smaller than most of its competition. It's not quite pocket size, but it's also significantly easier to stuff in a purse or small backpack than a lot of 20x ultrazooms.
Controls are logically placed, if not always logically labeled. And if you're phobic about devices with lots of buttons, the HX1 will definitely have the power to raise your blood pressure. With a lot of dedicated buttons - including keys for setting focus and drive modes, toggling between the viewfinder and EVF, changing flash and macro settings, as well as user-defined custom button - the HX1 takes some getting used to, though the most commonly used of these controls seemed to "find a home" under my fingers fairly quickly.
The HX1 combines a heads-up display with basic shooting controls like exposure compensation with both sidebar and page menus for more in-depth settings and setup work. If you're the kind who eschews reading manuals, accessing the parameters displayed on the shooting screen - crucial options like exposure compensation and ISO, as well as shutter and aperture settings in the camera's manual modes - may be baffling at first. The secret to getting at these basic adjustments? The HX1's thumbwheel (which sits just behind the mode dial) functions as both dial and button: press in on the wheel to "click in" to the menu, and click again to jump between available options within the menu. Somewhat more logically, the dial itself allows you to adjust the selected value up or down.
Menus and Modes
No big changes here: the HX1's sidebar and page menus are similar to what we've seen on previous Sony Cyber-shots. Graphically, they are very slick, with lots of icons and multi-tier layering. Functionally, they've never been my favorite. Without lots of high-level divisions, it's not always easy to find the option you're looking for - doubly so if you're trying to make a rapid settings change in order to capture "the shot." The press-to-enter page menu, which contains most of the camera's top-level setup options, retains the confusing structure seen in previous Cyber-shots.
It's not surprising that a camera with lots of buttons also packs in lots of modes. Designed to meet the needs of newbies and enthusiasts in generally equal measure, the HX1 combines low-input options like Sony's trademark Easy mode with P/A/S/M options for shooters seeking full control.
To the casual observer, the HX1's inclusion of panorama, twilight, and anti-shake modes don't seem to do much to set the HX1 apart from other cameras in this class. Cast your memory back to the HX1's launch announcement, though, and you'll remember that this camera uses its CMOS sensor and copious processing power to offer a unique take on these settings. The most novel (and, amazingly, useful) of these three, in my view, is the panorama option. Rather than requiring the shooter to engage in the onerous task of lining up the camera carefully in order to stitch three or more shots together, the HX1 exploits its rapid-fire abilities to pull together some pretty impressive captures.
What's unique is not the panorama itself, but how it's created: simply set up the camera at one end of the shot you want to frame, press the shutter release, and quickly sweep the camera horizontally (or vertically - the HX1 does portrait panoramas as well). The Cyber-shot takes several shots in rapid succession and then stitches them together in-camera to produce the final shot. In addition to being one of the more seamless images I've seen from an in-camera panorama mode, the ease of use scores the Sony big points for this more-than-a-novelty feature.
The HX1 also packs in a low-light shooting option, which takes advantage of a similar process of overlaying several images to produce a single low-noise shot. As with the panorama mode, the results are surprisingly good - though we found this mode finicky if anything moves too much within your frame during the capture.
Finally, the anti-shake mode takes advantage of the same kind of multi-shot recombination utilized in the other two modes. In this case, I had trouble finding a situation in which this mode was able to provide more of an advantage than what you get from the camera's optical image stabilization alone. And as before, anti-shake mode doesn't deal with subject motion well - a potentially important consideration in this case.
The HX1 features a 3.0 inch, 230,000 dot LCD as its primary composition aid. While specs aren't class-leading, this screen proves to be crisp, fluid, and extremely bright in real-world testing. The display also tilts along the horizontal axis using a two-point pivot. While this movement lacks the range of motion found in Canon's latest tilt-swivel ultrazoom display designs, for instance, excellent side-to-side viewing angles mean you hardly miss the camera's inability to rotate the screen left and right - when shooting in landscape orientation, at least.
A dedicated button calls up the HX1's electronic viewfinder in place of the camera's main LCD. It's tiny, a bit blocky, and not nearly as fluid as the larger display. To Sony's credit, though, the viewfinder retains all of the on-screen information from the larger display, making it a versatile option in situations where working from the screen is impractical (i.e. in direct sunlight).
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