BUILD AND DESIGN
At first glance, the Cyber-shot H55 is a rather conventional looking compact point-and-shoot. My H55 test unit was black with silver trim (there is also a silver version with black trim) and attractive in a practical sort of way - yet another exemplar of the usability driven industro-chic school of digicam design. While the H55 is unlikely to turn any heads, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The H55 is unobtrusive (at least the black version) making it easier for photographers to capture natural looking environmental portraits and candid street shots.
The Sony H55 is genuinely compact, measuring 4x2.27x1.13 inches and weighing in (minus battery and memory media) at just 6.0 ounces. The robustly built metal-alloy/polycarbonate body appears to have good dust/weather/moisture seals and feels comfortingly solid in the hand. Not only does the Sony Cyber-shot H55 slip easily into a typical shirt pocket or a small purse, it also carries nicely when gripped loosely in the palm of the hand with the wrist strap looped around the right hand. Even though the H55 has rounded corners and smooth surfaces, it is fairly stable in use thanks to the nicely placed finger groove grip and thumb rest.
Ergonomics and Controls
The H55's user interface is pretty basic and the control layout is fairly typical and sufficiently similar to most other recent point-and-shoots to inspire confidence. Controls come easily to hand for right-handed shooters. The H55's on/off button is a bit too small and occasionally requires an extra push or two to power the camera up or down. The H55's user interface is logical and uncomplicated; all buttons are sensibly placed and easily accessed, but they are not as clearly marked as I would have liked. Unfortunately there is no direct access method, like Canon's "func" button for adjusting ISO and White Balance or other often changed settings; any adjustments must be accomplished via the menu. Nor is there a dedicated "one-touch" button for starting and stopping video capture, users must set the mode dial to "movie" mode and then begin and end recording by pushing the shutter button - but the H55 does provide a useful elapsed time style recording duration readout.
The H55 is a small camera that feels solidly built and somewhat heavier than expected. The camera body is oblong with rounded corners and lacks a traditional handgrip, but it does feature a small cylindrical bulge at the right end of the body (as seen from the rear) and a groovy finger grip on the front of the camera and a matching truncated thumb groove on the rear deck. All controls, with the exception of the on/off button, mode dial, shutter button, and zoom controller rocker switch, are located on the back of the camera. Ergonomically, the H55 is well designed and comfortable in use, even over extended periods.
Menus and Modes
The H55's icon-driven menu system is easy to navigate and a bit of explanatory text accompanies every choice. Menus are simple, logical, and easy to use - which is a good thing since dedicated controls are limited.
The H55 provides a slightly better than average collection of shooting modes - here's a breakdown:
The H55 seems targeted more toward shutterbugs than casual shooters, and unlike much of its competition it features a real manual exposure mode, although it doesn't offer either aperture priority or shutter-priority exposure modes. In Manual mode the H55's shooting apertures - f/3.5 and f/8 at the wide-angle end of the zoom and f/5.5 and f/13 at the telephoto end of the zoom offer just enough user input into the exposure process to whet the creative appetite of a photo enthusiast.
Like most currently available digicams, the H55 eschews an optical viewfinder, so the LCD must be used for all framing/composition, camera status, image review, and menu navigation chores. The H55's fairly large 3.0-inch screen covers most of the available real estate space on the camera's rear deck. The H55's LCD screen is adequate, but not on par with the Nikon S8000's super sharp hi-res LCD screen. The H55's LCD is fluid (movement is smooth and natural as opposed to jerky), reasonably bright, relatively (230,000 dots) sharp, and hue (color) correct.
In dim/low light, the H55's LCD automatically boosts screen intensity/brightness (brightness can also be adjusted manually). The H55's LCD is difficult to use in brightly lit outdoor settings; there were times when I could only see glare and reflections. A better anti-glare/anti-reflective coating would have made the H55's LCD screen much more useful and this is a very important consideration, since the LCD is the H55's only viewfinder. The LCD info display provides all the information the H55's target audience is likely to need.
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