DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T9 Digital Camera Review
by factus8 -  1/17/2006

Introduction

The Sony Cybershot DSC-T9 is Sony's latest entry into its ultracompact T Series (DSC-T1, DSC-T5, DSC-T9), all credit card sized cameras with Carl Zeiss optics and sliding lens covers.  The immediate predecessor to the T9 is the T7, a model that got less than stellar reviews due to user complaints of a slow lens and weak flash, allegedly making the camera all but useless in low-light environments.  With the T-9, Sony has attempted to address these issues and is actively marketing this camera as a camera suited to low-light environments, due to higher ISO sensitivity (up to 640 ISO equivalent) and Sony's antishake system, Super SteadyShot.



In The Box
sony cyber-shot DSC-t9


Included in the box you will find:

USB multifunction cable


Included charger and battery


Comparison to T7

Feature
DSC-T7
DSC-T9
Megapixels
5.1
6.0
Aperture Range
f3.5 - f5.6 (W); f4.4 - f8.0 (T) f3.5/5.6 /8.0 (W), f4.3/7.1/10.0 (T)
Flash Range
3 7/8" - 5' 1/4" (0.1 - 1.6m) 0.3 - 9.2 ft (0.1 - 2.8m) (W)
ISO Settings
Auto, 64, 100, 200, 400 Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 640
Memory Stick DUO card capacity
Up to 1GB
Up to 2GB


Source: Sony

Design and Build Characteristics

The T9 comes in both silver and black.  I chose the silver finish, which is a plain matte silver finish that does not appear to show fingerprints easily.  The camera is very small, with dimensions of 3 9/16" x 2 3/16" x 13/16" (89.7 x 54.9 x 20.6).  An available wrist strap is included - and recommended, due to the small size of this camera it is dropped easily. 

Due to the small size and slim profile, the camera can be difficult to hold confidently.  The layout of the lens and the flash are well-placed to avoid the accidental "finger-over-the-lens" shot, or accidentally having your finger interfere with the operation of the flash. 

The camera is solidly built, except for the battery door, which is cheap and flimsy and feels like it could break off if mishandled.  Other than that, the camera feels very well assembled.

Credit card size


Front of camera (lens closed)

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The camera can be turned on by either sliding the lens cover downward, or pressing the power button on the top of the camera.  Ordinarily, you would use the lens cover to turn on the camera, not the power button, because you can't take any pictures with the lens closed.  The power button is handy, however, when you want to turn on the camera to upload pictures to the computer using the supplied USB cable, and do not want to expose the lens.  Although some users have complained about the sliding lens cover on this camera, I found that it worked well.  The camera has a quick startup time, which means you can quickly turn the camera on and off between uses, saving battery life.

Front of camera (lens open)

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The rear of the camera is a large 2.5" LCD that takes up most of the real estate.  The LCD has a nice, bright picture and conveys essential information such as the flash mode, scene mode, macro on/off, and histogram.

Back of camera

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In typical Sony fashion, the buttons and layout in the back of the camera are logical and well-placed.  The menus and navigation are very well thought-out, except I would like to see the camera scene modes, ISO settings and flash settings grouped closer together to minimize button presses once you are in menu mode. 

The left navigation button allows you to review the last picture taken, and the trash can button can be used to delete the picture in case it did not turn out as expected.  Although this feature is standard on most digicams, it was still very handy and easy to use.

Top of camera


Side of camera with battery and Memory Stick DUO

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Bottom of camera with tripod mount and connector
sony cyber-shot DSC-t9
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This picture shows the proprietary connector Sony has implemented with this camera.  The connector is used in conjunction with the multifunction USB cable to output photos to either a computer (via USB) or to a television (using composite output).  Although some users may prefer this added functionality, I would have preferred to have a standard mini-USB connection on the bottom, as the proprietary connector feels very flimsy and tentative.  Plus, if the plug or connector breaks, you are either going to have to buy a new multifunction cable from Sony, or send your camera in for repair. 

Camera Features

This camera is very small, light and easy to carry.  The camera uses Sony's proprietary InfoLITHIUM batteries, which shows the remaining battery life in the status window.  Although the batteries are expensive, they last a long time, and the status information of remaining battery life is quite useful.  The camera Memory Stick Pro DUO media, which is about the same size as a SecureDigital card.  I was annoyed that I could not use the 1GB Memory Stick Pro (not DUO) card I bought three years ago for the whopping price of US$400.  The Memory Stick Pro DUO cards are made by Sony and other licensees (like Sandisk and Lexar).

The camera features the following scene modes: Auto, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Soft Snap, Landscape, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, High-speed Shutter, Candle, and Magnifying Glass.  Sony describes the following modes as follows:

Mode
Description
Twilight
Shoots night scenes at a distance without losing the dark atmosphere of the surroundings
Twilight Portrait
Shoots portraits in dark places
Candle
Shoot candlelit scenes, without spoiling the atmosphere
Soft Snap
Shoots portraits of people, flowers, etc., with a gentle atmosphere
Landscape
Shoots landscapes, etc., by focusing on a distant subject
High-Speed Shutter
Shoots moving subjects outdoors or in other bright places
Beach
Shoots seasides or lakesides, with the blue of the water clearly recorded
Snow
Shoots whitish scenes brightly
Fireworks
Fireworks are recorded in all their splendor

Source: Sony

Camera in use
sony cyber-shot DSC-t9
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Camera Performance and Image Quality

Although Sony advertises this camera as having high ISO sensitivity, all that means is that you have the option of selecting up to a 640 ISO equivalent when taking pictures.  It does not mean that you will get usable pictures at these settings.  In my experience, the camera exhibited moderate to severe noise beginning at 200 ISO.  In underlit shots, the noise is very prominent.  I tested the ISO settings at home in a controlled environment by shooting at a blank wall, enlarging the picture 400 percent, then cropping the picture.  The results are below.

ISO 80



ISO 100



ISO 200



ISO 400



ISO 640



As you can see, some noise is visible at even ISO 80.  At ISO 200, noise begins to be a problem, and at ISO 640, a great deal of visible noise is present.

Anti-Shake

Sony calls its implementation of anti-shake Super SteadyShot.  This system attempts to compensate for hand movements that can ruin a shot by blurring the scene.  In my experience, Super SteadyShot worked as advertised.  Note how the details are preserved in the first picture but not the second:

Super SteadyShot ON


Super SteadyShot OFF


Although the system works well, it is not recommended for slow shutter speeds, which can introduce other problems such as subject movement and color smearing.  It does work quite well in well-lit situations.  Further, most of my pictures turned out nice and sharp, which tells me the system worked well.

Flash use and Comparison to T7

One of the biggest user complaints heard about the T7 was the underpowered flash. As you can see from the below product shots, the design of the flash does not appear to have drastically changed from the T7 to the T9.  In fact, from a physical design standpoint, the two flashes look nearly identical in size and placement:

T7


T9


In actual use, I found the flash worked fairly well, as long as you were in close proximity to your subject.  Sony recommends the flash range of this camera to be 0.3 ft to 9.2 ft (0.1 - 2.8 meters).  In my experience, unless other sources of light were present, the effective range of the flash was more like 6 ft.

One unexpected abnormality I noticed while using the camera is that the flash, possibly due to the close proximity to the lens, often illuminates floating dust particles, which can ruin your shots.  Often, white spots, most likely particles of dust floating by the lens appear in the picture.  These spots were present in many of my pictures taken with the flash.  I found this very disappointing.  Take a look at some of my sample pictures for an example of this phenomenon.

Autofocus

The camera exhibited better than expected autofocus abilities.  The camera focuses quickly, and focused well in most of my test pictures. The camera is equipped with an orange AF illumination lamp, which worked well in dimly lit situations.  I only experienced focus problems in a handful of shots, which mostly involved zooming in on a subject in a dark environment.  Most of the time, the focus worked quite well, and better than some other cameras I have owned.

Lens

This camera is equipped with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens that is optimized for smaller cameras.  Although I would have liked to see a faster lens on this camera, it produced nice sharp pictures, with no visible distortion in everyday use. 

Macro

The macro setting worked very well.  I was able to achieve focus as close as six inches away from the subject.  The macro performance of this camera was very good.

Macro photo - crazy straw

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Zoom

The camera features a 3x optical zoom plus a "smart zoom" feature that digitally zooms the picture when the optical zoom reaches its limits.  Although the zoom is handy, don't plan on using it in poorly lit settings, because the flash will not be strong enough to reach the subject you are zooming in on.  The camera zooms quickly, and I had no problems using the zoom in everyday use.

Zoom photo - Friends DVD collection @ 3x zoom

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Battery Life


As mentioned above, the T9 uses Sony's proprietary InfoLITHIUM battery system.  Although many users prefer using AAA or other standard battery types, I prefer the InfoLITHIUM system because it allows for a smaller and lighter camera (the battery is flat and light), and it also reports the number of minutes left of battery charge.  In my experience, I was able to take about 90 pictures with about half of the battery life remaining. 

Included Memory

This camera comes with 58MB of internal memory, which allows the user to take about 15 pictures in high resolution without the use of a memory card.  Although this feature is handy, I do not understand why Sony implemented the feature because 58MB is not really large enough for most users.  It would be nice to see Sony add 512MB (or at least 256MB internal memory to this camera, but I suppose something is better than nothing.

Picture Quality - Sample Pictures

This camera is capable of very exciting photos, as long as you have enough available light.  Due to the dust problem, ISO sensitivity noise, and weak flash, it is very difficult to get a good photo unless the lighting conditions are right, no matter what scene mode you choose. 

The Good

As is typical with Sony cameras, colors are nice and saturated, and pictures can come out very bright and appealing.  Below are some examples of the rich, vibrant colors hat can be captured with this camera under the right conditions.

Go go boots
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Roller Skates
sony cyber-shot dsc-t9
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The Bad

This picture is an example of an otherwise attractive picture (other than the framing, which is a little off) that is marred by the "dust problem" mentioned above.  Notice the four visible dots that are either floating spots of dust or multiple lens flares.  These spots were visible in almost 75 percent of the photos I took during this trip to the roller rink.

Skeeball
sony cyber-shot dsc-t9
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The Ugly

Here is a typical example of the limitations of this camera. This picture was taken in an admittedly tricky lighting situation, a roller skating rink.  I was about 8 feet away from the skaters, and the camera was set to "portrait" mode, which should theoretically allow the flash to fire while allowing ambient lighting.  Here, you can see that the flash is not powerful enough to illuminate the subjects, and there is not enough ambient lighting to fill in the background.  In addition, we can see that the pesky dust spots have returned.

All Skate
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A closeup of the snack bar area (lightened in Photoshop for emphasis) shows a large amount of color noise present at ISO 320.

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Pros

Cons

Conclusion

I don't know whether Sony has fixed all of the problems users were reporting with the T7, but I found the T9 to be a mixed bag.  With good lighting, this camera takes very pleasing photos that are nice and sharp and well-exposed.  The camera is small and light enough to fit in a shirt pocket, and is very portable and fun.  In tricky lighting situations, however, the camera's faults really start to interfere with usefulness of the camera.  This is a shame, because you would expect a small and light camera to be used to take pictures at parties, bars, or other situations, all taking place indoors.  Because this camera has many problems dealing with tricky lighting, and also due to the "dust problem" I experienced, I would be hard pressed to recommend this camera to beginning photographers or individuals who expect to be able to pick up a camera and "point and shoot" at a subject and get good results.

I was surprised to find a camera that Sony is marketing so heavily as a "low light" camera have so many problems in low light settings.  My guess is that Sony's marketing department spent more time addressing the shortcomings in the T7 than Sony's engineering department did.  As evidenced by my testing, this camera is not a great choice for night shots or low-light situations. As a result, I find it hard to recommend.