The consumer digital camera market is currently flooded with compact and ultra-compact 7 megapixel P&S (point and shoot) digital cameras. This horde of very similar entry-level digicams offer reasonable prices and comparable features (like ease of use, quick operation, image stabilization, 3X zooms, 2.5 inch LCD screens, and good battery life), but in this mass of high-tech ubiquity very few digicams stand out.
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Sony’s new Cyber-shot DSC-W80 is a stylish auto-exposure only digicam that was designed to appeal to casual photographers, snap-shooters, first time digital camera buyers, and shutterbugs that value compact size and operational simplicity. At first glance, the W80 doesn’t seem much different from its legions of competitors, plus it has a few niggling negatives. The menu system is poorly designed, default images are slightly soft, the built-in flash is a bit anemic, and users can’t delete an image immediately after capture. However, I was impressed with the W80’s ability to consistently and easily capture excellent images in a variety of lighting situations.
NUTS & BOLTS
Most compact and ultra-compact digicams don’t provide optical viewfinders anymore, so for those who prefer optical viewfinders for framing and composition the W80 offers a solid benefit. That said, the W80’s optical viewfinder is small, rather squinty, only covers about 85 percent of the image frame, and provides no diopter correction adjustment for those who wear eyeglasses.
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Most of the W80’s target audience will use the 2.5 inch (6.35 centimeter) “Super HAD” TFT LCD screen to frame and preview compositions, track action, review (and save or delete) captured images, and access the camera's menu system. LCD images are bright, fairly sharp, color correct, and fluid. The LCD gains "up" (brightens) automatically in dim/low lighting and W80 users can also manually boost LCD screen brightness. The screen info display provides all the data the W80’s target audience is likely to want or need.
On the negative side of the scale, the W80’s LCD screen resolution is only 115,000 pixels, which makes for somewhat grainy preview images (most of the W80’s competition offer LCDs with screen resolution in the 200,000 pixel range) and that may affect the ability of the user to precisely confirm focusing. Unlike some of its competition, the W80 also provides a real-time (live) histogram which makes it possible to check for and correct (via exposure compensation) under/over exposure problems.
The W80's f2.8-f5.2/5.8mm-17.4mm (35-105 in 35mm equivalent) Vario -Tessar zoom is built to a patented Carl Zeiss optical formula (6 elements in 5 groups with 3 aspheric elements). The zoom extends from the camera body automatically when the camera is powered up and lens retracts back into the body when the camera is powered down (a built-in lens cover protects the front element). Zoom operation is smooth, quiet, and very quick.
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Default resolution (sharpness) is a bit soft. Barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center) at the wide end of the zoom is slightly above average, but pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) at the telephoto end of the zoom, is lower than average. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is remarkably well controlled. Very minor purple fringing is visible in high contrast edge/color transition areas at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but essentially disappears at the telephoto end of the zoom range. There is some noticeable corner softness, but no visible vignetting (darkened corners).
Minimum focusing distance, in macro mode, is 1.8 inches (4.0 centimeters). Macro images (shot in natural light) are bright and relatively sharp with bold colors and good detail capture - typically, highlight detail is sacrificed to preserve shadow detail.
(view medium image) (view large image) Shiny green grasshopper on bright red Hibiscus bloom
Most photographers don’t like digital zoom (digital zoom just enlarges/magnifies the center of the image). The W80 (like several of its competitors) provides an ingenious method for getting a little extra zoom reach without the grainy washed-out look characteristic of digital zoom images. Sony calls this feature SmartZoom (Canon calls it Safety Zoom and Panasonic calls it Extended Optical Zoom). When SmartZoom is enabled the camera uses a smaller area at the center of the CCD sensor (creating a narrower angle of view) which allows the 3X zoom to magically grow to a 4.5X zoom (at 3 megapixels) without degrading image quality.
The W80’s zoom isn’t threaded, so filters and auxiliary/conversion lenses can’t be used.
Auto Focus (AF)
The W80 features a multi-point (9 AF area, center AF, and spot AF) closest subject priority contrast detection auto focus system. AF is very quick and dependably accurate, even in difficult lighting. Depress the shutter button halfway and almost immediately the camera locks focus and a green confirmation light appears. The W80 provides two AF modes - single AF (depress the shutter button halfway and the camera locks focus on what’s in front of the lens) and monitor AF - the camera focuses continuously (even when the shutter button hasn’t been pressed).
(view medium image) (view large image) This grab-shot, in poor lighting, nicely demonstrates the efficacy of the W80’s AF system.
The W80’s Face Detection function automatically isolates and locks focus on up to 8 faces (only 2 faces in soft snap scene mode) in the image frame and then optimizes all exposure (white balance, sensitivity, flash, etc.) parameters. The W80’s Face Detection AF option is only available in the auto mode and soft snap scene mode. Logically, Face Detection AF should be available in all shooting modes. The W80 also provides an automatic AF assist beam for quicker and more accurate focusing in dim/low light.
Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)
Sony’s Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization system largely eliminates fuzzy images by quickly and precisely shifting lens elements in the Carl Zeiss zoom to compensate for shaky hands and camera movement during exposure. W80 users can shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 f-stops slower than would have been possible without image stabilization. The W80 offers two active IS modes (plus off) - in continuous mode IS is engaged when the shutter button is depressed halfway. IS can be also engaged just prior to exposure (called shoot only mode) which is equally effective and requires less power.
Manual Focus (MF)
Like most of its competition, the W80 doesn’t provide any manual focus capability.
The W80's tiny built-in multi mode (Auto, On, Off, Red-Eye reduction, Slow Synch) flash is fairly weak. Maximum range (according to Sony) is 21.7ft/6.6m @ ISO 3200. Real world (effective/useful) flash range is more like 6-8 feet @ ISO 100.
Like most compact and ultra-compact digicams the W80’s flash is too close to the lens so redeye is an ongoing problem. Savvy users will elect to run the redeye removal tool automatically. Generally, when using/testing P&S digicams, I set the built-in flash to off, since I much prefer the realism of natural lighting to artificial looking flash-lit images. I didn’t use the W80’s built-in flash so I can’t comment on flash recycle times. Moderate and heavy flash users and indoor shooters may want to consider Sony’s optional HVL-FSL1B slave flash. The HVL-FSL1B will expand lighting options, but it is one of the ugliest slave flash units I’ve ever seen.
Memory Media & Image File Format(s)
The W80 saves images to 31MB of internal memory or to Memory Stick Duo or Memory Stick PRO Duo media. Sony doesn’t include a starter card in the box.
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JPEG only, the W80 does not support RAW or TIFF image formats.
USB 2.0 out and A/V out
The W80 draws its power from the Sony NP-BG1 3.6V, 3.4Wh (960 mAh) rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. The W80’s battery life (power depth) is noticeably above average for compact/ultra-compact P&S digicams. I didn’t keep track of exposures (Sony claims 340 exposures) but I used the camera through several heavy full-day shooting sessions and I never ran out of juice - long weekends and short vacations may require a nightly recharge. A backup NP-BG1 is probably a good idea for those once in a lifetime trips and longer vacations.
The included Sony BC-CSG charger is the compact foldaway prongs type, but it is very slow (up to 4.5 hours for a full charge).
NP-BG1 rechargeable lithium-ion battery, Battery charger, Wrist strap, USB and A/V cables, software CD-ROM, and a basic manual (printed).
The W80 is an AE (auto exposure) only digicam. Exposure options include – Auto (in Auto mode the camera sets all exposure parameters), and Program AE (in Program AE mode the camera selects the aperture and shutter speed, but users are free to choose most other exposure parameters). The number of lighting situations that can trick camera light metering systems into underexposing or overexposing images is legion. Shooters who want to make minor exposure adjustments like lightening up a dark scene or darkening a light scene (to add some detail and texture) are limited to the exposure compensation function. The W80’s base exposure can be incrementally adjusted over a 4 EV range (+/-2 EV) in 1/3 EV increments.
Users can also select one of the W80's Scene modes and the camera will automatically optimize all exposure parameters for the specific type of scene selected. Scene modes include: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Soft Snap, Landscape, Beach, Snow, High Sensitivity, and Face Detection. There is no dedicated portrait, action/sports, fireworks, pets, or children scene modes – which is a bit strange, since most of the W80’s competition provides an almost dizzying array of scene modes.
The W80 captures MPEG video at 640X480 @ 30 fps (and lower resolution/slower frame rate options) with mono audio – maximum clip size is 2GB. The W80 outputs video at HD (high definition) 1080i, but users must shoot their video clips in the 16X9 aspect ratio to take advantage of this option.
The W80’s default multi-pattern (evaluative) metering mode consistently provides accurate exposure information to the camera's processor, but there is a slight tendency toward over exposure (clipped highlights) in bright lighting. A spot metering option biases exposure on a small area at the center of the frame (useful for portraits, back lit subjects, and high/low contrast subjects). The center-weighted option allows savvy shooters to create traditional looking landscapes and Classic style portraits.
White Balance (WB)
The W80 provides a fairly typical (for compact/ultra compact P&S digicams) selection of white balance options, including Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, and Flash. Images made in the Auto WB mode show a slight, but consistent warmish cast. Most consumer and entry-level digicams boost color saturation a bit and the W80 is no exception – default color is noticeably over saturated.
The W80's Sensitivity (ISO) options are fairly standard, but they should be adequate for the camera's target audience. The camera provides (default) TTL Auto sensitivity and user selected sensitivity values of ISO100, 200, 400, 800, and1600 – plus ISO 3200 (via the high sensitivity scene mode).
In-Camera Image Adjustment
The W80 provides shooters with a useful range of exposure tweaks including saturation (Black & White, Natural, Sepia, and Vivid).
Compact and ultra-compact digicams usually don’t provide the ability to bracket exposures, but W80 users can enable Auto Exposure Bracketing and with one press of the shutter button capture 3 exposures of the same scene in rapid sequence (varying the exposure incrementally between the three images).
Finally, the W80’s in-camera editing function (retouch) allows users to select various effects including soft focus, partial color, fisheye lens, cross (star) filter, and cropping.
DESIGN, BUILD QUALITY, CONTROLS, & ERGONOMICS
The W80 is a compact brick shaped metal-alloy bodied P&S digicam. The camera is solidly built and attractive, but I took some ribbing from a couple of my friends during the time I was testing the W80 because my sample camera was pink. The camera is also available in black, white, and silver. Controls are logically placed and easily accessed, but the menu system is cumbersome and unintuitive.
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The W80, like most entry-level P&S digicams, suffers from “consumer” color interpolation - colors are conspicuously oversaturated and contrast is slightly harder than it should be. Image quality is dependably very good (outdoors in good light) and images are relatively sharp with a slight warmish cast. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is very well controlled. The W80’s auto exposure system is generally pretty accurate. Shadow detail (at the lower ISO values) is decent, but highlights are occasionally blown out – especially in brightly lit outdoor settings and close range flash-lit scenes. Noise is well managed - ISO 100 images are close to excellent with very good resolution and lots of snap (although very minor pattern noise is sometimes visible). ISO 200 images are very good, but with a tiny bit less pop than ISO 100 (and marginally higher noise levels). Results at ISO 400 are a bit flat and detail is starting to soften due to higher noise levels. ISO 800 images are seriously soft, colors are almost pastelish, and detail loss is evident. ISO 1600 images are useless. I didn’t try the High Sensitivity (ISO 3200) Scene Mode, but I’m assuming that the W80’s ISO 3200 images are twice as bad as the ISO 1600 shots.
The W80 is very fast, across the board, amazingly quick for a compact P&S digicam – it powers up quickly; locks focus (in good lighting) rapidly, and shutter lag with pre-focus (and from scratch once focus is acquired) is essentially real time. Shot-to-shot times are also very quick. The subject in the sample photo below is the fastest BMXer I have ever seen. I have tried repeatedly (without success) to get a good picture of him – static framing (pre-focusing on a specific spot and waiting for the subject to move into the image frame) and pre-focus were not good options because of his free-form riding style. I had to track him from the time he started his run and try to anticipate the decisive moment (and trip the shutter just before the action peaked). Surprisingly, I was able to do with the W80 what I couldn’t do with the Pentax K10D, the Olympus E510, the Canon S3 IS, and the Panasonic FZ8 – capture a mid-air image of this remarkably talented young athlete.
(view medium image) (view large image) Golden light shot of BMX biker in mid air.
A Few Concerns
The W80’s most egregious shortcoming is the clunky repetitive and completely unintuitive menu system. The built-in flash is weak and users can’t delete an image immediately after capture, they must first resort to the convoluted menu system.
The W80 should be just another pretty face in the seven megapixel compact digicam crowd, but where it really counts - the ability to capture super images easily and consistently, the W80 delivers in spades. Bottom line – if you’re looking for a compact P&S seven megapixel digicam – the W80 is worthy of your consideration.
Pros: Stylish, compact, fast, optical image stabilization, low noise (up to ISO 400), 2.5" LCD, optical viewfinder, and better than average battery life.
Cons: Slight overall default image softness, cumbersome unintuitive menu system, low resolution LCD screen, weak flash, and the full user’s manual is on CD.