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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200 Review
by David Rasnake -  12/19/2007

The fact that Sony’s consumer electronics website is at sonystyle.com should be a hint: Sony has long been known for consumer electronics that are equal parts performance gadget and lifestyle accessory. Sony’s recent update to the T100, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200, is certainly no exception.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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If you’ve heard anything about the T200, you’ve almost certainly heard that its control interface is driven by the unique 3.5-inch touchscreen that’s finding its way onto several Sony models this season. While it may lack the conventional layout and advanced features that serious users demand, the T200 is a hip concept that takes an unquestionably different approach to snapping photos.

IN THE BOX

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200 is an ultra-compact 8.1 megapixel camera with a 3.5-inch touch screen interface. Other key specs and features include:

The T200 uses Sony's proprietary Memory Stick PRO Duo card format. At highest quality setting, a 256 MB card will hold about 65 shots. The T200's roughly 30 MB of internal memory will hold about 10 more.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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With that big screen, I wasn't expecting much in the way of battery life. Sony only advertises 125 shots between charges for the T200, but unlike many cameras, this one consistently lived up to that number and then a little bit. I was able to shoot right around 300 shots on two complete charges. Still, this makes the T200 somewhat limited in this area.

A wrist strap, combined USB/AV cable, dock adapter plate, paint pen (for retouching with the touch screen), battery charger and power cord, instruction manual, and software CD round out the box contents.

IN HAND

Styling, ergonomics, and pure novelty are where the T200 really shines. Holding the camera for the first time, one is impressed by the weightiness of its all-metal body, and the solid feel of buttons and sliders. If any compact camera could convince you, just by looking at it and holding it, that it might be worth the kind of price the T200 commands, this one does it.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Holding and Carrying

In shooting position, the camera feels well balanced if a little precarious. The thumb rest that protrudes from right of the screen is a necessity for sure: without a thumb anchored at this point, the T200 feels awkward, like it’s working its way free from your grip. Some of the tiniest buttons I’ve ever seen – and the functional requirements of the touch interface – make two-handed operation a must in most cases. In this respect, the Sony is potentially less appealing than other touch-based soft interfaces (like Samsung’s “Smart Touch”).

The Sony’s sliding lens cover powers on the device when opened. While it’s hard to find fault with the precise feel of the slider itself, more than one user has complained about how easy it is to accidentally open the lens cover – powering up the camera and draining the battery – while carrying the T200 in a pocket or bag.

The Touch Screen

Obviously, much of the buzz surrounding this camera is all about the touch screen. For an up-close look at how it works, check out our preview video if you haven’t already:

 

The touch screen is huge (physically and otherwise), but once you factor in sidebar space on each side for the soft controls, the overall image size is not significantly larger than what you’re seeing on another cam’s 3-inch LCD. Other than its overwhelming size, the 230,000 pixel screen isn’t very sharp or fluid, and the anti-glare coating imparts a dull look. The fact the screen doesn’t automatically gain-up in low light is almost inexcusable – brightness must be manually adjusted via the main menu. Be prepared for some double (or triple, or quadruple) clicking with this interface as well, as the screen doesn’t always respond to insufficient pressure.

Still, I was impressed with the layout and functionality of the touch screen system on the whole. In fact, the novelty and usability of the interface design as a total package was almost good enough to mitigate continued concerns about Sony’s clunky, multilayered menu system. It is clear that a lot of thought went into placement of controls and options, and the casual snapshooter will find the T200 to be a camera where all the necessary adjustments can be made from the top-level sidebar menu.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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To understand how the touch interface affects the user experience, think of the T200 as more “photo capture device” than camera, in which you point and click – just like on your laptop or PDA – to select from available options. This idea translates all the way down to the spot focusing system, which is adjusted by pointing to the area of the on-screen image toward which focus should be directed. For users who are generally gadget savvy but know little about photography and have no experience with conventional control arrangements, this kind of interaction with the camera is brilliant and intuitive. To suggest that it will, in equal measure, frustrate and irritate more serious photographers looking for lightning-quick adjustments almost goes without saying.

IN THE FIELD

All those nagging concerns about whether the T200’s image quality justifies its price aside for the moment (we’ll get there – I promise), I couldn’t help but admire the way the T200 worked for dashing off quick snapshots. Lacking aperture or shutter control of any kind, the T200 is a true point and shoot, and in many ways a very good one.

Camera mode is selected via the T200’s home menu. Available options include:

Basic options, including image size and self-timer settings, appear in the heads-up display in every shooting mode. A menu tab brings up a few more mode-dependant advanced options, including exposure compensation (up to +/-2 stops, in 1/3 stop increments) and white balance. Finally, heads-up options can be toggled in the display menu, or removed completely from the sidebars if desired.

Timing and Shutter Lag

To say that the T200 is fast for a compact is truly an understatement. When prefocused, measured shutter lag came in under .05 seconds (yes, you read that right). This isn’t just quick for a compact: it’s SLR-like. Unfocused, the T200 turned in a more realistic .3 seconds of lag, though this is still quicker than the class average for sure. Flash recycle and shot to shot times were also good. I was able to fire off flash-free shots back to back in under a second, and flash shots in less than two. Very impressive numbers.

Burst mode allows the T200 to shoot at around two frames per second.

At around a second, start-up time is good. Inexplicably and without warning, the T200 did take unconscionably long (in the neighborhood of five seconds) to start up on occasion, though.

Lens and Zoom

In spite of the somewhat finicky zoom toggle switch (could they make this thing any smaller?), the T200’s internally contained zoom is darn-near stepless, providing fluid adjustment from one end of the range to the other. Having the touch of extra reach that a 5x unit provides was a nice addition, though something with a little wider span than 35mm at the short end would have been even nicer. Is this a lot to ask of a piece of glass that’s less than half an inch wide? Probably, but there’s also some feeling that a premium price should provide premium results. Still, from a functional standpoint, it’s hard to find much to fault here.

Focus Settings and Performance

The T200’s default nine-point multi-AF mode worked well enough in live shooting for me not to think much about it. In tests, focusing was admirably quick (even in low light, where an assist lamp is automatically enabled) in both multi and center AF modes. Missed focus was rarely a problem, even under tough test conditions.

As mentioned, in one of the most unique technological integrations I’ve seen, spot AF is touch selectable. Want to focus on the object right in front of you? Tap it on the screen and it’s done. Want to focus into the distance? Just tap. A couple of test shots (with the selected focus point boxed) demonstrate that it does indeed work most of the time.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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It’s an interesting idea for sure, and not a bad use of touch screen technology. A zoom feature showing zoom detail around the selected focus point in real time would make the system even more useful, given the difficulties in confirming focus on even the best LCD screens.

Four manually-selectable focusing distances (1.0, 3.0, and 7.0 meters, plus infinity) suffer from the same lack of clarity, requiring a tape measure and a knowledge of the metric system to use effectively. In a pinch, however, the ability to quickly pull up or back to a set distance might be useful.

Macro mode worked well, locking focus consistently. A close macro setting, which disengages the zoom and allows for obscenely close minimum focusing distances, provides a tested minimum focusing distance of right at half an inch in this case. Image quality concerns largely negate the T200’s power as a serious macro shooter, but being able to fill the frame with small subjects is still pretty novel, and the Sony’s super-close-up capability gets close enough for flowers, bugs, and police records matches:

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Flash

The flash unit lives up to its stated range, filling up our dark-room test shot nicely. If anything, the flash is too powerful, with a tendency to destroy all semblance of correctly exposed highlight in a flash photo. Compensating the flash down a stop or two (available in program mode only) helps some, but fall-off is fairly drastic and results are inconsistent at best.

After extensive testing in a variety of settings, I’m not sure that the flash unit’s less than stellar performance is bad enough to be a deal breaker for the T200 in my mind. But given that Sony is clearly targeting snapshooters with the T200, unacceptable results in this area are hard to ignore.

Otherwise, flash options strike a nice balance with the addition of a slow synchro mode for capturing background as well as subject in poor light. There is no dedicated red-eye reduction flash mode on the T200, as this feature is configured in a separate menu (with options for auto, on, and off). From all indications, the default auto setting works.

Auto Mode

Auto mode provides only the most basic adjustments via the heads-up options (though settings like red-eye reduction, exposure compensation, and drive mode can still be modified via the menu tab). Focus is multi-point by default; touching the screen enables point-selected AF.

Shooting in auto mode on the T200 is thoroughly refined. More so than many other ultra-compacts, this camera makes consistently logical shooting decisions. The end result is surprisingly few poorly exposed or blurry photos – flash problems excepted. In this regard, using the T200 should prove to be a satisfying experience for novice users.

Program Mode

Program mode adds ISO, metering, and AF controls to the heads-up display, plus options including three bracketing modes, image stabilization control, white balance settings, and color effects (black and white, sepia, natural, and vivid) to the pop-up menu.

The difference between normal and vivid color modes here is less pronounced than on many cameras, with natural providing a slightly paler hue across the entire color spectrum. Unfortunately, these image color adjustment options, including B&W and sepia, are time-of-shot only.

Scene Mode

With only ten presets in scene mode, the T200 eschews quantity in favor of quality in the available selections. The standard items – night shot and portrait, landscape, a high shutter-speed sports mode, and settings for beach and snow – are all here. Additionally, scene mode features Sony’s signature Soft Snap portrait mode, which gives a pleasing smoothness to portraits.

The most interesting addition in this group is Sony’s Smile Shutter mode: this face-recognition mode claims to prevent a picture from being taken until the subject is smiling, and in limited testing the technology seemed to actually work. Smile Shutter seems to prefer toothy smiles, however, and appears to be easily confused by facial hair. On balance, it's pretty gimmicky, even for the T200’s target audience.

Movie Mode

Video clips with sound can be recorded at three resolutions/frame rates: 640x480 at 30 fps, 640x480 at 16.6 fps, and 320 x 240 at 8.3 fps. Highest-res video recording is capped at ten minutes, regardless of memory card capacity.

Playback Mode and Effects

For the casual user, the Sony offers some of the most competent and useful in-camera processing in the business. There are too many options to adequately cover here, but unique effects include a fisheye simulation and a radial blur. In most cases, the touch screen is used to move and manipulate the effect. While it won’t appeal to everyone, there really is a lot of power to play with here.

More common retouches, like crops and red-eye reduction, are also found here, although as noted, there’s no option to alter image colors after the shot is taken.

Playback mode provides the usual range of control, including a slideshow function. Image inspection and zoom is all touch-selected via the screen, similar to related processes in the shooting modes.

IN THE SHOTS

Image quality is certainly the big question mark hanging over the T200. While the inherent limitations of ultra-compacts with tiny lenses need to be recognized up front, it’s also fair to assume that the Sony’s price establishes certain expectations for image quality – expectations which the device seems to have some trouble meeting in several respects.

General Image Quality

Sony ultra-compacts have come in for serious criticism in terms of image detail in the past, and unfortunately the T200 does little to address these issues. Our studio-light test shot and crop show a best-case sharpness scenario.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200

Fine detail capture is certainly not up to the standards of larger cameras, but lower ISOs produce only minor quality issues that will largely go unnoticed by casual users. Turn up the sensitivity a few stops, however, and fine detail simply falls apart: the slightly soft inherent detail capture of the T200 disappears into a wash of noise reduction. The same crop from an ISO 400 shot shows predictable detail loss.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200

Note that edge sharpness falls off predictably as well, though this is somewhat more easily forgiven given the lens size.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

The T200 provide a nicely balanced exposure in most cases, with occasional blown highlights being the only area of real concern. Multi-segment metering handled normal shooting situations with ease, and photos from the T200 show nice range – as evidenced in the previous studio test shots. Similarly, putting concerns over image detail aside for the moment, the T200 takes a light approach to both saturation and sharpening. Images are appropriately warm and crisp without pushing saturation too much; vivid color mode provides an ample boost in this area for the occasional shot needing a little more vibrancy.

Automatic white balance on the T200 was hit or miss: under studio lights, the T200 took on a brownish cast that was hard to ignore (see the studio image above). Some outdoor shots in daylight sun, with both auto and daylight white balance selected, also had a purplish tint in what should have been nearly pure blue values. Under fluorescent lights, however, the automatic setting does surprisingly well.

Lens Faults

Barrel distortion at full wide-angle was moderate, causing a visible and occasionally distracting bowing out of vertical lines. Pincushion distortion (lines curve inward toward the center) was much less pronounced. Neither was severe enough to cause much concern in practice.

Chromatic aberration, or purple fringing, was visible in high-contrast boundary areas. While the problem was certainly present at times, amounts were in keeping with expectations for this camera class and probably won’t ever be noticeable in a standard-sized print.

Sensitivity and Noise

As the previous evaluation suggests, blotchiness and pitting on this camera begin to appear from the very lowest ISOs. Some variant of the aggressive noise reduction algorithim that’s been a source of complaints in the past apparently shows up largely unchanged in the T200, eviscerating much of the detail in higher-ISO shots as well.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
ISO 80
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
ISO 100
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
ISO 200
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
ISO 400

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
ISO 800

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
ISO 1600

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
ISO 3200

 

In test photos, high ISOs showed a smeared, "water color" look. While ISO 3200 allows shooting without a flash in dark indoor situations, don't expect any edge definition from these shots.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200

Given the tendency of most point and shoots to push ISO for maximum flash range when left in auto mode, detail loss in flash photos on the T200 was particularly noticeable. The flattening effect of flash means that almost no detail is preserved in branches of the tree in the following shot and crop.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200

Overcoming the limitations of the Sony’s processing in this case require locking the camera in at ISO 80/100 when working with the flash, limiting effective range considerably.

Additional Sample Images

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T200
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CONCLUSIONS

Picky shooters will undoubtedly find plenty to pick at with the T200. Evaluated as a ratio of image quality to price, the T200 seems like a bad deal, and for serious IQ junkies it probably is. Sony’s menu systems are often unnecessarily intricate. Similarly, some will simply hate using the touch screen. It certainly suggests a different way of thinking about a camera, and the lack of quick and easy adjustments will be a hang up for many.

All of this said, the T200 combines a unique user experience with image quality that should stand up to the standards of most snapshot shooters. The touch screen interface is sufficiently refined, the feature set generally exceeds expectations, and real world shooting speed is impressive. Unquestionably, image quality continues to lag behind the best ultra-compacts. Even so, whether most of the issues presented – especially image detail concerns – will ever be noticed by the average user making average-sized prints remains an open question.

Can you get a camera that takes better pictures for less money? Absolutely. Can you get a camera with more style and a higher “gadget factor”? Maybe not. So is it worth the price? Like so many things in photography, it all depends on your perspective.

Pros:

Cons: