DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3: First Thoughts
by David Rasnake -  1/16/2008

When our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 compact ultra-zoom test unit showed up yesterday, I had a Canon PowerShot A620 – a fairly standard, if slightly beefy, 4x compact from a few years back – that I'd been using to shoot for a recent article sitting on my desk. Unpacking the 8.1 megapixel, 10x zoom H3, I was surprised at the similarities in size, given the marked difference in feature sets.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Some of this is simply a function of age: no one is surprised that cameras are getting exponentially smaller as time goes on. Even so, representing a class of cameras – compact ultra-zooms – that really didn't exist a few years ago, the spec sheet suggests a lot of features are packed into the H3's small body.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Aesthetically, the Cyber-shot struggles to find an identity, looking like an oddly proportioned, partially shrunken SLR. If it's a bit unappealing visually, however, the camera has a familiar feel in hand and nice balance. I appreciate the fact that the interface, internally and externally, is much easier to use and navigate than what we've seen on several Cyber-shots lately, and someone at Sony deserves a raise for designing a camera with a humanely sized zoom toggle.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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I'll be the first to admit that we've come to have some pretty high expectations for build quality in a Sony camera, which is a testament to the quality and style of their products in general. Perhaps I'm being tougher on the H3 than I would be for a competitive model, but there are some construction and design choices with this camera which, while insignificant in terms of camera function, make the total experience slightly disappointing. The plastic on the grip protrusion is particularly galling in its cheapness, and the crinkle finish and silver paint look suspiciously like a Krylon job. (Maybe the black version is better?) Not acceptable for a camera with a street price pushing $300.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Similarly, if we gave awards for "Flimsiest Battery Door," Sony would be getting a visit from the DCR Prize Patrol.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Both covers feel like something off a plastic toy, which seems even more out of place on a camera that puts up some solid construction on the whole. The lens barrel is nice and solid, and the metal bezel is a nice touch that adds some balancing weight as well. In spite of my pickiness about some of the plastic, feel and form are otherwise a success, and the H3 really impresses with its power to size ratio, offering a level of features seen in few cameras this compact.

So far, shooting with the H3 has been pure joy. I continue to be favorably impressed with the ever-improving press-to-shot speeds on compacts, and Sony's BIONZ engine delivers in this application as well. For occasional sports shooters, I'm particularly keen on a continuous-drive mode capable of taking five full-resolution, non-flash shots in under two seconds. Not DSLR speeds, but pretty quick for a compact. Combine this with a step-less 10x zoom lens covering an equivalent 38mm to 380mm and multi-mode image stabilization and you've got the makings of a winner for an amateur sports/nature photographer. A promised battery life of around 330 shots is equally enticing; we'll see whether the H3 lives up to this hype, but Sony's Stamina battery technology has proven true to the advertising copy in the past.

As the H3 is something of a sleeper model – this camera has been on the market for half a year now – it's no surprise to see what looks like the much maligned high-ISO noise reduction algorithm (that makes every ISO 3200 shot look like an impressionist painting under enlargement) at work here. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not wild about the level of detail loss that results from this processing choice, but print tests with previous Sony models have suggested that it's largely a non-issue at normal snapshot sizes. While we'll give the H3 our standard ISO test shakedown in the full review, don't let the dominance of this issue alone in some discussions about the Sony turn you off to what seems to be a very good "real world" camera.

Also, while I've experienced some inconsistencies in the implementation of Sony's Super SteadyShot image stabilization system, I like what I've seen so far from the H3. With IS enabled, I was able to keep my ISO set at 400 while snapping this reasonably sharp handheld shot at a shutter speed of only 1/10, mitigating at least some of the concerns about the Sony's low-light performance.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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On balance, then, the H3 offers up a promising feature set that will appeal to novice users looking to learn and more advanced shooters seeking a compact second camera. With lots of functions and manual control, mechanical IS, good metering, a sharp lens, and the flexibility of that 10x zoom all in an almost pocketable package, I'm excited to dig deeper into what this camera can do.

Look for our full review of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 in the coming week.