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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 Review
by David Rasnake -  1/17/2008

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 is yet another take on the emerging compact ultra-zoom theme, sporting a 10x optical zoom in a large pocket camera package. Amid some other more prominent entries into this field, the Sony seems to have been often lost in the mix. Even with some tough competition and nagging questions about high-ISO image quality and interface performance, however, the 8.1 megapixel H3 looks like it brings enough pocket-sized power – building on the obvious draw of a 10x zoom in a compact body – to set itself apart.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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IN THE BOX

Key features and specs for the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 are as follows:

Sensor 8.1 megapixel, 1/2.5" CCD
Zoom 10x (38-380mm) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar, f/3.5-4.4
LCD/Viewfinder 2.5", 115K-pixel TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 100-3200
Shutter Speed 60-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Program, Manual, Movie, Scene, High Sensitivity
Scene Presets Soft Snap, Advanced Sports Shooting, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Twilight, Beach, Snow, Fireworks
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash
Metering Modes Multi, Center, Spot
Focus Modes Multi AF, Center AF, Spot AF, five approximate distance AF modes, Macro
Drive Modes Normal, Burst
Flash Modes Auto, Forced On, Slow Synchro, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick Pro Duo
Internal Memory
31 MB
File Formats JPEG, MPEG
Max. Image Size 3264x2448
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable 960 mAh lithium-ion, 330 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Face Detection, Super SteadyShot mechanical image stabilization, Red-Eye Reduction, HD shooting modes

 

Like most Sony models, the H3 uses the company's proprietary Memory Stick Duo and Memory Stick Pro Duo formats exclusively. Expect about 300 highest-res shots for every 1 GB of storage space. Note that the H3 allows "hot swapping" – changing memory cards with the camera up and running.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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The H3 comes packaged with a fairly thorough list of additional items: neck strap, lens cap and tether, filter mounting tube, lens hood, battery and charger, software CD, instruction manuals, and AV/USB cable.


IN HAND

Visually, the Cyber-shot H3 is a bit boxy and awkward. The camera is designed around a slightly rounded rectangular case, with the partially retracting lens, flash housing, and grip looking more tacked on than sculpted in. Overall, the design draws more on older H-series Cyber-shots – and even Sony classics like the Mavica lineup – than on much of Sony's current design aesthetic.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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The H3 may not win any digital camera beauty contests, but its visual oddities and slightly basic look actually translate into a positive user experience for the most part.

Display/Viewfinder

With 3-inch (and larger) displays coming onto the market in growing numbers, the Sony's 2.5-inch, 115,00-pixel variable backlight LCD isn't big news. Compared to higher-res examples on other cameras, the H3's on-screen rendering looks a little soft, but refresh is smooth even in low light.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Gain-up performs as expected most of the time, though certain setting combinations (manual mode, ISO 100, flash suppressed, for instance) seem to disable on-screen gain-up; in such cases, the AF assist lamp cycles on instead on shutter half-press. Viewable angle for the screen is also fairly narrow, with certain colors inverting at as little as around 10 degrees off axis. As with most LCD-only cameras, extreme sunlight will leave you wishing for an optical viewfinder.

Holding and Shooting

I griped in my "First Thoughts" piece on the H3 about how much I dislike the finish on the grip. It's an odd choice, with a textured look doing a bad impersonation of a rubberized finish. It doesn't help grippiness, and it's one of the subtle visual cues that make the H3 seem a less serious camera than it actually is.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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If you can tolerate this bit of unpleasantness, though, as well as battery and connection covers that will be lucky to survive long under normal use, the total ergonomic experience with the H3 is good, with everything falling into place as it should. I like that the physical interface doesn't overwhelm with buttons, and that all the controls are sized for people with normal to largish hands and fingers. Balance and weight both feel right. It is possible to shoot one-handed with the H3 most of the time as well, with only the playback button sitting out of thumb's reach.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Ironically, the somewhat advanced H3's user interface is more intuitive and less complex than examples seen on many of Sony's pure point-and-shoots. Smart use of the d-pad for manual mode controls earns the Cyber-shot high marks here as well. In manual and program modes, especially, the LCD offers up a lot of information that can give the display a cluttered feel at times, but more advanced users will appreciate having information like ISO and metering settings at their disposal for quick review.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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The interface was, at times, painfully slow, however. See the next section for more on this.

One final thought on design and construction: the fact that the H3 has a conventional removable lens cover (like your DSLR lens) is not necessarily a big deal in itself, but this particular variation on the theme was irritating enough to get my attention. Because the lens has to extend at power-on and the cover sits inside the outer bezel (and not on the actual lens barrel as seen in many models), if you power up the H3 with the lens cover on, the device goes through the entire start-up cycle before informing you that it can't be powered on with the lens cap in place, and that you need to shut it off, remove the cover, and try again. Still no big deal, unless you're trying to get the camera powered up for a rapidly unfolding grab shot: if you forget to uncover the lens first, you'll probably miss these one-time photo opportunities. Would a retractable cover have been so hard?

Alternately, you could avoid this whole mess by connecting Sony's supplied filter extension mount (which puts the cap in front of the extended lens barrel) and lens hood – if you don't mind your camera looking like a cumbersome photographic attachment for your vacuum cleaner.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Joking aside, the included hood is a nice addition to the H3's kit but it does detract considerably from the Sony's compactness, giving the camera a form factor closer to that of a conventional ultra-zoom.


IN THE MENUS

The H3 adds the flexibility of a full manual mode to what is otherwise a point-and-shoot. What it lacks, however, are the often more useful aperture and shutter priority modes: it's full manual control in this case or nothing at all. Modes on the H3's dial include:

The H3 divides up scene modes, with four options included on the mode dial, and four more accessible via the shooting menu in the dedicated scene mode.

As noted, the H3 has a simplified interface compared to some other Sonys, and I'm fully supportive of this. The H3 organizes all shooting adjustments into a single listing, accessible via the Menu button. A Home button provides browser-style access to set-up options, memory management functions, and printing features. All in all, it's easy to find what you're looking for.

At the same time, the system is still heavy on the graphic appeal, and while it has a nice look, it seems that all of this slows menu access down. The H3 never felt responsive in paging through options or changing modes, always lagging behind a bit. Combine this with the fact that everything – including common (and often necessary) adjustments like exposure compensation – must be accessed via the menu and you can see the potential for frustration. Whatever the strengths of this user interface, quickness is not among them.

Auto Mode

There's not much in the way of adjustment to work with in the H3's Auto mode. There are no ISO, white balance, metering, or focusing mode options, but exposure can be manually compensated – important given that the H3 wants to clip highlights badly in outdoor shooting.

Program Mode

Program mode unlocks the full range of options: white balance, metering, focus mode, color mode, and ISO settings. Additionally, the H3 has user-controlled sharpness and contrast options.

Manual Mode

While there are no aperture or shutter priority modes on the Cyber-shot, there is a full manual mode. All adjustments that can be made in Program mode are open as well in Manual mode.

I found the adjustments for shutter speed and aperture, which use one axis of the d-pad (up-down) to set shutter speed, and the other (left-right) to change aperture value, intuitive if a little slow. Because the d-pad uses the standard arrangement, putting dedicated self-timer, macro, and flash option access directly on the four-way button, the center select button must be pressed before making manual exposure changes.

For setting up a static shot (a landscape, for instance), Manual mode works just fine; using these options on the fly require a little more skill, and probably some luck. In short, aperture and shutter priority modes, where only one adjustment is in play, would have been more practical for an advanced camera.

Scene Mode

Sony's approach to scene presets – including only eight options – is more accessible and more practical than the lists of 20-plus options that seem to be on every camera these days. The H3 covers the basics, includes a few nice extras (like a slow-sync night portrait setting), and really shines in a few presets.

The best of these is the H3's Advanced Sports Shooting preset, with a predictive focus system that noticeably improves the number of useable, sharply focused shots at high speed. Combined with a 10x zoom, Sony made a smart choice here.

High Sensitivity Mode

In Auto mode, camera sensitivity adjusts automatically up to ISO 800. The ISO range is automatically extended all the way up to the camera's ISO 3200 maximum in High Sensitivity mode. Otherwise, the mode functions just like Auto mode, with the addition of white balance adjustments.

Movie Mode

The H3 can shoot movies at three quality/resolution settings, up to a maximum of 640x480 at 30 fps. Zoom is locked during filming. The Cyber-shot offers more flexibility than most compacts for creating videos, with color effects, IS, and metering/focus options all unlocked for use in Movie mode.

Playback Mode

For the user looking to do all retouching in-camera, Sony's devices tend to be some of most interesting and enjoyable around. The H3 is no exception, with several effects options, a nice slideshow mode (with music), and basic crop, rotate, and print options. As with other Sonys, there's less cheesiness in the H3's effects portfolio – which includes fisheye, selective color, and background softening options – than you usually see in a compact.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Fisheye effect

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Selective color

It's not exceptionally precise effects processing, and it's not the kind of stuff that buying decisions should hinge on in my opinion. But even advanced shooters will probably have some fun playing around with their snapshots. Also, it should be noted that applying any of these effects creates a new file, leaving the unedited original intact.

More conventional post-processing options like cropping, rotating, and red-eye reduction, are also available.


IN THE FIELD

Interface irritations notwithstanding, the H3's various systems present a package that works well for most everyday shooting situations.

Timing and Shutter Lag

The H3 works well in this area. Though startup time could be faster (around 2 seconds for the lens to extend, and longer if you forget to remove the cover first...), and the lens takes a long time (again, about 2 seconds) to go from full wide to full tele, the camera is a snappy performer otherwise. Pre-focused, the H3 posted consistent timings of .05 seconds. Focusing speeds are quick as well: press-to-capture times without pre-focus averaged around .3 seconds at wide angle for well-lit, stationary subjects; even in dark rooms, focusing never pushed shutter lag over 1 second in our testing. We've been impressed in the past with fast AF and minimal shutter lag from Sony's Bionz-powered cameras, and the H3 doesn't disappoint.

Keeping pace with other cameras in this class, continuous shooting mode performs well enough on the H3 that you may find yourself wishing for an optical viewfinder: the only thing limiting the H3's usefulness as a sports shooter, in fact, is the inevitable display lag/blackout in continuous shooting mode. In terms of speed, the H3 dashed off 5 frames in 2.1 seconds without initial pre-focus. True to its advertised specs, the Sony is apparently able to shoot near this rate for a good long time, firing off 29 shots before showing the slightest sign of slowing down in our testing. After a 40-shot burst the H3's buffer was cleared and ready to shot again in around 3 seconds.

In regular shooting mode, shot-to-shot times averaged around 1.5 seconds. Flash recycle took a touch more than 2 seconds for shots taken at moderate range.

Lens and Zoom

The H3's partially retractable 10x Carl Zeiss zoom is at the heart of this camera's appeal. From a usability standpoint, it's a nice unit with few flaws. The zoom toggle's soft-touch feel allows for fine adjustments, and the zoom is not stepped – allowing for apparently limitless settings between 1x and 10x. An on-screen read out displays the magnification level.

In spite of the fact that the 10x compact isn't exactly news these days (Canon and Panasonic field two of the H3's strongest competitors in the SX100 IS and TZ3, respectively), being able to go from this...

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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...to this...

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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...while standing still really is, as I said, the primary draw of this camera. With a wide-angle equivalent of a pretty narrow 38mm, however, the H3 could stand to offer a broader view at the short end of the zoom.

While being able to fine-tune zoom settings with a softer button press (a full press moves the zoom more quickly) represents an improvement over most auto zoom controls, dialing in a specific value can be a little finicky. As noted above, moving from one end of the range to the other can be a little slow; the lens also takes a moment to pick up when pulling back from longer telephoto settings. With a reasonably effective mechanical stabilization system, though, the zoom offers enough range and control for sports and nature shots.

Focus Settings and Performance

Focus with the H3 was fast and precise – almost a given for serious contenders in this category. The default Multi AF mode was acceptably intelligent at selecting focus points (which are boxed on-screen once selected), requiring little user prodding to make the right decision in most cases. Center AF and Spot AF modes speed focusing times up slightly, but I would've liked to see a wider AF region in Center mode, as the limited area of this setting makes Center and Spot functionally indistinguishable most of the time.

As on previous Sonys we've tested, the inclusion of approximate AF settings – where the user selects the approximate focal distance from a list of options and the camera takes over automatically from there – was hit-or-miss in use. Because making focusing setting changes on the fly is not the H3's strongest feature (with the settings a page down or more in most shooting mode menus), getting to the distance settings when they would be most useful (to prevent back focusing in a fast-moving scene against a fluid or textured background, for instance) is rarely an option. I did, however, find the infinity setting useful in locking focusing depth and speeding up the camera when taking long-distance shots.

The H3 doesn't offer any frame-filling super macro modes. The best you'll get here is around .75 inches, but this reasonably good number assumes that you can convince the Sony to focus correctly. In repeated testing, I had more trouble getting clean, focused macro shots than is normal even for this class of camera. It's hard to pin down what specifically was giving the Cyber-shot fits, but macro doesn't seem to be the H3's strongest area.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Flash Settings and Performance

Sony hypes a powerful flash in the H3's marketing materials, advertising a wide-angle range of 14 meters (about 46 feet). Reading the fine print, however, you'll see that this is, not surprisingly, at ISO 3200 (increasing the ISO setting makes the sensor more sensitive to light, and thus increases flash range). Unless you're not too picky or you're desperate to grab that once-in-a-lifetime shot, ISO 3200 on the H3 really isn't a place you probably want to spend a lot of time, and this realization brings the H3's flash performance back down to earth a bit.

What you do get with the H3 is still a convincingly powerful pop-up unit with enough settings, including a slow synchro mode for night portraits and a forced fill mode, to handle more advanced shooting situations. Our testing revealed little out of the ordinary: the flash is overbearing indoors and at close range, and when left to its own devices seems to prefer ISO 400/800 for maximum range. The common advice of locking the camera down at ISO 200 for flash shots when possible applies.

With auto white balance selected, skin tones are extremely close to neutral to my eye, in spite of the unit's blasting tendencies.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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As with most Sony models, red-eye reduction is controlled separately from flash settings in its own dedicated menu. With red-eye reduction and face recognition technologies engaged, I was unable to induce any flash-based abnormalities.

Image Stabilization Settings and Performance

The H3's Super SteadyShot Image Stabilization is a lens-based mechanical/optical system. In Manual and Program modes, the system can be set to engage either when the shutter button is half-pressed, to operate continuously, or to be disabled completely (useful for tripod shots, etc.). In terms of performance, the H3 system was usually good. Our standard battery of test shots with and without IS (hand-held at a shutter speed of 1/20) showed good, if not great improvement.

My sense is that the IS system didn't perform consistently up to the standards I'm used to for long zoom shots (one of the key purposes of IS on a 10x camera). That said, I was also able to pull off sharp, unstabilized shots at speeds as low as 1/4 on occasion, something my shaky hands rarely allow with any amount of stabilization.

Battery Life

With an advertised 330-shot life, I had high hopes for the H3 in terms of power consumption. If you're conservative in on-screen evaluating, you don't shoot videos or flash photos, and you're willing to disable continuous IS, I'll concede that it might be possible to see the upper side of 300. In testing, I topped out at 230 shots before the battery finally gave out, with flash recycle times beginning to fall off dramatically long before I hit 200. These are still reasonable numbers, but they also mean that a full day of shooting may still require the purchase of an extra battery.


IN THE SHOTS

Given its long zoom and slightly advanced set of features, the H3 brings high expectations for image quality. All factors taken into account, image quality from the H3 won't often blow you away: it's usually up to par, but seems to require more coaxing than might be desirable, even for an advanced camera.

General Image Quality

Baseline image quality for the H3 is good, with plenty of appropriately sharp detail.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3

The baseline noise results at ISO 100 may not be among the best we've seen, but the H3 holds its own in this area. High-contrast tendencies do push out some shadow detail in the usual places (look at the lower label on the bottle, for instance) and come surprisingly close to clipping the pure whites in this shot. In general, though, this amount of contrast is nothing unique to the H3, and the overall look is pleasing.

Exposure, Processing, and Color

Default image tone, contrast, and saturation are all reasonably true, with a consumer edge. The overall tone is slightly warm, if not extremely so. Certain values, reds especially, do seem to punch extremely high, however.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3

Thankfully, in the default Natural image tone setting this kind of color reproduction seems to be solely a red-channel issue.

As with saturation, in keeping with the H3's advanced amateur image, sharpness is adjustable in Program and Manual modes. Default sharpness struck a decent balance, with little visible artifacting and end results that could stand up to some post-process sharpening in general (high-contrast areas were often a little chopped looking, however). Crops of a macro detail shot taken at each sharpness setting yielded an interesting result.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
Minimum Sharpness

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
Normal Sharpness

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
Maximum Sharpness

At first, I was convinced that the extreme softness seen at the minimum setting was the result of camera shake at slow shutter speeds, but after repeatedly checking tripod stabilization and shooting the test shots on a timer to further control motion, I'm convinced that these photographic demonstrations are accurate. It would seem that at minimum sharpness, the H3 actually actively softens the image, limiting its usefulness in controlling the occasional harshness seen in the normal setting. Normal and maximum sharpness resolve roughly the same level of detail in high-contrast boundaries, with maximum sharpness looking much more over-processed on the whole.

From a processing and exposure standpoint, the Sony showed acceptable dynamic range. It did overexpose and clip some highlights in outdoor shooting, but this was relatively easily reined in with a half-stop of negative exposure compensation most of the time. Contrast is adjustable, and I often found that shooting at the lower contrast setting yielded better results in wide-range scenes. Even so, the default contrast option (which claims to maximize dynamic range) did a decent job here.

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Shooting into the sun throws correct metering out the window for any camera, but even without choosing to meter the right-hand side of the image manually for correct exposure, the results here aren't bad, preserving shadow detail better than might be expected given the H3's slightly contrasty tendencies.

White Balance

In an admittedly subjective analysis, automatic white balance performance on this camera would seem to rate somewhere between average and poor.

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Auto WB has no idea how to handle the warm, incandescent-range values of our studio lights, leaving the entire shot with a yellow cast. Cycling through the settings to the Tungsten mode helped surprisingly little. Further testing suggests that H3 users should get familiar with all three fluorescent modes and their nuanced differences as well, as getting even a nearly balanced photo indoors with this camera may depend on this knowledge.

Moreover, for a camera that targets more advanced users, a white balance system that can't render neutral images under some very normal shooting conditions combined with a lack of a user-set WB mode is simply not up to current standards.

Lens Faults

Wide-ranging zoom lenses are not known for tight optical distortion control, and even without an extremely wide short end the H3's zoom exhibits some pretty aggressive barrel distortion in test shots. Shooting architecturals with this camera can present a real challenge, one beyond the help of even powerful correction tools like Photoshop if you're not careful. At the other end of the range, perhaps surprisingly, I couldn't induce much in the way of visible pincushion distortion.

High-contrast areas brought out chromatic aberration, or purple fringing, as well, but not to a remarkable degree; I had to go looking for it, which isn't often the case with compact camera optics. Vignetting (dark corners that appear on wide-angle, wide-aperture shots, especially) was also subtly visible in the usual places (check out some of the wide-angle shots in the sample images for examples).

Overall sharpness is good with very little edge fall-off throughout the range, even at wide aperture – one benefit of a slightly narrow wide angle, I'd wager.

Sensitivity and Noise

Given the level of noise reduction at work in the H3's higher-ISO shots, especially, the standard 100% solid field crops don't adequately convey "real world" image quality concerns.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
ISO 100
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
ISO 200
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
ISO 400
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
ISO 800

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
ISO 1600

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
ISO 3200

There's some slight patterning at ISO 100/200, with significant jumps at both 400 and 800. Even so, the H3's heavy, soft noise reduction process works reasonably well at controlling blotchiness at all ISOs compared to many compact cameras. What's not apparent from these shots, however, is the amount of detail loss going on as a result of this process. By ISO 400, edge definition is already soft, if not terribly so.

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3

By ISO 1600, Sony's widely panned noise reduction choices strongly bring out the distinctive smeared, "watercolor" look that we've commented on before. The colors lose noticeable punch by this point as well.

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3

Of course, the standard caveats apply in this case: even with the loss of detail, if you're making small prints ISO 1600 is fine if not great most of the time. But if 1600 is not so nice, many will consider ISO 3200 (which turns up the softening a step further still) on the H3 largely unusable, and while I don't want to overemphasis poor ISO performance – it is only one part of the equation – the fact that this camera targets a more advanced group of photographers makes its visible limitations beyond ISO 200, really, a point worthy of serious evaluation.

Additional Sample Images

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
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CONCLUSIONS

The Sony Cyber-shot H3 delivers in many of the areas that will be important to buyers shopping for this kind of camera. It offers a generally good, stabilized 10x zoom lens, snappy shot-to-shot performance, a good flash unit, and nice color reproduction. But in evaluating cameras, I always come back to the idea of how refined a particular unit feels. In my mind, this word suggests both quality and cohesiveness – a product with good individual component and system performance that also comes together as an integrated whole. The H3 impressed on several counts while shooting, offering ease of use that's not easy to find in a more powerful camera and baseline image capture that is very good. But the interface, while better here than on some other Sonys, continues to get in the way of a seamless shooting experience, as do poor high-ISO performance and persistent exposure and white balance concerns. With a visual package that, at least to me, isn't very appealing, the H3 still seems a bit disjointed: in short, it's simply not as refined as some competitive models.

With all of the good here, though, and with some serious competitors often overshadowing the slightly less visually and functionally assertive H3 in the current market, if you're shopping for a pocket-sized camera with ultra-zoom capability, there is no good reason not to consider the Sony as well. It's clear that in light of some noteworthy limitations, the Cyber-shot H3 doesn't dominate its class, but with image quality and features that strongly compete in most respects, it's still a serious contender.