I had to do a double take when I unboxed our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170 review unit. "Wait. Didn't I just review this camera?" From all of the press materials, I had an idea that the W170 shared a lot in common with its recently reviewed Cyber-shot W150 sibling. As it turns out, the cameras are essentially clones, visually and functionally.
So what makes the W170 worthy of a separate model name? Primarily, a 10.1 megapixel sensor that's slightly larger in addition to be higher-res than the W150's 8.1 megapixel variant. If there may not be a lot of new information to be uncovered in reviewing the W170, it's fair to say that the W150 was a strong camera that we liked a lot but didn't get to spend a lot of time with. Likewise, there were some concerns with our W150 review unit that we hoped were anomalies, and loads of features yet to play with. Overall, even with all it shares in common with its step-down sibling, there's plenty of substance worthy of a fresh look with the W170.
And of course, there's also that nagging little question about how the W170's more resolution-endowed sensor would stand up in the image quality department – an area where the W150 generally did very well.
Functional sibling to the W150, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170 is a feature-packed 10.1 megapixel compact camera with a 5x Carl Zeiss zoom lens. The W170 brings many of Sony's latest technology to the table, including improved processing, dynamic range expansion options, and a boatload of soft features.
Sony made a high-profile entry into the world of smile detection technologies with its Smile Shutter package, and as before the W170 can be set to hold on firing the shutter until people in the scene are smiling. In the latest model, Sony has also added priority modes that let you give preference to capturing the smiles of either children or adults (a similar notion is applied to the W170's face detection system generally).
Questions of its overall usefulness aside, Smile Shutter works fine. Sensitivity is adjustable, and Sony's tightened up the performance and accuracy all around. But Smile Shutter can still be finicky at times: subjects have to be looking almost directly into the camera for consistent performance, have to show teeth when they smile, and the priority system can have trouble deciding who are the adults and who are the children (this may speak more to the immaturity of some my test subjects than to a problem with the camera, however). Overall, while Smile Shutter works better than ever, I'm still not completely convinced.
Although the W170 has an auto scene recognition option – Sony calls it "iSCN" – it's not as comprehensive in its range of adjustments as some competitive technologies. Primarily, iSCN scene recognition automatically detects backlit conditions (shooting into the sun, or shooting at dusk for instance) and applies the appropriately correction. The system can also be set up to take two shots – one with your settings, and one with the options that the W170 deems most appropriate, if this differs from your settings. If you're not insulted by the implication that your camera is smarter than you are, this can be good insurance for getting a usable shot.
Speaking of shooting, the Cyber-shot W170's basic shooting modes are as follows:
Playback options are typically extensive for a Cyber-shot, and include several convincingly polished filters (soft focus options, selective color, unsharp mask, etc.), the expected red-eye removal and crop/resize tools, and one of the most involved slide show modes seen anywhere on any camera. The W170 allows shooters to import music, select transitions and frame effects, and put together in-camera slide shows that rival those from basic image editing software (and which can then be outputted for public display through the Sony's component out).
Last time around, we neglected to test one of the latest Cyber-shot W cameras' most outlandish technologies: the Happy Face Retouch system. Basically, Happy Face Retouch uses the W170's post-process face recognition system to identify faces and then skew the mouth area up slightly (there are five levels of "intensity") to literally turn a frown upside down. Demos we'd seen of the system were questionable at best, but nothing could prepare us for the actual results.
When it works, Happy Face Retouch is, at best, just plain silly. Surly subjects don't magically look like they're smiling; rather, they come out of the retouch looking like the victims of some kind of bizarre "Muppetification." At it's highest intensity settings, the system can turn a cross expression into a grimace, but that's about the most natural you'll get out of the option that we've officially renamed "Scary Face Retouch" around the DCR office. And if the results are odd looking on close-mouthed subjects, apply the retouch to an already smiling subject and the outcome is somewhere between comical and frightening.
Happy Face Retouch, Level 4
The above shot highlights what makes results from the Happy Face Retouch appear so strange: in skewing the face into a smile, the technology turns up the corners of the subject's mouth in an almost demonic way. Compare this to a natural smile and you'll note that most people's mouths simply don't move like that.
Putting all of this aside, issues with Sony's post-shot face recognition system (the technology often misses: if your subjects are wearing glasses, for instance, the system will not find the face at all) make it difficult to consistently use this retouch anyway. All in all, the technology is morbidly fascinating, but simultaneously, it really makes you wonder if this was really the best possible use of R&D resources.
For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.
Note: Given the functional similarities between the W150 and the W170, applicable portions of the W150 review were used for this write-up as well. Image quality and performance testing cited in this review is specific to the W170, however.
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
Device styling has long been one of Sony's strengths, and the W170 is no exception in this regard. If the basic look hasn't changed much in awhile (and, as noted, carries over completely from the W150), a quick glance at this camera, with its "rounded square" profile and brushed metal finish, confirms it as unmistakably a Sony.
Styling and Build Quality
While we've tended to classify Sony W models as "ultracompacts" in the past – owing at least in some measure to their point-and-shoot exposure control – the slightly heavy, slightly chunky W models push the limits of what could be rightly called ultracompact in this age of truly tiny cameras.
Even in the W series, Sony generally does a nice of job of conveying its signature "premium product" visual message – an idea that comes through loud and clear with the W170. Altogether, the W170 doesn't diverge much from previous generations in its basic shape and appearance, retaining most of the signature touches (metal accents, brushed finishes, subtle finish colors) that Sony has built its reputation for style and class in compact cameras on.
A wobbly shutter button doesn't exactly inspire confidence, and too much slop in the lens barrel (see the "Lens and Zoom" discussion in the next section for more on this) also falls into the category of questionable build quality. These concerns are the exception rather than the rule, however, feeling especially out of place in light of the W170's generally tight construction.
Ergonomics and Interface
Spending some time with my second new Cyber-shot W, I've come away even more bothered by some of the interface that headaches that the W170 presents. Although I like the W170's look and generally approve of its feel, there are some points to take issue with in the overall user experience. Owing in some measure to its boxy shape and lack of a real grip profile, the W170 can be difficult to use one-handed. Covering the tiny flash area is also entirely too easy.
The d-pad is big enough to be comfortable for those with large hands and easy enough to use, but I continue to feel more negative than positive about the tiny round buttons (Menu, Home, Playback, and Slideshow) that surround it: without much beveling, they're almost too flat to depress, especially if your fingers are larger than average.
Even the second time around, I have to admit that I find the W170's mode dial, with its visually crowded mix of text and icons, a bit bewildering. With three auto modes (Program, Auto, and Easy, or as we termed for internal use, "Auto," "Auto-er," and "Auto-est") and smattering of scene presets directly on the mode dial, it's a little hard for novices to know where to put the dial to just take a picture (thankfully, Easy is the most logical guess, and a pretty good choice to boot). The technologically savvy won't be at all bothered by this arrangement – in fact, they probably won't even notice – but users who are intimidated by the mode proliferation and feature bloat of many newer compacts may find the W170 initially hard to come to terms with.
Sony's on-screen interface is extremely polished looking with its slick pop-up help options and gray-on-white sidebar icons. What I find unconscionable on this Cyber-shot W, however, is that the system seems to have become slower and more lag prone than ever. It's felt for awhile like Sony was giving preference to graphical flash over responsiveness in the Cyber-shot menus, but the W170 takes it to a new level with menus that take relatively forever to load and are plodding to cycle through. The most glaring example is unquestionably the transition from shooting to playback mode: on our test unit, it took more than six seconds (during which time the camera was black-screened and apparently unresponsive) to jump into the playback menu, and given that it happened regardless of how full the memory card was – or whether there was even a memory card loaded at all – I have to assume that loading all of those call-ups and functions on the playback side is to blame.
Like most Cyber-shots, the W170 definitely plays to tech savvy gadget fans with its interface.General users may find the whole system a little more obtuse, and old-school photographers will almost certainly be downright annoyed with Sony's choice to preference graphical flash over speed or transparency. I'm also still not sure how to feel about the "Home" button interface concept that Sony continues to use, in which all of the camera's functions (some of them redundant with other menus) are consolidated under a single listing. On the one hand, it puts the entire range of menu choices under one umbrella; on the other, page after page of unclearly differentiated options is a bit much.
As we said before, spend some time with the Sony and things get more familiar, but given the multi-layered menus and loads of soft features, it's not a camera that will feel instantly familiar to most.
The W170 uses the same 2.7-inch LCD seen in the W150, and the same basic sentiments apply. While contrasty and color- and exposure-accurate, the Sony's screen gives up some fluidity to its competitors in low light. Gain-up is automatic, but the screen isn't particularly bright in either dark rooms or strong sunlight. The issue outdoors is at least as much a problem with glare as a problem with gain; perhaps an aftermarket screen protector/anti-glare film would help sort things out in this area. Otherwise, the display is a nice size that works well for the W170's interface arrangement.
Thankfully, the W170 is one of the few cameras in this class to continue to offer an optical viewfinder. Though it's no match for even the tiniest ultrazoom viewfinder, the W170's field of vision is relatively spacious when compared to those on competitive cameras. It's a long way from accurate (Sony doesn't list coverage numbers on their specs sheet, but I'd say that 85 percent is generous), but on bright days, especially, it's a photographic lifesaver.
The W150 impressed us with snappy performance and a lot of solid features, and hence it's no surprise that the W170 comes in with the same great combination of speed, consistency, and features to largely dominate this category – with a few minor caveats, of course.
Timings and Shutter Lag
Speed remains one of strongest selling points for Sony's W-series Cyber-shots with the W170. Timings were in keeping with what we saw in the W150. Pure shutter lag came in well under our 0.03 second threshold; Sony claims it's under 0.01 seconds, and based on the W170's lightning fast performance with focus and exposure locked, I have no reason to doubt this. In fact, when it comes to press-to-capture speed, the W170 feels like the fastest non-DSLR I've ever personally shot with.
Auto focus speed doesn't disappoint, either. Average times from press to capture working without pre-focus grouped consistently around the ten-shot average of 0.27 seconds. There's very little surprising at the telephoto end, either, with average times in the 0.4 second range making the W170 an impressively responsive camera throughout its zoom range.
The W150 turned in a solid 2 fps unlimited continuous shooting time, making it a fairly solid performer here as well in spite of its size. More resolution with the W170, however, means that this number falls off a bit in the step-up model: in our testing, the W170 was able to capture full-res shots continuously at a fairly consistent rate around 1.7 fps. It's unlikely that this split-second difference will really be of much concern to anyone, but it should be noted that purely from a specs perspective, the W150 trumps the W170 in this area.
As with the W150, secondary camera operations are a little less stunningly fast. Start-up to first shot times are average, at around 2.5 seconds to complete the cycle, and as noted, the W170's entire interface has a slightly sluggish feel when changing settings or switching from playback to shooting mode. Even with this snarl on the W170's high-speed highway, the camera offers an overall feeling of responsive not usually associated with point-and-shoot cameras.
Lens and Zoom
The W170 wears the same wide-ish 28-140mm equivalent Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom. Lens speed is in keeping with class averages for this sort of thing, with a maximum aperture range of f/3.3-5.2.
Lens movement is smooth and quiet, though I continue to be disappointed by the apparent build quality of the W170's Carl Zeiss zoom. The barrel exhibits a lot of free play (too much, in my opinion) throughout its range, feeling especially wobbly at the long end of the zoom. As before, we expect more from Sony.
To the positive, however, it's unusual to see nice, dimensionally large optics on a pocket-size camera, and having now shot two cameras with this glass, I can't help but continue to be a bit impressed by what Sony's done here in packing a wide, long, and large lens into such a small space. If you're looking for fairly serious optical specs in an ultracompact, the W170 remains a strong contender.
As noted in the timings review above, auto focus performance in general is one of the W170's strongest areas. Lock is lightning quick in good light regardless of the mode setting, and not bad on the accuracy scores to boot (using my standard test subjects, the W170 behaved similarly to the W150, giving a slightly missed false lock on the telephoto side of the range at times). As with the junior model, the W170 also seems to get in a hurry and miss against repetitively textured backgrounds in particular, but a quick to activate AF assist lamp makes indoor shooting nearly as fast as outdoor work.
Sony's standard array of AF modes are all available on the W170: the default multi-area setting, center-weighted and center-spot options, and the Sony-specific semi-manual AF settings, in which the user specifies the approximate distance to subject from a list of options and the camera focuses accordingly (great for locking the camera at infinity). The W170's feature-rich face detection system, which allows users to prioritize lock on faces of either children or adults (and does so with surprising accuracy), operates independently of the basic focusing mode choices.
With good continuous shooting speed, the only thing the W170 lacks in the focusing department is the ability to track moving subjects with a continuous AF setting.
Of course, user-set shutter speeds would also have been helpful in this case.
As before, macro focus remains a disappointment with the W170. Getting a lock up close is difficult, and becomes nearly impossible if you're not in the full-time macro mode (rather than the full-range auto macro setting). A long minimum focusing distance at wide angle of around 2.5 inches makes frame-filling macro subjects a wishful thought at most.
Given that they're physically identical, the placement of the flash hasn't gotten any better on the W170 compared to the W150: it's easy to partially cover the flash with a finger without even realizing it. On a full battery, the W170's flash numbers were also familiarly slow, turning in an 8.2 second full-power recycle time. ISO boost is used as a substitute for flash power in this case as well, which means you'll want to lock the W170 around ISO 200 and mind your available range if image quality in flash shooting is a first-order concern for you.
The W170's three step (lower intensity, normal, higher intensity) flash power controls, which take the place of more advanced flash power compensation settings, are helpful, making it relatively easy to limit the system's inherent harshness by selecting the lower intensity setting. In repeated tests, I honestly couldn't discern much difference in power between the standard and higher intensity settings, with the change in exposure basically imperceptible in most situations.
As with the W150, the W170 struggles to keep red-eye under control. Engaging a shooting menu option is supposed to provide automatic post-shot correction, and while it helps somewhat I still found myself needing to post-process (there's an in-camera post-shot removal option as well, which works somewhat more consistently) flash portraits for red-eye with roughly the same frequency we've experienced before with these cameras: three times out of four.
Certainly a slow and somewhat weak performance here doesn't spell instant disqualification for the W170, and indeed not long ago its flash-photo performance would have been considered par for the course. Faster recycle times, more power, and even rapid-burst flash modes that are making their way onto some ultracompacts, however, make the W170 seem a little antiquated – especially where shot to shot cycle times are concerned. All in all, if lots of flash shooting is in your future, the W170 isn't the best option out there in this price and features range.
Image stabilization is courtesy of Sony's Super SteadyShot system, which provides lens-shifting optical stabilization in addition to ISO boost options. Though the lack of manual controls made precisely controlled testing a little bit of a challenge, the optical system seems to perform as well as any other modern IS implementation in most cases, with shutter speeds around 1/20 at wide-angle being the apparent consistency floor for my use, at least.
Interestingly, our previous concerns about softness at telephoto, which seemed to be at least partially connected with the IS system, have vanished in the W170. More on this in the "Image Quality" section.
With a little more time to work with the W170 than we had with the W150, we were able to subject the camera to a full-on battery discharge test with a new battery.
Sony claims an impressive 370 shot battery life with the W170, and after a few days of shooting, some video testing, lots of playback options exploration, flash discharge tests, and then some continuous shooting click-down testing to see how long the W170 would hang on, we crested the 300-shot mark with apparent battery life to spare. That's an impressive number by anyone's standards, largely backing up Sony's claim that the latest W models are some of the most "fuel efficient" ultracompact options around.
The one clear difference between the Sony W150 and the W170? Whereas the W150 uses an 8.1 sensor, the W170 packs a 10.1 variant of the same imager. Sony smartly steps up the sensor size along with the gains in resolution, however, meaning that pixel density is about the same either way (though the 10.1 megapixel W170 is still at a slight disadvantage when all is said and done). With different sensors for each application, if there's going to be a fundamental difference between these two very closely matched siblings, it will come in image quality.
Exposure, Processing, and Color
Exposure with the W170 was about as dead-on as we've seen from any compact camera. With the standard dynamic range expansion option enabled, the Sony preserves highlights quite well, making for pleasing, well-balanced shots. The standard range of metering controls (multi-area, center-weighted, spot) are available for more involved metering tasks, but the Cyber-shot was accurate enough in this regard that I rarely felt the need to step outside of the default multi-area setting.
As we saw with the W150, the W170 oversaturates reds to a degree that can only be described as "extreme." Even in our studio shots, red boundary areas (the emblem on the playing card box, for instance) have a burned-in look, bleeding into surrounding colors. As before, the corrective involves turning the camera's Dynamic Range Optimization system off when shooting heavily saturated subjects, and the lack of a neutral/natural processing mode remains regrettable for this reason alone.
Beyond the default color mode, users can select the contrast-boosting Vivid option, or Black and White and Sepia modes.
Black and White
As noted, the W170 utilizes Sony's Dynamic Range Optimization (DRO) technology, which claims to open up shadow detail without losing highlights. The system is enabled in what the camera calls DRO Standard mode by default.
Even more range expansion is possible, however, by selecting DRO Plus mode, which uses a combination of real-time processing adjustments and post-processing to further bring out shadows and make highlights pop. Although it does bring out a touch more detail in high-contrast scenes, in shooting with the DRO Plus option enabled, be prepared for some fairly serious color and saturation shifts when compared to the standard mode.
Blues are rendered in a way that's especially unnatural with this setting, and aforementioned concerns with red saturation are only made worse. Tack a lag of a few seconds onto each shot for the W170 to process the image with DRO Plus selected, and it seems to me at least that the costs here start to outweigh the benefits in most cases. Conversely, you definitely get a bit more range "straight from the box" on both ends of the spectrum with the DRO Plus option – a good thing in some cases, if you can accept its limitations.
Of course, DRO can also be disabled completely, which gives a slightly more neutral rendering altogether.
In shooting the W170, I spent a bit more time playing with Sony's DRO technology. It seems that in the real world, the differences in level of detail presented between DRO Standard and DRO Plus prove to be fairly negligible, even in high-contrast situations:
All in all, with its even heavier saturation and the processing lag it adds, I didn't find myself reaching too often for DRO Plus.
Under incandescent light, auto white balance on the W170, like the W150, does a decent impression of a sepia shot.
This performance continues to place the latest Cyber-shot W models among the weaker contenders in their class where white balance performance is concerned. Plenty of reasonably effective presets cover all of the bases, which is good given that there's no preset manual mode. On balance, poor white balance performance is a little limiting and frustrating enough to earn the W170 a negative mark in my book in this regard.
The W170's 5x Carl Zeiss lens is overwhelming good – it's nice and sharp through most of the range, with impressively little loss of definition at the edges. Color fringing is practically a non-issue (I was able to induce a bit in blurred backgrounds at full wide-angle). I'm still not wild about its bokeh – the softness of the rendering of out-of-focus areas – but this is a minor and fairly subjective complaint.
Barrel distortion can be noticeable at times, though it's far from the worst we've seen. Somewhat unusually, pincushioning at full telephoto is almost as pronounced, giving telephoto shots a noticeably puckered look.
What surprised me most, however, was that the softness at telephoto that we had observed with our last test unit sporting this lens, the Cyber-shot W150, simply didn't materialize in the latest review unit – as several full telephoto shots throughout the test samples in this review suggest.
So what explains the difference? Unlike our W150 test unit (which came to us visibly used as a loan from the manufacturer), the W170 was purchased new. Given the amount of abuse test cameras suffer at the hands of reviewers like us, it's conceivable that our W150 test unit had simply been knocked around a bit too much, resulting in some misalignment and minute focusing issues at full telephoto and/or problems with the IS system. A more consistent performance from the W170 is more in keeping with what we've come to expect from Sony's Zeiss-branded glass. Whatever the cause of concerns with our W150, it appears to have been either an isolated issue or one from which the W170 doesn't suffer for whatever reason.
Sensitivity and Noise
The W150 surprised us with its low-light performance, toning back the noise reduction compared to previous Sonys. With more resolution, we were interested to see how the W170's noise would stack up.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
There's some notable color muting beyond ISO 800, but the W170 proves to be a solid performer given its resolution. Shots taken at up to ISO 1600 remain remarkably clean; noise reduction intrudes visibly at ISO 3200, but even this setting is quite usable – something that can't always be said for ISO 3200 settings on current ultracompacts.
By my math, the W170's larger sensor means that pixel density is about the same compared to the W150. Not surprisingly, then, high-sensitivity performance from the W170 compares favorable to what we saw from its little brother.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170, ISO 1600
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150, ISO 1600
If anything, the W170 earns a slight advantage at higher ISOs where edge definition is concerned – one small benefit of higher resolution.
Additional Sample Images
Sony's highly logical "stepped features" approach means that you get essentially the same camera with just a handful of clear specs differences whichever W model you choose. So is the W170 worth the top-of-the-heap price it commands?
Although it remains an excellent performer and one of the most well-rounded cameras we've had the pleasure of testing, the W170 is actually undermined by its successful and equally competent little brother. In light of the fact that the W150 does basically everything the W170 does (and even does a few things, like continuous shooting, better), and all at a slightly cheaper price, the upgraded camera is hard to justify. Were it not for the W150, we'd be recommending this camera wholeheartedly; as it is, you won't even notice the W170's slight resolution advantage, and everything else is even money as best we can tell.
At the end of the day, the W170's a great little camera, but with so little separating it from the next step down in Sony's W series, if you're shopping for a Cyber-shot the W150 still looks like the best deal to us.
SPECIFICATIONS: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170
10.1 megapixel, 1/2.3" Super HAD CCD
|Zoom||5x (28-140mm) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom, f/3.3-f/5.2|
|LCD/Viewfinder||2.7", 230K-pixel TFT LCD; optical viewfinder
|Shutter Speed||60-1/1600 seconds|
|Shooting Modes||Auto, Easy Shooting, Program, Movie, High Sensitivity, Scene|
|Scene Presets||Soft Snap, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Twilight, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, Smile Shutter, Underwater|
|White Balance Settings||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash, Underwater
|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|
|File Formats||JPEG, MPEG|
|Max. Image Size||3,264 x 2,448|
|Max. Video Size
||640x480, 30 fps
|Zoom During Video||No|
|Battery||Rechargeable 960 mAh lithium-ion|
|Connections||USB 2.0, AV output, DC input|
|Additional Features||Advanced D-Range Optimizer, Super SteadyShot IS, Red-Eye Reduction, Child/Adult Face Detection, Unsharp Mask, Happy Face Retouch, New Slide Show, Intelligent Scene Recognition, Auto Macro, Easy Shooting Mode, Improved Smile Shutter, Favorites, Face Search|