Sony can largely be credited for making touch screen ultracompacts one of the hottest niches of this market segment, and like clockwork, the manufacturer has delivered a premium touch screen camera with every new model cycle. Thus the announcement of the latest flagship Cyber-shot, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700, wasn't particularly surprising.
Sony's certainly savvy enough to know a good thing when they see it. Though reviewers have been less than kind about the lackluster images produced by Sony's expensive T models, consumers seeking the latest, most technologically advanced premium pocket camera have flocked to the series, with its unique touch-responsive interface, in droves. If performance hasn't always met the discerning standards of photo enthusiasts, the T models have found a warm reception among teens and young adults looking for style, portability, and snapshot quality.
According to Sony, the latest T700 isn't merely a stylish camera for casual shooting, though. Rather, the idea was to provide a fully integrate picture taking and storage solution. It's widely known that a fair percentage of digital images never make it off the cameras they're taken on, and many users use their digicams to transport shots and show them off to others. With 4 GB of internal memory and a unique file transfer system that allows up to 40,000 shots to be stored on the device itself, the T700 might just represent a new trend in digital picture display and storage system as well.
Touch screen cameras certainly are nothing new at this point, but for everyone except jaded camera reviewers, it seems that the novelty of being able to tap your way through settings changes on a huge screen hasn't worn off. Biases about whether or not a touch interface does more to get in the way of ease of operation than it makes up for with cool touch-responsive integrations aside, there's still something a bit "sci-fi" about a camera with no physical interface: even though the convenience of actual buttons means that they'll probably never become a thing of the past, touch screens continue to seem like the technology of the future.
Sony's got the style thing down with the Cyber-shot T cameras, and although many gentlemen may find our review unit's metallic pink finish an affront to their masculinity, the T700 comes in slick metallic black and charcoal hues as well. No boring silver boxes here.
Half of the visual appeal of a touch screen camera in my opinion is the ultra-minimalist styling it promotes, with its "where'd the buttons go?" visual effect keeping lines clean all around. The T700's few buttons, and especially its zoom toggle, are still tiny (though the toggle is positioned better than on some previous Sony touch models). Without a lot of real estate beyond the screen to work with in positioning dedicated buttons, small controls are simply the price to pay for novelty in this case, though users with larger fingers should note that both the tiny buttons and the screen itself can be a little unforgiving.
Build quality is everything we expect from a pricey Sony ultracompact, with copious metal and basically no plastic. That said, users should note that metal casings, while giving the T700 a high-end feel, are also more prone to denting if dropped. A small nick in our review unit's sliding lens cover is proof.
Sony's touch screen models have been around in the same basic form for awhile now, and jumping into the T700's interface, what you'll find is a system very much like previous T cameras. Touch-responsive "button" areas are laid out on three sides of the image preview by default. Obviously, the lack of physical controls beyond power, shutter release, and zoom toggle buttons means you'll be hunting through menus to get to a setting if you need to change it.
Of course, the T700's entire screen is touch-responsive – not just the sidebars. This allows easy navigation of on-screen pop-ups when making settings adjustments, and supports some features that only a touch interface allows, like the ability to point to any area within the frame and establish an AF lock at that area.
With its very thin metal shell, the T700 is built for heading out and about. Sony has been on the leading edge of building pocket cameras that truly fit in a pocket, and at some under half an inch thick, the T700 certainly does just that. Other than a potential concern about screen damage if you were to tote the camera in a pocket alongside your keys, for instance, there's nothing to stand in the way of throwing the T700 in your pocket as a camera for grabbing casual snaps.
Whether or not you dig the touch interface, there's little to argue about with the T700's screen itself. A rich, vibrant 3.5 inch panel sporting a phenomenal 920,000 dots of resolution makes viewing images and videos on the T700 a sublime experience compared to the poor reproduction you'll get from many ultracompact displays. All the better that the display performs well given that the T700 is also marketed as a portable photo viewing solution.
Otherwise, basic specs for the T700 are conventional. A 4x, folded-optics lens delivers images to the camera's 10.1 megapixel CCD sensor – a spec carried over directly from the T300. Auto options like face detection, automatic scene recognition, and Sony's Smile Shutter automatic smile capture technology abound, and although the camera features a program mode for more in-depth shooting control as well, the assumption seems to be that most users will pull a Ronco-style "set it and forget it" maneuver and never venture much out of the default auto mode.
As luck would have it, some bleak and cold late fall weather accompanied the arrival of our T700 review unit, foiling plans to grab some initial outdoor snaps with the Cyber-shot. No matter: previous T cameras have struggled with inconsistent white balance and unpleasant noise at higher ISOs, and being stuck mostly indoors with the T700 has allowed me to grab some sample captures and form some opinions regarding these crucial performance areas for the new model.
While there seem to be some incremental improvements, first impressions of the T700 are that as a camera, very little has changed from previous T cameras: what I liked about models like the T200 is still here, but much of what I disliked about the overall concept has yet to be addressed. However, four gigabytes of internal storage and a software system for returning screen-res images to the T700 – allowing the camera to store display versions of tens of thousands of shots – take the T series's "portable digital library" concept to a new level. And for many potential buyers, the T700's capabilities as a portable multimedia player may be at least as important as its potential as a camera.
To this end, I'm only just beginning to explore the T700's portable photo viewer functions as enabled through its PC Sync software package. While the general opinion around here is that the T700 will need to make some advances in the picture-taking arena compared to previous T models to earn our wholehearted recommendation, the idea of being able to take your entire photo library with you in your pocket – and show off shots to friends and family on the camera's very nice screen or an external TV/monitor – deserves consideration on its own. While it won't likely suit the file portability needs of professionals or serious amateurs, the T700 appears to do a lot of what much more expensive photo storage/viewer systems do at a fraction of the cost – plus you get an ultracompact camera as well at no extra charge.
We've only scratched the surface of what the T700 offers as both a picture-taker and an image storage system, and though there haven't been any revolutionary discoveries as yet, the possibility is still there. We'll be back with more on the Cyber-shot T700 soon, so keep an eye out for our full review in coming weeks.