DigitalCameraReview.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 Review
by David Rasnake -  12/15/2008

When the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 was announced in the build-up to the Photokina trade show a few months ago, Sony's press materials for the camera implied something bold: although it doesn't look the part, the T500 may be the closest thing to a combination camcorder-digicam currently on the market.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500


Hyped at least as much for its ability to capture HD video with stereo sound as its still image making, could the touch screen equipped, 10.1 megapixel T500 be the combination device – capable of grabbing great video and stunning still images – that we've been waiting for?

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
Building on the foundation laid by Sony's long line of touch screen Cyber-shot T models, the T500 brings more advanced shooting features, 720p video recording, HDMI connectivity, and a more svelte and serious appearance to Sony's popular pocket cams.

Ostensibly more performance focused than some of its T series forerunners (Sony claims the camera is targeted to "innovation enthusiasts"), the T500 features a 10.1 megapixel, 1/2.3-inch SuperHAD CCD sensor coupled with a 5x, 33-165mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom lens. The T500's touch panel is a wide-format (16:9 aspect ratio) 3.5 inch variant with 230,000 dots resolution.

Other key features include a face detection system capable of locking onto up to eight faces, Sony's advanced in-camera slide show tools that allow the addition of sophisticated shot-to-shot transitions and the incorporation of background music, and HDMI connectivity (via an included dock) for easily getting playback to an HDTV.

Shooting modes are more pared down on the T500 than on its flagship siblings, with a handful of basic auto-exposure options rounding out the list:

The T500's playback mode has several advanced features. But the list of retouch options here is also trimmed down compared to many Sonys, eliminating many of the "fun" features (filters, Happy Face Retouch, etc.) in favor of a succinct but very useful and businesslike range of in-camera edits that includes crop, rotate, and red-eye reduction tools.

The T500 retains the advanced slideshow functions seen in other high-end Sony models, allowing users to add background music and tinker with shot-to-shot transitions all on the camera itself. Throw the T500's HDMI output into the mix and you have the ability to easily compile a slideshow of your recent images and play it back for friends and family. How much a function like this ever gets used is an open question, but Sony's implementation is definitely nice enough to make it worth some exploration.

Video Capture
The fact that the T500 features a large switch dedicated to changing the camera over from still image capture to video shooting might be your first clue that this isn't your typical digicam with video capability tacked on. Using their experience designing camcorders as a jumping-off point, Sony appears to have thrown a lot of weight behind the T500's high-def video recording capability.

As noted, the T500 offers HD video capture at up to 1280x720 (720p) at 30 fps. Unlike most digital still cameras, movie audio is captured in stereo via the T500's front-mounted stereo microphone. From this capture, the T500 generates MPEG-4 video files utilizing the AVC/H.264 codec, which combines small file sizes with support for high-quality video and stereo audio. In fact, the only hitch seems to be that 720p clips are, for whatever reason, limited to ten minutes per file.

That minor annoyance aside, though, the T500 is versatile enough in the movie capture department to stand in for your camcorder in a pinch. A quick sample video shows the T500 in action; note, especially, the almost complete lack of zoom noise.

Note: The video clip in the player above is a lower-resolution version of the original file. The unaltered original file can be downloaded for viewing here.

If video performance may be the best currently available from an ultracompact still camera, we did have some playback issues. Not all supposedly compatible players wanted to fully support the camera's MP4 video format, and even after updating our codecs, some machines we tested our sample videos on still exhibited stuttering and choppy playback.

But assuming your hardware and software issues are sorted, the T500 delivers an exceptionally good video capture performance for a digital still camera.

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Styling and Build Quality
Carrying the innovation theme into its design, the T500 is a small camera that's unlike any other ultracompact we've looked at in several ways – not just because it uses a touch interface to replace a host of physical buttons.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

The T500's unusual functionality starts with its two-stage sliding lens, which allows the camera's picture-taking hardware to "disappear" when the cover is closed and provides a symmetrical look that suggests a lot of work on the part of the T500 design team.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

Turning the camera over, you'll find a sight common to Sony T models: no buttons. Other than a smattering of top-mounted physical controls, all user interaction with the T500 is handled through its 3.5 inch touch-responsive LCD.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

Likewise, Sony has excised almost all of the T500's ports as well. Instead, the camera docks – via a single proprietary connector – to an included base station, providing HDMI, USB, and composite A/V connections. From the camera side it's an elegant solution, reducing the clutter of ports that plague many small cameras. If you were hoping for direct mini USB connectivity or the like, though, you may be disappointed by the need to tote around the awkwardly shaped docking station.

In terms of the camera's construction, I wish that the T500's high-end design ethos translated to class-leading build quality as well, but having just handled Sony's very well made flagship T700, I have to say that this wasn't entirely the case. The T700 gets the brushed metal treatment all over, but beyond the lens cover you'll find an equally mix of metal and unappealing, high-gloss plastic on the T500. Overall, construction is nice and tight, but it's the details that really let the T500 down: the around-the-shutter-release zoom toggle lever and movie/still switch look like titanium, but have a light-weight, floppy feel that exposes their construction as chromed plastic.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

In the same vein, I'm wondering how the T500's battery door/memory card cover has possibly survived more than a handful of cycles. Even by the typical standard set forth for such things – companies seem to invariably cheap out on battery doors and port covers for whatever reason – this one is terribly flimsy and feels extremely vulnerable when opened.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

In fairness, none of these build quality gripes would likely prevent a would-be T500 buyer from purchasing the camera. But given the T500's substantial retail price and high-end market positioning, as well as Sony's reputation for putting together premium gadgets, it seems more than fair to expect a device built from appropriately high-end materials.

Ergonomics and Interface
If you've held other touch-screen Sonys, you probably already know what to expect ergonomically from the T500. I have always found Sony's T models horrendously uncomfortable to shoot with for any amount of time (there seems to be nowhere to satisfactorily plant my thumb!), but opinions on this topic around our office are mixed. As a general rule, if you have larger hands, you'll probably find the camera uncomfortable as well, but for just grabbing a few quick snaps at a time, even so this may not be an issue. Still, probably best to go handle one in person before putting down money on a T500 if you're at all in doubt.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

The same goes for the interface: if you've never used a camera with a touch interface, a Sony interface, or both, it's probably best to know what you're getting into before several hundred dollars on a T500. Physically, my thick fingers seem to make getting clean, single presses impossible on Sony's panels; hence, I find the included stylus, which clips onto the wrist strap, improves the camera's usability greatly. Those with slim fingers, however, seem to have little difficulty managing the screen without resorting to the pointer.

Having now personally reviewed at least four generations of Sony Cyber-shot models, it's more than a bit disappointing to me that I could almost copy and paste my first impressions of Sony's menu system into this review and call it a day. There have been improvements by degrees in making the Cyber-shot T menu structure more coherent, but even so I find the redundancy and the seemingly illogical grouping of parameters a constant frustration with these cameras. Again, your level of tolerance for or ire toward the T500's menus will likely be directly proportional to how much time you spend there: if you're a snapshot grabber who rarely tweaks settings, you might not give it a second thought. But if you're a power user, the constant menu run-around will get old in a hurry.

Basically, I love what Sony's done in redefining minimalism in the exterior appearance of its cameras. What I'm still wishing for is that they'd apply this same incisive design sense to the flow of their menus.

Display/Viewfinder
Sony opted for an exceptionally high-res 920,000 dot LCD on the T700, but the T500 gets a lower-spec 3.5 inch touch-responsive display (with only 230,000 dots resolution).

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

It's a nice, color-accurate screen that, in truth, performs about as well as the T700's in shooting mode (as this camera's sister model didn't effectively take advantage of its screen's full resolution in shooting and post-shot review). The screen gains up automatically in low light, and features an option for manually modifying brightness as well.

As expected for an ultracompact, there is no optical viewfinder.


PERFORMANCE

Timings and Shutter Lag
Sony has built a reputation on packing lots of speed – DSLR rivaling speed – into small cameras, setting a high standard for the T500's performance.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 0.02
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.02
Canon PowerShot A2000 IS 0.03
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 0.04
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 0.23
Canon PowerShot A2000 IS 0.38
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 0.40
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 0.42
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 0.46

Lock focus with the T500 by half-pressing the shutter release and you're in command of one of the fastest cameras made. Like the flagship T700, this thing simply flies from press to capture.

Focusing speed, though, felt a little slow at times, and our studio test confirmed that while the T500 would have been considered a blazing fast point-and-shoot two model cycles ago, it's merely middle of the pack now. Few will complain about an 0.4 press to capture time under ideal conditions, though the camera runs closer to a second at best in poor light and will never get below about 0.6 unless you disable auto-macro shooting. Overall, it's a quick camera, though it doesn't quite live up to the T700's stunning focus numbers.

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Fujifilm FinePix F60fd 3 2.5 fps
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700 10 1.6 fps
Canon PowerShot A2000 IS 5 1.6 fps
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
1.4 fps
Canon PowerShot A1000 IS 5 1.4 fps

Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The T500 does an admirable job in our continuous shooting test as well. Although it's slower than the T700 off the line, it does have the distinct advantage of being able to shoot seemingly until the card is full at this speed when using a SanDisk Extreme III card.

Auto Focus
The T500 boasts the typical array of auto focus modes – auto multi-area and center point options – as well as an automatic center-area mode and four approximate distance options (which attempt to lock focus first near the specified distance: 1 meter, 3 meters, 7 meters, or infinity). There's a related face detection system as well, which automatically overrides the focus area setting when it's enabled and faces are picked up in the frame.

Although it doesn't quite match the T700 step for step in a footrace, the T500's auto focus speed and, more so, its consistency are easy to appreciate. As with the T700, however, I did find this camera to simply give up when trying to focus on occasion. While the camera rarely missed focus, the T500 would sometimes simply fail to lock at all, preventing the shutter from firing. There seemed to be little rhyme and reason to the pattern, which seemed to happen on average as often as one out of twenty times. This annoying oddity aside, though, the T500's performance was rock-solid reliable.

Lens and Zoom
The T500 wears a 5x (33-165mm) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar optic with a maximum aperture range of f/3.5-4.4. It's a different zoom than the one used on the T700, but it incorporates the same internally contained design: the lens has no protruding parts, with all movement of the zoom performed inside the body of the camera itself. Such designs are ingenious for pocket cameras, as there's no lens barrel to damage. Conversely, lenses of this type tend to show the adverse effects of the design compromises involved – mostly in the form of soft images.

In use, the T500's unique optical design makes zooming smooth and nearly silent – which, in turn, allows zoom to be used while shooting video as well. The shutter-release surrounding zoom toggle switch is nicely sized and easy to grab. Overall, if the use of an internally contained lens will no doubt cause optical purists to fret, there's nothing inherent in this lens design that makes the T500 unpleasant to shoot with. Just the opposite, in fact.

In typical Sony fashion, the T500 features a pair of macro modes. The first, a sort of "auto-macro" setting, attempts to lock focus first in a close-up range that extends to about 6 inches from the lens. Performance is fairly typical of most ultracompact macro modes with this option selecting, though the T500 does seem to have a nasty propensity for settling on a focus point behind your subject in this mode.

For better-than-average macro performance, there's also the camera's close focus setting. Zoom is locked at full wide-angle when this option, which allows focusing down to around a quarter of an inch, is selected.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

For extreme close-ups, the T500 offers some truly exceptional performance for an ultracompact in this dedicated macro mode.

Flash
Performance from the T500's tiny built-in flash is average for this class: nothing to write home about, but not terrible either. The biggest flaw is undoubtedly a distinct lack of power, with an advertised range around 11 feet and a lot of ISO boost needed to get there. With the camera locked in at base sensitivity, a few feet of fill is all you're likely to get.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

Flash exposure in our test shooting was generally accurate and relatively pleasing as well. Stay close to your subject, make sure you don't cover the strobe lamp, and you'll generally get good – if a little bit flat – results. Like other recent Sony models, the T500 give you the option to boost or cut flash power. The three-step (low, normal, high) system is less precise than a true flash exposure compensation control, but useful for controlling wash-out in close shots just the same.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

It doesn't have the power to light up a dark room, but with the right combination of settings the T500's flash unit makes an admirable complement to the camera's excellent macro capabilities for filling in details in close-ups.

Image Stabilization
Even in ultracompacts, optical image stabilization is almost a must these days, and the T500 fulfills this requirement with its SteadyShot optical stabilization system. Based on our performance evaluation, the system works as well as any on the market, with effective stabilization in my experience down to shutter speeds around 1/10.

Settings for the stabilization system are straightforward. By default, the camera's stabilization system is set to continuous operation. You can save some battery power by switching the system its shoot-only setting, where stabilization is only active when the shutter release is pressed. For tripod use, SteadyShot can also be disabled completely.

Battery
It's a good thing the T500 has a nicely designed battery charger (the type in which the plug folds into the body for easy transport), as that power-hungry screen and small battery mean you'll be spending a lot of time charging this camera's tiny lithium-ion battery pack. We went through several cycles of the battery in testing this Cyber-shot, and never succeeded in clearing 200 frames without a recharge. With average playback-mode use factored in, expect actual numbers closer to 150 shots per charge – and even lower if you shoot lots of video. In short, plan on buying a couple of spare batteries for your T500 if you want to get in a full shooting day without recharging.


IMAGE QUALITY
Sony's T models have never been known for their image quality. At the same time, there's no reason to assume that the T500 shouldn't be a perfectly capable snapshot maker – and indeed, that proves to generally be the case with a few caveats.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

Keep the ISOs low, watch out for blown highlights and red-channel issues and there's little else to stand in the way of getting clean, crisp images from this Cyber-shot.

Exposure, Processing, and Color
Sony just can't quite seem to score an unqualified winner with the exposure control system on their T cameras, and sadly, the T500 exhibited the same sorts of "all over the map" exposure issues that we ran up against with the T700. While it was prone to slight overexposure and clipped highlights (as many digicams area), the T500 would also underexpose seemingly at random. The optional on-screen histogram proves to be a shot saver with this camera, allowing you to get a visual handle on possible missed exposures before you pull the trigger.

A thoroughgoing lack of sunshine during our weeks with the T500 makes it slightly harder to judge the camera's color reproduction proclivities. Based on our studio tests, the T500 appears to be similar to the last few Cyber-shots we've looked at in this regard: generally neutral and accurate, with a few strong saturation bumps and slightly hard contrast. The T500 provides the usual color modes as well, allowing basic tailoring of the camera's image look.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Normal

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Vivid

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Neutral

Sharp-eyed observers have probably already noticed that pure reds in the above tests appear to be close to clipping in the Normal and Vivid shots. As with its T700 sibling, the T500 has a tough time with reds.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

Switching over to the Neutral preset actually helps somewhat, and seems to smooth out the camera's harsh default transitions into shadow areas as well.

White Balance
Automatic white balance performance is about as expected, with the T500 struggling to produce natural looking pictures under incandescent light.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

More time shooting indoors for this review than is usually the case also called my attention to the camera's difficulties under fluorescent light, and the occasional inconsistency of its presets in managing indoor shooting situations. Concerns weren't really shot-ruining, but we did see some funny colors more than once shooting under incandescent light with the appropriate preset.

Lens Faults
One of the T700's greatest weaknesses was its lens, showing some troubling blue fringe in high-contrast shooting situations. Hence, I was on alert for signs of chromatic aberration this time around. What I found is that while the T500 still runs up against the occasional issue in this regard, performance on the whole seems slightly better with this variant of Sony's internally contained zoom lens.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
100% crop

The shot above shows the T500 at its worst, and while it's certainly intrusive at view sizes approaching 100 percent, it also doesn't invade the frame the way the T700's fringe issues did and, moreover, is primarily limited to shooting at full wide-angle.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Wide-Angle

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Telephoto

The T500's glass shows just a hint of characteristic barrel distortion at wide-angle. More pronounced is the amount of pincushioning at the other end of the zoom range.

Sensitivity and Noise
The T500 provides a basic selection of sensitivity options, including a dedicated High Sensitivity scene mode for shooting in low light, as well as an auto ISO option and user-set manual sensitivity from ISO 80 to 3200.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 80
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 80, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 100
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 100, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 200
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 400
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 800
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 1600
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 3200
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
ISO 3200, 100% crop

Picky shooters will note some softness and flecks from the lowest ISOs at 100 percent, but for most uses ISO 80, 100, and 200 are functionally identical and quite clean. Noise comes on in earnest at ISO 400, though it's still well controlled, and even ISO 800 is about par for the course in this class.

The T500's performance falls off sharply at ISO 1600. Even more so than in the recently reviewed T700, aggressive noise reduction – the kind that earned Sony's small cameras a reputation for performing poorly at higher ISOs – is back in force with this model. A combination of extreme detail softening, blobby solid areas, and the almost complete loss of color information in the top two sensitivity settings makes ISO 1600 unadvisable and ISO 3200 essentially unusable for all but the very tiniest prints.

Additional Sample Images

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500


CONCLUSIONS
When Sony announced that it was building a small camera with huge video capability for power users, we were interested to find out exactly what the finished product would be like. While the T models have always been snappy performers, it's always been the feeling around here that they were better suited to casual shooters. But although the T500 does offer a more refined high-performance experience than its forerunners in some respects – and its 720p video capability is really excellent – what you're getting here is really the same basic package that the novice-friendly T700 offers up. Maybe we'd define the needs of those "innovation enthusiasts" to whom this camera is allegedly marketed differently than the folks at Sony, but without improved noise performance and a better optic, I can't see a lot of dedicated "techies" getting on board with the T500. A few model cycles back, the touch screen would have been appeal enough to lure this crowd, but with lots of players joining that game of late, the T500's ace in hole doesn't play as strongly as it once did.


The bottom line on the T500 is that it's a solid camera, with quick performance and a high fun factor. Its size is hard to beat, and its movies look great and even sound alright to boot. Even considering its high price point, the T500 delivers an awful lot – probably more that's useful, on balance, than the T700, unless storing lots of images on your camera is your thing. It's certainly not the camera it could have been with a better (probably retractable-design) lens, a more powerful battery, and some manual exposure controls, but respecting its limitations and shortcomings, the T500 works reasonably well as a total package as it is.

Pros:

Cons:


SPECIFICATIONS

Sensor 10.1 megapixel, 1/2.3" Super HAD CCD
Zoom 5x (33-165mm) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar, f/3.5-4.4
LCD/Viewfinder 3.5", 230K-dot touch sensitive hybrid TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 80-3200
Shutter Speed 1-1/1000 seconds
Shooting Modes Auto, Easy Auto, Program, Scene, Movie
Scene Presets

High Sensitivity, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Soft Snap, Landscape, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, Hi-speed Shutter, Smile Shutter, Gourmet, Auto Adjustment, 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, Flexible Spot AF, Focus Presets, Macro
Drive Modes Normal, Burst, Self Timer
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
4 MB
File Formats JPEG, MPEG
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
1280x720, 30 fps
Zoom During Video Yes
Battery Rechargeable lithium-ion
Connections USB 2.0, AV output (includes HDMI output), DC input
Additional Features Face Detection, Smile Shutter, Bionz processor, touch screen interface, HD Slide Show with music, Optical SteadyShot