Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100 Review
by Allison Johnson -  3/10/2010

The Cyber-shot S2100 holds a clear place at the ground floor of Sony's point-and-shoot line, lighter in both price and features than its slimmer W and T series counterparts. It's their only compact camera that uses AA batteries. Of all the Cyber-shot models announced so far this year, the S2100 is the least expensive with an introductory price hovering just above $100.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100

That "S" should stand for "simplicity." The 12.1-megapixel Cyber-shot S2100 has been designed to meet the needs of a beginning photographer with basic exposure controls in program mode and few controls in "Easy" mode. Does the Cyber-shot S2100 strike the right balance between ease of use and quality picture-taking? Read our review to find out.

The Sony S2100 takes on a similar shape to most AA-powered compacts. The right side is bulkier where the battery compartment is located. The front is sculpted to offer a bit of a handgrip. The lens and camera body feel like plastic, though there's a nice layer of brushed aluminum over the front of the body.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100

It's not nearly as slim as its pricier Cyber-shot counterparts, though it doesn't take up a lot of room in a coat pocket or purse. The AAs give it a fair amount of weight in the hand or wherever you happen to be carrying it. Loaded up and ready for action, it weighs about 6.5 ounces.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100

As a member of the graduating 2010 class of Sony Cyber-shots, the S2100 will now accept standard SD and SDHC memory cards. The memory card slot will still accept Memory Stick Pro Duo cards if you've already invested in Sony's proprietary format, but new users won't be required to buy into that system. That's a welcome change and a benefit to those of us already equipped with SD cards.

Ergonomics and Controls
I had no trouble powering the S2100 up and shooting one-handed. The weight of the battery compartment makes it comfortable to hold in the right hand and adds some stability.

The controls on the right side of the LCD include a four-way controller with a center button surrounded by three smaller circular buttons for playback mode, menu, and delete. A sliding switch on the camera's edge toggles between still image and video capture modes. Above is another switch for zoom.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100

For a camera that's designed to be easy to use, the buttons are awfully small. The buttons around the compass switch are a little bit hard to push, and I often had to dig in with my fingernail to make sure I was pushing the right one. The switches for zoom and still/movie mode were easy to use. This didn't create any serious usability problems for me, but someone unaccustomed to using a camera might have a tough time getting used to the controls.

Menus and Modes
Sony has made some helpful changes to their menu structure recently, like combining the "home" screen with the main camera menu. Shooting modes and exposure settings are accessed by hitting the small menu button below the compass switch. Options appear on the left side of the screen and users can instantly see the effects of altering settings like white balance. Selecting a briefcase icon brings up the camera menu where adjustments can be made to settings like sound, date, and time.

Controls are easy to master. I would have preferred having the quick menu under the center control button and the more involved menu options accessed through a separate control, but the current layout doesn't get in the user's way. The four-way control offers shortcuts to smile shutter sensitivity, display settings, flash settings, and self-timer.

Shooting modes include:

The 3.0-inch LCD boasts a 230,400 dot composition. It seems adequately sharp and fluid for composition and image review. It was easy to view indoors, but became trickier to use in the glare reflected from snow outside and direct sunlight.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S2100

Shooting in the field was easy with the S2100. It fit effortlessly in my large coat pocket, and I could get my shot with one hand when necessary. Hitting on the right exposure, though, was sometimes frustrating. Challenging lighting situations could sometimes push the camera to overexpose and burn out highlights. Other situations, like well-lit scenes indoors, were captured nicely with default settings.

Shooting Performance
Auto Focus speed was somewhat slow in our studio test. In the field, the camera never felt especially slow to lock focus. AF speed is slowed down almost to a full second at telephoto in low light. The S2100 will lock focus as close as 5 cm at wide angle in macro mode, a feature I liked for capturing small details.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Cyber-shot S2100 0.02
Canon PowerShot SD940 IS 0.03
Samsung TL225 0.04
Nikon Coolpix S640 0.04

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon Coolpix S640 0.29
Canon PowerShot SD940 IS 0.34
Samsung TL225 0.41
Sony Cyber-shot S2100 0.68

Continuous Shooting

Digital Camera Frames Framerate*
Nikon Coolpix S640 2 2.2 fps
Sony Cyber-shot S2100 1.0 fps
Samsung TL225 7 1.0 fps
Canon PowerShot SD940 IS 0.9 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.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.Continuous shooting mode was fairly slow, but the camera never hesitated to write to the memory card.

The S2100 is equipped only with digital SteadyShot image stabilization, a processing technique that combines two images taken in succession to create one ideally less-blurry image. It didn't appear to be very aggressive. The function was more successful in bright light outdoors. Indoors, it couldn't overcome a shaky shot.

The pair of AA batteries included with the camera got me through about three weeks of shooting on-and-off for this review. I used the flash sparingly, so heavier flash use would drain the battery quicker. Sony rates battery life at 170 shots. Without much use of the flash, I'd say my number was much higher.

Sony's Smile Shutter function is here. This feature is turned on through a single press of the smiley-face icon on the four-way control. It's available in any shooting mode, and will automatically snap an image when it detects a smiling face in the frame. I tested it out on some photographs of smiling friends and it worked well. Face detection was also successful, and I found that Sony's system was more accurate than other manufacturers'.

Lens Performance
The S2100's lens bears only a "Sony" branding. It offers 3x optical zoom, covering an equivalent range of 35-105mm. Maximum aperture is somewhat slow at f/3.1 at wide angle and f/5.6 at telephoto. The 3x zoom lens offers just enough focal range to help frame objects across a room a little better.

Lens performance was mixed. Some shots displayed wonderful details with minimal distortions. However, the lack of optical stabilization is a big trade-off in the low price of the camera. Without any form of mechanical stabilization, images in low light require higher ISO settings, which lead to the loss of some fine detail. Even at ISO 1600, it will be difficult for most users to handhold the camera and keep it steady enough to get a clear shot in dim conditions. Using the flash is essential in very poor light.

Details at the center of the frame are quite sharp, though there is some noticeable softness moving out toward the edges. Barrel distortion was visible in some of my wide angle shots, though pincushion distortion at telephoto was well-controlled.

Sony S2100 Test Shot
Wide Angle
Sony S2100 Test Shot

I did notice some vignetting (dark corners in images) at wide angle, but not so much that the average user would complain about it. Lens flare seems to be under control, and chromatic aberration wasn't much of a problem until images are viewed at 100%.

Video Quality
Video quality at the maximum 640x480 resolution is about average. Video files are recorded at a rate of 30 fps. If HD video is a must, then you won't have to spend much more on a pocket camera to get that feature. If standard resolution will suffice to capture quick clips, then the S2100 will perform just fine.

Image Quality
Overall, image quality was good. The S2100 is equipped with a 1/2.3-inch Super HAD sensor, and suffers from the usual symptoms of a small sensor with 12 megapixels crowding each other for space. But in good light, I thought images showed a nice level of detail. Perusing a block of Milford, Ohio's historic mill district and Gayle's Vintage Clothing shop on a sunny day turned in some great images. Even in fading light, pictures from the S2100 should be usable for small prints and online sharing.

Sony S2100 Test Shot Sony S2100 Test Shot
Sony S2100 Test Shot Sony S2100 Test Shot

The camera's default metering setting worked well in many instances, though highlight clipping seemed to be a recurring issue. Where good, even lighting was present the camera turned in a nice exposure. Throw in some shadows or a mix of light sources and the S2100 will sometimes struggle. Metering modes include the default multi as well as center-weighted and spot.

Using the camera's flash unit will cover up to about 10 feet at wide angle when using the auto ISO setting and up to six feet telephoto. Flash modes include auto, force flash, slow synchro, and flash off.

Saturation and contrast appear to have been given a slight boost. The Belgian waffles below look a little more red than they appeared to my eye. That's not exactly a bad thing in this situation - the waffles still look appetizing and the exposure is good. Overall, the colors out of the camera were pleasing.

Sony S2100 Test Shot

Auto White Balance was usually my best bet in any given shooting situation. The studio image shot with Auto White Balance is actually slightly cooler than the series of ISO shots using tungsten WB.

Sony S2100 Test Shot
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Noise is a trouble spot for the Cyber-shot S2100. Images shot at ISO 400 or below looked nice at a reduced size, but when blown up to 100% they show plenty of color noise. Distortion levels increase through the range to ISO 3200.

Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 100
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 100, 100% crop
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 200
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 200, 100% crop
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 400
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 400, 100% crop
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 800
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 800, 100% crop
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 1600
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 3200
Sony S2100 Test Shot
ISO 3200, 100% crop

At around ISO 800 and beyond, colors begin to flatten out. As expected, ISO 3200 noisy even in the small thumbnail and should only be used when it's the only option.

Additional Sample Images
Sony S2100 Test Shot Sony S2100 Test Shot
Sony S2100 Test Shot Sony S2100 Test Shot
Sony S2100 Test Shot Sony S2100 Test Shot

I imagine that someone considering the S2100 wants an affordable camera for casual shooting situations, like vacations or gatherings with friends and family. An ideal camera would be a breeze to use and capture great images in many settings, and cost $100.

The Cyber-shot S2100 hits a few of those marks. It's easy to use; almost mindlessly so in "Easy" mode. It offers the flexibility of dual SD/Memory Stick Pro compatibility and AA battery power. If you want more control over image quality, you can adjust metering and exposure compensation. In good light, and even somewhat dim indoor light, the S2100 produced some strong images. You can get all those features for a little more than $100.

However, the S2100 misses a few marks. Noise beginning at ISO 400 and some inconsistent exposures might push the S2100 user to rely on flash for tricky situations. Picky users may need to experiment with a few different metering settings and exposure compensations before finding that "perfect shot." The lens is fine for its class, but does exhibit some of the typical flaws such as barrel distortion and edge softness.

For a camera at this price point, the Cyber-shot S2100 generally meets expectations. However, carefully consider the setbacks because investing a little more in a system with a brighter lens and image stabilization might be a better buy. For a camera costing about $100 though, it's hard to knock the S2100 around too much.