Sony's TX series digicams have been around long enough to accumulate a fairly sizable fan base. Last year's Cyber-shot TX9 was very popular with consumers and its successor, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC TX100V, is now available.
Lots of folks liked the TX9's Industro-chic look, ultra-slim and super flat profile, sliding front lens cover, and non-protruding 4x zoom lens. At first glance the TX100V doesn't look much different than its predecessor, but under the hood there have been a few significant changes.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC TX100V is a snazzy little point-and-shoot shaped more like a smart phone than a digital camera. Sony's newest TX series ultra-compact digicam is a well built little camera - fit and finish are very good, dust/moisture seals are more than adequate, and this camera seems to be tough enough to go just about anywhere. The sliding front cover not only protects the non-protruding lens when closed - it also converts the TX100V into a small very flat package that fits perfectly (and safely) in the back pocket of a pair of jeans.
The TX100V is the first ultra-compact digicam to offer 16 megapixel resolution (via its 1/2.33-inch Exmor R CMOS image sensor), so unlike some of its competition Sony is still firmly aboard the "more megapixels" bandwagon. Serious shooters know that continuously crowding more pixels onto tiny sensors has consequences; the most obvious of which are an exponential increase in image degrading noise, poor low-light performance (everything else being equal, smaller pixels have less light gathering ability than larger pixels), and a flatter dynamic range.
Canon and a couple of other OEMs are finally jumping off the "more megapixels" bandwagon - hopefully Sony will eventually follow suit. More resolution doesn't actually produce better images, it just generates larger image files. The average P&S digicam user doesn't really need any more than 10 megapixels, since very few of them will be enlarging their images to poster size - so (in most cases) all that extra resolution is wasted anyway.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Sony TX100V could be the poster child for a whole new generation of digital cameras. Digital cameras these days are smaller, lighter, and thinner than they were just a few years ago. Virtually all of them are powered by proprietary batteries, Auto exposure is almost ubiquitous, and let's face it, touch screens are the wave of the future.
Just ten years ago essentially every P&S digital camera manufactured had an optical viewfinder. Not anymore - optical viewfinders are also expensive to manufacture and Americans (who drive the world market in leisure electronics) like cheap products. For casual users touch screen controls may be OK, but photography enthusiasts will likely avoid this camera and others like it. Buttons, knobs, and switches that allow shooters to quickly and precisely control camera operation are a basic requirement for more serious shooters.
I should confess, right up front, that I have a hard time warming up to touch LCDs and the TX100V's is no exception. When I tested the Canon SD3500 (Canons first touch screen P&S digicam) a young friend told me that maybe I was just too old to adapt to the new technology. I'm certainly not a Luddite - I love digital cameras. However, anyone who has ever used a smart phone will probably feel right at home with the TX100V's touch screen.
The TX100's touch screen is not very responsive and often requires multiple taps to get the function you want to come up. With some touch screen equipped cameras that isn't a problem since they have (in addition to the touch screen controls) redundant traditional controls - not the TX100V. The TX100V's ultra-thin and very flat body is blemished by only a few dedicated controls - the power button, the shutter release button, a jog-stick style zoom rocker switch, and the captured image review button - all on the camera's top deck. The TX100V's few dedicated controls are logically placed and easily accessed. Everything else is controlled via the touch screen LCD.
I persuaded an iPhone toting young friend (who loves touch screen devices) to audition the TX100V's touch screen controls and she needed multiple taps to enable every function - just like I did. Finally, the TX100's huge super-shiny LCD screen is subject to above average glare and reflections in outdoor shooting and is also the most incredible fingerprint magnet (there isn't any place on the back of the camera to rest your thumbs without touching the screen) that I've ever seen. Above average glare/reflections and all the visibly impenetrable smudges around the periphery of the touch screen make the TX100V's LCD difficult to use for composition and framing. I had to polish the LCD screen thoroughly with a micro-fiber lens cloth every time I wanted to use the camera.
Menus and Modes
The TX100V's menu system is fairly logical and menus are laid out in a straightforward manner, the problem is getting to them and navigating through them. The camera's touch screen simply isn't sensitive enough to provide seamless interaction between user and device. Sometimes the screen needs two or even three taps before responding. Scrolling is imprecise and it is not a rare event to zoom right past the function you are seeking.
The Sony Cyber-shot TX100V is an auto exposure only camera - users cannot manually adjust aperture, shutter speed or focus. There is no mode dial, so everything is done via the touch screen LCD. Recording mode choices include Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, iSweep Panorama, Movie, Program Auto, Background Defocus, Scene and 3D shooting modes.
Intelligent Auto mode is the same as the Smart Auto modes found on most cameras - the TX100V automatically selects the correct scene mode for the subject. Superior Auto is like Intelligent Auto on Steroids - the camera captures multiple consecutive images of the scene and then combines those images to create one "super" image. Users can also improve dynamic range using the TX100V's backlight correction HDR technology.
The TX100V also provides a Background Defocus mode (for sharp subject -blurred background SLR style portraits), a Soft Skin mode which ameliorates blemishes/wrinkles and smooths out skin texture, and a Natural Flash mode which provides more natural looking flash lighting. Finally, the TX100V provides one of the best movie modes in its class. The camera records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080 at 60 fps in the AVCHD format at a 28 Mbps compression rate.
The TX100V (like most currently available point-and-shoots) doesn't feature an optical viewfinder. Shooters must rely on the TX100V's new touch screen OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) LCD screen for all framing/composition, captured image review, and menu navigation chores. LCD screen resolution has been steadily increasing because consumers kept demanding larger, sharper, and quicker LCD screens. The TX100V's 3.5-inch LCD screen completely dominates the camera's rear deck.
This LCD screen is super bright, hue accurate, very fluid, automatically boosts gain (brightens) in dim/low light, and displays almost 100 percent of the image frame. OLED screens are known for outstanding blacks, high contrast ratios, and accurate color reproduction. The TX100V's LCD resolution is an amazing 1229K dots - making this LCD screen significantly sharper than those offered by the TX100Vs competition - very important when checking critical sharpness in macro shots and for assessing overall sharpness of focus in other photographic genres.
Most casual shooters don't like optical viewfinders anyway and in many shooting scenarios (macro shots and portraits come immediately to mind) it is often easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen than it is through a viewfinder. The TX100V utilizes the standard 4:3 aspect ratio when shooting/reviewing still images, but users get the widescreen 16:9 display on the LCD when shooting/reviewing in movie mode. The default info display provides all the data this camera's target audience is likely to want or need.
The DCR test lab measures LCD performance to assist our readers in making more informed buying decisions. Peak brightness for the TX100V (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 180 nits and black luminance is 0.00 nits.
The Sony Cyber-shot TX100V is fashionable, with a unique industro-chic look. What I liked most about this snazzy little digicam is its built-for-convenience design. Close the sliding lens cover and the TX100V becomes a small very flat package that was meant to be slipped into the back pocket of a pair of Levi's and taken absolutely anywhere and everywhere - all the time.
Everyone likes to have a camera with them, just in case something neat happens. The problem is that most cameras are a pain to carry around; they're either weighing you down, in danger of being dropped, or (worse) easily forgotten. The folks at Sony had a flash of pure genius when designing the TX series and the TX100V handily capitalizes on that packaging genius. This is the best "pocketable" camera design I have ever seen and I've been involved in photography for more than forty years.
Once you open the sliding lens cover and bump the nifty looking little TX100V into camera mode things aren't quite as cool. The problem, again, is that the TX100V's touch screen LCD just isn't precise enough. There's a lot of difference between what constitutes exceptional performance for a phone touch screen and what constitutes exceptional performance for a camera touch screen, and when you're trying to record life's Kodak moments there's a much lower margin for error.
Here's a note to Sony's engineers and designers - shutter buttons (and the video stop/start button is a shutter button) should be dedicated hard-wired controls - never ever virtual controls. The "decisive moment" is what photography is all about. Overall performance was pretty good and in the final analysis the TX100V is an adequate general purpose point-and-shoot digicam capable of producing excellent images.
There are many things to consider when buying a new digital camera, however the two most important criteria when appraising digital camera performance are timing/speed and image quality. Image quality should, of course, be the primary decision making factor, however timing/speed is just as important. Image quality is about how the captured image "looks," image timing is about whether or not you actually got the picture you wanted to get.
Overall, the TX100V does a pretty good job - providing an acceptable level of usability and producing consistently decent images. The TX100V also makes a creditable showing in the performance department. The TX100V matches the best shutter lag timing in DCR's comparison chart, and comes in close to the top in continuous shooting rates, but hovers near the bottom in our AF acquisition comparison.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Sony Cyber-shot TX100
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS
Sony Cyber-shot TX100
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS
Nikon Coolpix S9100
Sony Cyber-shot TX100
Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS
Pentax Optio WG-1 GPS
*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.
The TX100V features Sony's Steady Shot optical image stabilization system which works by quickly and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for camera movement during exposure. IS allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to 3 EV slower than would have been possible without IS and still get sharply focused (mostly) blur free images. The TX100V's optical image stabilization system is always on and cannot be turned off.
The TX100V draws its juice from a proprietary Sony Lithium-ion NP-BN1 3.6V (630mAh) rechargeable battery. I couldn't find any battery life information, but I used the TX100V pretty heavily for two weeks and had to charge the battery three times during the course of my test. I would call battery life about average or maybe a shade below average.
The TX100V's built-in multi-mode flash almost seems like an afterthought - it is tiny and provides only a minimal selection of external lighting options including Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Slow Syncro and Flash Off. Maximum flash range (according to Sony) is just shy of 17 feet, which seems pretty optimistic to me since the flash is so small.
The TX100V saves images to SD, SDHC, SDXC, and Sony's Memory Stick PRO Duo memory media and it also permits users to geo-tag their images and videos.
The TX100V's 4x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom is surprisingly good, especially considering its periscope style build (which is why it doesn't protrude from the camera body) but corners are a bit soft. The Tessar lens formula is over a hundred years old and I wonder what Carl Zeiss would think about his iconic optical design being so differently configured.
The TX100V's true wide-angle to short telephoto f/3.5-6.3 25mm to 100mm (equivalent) zoom doesn't extend when the camera is powered up because the lens is housed inside the camera body. The f/3.5 maximum aperture is a bit slow for shooting indoors, but should be more than adequate for shooting outdoors - at least in decent light. The TX100V's pint-sized form factor and hard wired shutter button make this camera almost ideal for candid/street shooters.
Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn't notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel distortion (straight lines bowing out from the center) and pincushion distortion (straight lines bowing in toward the center) seem well corrected. Contrast is balanced and colors are hue accurate. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but some very minor color fringing is present, especially in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. Zooming is smooth, silent, and fairly quick.
I often point out that the video modes of compact cameras can't compete with a full featured camcorder, but I certainly can't say that about the TX100V which generates HD video at 1920 x 1080 at 60 fps in the AVCHD format at a 28 Mbps compression rate - only a few full sized camcorders offer better video capabilities - and you can't slip any of those bad-boys in the back pocket of your Levi's. The sample video was shot at a local farmer's market on a beautiful blue sky day. Absolutely amazing video quality from a device that's smaller than an Altoids tin.
Download Sample Video
Every digital camera manufacturer manages color interpolation slightly differently and experts can often guess with decent accuracy which brand of camera captured a specific (un-manipulated) image. I've felt for a long time that Sonys default color interpolation was the most saturated of any of the other major camera manufacturers, sort of like the Velvia slide film of digicams - with very intense colors.
The TX100V actually seems to buck the classic Sony "wet paint" colors look. Images from this little camera show the most accurate and neutral colors I've seen so far from the newest generation of CMOS sensor driven digicams. What this means for consumers is that the TX100V's images will look closer to what you actually saw. Punched up colors are great and many people love them, but sometimes you don't want ruddy cheeks and Ronald McDonald reds and yellows.
Image quality is reliably very good to excellent and exposures are generally accurate, but lots of sky in an image often results in slight overexposure with the sky fading from blue to white. Highlights are sometimes burned out in brightly lit outdoor scenes and fine detail is often missing in shadow areas. Indoors, the TX100V manages noise fairly well and captures high contrast detail nicely, but 16 megapixel images from a senor that's the same size as the sensors in place in the 8 and 10 megapixel digicams of a few years back. Noise is managed better these days than it was in the past, but there is a lot more of it now - so the cumulative gains in noise management have been pretty much wiped out by the cumulative gains in noise levels. My indoor images were a bit flat and noticeably darker than I would have liked.
The TX100V's Auto White Balance mode is dependably accurate over a wide range of lighting conditions. The Auto White Balance mode did a predictably good job outside, but it struggled a bit to get enough contrast indoors. In addition to the auto WB setting there are user selected Daylight, Cloudy, three Fluorescent settings, Incandescent, Flash and manual One Push options available.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
The TX100V provides an acceptable range of sensitivity options, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 125 to 3200. Low ISO images show neutral colors, slightly softer than average native contrast, and very low noise levels. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of minor detail.
Indoor image quality is on par with competing digicams, but as sensitivity (automatically) rises to overcome lower levels of ambient lighting, noise levels rise exponentially and color accuracy suffers a bit. Noise levels are quite reasonable up to ISO 400, but they increase substantially after ISO 800.
ISO 125, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
The TX100V is not for everybody - with an MSRP of almost four hundred bucks it costs about four times what Canon's cheapest digicam sells for and more than twice as much as an average digicam. This little digicam was obviously designed for folks who are seeking a high-end camera, but it allows essentially no user input into the exposure process - so it clearly wasn't designed for traditional photography enthusiasts.
The TX100V's attraction is obviously its hip, ultra-moderne iPhone cool look and perfect pocketability. If you're looking for the perfect pocket camera - you aren't going to do any better than the TX100V at this point in time. If you're a photography enthusiast looking for a small responsive and capable image making device, then the TX100V probably isn't your cup of tea.