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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX66 Review
by Howard Creech -  11/1/2012

The TX66 is the first ultra-compact to offer an 18 megapixel resolution. The tiny TX66 will totally blow away any currently available smart phone when it comes to image quality - and it is noticeably less than half the size of the newest Apple and Samsung smart phones, so it is easily small enough to carry with you all the time. The TX66 isn't cheap, however. With an MSRP of $350 will this camera be able to produce great results from such a small package?


Overview

Sony's TX series cameras have been around long enough to accumulate a pretty sizable fan base. Last year's TX55 was very popular with consumers and its successor, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX66, is a dead ringer for its predecessor - the only significant difference between the two is the TX66's boost in resolution from 16 megapixels to 18 megapixels. Lots of camera buyers liked the TX55's minimalist look, ultra-slim and super flat profile, sliding front lens cover and non-protruding 5x zoom lens. Following this logic, the essentially identical TX66 should be just as popular. 


Wide Angle, 26mm

Telephoto, 130mm

Build and Design
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC TX66 is a nifty little camera that (when closed up) looks more like a cell phone than a digital camera. Sony's newest TX series ultra-compact digicam is a well built little point and shoot - 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 TX66 into a tiny flat rectangular package that fits perfectly (and safely) in the back pocket of a pair of jeans.

The TX66 is the first ultra-compact to offer an 18 megapixel resolution (via its 1:2.33 Exmor R2 CMOS image sensor). 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. 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.

Ergonomics and Controls
The Sony TX66 might be the poster child for a whole new generation of digital cameras designed especially to compete with cell phone cameras. Digital cameras these days are smaller, lighter, and thinner than they were just a few years ago and 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 - not because touch screen controls provide a better tactile response or are really easier to use than traditional controls, but because eliminating dedicated controls makes cameras cheaper to manufacture. Consumers like touch screen electronic devices because they are seen as "cool and current" and on the cutting edge of technology. 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.

The TX66's touch-screen is not especially responsive and often requires multiple taps to get to the function you want. With some touch-screen equipped cameras that isn't a problem since they have (in addition to the touch screen controls) redundant traditional controls, but not the TX66. The TX66's ultra-thin and very flat body is blemished by only a few dedicated controls: the power button, the shutter release button, and a jog-stick style zoom rocker switch - all on the right side of the camera's super narrow top deck - everything else is controlled via the touch-screen.

I think it should be obvious by now that I don't like touch screen LCDs and the TX66's is no exception. Especially egregious is the TX66's start/stop video button. First, the video start/stop button is touch screen activated and (as any photographer worth his/her salt knows) if you touch the screen (to trip the shutter button) even the lightest touch will cause the camera to move during exposure. Secondly, the video start/stop button is not especially sensitive (often requiring multiple taps to activate) which results in a lot of missed video starts and lots of jittery movie beginnings. If all that isn't bad enough the video control is on the top left side of the touch-screen, rather than directly beneath the shutter button (the logical placement since the video stop/start button is also a shutter release). That requires right handed shooters to hold the camera (locked on the subject) with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand while tapping the video start/stop button with the forefinger of their left hand. I love digital cameras, but I don't like design flaws that impede the photograpic process. My apolgies to southpaw shooters, I know there hasn't been a camera for lefties since Exacta went belly up, but the start/stop button should be on the right side of the touch-screen - directly under the shutter button.

Menus and Modes
The TX66's menu system is fairly logical and the menus are laid out in a straightforward and graphic 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 DSC TX66 is for auto exposure shooters. Users cannot easily adjust most exposure functions. There is no mode dial, so everything must be done via the touch-screen LCD. Shooting modes include Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, iSweep Panorama, Movie, and Scene shooting modes. Intelligent Auto mode is the same as the Smart Auto modes found on most P&S digicams - the TX66 automatically selects the correct scene mode for the subject based on prevailing lighting and subject to camera distance. 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. Finally, the TX66 provides one of the most comprehensive movie modes in its class, but with the worst video/start control I have ever seen. The camera records HD video at a maximum resolution of 1920x1080i @ 60fps or 1440x1080p @ 30fps video mode and features an HDMI output.

Display/Viewfinder
The TX66 (like most currently available P&S digicams) doesn't feature an optical viewfinder. Shooters must relay on the TX66's 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 want larger, sharper, and quicker LCD screens. The TX66's 3.2-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, higher contrast ratios than TFT screens, and accurate color reproduction. The TX66's LCD resolution is an amazing 1229K - making this LCD screen significantly sharper than those offered by the TX66's competition. High LCD screen resolution is very important when checking critical sharpness in macro shots and for assessing overall sharpness, color accuracy, and contrast in other photographic genres. 

The TX66'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 the visibly impenetrable smudges around the periphery of the touch screen make the TX66'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 and in bright outdoor lighting the mirror like screen is very difficult to use. Here's some advice for Sony's product development folks - Nikon and Canon both have much better anti-glare/anti-reflection LCD coatings (on lower resolution monitors) than Sony - it's time to arrange for some reverse engineering. The bottom line here is that the TX66 has an exceptional LCD in terms of native resolution, but Sony doesn't allow users to obtain all the benefit of that fantastic screen by utilizing inferior LCD screen anti-reflection/anti-glare coatings.

The TX66 utilizes the standard 4:3 aspect ratio when shooting/reviewing still images, but users get the widescreen 16:9 display on the screen 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.

Performance

The Sony Cybershot TX66 is an attractive and fashionable little digicam, but much more important than form is function and the TX66's unique all-closed-up industro-chic design is the perfect design for an ultra-compact P&S digicam. What I liked most about this snazzy little digicam is that it's built for action. Close the sliding lens cover and the TX66 becomes a small very flat package that was designed to be slipped into the back pocket of a pair of Levi's and taken absolutely anywhere and everywhere. Everyone likes to have a camera with them, just in case something neat happens, but the problem is that most cameras are a pain to carry around; they're either weighting you down (DSLRs), in danger of being dropped or easily misplaced (ultra-compacts), or (worse) too small to be as flexible as DSLRs, but still too large to slip into a pocket (standard P&S digicams). The folks at Sony had a flash of pure genius when designing the TX series and the TX66 handily capitalizes on that packaging genius. This is the best "pocketable" camera design I have ever seen and I've been involved with photography for more than forty years.

Once you open the sliding lens cover and power the nifty looking little TX66 into Smart Auto mode things aren't quite as cool. 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 controls - never ever virtual controls. The "decisive moment" is what photography is all about. Overall performance is pretty good and in the final analysis the TX66 is an adequate general purpose point-and-shoot digicam capable of dependably producing excellent still images. 

Shooting Performance
There are many things to consider when buying a new digital camera, however the three most important criteria when appraising digital camera performance are timing/speed, image quality, and ergonomics. The first three or four generations of digital cameras were very slow - some with shutter lag of a full second (or longer) from the time the user pushed the shutter button until the shutter actually opened. Those days are gone and essentially all of today's digital cameras are fast enough to capture the decisive moment, even the cheapest digicams are capable of getting the shot in all but the most extreme (professional sports, motorcycle racing, auto-sports) shooting scenarios. Image quality should, of course, always be the primary decision making criteria. I've been a photographer for over forty years and usability and ergonomics are almost as important to me as image quality - because a well designed camera makes the photographer's job much easier. The camera should NEVER impede the photographer - and in my opinion the Sony TX66's virtual video stop/start button does impede the photographer. Overall, the TX66 does a pretty good job - it's relatively fast, provides an acceptable level of usability and produces consistently very good to excellent images.

The TX66 features Sony's Steady Shot optical image stabilization system which works by automatically and precisely shifting a lens element in the zoom to compensate for camera movement during exposure. Image Stabilization 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 TX66's optical image stabilization system is always on and cannot be turned off.

Like its predecessor, the TX66 draws its juice from a proprietary Sony LITHIUM ION NP-BN 3.6V (630mAh) rechargeable battery. I couldn't find any CIPA data or battery life information, but I used the TX66 pretty heavily for a bit more than two weeks and only had to charge the battery three times. Battery life about average or maybe a bit below average for cameras in this class.

The TX66's tiny built-in multi-mode flash almost seems like an afterthought - it provides only a minimal selection of external lighting options including Auto, Red-eye Reduction, Slow Synch, and Flash Off. Maximum flash range (according to Sony) is just shy of 17 feet, which seems insanely optimistic to me since the flash is so minscule.

The Sony TX66 (like its predecessor) saves images to MicroSD and Sony Memory Stick Micro formats. Earlier TX series digicams saved images to full sized SD and Sony MS PRO Duo memory media. The only logical reasons for changing memory media formats are to take advantage of new technology/increase storage capacity or (like the industry wide shift from Compact Flash to SD memory media for P&S digicams a few years back) to facilitate the ability to manufacture smaller cameras. Neither case is in evidence here.

Lens Performance
The TX66's true wide-angle to short telephoto (equivalent) zoom doesn't extend (protrude) from the body when the camera is powered up because the lens is housed inside the camera body, periscope style. The TX66's 5x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar f3.5-f4.8/4.7mm-23.5mm (26mm-130mm equivalent) zoom is very good indeed, in fact it is the best periscope style objective that I've ever used. Periscope style zooms (wich utilize mirrors or prisms to reflect the image from the lens opening to the image sensor) are notorious for soft corners, but the TX66's corners are no softer than its competition. Carl Zeiss' Tessar lens formula (an improvement on the even older triplet design) made it's debut more than 100 years ago. I'm sure that Herr Zeiss would be absolutely amazed to see how Sony's optical engineers have adapted this venerable lens design to fit completely (with IS) inside the TX66's tiny super flat body.

The TX66's 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 TX66's pint-sized form factor and real 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 - although the jog stick zoom control requires a little getting used to.

Video Quality
The TX66 captures HD video at 1920x1080p @60 fps - few dedicated camcorders offer better video capabilities - and you certainly can't slip any of those larger units in the back pocket of your Levi's. For those who can accept the wrong on so many levels virtual stop/start button, the TX66 constitutes one of the smallest HD video capture units currently available The sample video was shot at Louisville's Fourth Street Wharf and shows the "Spirit of Jefferson" pulling away from the still docked "Belle of Louisville" - heading up river. Aside from a slightly jittery start (due to the awkward placement of TX66's virtual video start/stop button) the video quality is actually pretty good - especially from a digicam that's substantially smaller than an Altoids tin.

Image Quality
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 (intense) of any of the other major camera manufacturers, sort of like the Velvia slide film doppelganger of digicams - with very intense highly saturated colors. 

The TX66 doesn't buck that Sony "wet paint" colors tradition. Images from this little camera show accurate, but far from neutral colors. I've seen so far from the newest generation of CMOS sensor driven digicams. Casual shooters seem to like punched up colors and Sony delivers. Overall, image quality is reliably very good to excellent and exposures are generally accurate. Many digicam exposure systems don't handle pictures with lots of sky in an image well - with the sky fading often from blue to white. Sony's product development folks seem to have conquered this problem and the little TX66 does a great job rendering dependably blue skies in landscape shots. Highlights are sometimes burned out in brightly lit outdoor scenes (which is fairly typical of P&S digicams) and fine detail is often missing (also fairly typical) in shadow areas. Indoors the TX66 manages noise fairly well and captures high contrast detail nicely, but dimly lit or shadowed areas are featureless. Squeezing 18 megapixels out of a sensor that's the same size as the sensors that drove 8 and 10 megapixel digicams a few years back is an exercise fraught with peril. 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. 

Here is a look at the Art Filters applied to a still scene - the filters can be applied to still images and video:


HDR Painting

Richtone Monochrome

Miniature

Toy camera

Pop Color

Partial Color


Soft High-key

Watercolor

Illustration




The TX66's Auto White Balance mode is dependably accurate over a wide range of lighting conditions - outdoors, but it struggled a bit to find enough contrast to lock focus accurately indoors. In addition to the auto WB setting there are user selected Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent1, Fluorescent2, Fluorescent3, Incandescent, Flash, and "one push" (manual) options available.


ISO 100


ISO 200


ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600


ISO 3200


ISO 6400


ISO 12,800

The TX66 provides an impressive range of sensitivity options for such a tiny camera, including Auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to ISO 12800. Low ISO images show accurate (but highly saturated) colors, slightly harder than average native contrast, and very low noise levels. At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are appreciably 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 exponentially as sensitivity increases.

Additional Sample Images

Conclusion

The major reason that cell phones are competing so effectively with P&S digicams is because people always have their cell phones with them, and a camera that's on hand always beats the camera you left at home. That's a powerful argument for cell phone cameras, but the tiny TX66 will totally blow away any currently available smartphone when it comes to image quality - and it is noticeably less than half the size of the newest Apple and Samsung smartphones, so it is easily small enough to carry with you all the time, in addition to your cell phone.

The TX66 isn't cheap - with an MSRP of $350.00, it costs almost 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 tiny fully automatic high-end digicam, and if you fall into that demographic and want better images and video than you can get from your cell phone camera, then you aren't likely to find anything better than the TX66 at this point in time.