Camera manufacturers seem to have chosen superzooms as the latest battlefield. Thankfully, the fight isn't just about who's got the biggest lens. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 incorporates several technologies from the company's Alpha DSLR products, including a 1/2.4-inch 10-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor (for 9-megapixel images) and a 20x f2.8-5.2 28-560mm-equivalent optically stabilised lens, based on the company's higher-quality G-series optics.
In theory, this combination should deliver better photo quality than we're used to seeing in this class. In practice, it doesn't. Fast performance, solid video and some truly interesting features make the £400 DSC-HX1 worth considering, but the spectre of middling photo quality can't be easily dismissed.
The design ranges from smoothly functional to awkward. The DSC-HX1 is relatively compact for a superzoom, measuring 114 by 84 by 91mm and weighing around 454g, with a big grip that makes it comfortable to hold.
The body is cluttered with buttons. On the top left, there's a button that toggles between the too-small electronic viewfinder and the tiltable but low-resolution 76mm (3-inch) LCD. Behind the pop-up flash sits the stereo microphone. Next to that is the power button, with a review button and custom button that you can use for one of only three shortcuts: white balance, metering or smile shutter. At the front top of the grip is the shutter, with a zoom switch. The zoom feels pretty typical for this class of camera -- it operates smoothly, but, because it's stepped, you never quite stop where you expect. In the middle lie the focus-selection and drive-mode buttons.
You adjust aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity via a jog dial that falls under your right thumb. We like this type of operation, and its presence is a blessing because the standard four-way navigation switch plus enter button is irritating to use. It's too flat, with no travel, so you always feel like you have to press harder but can't.
In addition to traversing the menus, this navigation switch toggles macro mode, flash options, the self-timer, and display options. Within the top-level menus, you can set image size, white balance, metering, bracket size (in third, two-third or full-stop increments) and type (exposure, white balance or colour), face detection, flash intensity and red-eye reduction, the amount of dynamic range optimisation, the amount of noise reduction, colour effects, contrast, sharpness, and the SteadyShot image-stabilisation mode.
Finally, the mode dial offers all the typical shooting modes -- manual
and semi-manual, intelligent auto, easy, 'anti-motion blur' (which raises ISO
sensitivity and shutter speed), programmed scene, and movie, plus two
novelties: 'sweep panorama' and 'hand-held twilight'.
In sweep panorama mode, you pan the camera horizontally or vertically while it continuously snaps enough shots to build a 4,912x1,080-pixel (standard) or 7,152x1,080-pixel (wide) panorama, which it automatically stitches together when you lift your finger from the shutter.
The sweep panorama mode is fun to play with, and the results are decent -- if you don't look too closely. The 1,080-pixel limitation makes the images too low resolution to resolve any real detail, the exposure gets fixed at the beginning, which can result in blown-out highlights with bad fringing, and anything in motion produces a variety of odd effects. There's no manual but high-resolution alternative if you'd like to shoot a better-quality panorama.
The hand-held twilight mode, for low-light but flash-free shooting, fares much better. The camera bursts several shots at a high ISO sensitivity, then combines them to produce a brighter, sharper photo with lower-than-normal noise. We were initially sceptical, but it works surprisingly well and is a compelling feature for photographic night owls.
The DSC-HX1 unequivocally leads its class for performance. It powers on and shoots in a surprisingly zippy 2 seconds, and typically focuses and shoots in 0.4 seconds. It's slightly slower than the Canon PowerShot SX1 IS at focusing and shooting in low-contrast conditions, but it still delivers a respectable 0.7 seconds. At 1.4 seconds for two sequential shots -- 1.7 seconds with flash -- it's pretty fast.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
There's also a ten-shot ultra-high-speed burst mode, which we clocked at 10.6 frames per second. You can choose to scale that back to 5fps or 2fps, or drop the resolution and get faster shooting. Keep in mind, however, that after that speedy ten-shot burst, you have to wait another 16 seconds for the camera to write the photos to the card. That's with the fastest card you can currently buy, a SanDisk Extreme III Memory Stick Pro-HG Duo 30MBps version.
Combined with the lack of a standard slow-but-steady burst that can shoot a larger number of frames, the DSC-HX1 becomes far less useful for continuous shooting than it really should be. That's unfortunate, because the autofocus is quite fast and seems to keep up with the burst.
The photo quality is the weakest aspect of the DSC-HX1. Superzooms typically don't offer the best quality, especially given their usual price, and the DSC-HX1 fares slightly worse than many of its competitors in this respect, mostly due to what looks like poor image processing rather than any real problem with the lens or sensor.
The DSC-HX1 is capable of producing relatively sharp photos, and the lens displays little distortion or fringing artefacts. The colours look good -- appropriately saturated and relatively accurate -- and it delivers correct, even exposures. But most non-macro shots are slightly soft and have that smeary look associated with aggressive noise suppression at the default noise-reduction setting and even at low ISO sensitivities. As a result, shots that look good on the display disappoint when viewed or printed at full size.
The camera's 1080p movies looks better. Although the DSC-HX1 only shoots at a resolution of 1,440x1,080 pixels -- rather than 1,920x1,080 pixels -- at 30 frames per second, and the video suffers from the same general softness as the stills, the movies it produces (H.264-compressed MPEG-4 files) have solid exposure and focus. Like most models, the camera could really use a wind filter. But the most annoying thing about its video support is the bundled dongle -- one of those add-on connectors that you're bound to lose within weeks of unpacking the camera. You need to use the dongle to make an HDMI connection to a high-definition television.
Given the demands placed on the camera by a large LCD, high-speed burst mode and HD video, the battery seems to last a relatively long time.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 competes directly with the Canon PowerShot SX10 IS, which isn't as fast and lacks the HD video and low-light shooting features of the DSC-HX1, but shoots better daylight photos, and the Casio Exilim Pro EX-FH20, which matches it in the novelty features department but also has photo-quality issues.
While it's always a good rule to work out what you're most likely to be shooting before choosing a digital camera, it's never been more important than with the HX1.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet