When Sony describes the Cyber-shot DSC-HX7V as a high-performance camera, it isn't joking. Shooting 16.2-megapixel stills and 1080i video at 50 frames per second, it's certainly a versatile option for the more ambitious photographer. At around £250 online and no larger than a pack of cards, it's not a pocket or wallet buster either.
The HX7V is so feature-rich, its rivals must surely be blushing. As well as GPS for geotagging your photos, there's a super-smart focusing system that switches modes automatically to match what the camera sees through the lens. Leave everything set to automatic and move closer to a flower, and the camera switches from landscape to macro, and then back again when you move away.
This feature is a boon for beginners, and a considerable time-saver for snappers who routinely find themselves mopping up scenery as they pass it by. With no need to choose the right mode yourself, this camera gives you a better chance of catching flighty wildlife at close quarters than almost any other. It's very easy to get a fix on objects close at hand too, so you won't spend much time rocking back and forth to find the camera's focal sweet spot, either.
Combine this capability with the camera's 16.2-megapixel resolution and 10x optical zoom, and you have a compact that comes close to rivalling low-end digital SLRs for versatility, albeit without the interchangeable lenses.
The ISO range stretches from 125 to an impressive 3,200, with +/-2.0EV in 1/3EV steps. As well as regular white-balance settings for daylight, cloudy and auto, there are two manual modes and three different options for various kinds of fluorescent light. Shutter speeds span 1/1600 to 2 seconds.
Perhaps the biggest revelation arises when you turn the camera upside down and open the battery compartment, which also houses the media slot. Like other Sony compacts, the HX7V takes the company's Memory Stick Pro Duo and Pro-HG Duo media, but also accommodates class 4 SD, SDHC and SDXC cards, courtesy of a neat double-sided arrangement whereby the contacts for each media type are positioned on opposite sides of the slot. This is great news for anyone looking to upgrade from a rival snapper and take their memory cards with them.
The battery charges in about four and a half hours using the bundled adaptor. When charged, the camera's good for around 300 shots or 70 minutes of video capture.
So what's the HX7V like to use? Two words: a joy. It's well balanced, comfortable in the hand and extremely flexible, giving you every option you need to turn out some first-class shots.
We spent most of our time in the 'intelligent auto' mode, which handles exposure, shutter speed and sensitivity while you get on with framing and shooting. There are three focus modes -- multi, centre-weighted and spot -- with matching metering modes. We used multi throughout our tests.
Nature scenes look suitably bucolic, and, although a little more saturated than we might have expected, scenes dominated by large amounts of foliage are particularly lush. They stay on the right side of saccharine.
There's slight evidence of chromatic aberration in the most demanding shots -- branches or thin window frames against a bright sky, for example -- but, in less challenging conditions, the results are pin-sharp when zoomed to 100 per cent, with each part of the spectrum converging as we'd expect.
Transitions between areas of similar tone, such as blue skies, which are darker away from the sun, are handled with smooth gradations, while those that involve a sharp contrast, such as the sky and blue balloons in our sample movie, are clearly differentiated.
In the test shot below, the HX7V retained good detail across the frame. There was evidence of light compression around the edge of black characters on a yellowing page, but you have to zoom in to 200 per cent to see it clearly. We left all focusing decisions up to the camera itself in this test, and the results are impressive, with the scene in focus through its whole depth.
The lens is both sharp and well crafted, with only the barest barrel distortion detected when shooting head-on. Even then, it's only discernable when tested against a perfect grid. The camera's aperture range doesn't sound greatly exciting, running from a wide-angle f3.5 to telephoto f5.5, until you realise that the zoom is equivalent to 25-250mm on a 35mm frame, at which point f5.5 sounds -- and is -- a great deal more impressive.
This 10x zoom really comes into its own when you use it outdoors, as you can see in the comparison scene below, shot once at a wide angle and again when zoomed to the camera's maximum optical length.
For more creative users, Sony has integrated its impressive 'sweep panorama' feature, requiring only that you press the shutter and move the camera from left to right across the scene. A progress meter on the bottom of the display fills up as you move and the camera's clever enough to spot when you've not moved it at all. When you're done, the HXV7 takes a couple of seconds to process the file, balancing the various exposures across the elongated frame to present the finished product.
It's evident that the camera uses the movie subsystem to achieve this, as the result is a fairly conservative 5 megapixels -- at 4,912x1,080 pixels, the same height as its native video format. But, as you're unlikely to print panorama photos, this shouldn't be too great an issue. If you want to produce anything of a higher resolution, you'll have to resort to the traditional method of shooting individual frames and stitching them together in Photoshop.
Movies are shot in the PAL or NTSC AVCHD format, at a resolution of 1,920x1,080 or 1,440x1,080 pixels, at 50 interlaced frames per second. Results are impressive, thanks, in part, to an effective image-stabilisation system that irons out minor bumps and jolts, even if you film while moving. You can enter movie mode either by selecting it from the mode dial on the top of the case or by pressing the dedicated button on the back of the case, which sits beside the thumb space and starts the recording right away.
Download the results and you'll be wowed by the smooth pans, true colours and how quickly the camera rebalances as it takes into account changes to the ambient light. The stereo microphones set into the top of the case are extremely sensitive, which is a mixed blessing, for, while they were up to the task of capturing the hollow taps of four balloons bouncing against one another from as far away as 5m, they also recorded the camera's own zoom motors when used in quieter surroundings.
The maximum recording length, regardless of your media capacity, is 29 minutes, with the results written as MTS files. They'll need converting on import if you want to edit them in Windows Movie Maker or iMovie.
The HX7V looks great and feels even better. It sits comfortably in the hand and, once you get used to being careful where you put your left index finger so you don't smother the stereo mic, you won't have any trouble using it in either stills or movie mode. The camera's well balanced and easy to use with one hand. The slightly bulging grip is great for right-handed folk and not too bulky, either, which should hopefully go some way towards making it less uncomfortable for left-handers.
Despite what we said about the mics picking up the motion of the zoom, the zoom is quiet enough to pass unnoticed in regular use, and, as it's positioned on a rotating cuff around the shutter release, it's easy to control the speed at which it operates.
There's a well-positioned notch on the back of the case right where your thumb sits. This provides for greater stability and reduces the temptation to let your thumb stray across the bright, vivid, 3-inch screen.
In terms of build quality, the rotary controls are the only aspect with which we take issue. The mode selector is set slightly too far from the edge for comfort, while the rear control wheel, which doubles up as a four-way rocker, is too small to be used with any great fluidity.
Menus and modes
The menus, though, are clear and well thought-out. Select 'intelligent auto' and, as well as face detection (also present in the 'superior auto' mode), you'll find three levels of smile detection that fire the shutter when they detect a big, normal or slight smile. It's up to you which level you choose, depending on the mood of your subject. You can also give priority to either adults' or children's faces.
The camera has two self-timers (2 and 10 seconds), and two smarter options that fire when they detect either one or two faces in the frame. Activate anti-blink and the HX7V will even take two shots and keep the one in which the subject isn't blinking. That's quite a boon when you're shooting with your subjects looking towards the sun.
Purists can strip down the shooting screen data to the bare minimum, with icons for just the flash and shooting mode, while more advanced users can ramp it up to include battery level, shooting grid, GPS status, focus mode, media capacity and a live histogram. In auto mode, though, the usefulness of the latter feature is up for debate, as exposure compensation is about the only manual control at your disposal.
The range of scene modes, which aren't available in intelligent auto, runs to just 15, but includes the regular suspects -- sports, soft skin, twilight and so on, alongside more specialised options for beach, gourmet and pets.
There are some strange and seemingly arbitrary limitations on what you can and can't do. You can select single-shot, burst mode and bracketing in the scene, program and manual modes, for example, but only single and burst in intelligent auto. Switch to superior auto and even the burst mode disappears.
The flash, likewise, can be set to 'auto', 'on', 'slow synchro' or 'off' in program mode, but only 'on' or 'off' in manual and auto, or 'off' in intelligent auto or superior auto. When fired, the camera made an excellent job of evenly illuminating a scene, as can be seen from the image below.
As well as being accomplished and highly adaptable, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX7V is one of the most fun cameras we've tested in a long time. This might sound flippant, but it's an important point. When a camera makes casual photography fun, it helps to improve the results, as you're more inclined to be inventive and try new angles and shots.
Combined with naturally great output and extraordinary versatility, this factor makes the HX7V the camera against which rivals should be judged for months to come. The fact you can pick it up on the high street and at big-name Internet retailers for around £250 makes it easy to recommend.
Edited by Charles Kloet