When Sony announced the 10-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-T500 in August last year, 720p HD video recording in point-and-shoot cameras wasn't widespread. Now it's more common, but the T500 does have some of the best video quality we've seen in an ultracompact camera. It also has the photo quality of a camera far below its price point and an irritatingly short battery life. The T500 is available now for around £240.
The T500 has a mostly metal body, available in black, red and silver, and sliding the front cover down reveals not only the optically stabilised 5x f3.5-4.4 33-165mm-equivalent lens but a larger-than-normal stereo microphone as well. The whole body measures 99mm wide by 61mm high by 20mm thick, but the little camera feels more substantial than Sony's slimmer models usually do, with a weight of 176g.
A texturised rubber grip juts out from the right side, giving you something to push down on to drop the lens cover and hold while shooting. On the back, a wrist-strap loop sticks out, providing you someplace to rest your thumb next to the 89mm (3.5-inch) touchscreen LCD. On the top are the only physical controls: a power button, play button and a shutter release that has a zoom ring on the front and a switch at the back for quickly jumping from still shooting to movie mode.
If having to wipe off fingerprints is a deal-breaker, you'll want to skip this camera -- and probably the increasing number of touchscreen models, for that matter. Aside from fingerprints, you might take issue with the touchscreen's unresponsiveness. It's adequately fast for poking around the three onscreen menus (Home, Menu, and Display) along with the handful of controls that are accessible directly from the screen, including flash, macro, timer and resolution.
Navigating the camera settings is easy enough. The Home menu gives you access to all the main features and options, while the Menu screen provides context-sensitive options. For instance, if you're taking still pictures, you get all the shooting choices such as scene modes and resolutions. Nevertheless, Sony has dropped this Home/Menu distinction in its 2009 models for a reason.
Compared with its stablemate the DSC-T700, the T500 is relatively light on features and options. For still photos you get a choice of Auto, Scene Selection (there are nine to pick from including High Sensitivity and High Speed Shutter) and Program Auto. The latter gives you control over white balance, colour, flash level, burst and bracketing modes, ISO sensitivity (it reaches ISO 3,200) and exposure compensation. In Movie mode you get two shooting options: Auto and High Sensitivity.
Both provide controls for focus, white balance and exposure compensation, but in Auto you also get sepia and black-and-white colour options, as well as the ability to change between multipoint and centre metering.
Noticeably absent from the T500, compared with the T700, is the latter's high-resolution display (921,000 pixels to the T500's 230,000 pixels), 4GB of storage (just a measly 4MB for the T500), and Sony's Bionz Engine image processing. The lack of the Bionz engine might be at least partially to blame for the T500's mediocre photos and its leisurely performance.
Things start off promisingly with sharp, detailed photos presenting good colour and white balance at ISO 80 and ISO 100, though there's some visible lens distortion on the left side, which is common in this class of cameras. Photos at and below a size of 200x250mm were fine quality, though all photos generally look soft. Viewed at 100 per cent, we saw some chromatic aberration, and everything tended to look smeary and overprocessed.
Noise in the pictures becomes noticeable at ISO 200, as does some colour shift and vignetting. The image noise starts to seriously obscure detail at ISO 800 -- we don't suggest using it or higher settings. The T500 also tends to blow out highlights. In general, the photos are decent, but they don't match the hefty price tag of the camera.
What does match is the video quality. The Movie mode is impressive on the T500 -- at least for an ultracompact camera. Video taken outdoors in good lighting had little to no noticeable noise and good colour and exposure. Indoors and in low-light situations, noise becomes visible -- not to a distracting degree, however, unless it's very dim. Plus, you get full use of the 5x optical zoom and it's quiet enough that it doesn't get picked up by the excellent stereo mic on the front.