We couldn't have asked for a better example of the evils of sensor-resolution specmanship than Sony's 12- megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-W200. This top-of-the-food- chain addition to the otherwise sensible W series -- not exactly budget cameras, but reasonably priced compact models with the occasional amateur-friendly feature -- shares the attractive, compact design and midrange feature set of models like the W80 and W90, although Sony doesn't offer a black alternative.
There's little to complain about with the 140g camera's design. There's no dedicated area to rest your thumb, which we thought would pose a problem, but the slightly indented mode dial fulfills this purpose without incident. The buttons are rather small, but manageable.
We expected more from the 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD. It's the same coarse, 115,000-pixel model we see in cameras half the price, with poor off-angle viewing. It's almost impossible to view in bright light, and the Brightness Up setting is practically indistinguishable from its standard state. There's a surprisingly large, if somewhat distorted, optical viewfinder to supplement the LCD, however. The narrow f/2.8-5.5 35mm-105mm equivalent 3x zoom lens is also rather limiting.
The W200's feature set supplies the capabilities we expect from a premium-priced snapshot camera. Among them you'll find Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilisation, 9-point autofocus, and face detection. Here, Sony makes some odd choices. For example, you can only enable face detection in full Auto mode -- it's not even available in Program mode. Also, the W200 provides a Manual exposure mode -- a fairly limited one, in which you can select from only two or three aperture settings, depending upon zoom, but manual nonetheless -- without providing a shutter-priority choice.
As we've seen in other Sony models, the W200's face detection works pretty well, recognising multiple faces in a scene -- as long as it can see both eyes. It tends to be inconsistent, however -- in a three-headed test setup, it would usually choose one, sometimes three, occasionally two faces, and a couple of times none, all under identical conditions.
The model fares moderately well on shooting speed. From power-on to first shot takes a zippy 1.6 seconds, and in high-contrast light it snaps photos in a reasonable half-second. In dim light, under harder-to-focus conditions, it takes a so-so 1.3 seconds. Unfortunately, the W200's typical shot-to-shot time is a sluggish 2.2 seconds, and when you enable flash, that almost doubles to a seriously shot-impairing 4.4 seconds. Its 2fps continuous-shooting rate compares better to its rivals, though.
(Shorter bars indicate faster performance)
|Typical shot-to-shot time||Time to first shot||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
However, when it comes to image-related performance and image quality, the W200 tanks, mostly because of that unnecessary 12-megapixel sensor. Though it's physically larger than the 8-megapixel sensor in the W90, the pixels still must be insanely small. That's the only reason we can think of for the W200 to be such a light vampire, simply incapable of exposing shots at ISO 100 that most snapshot cameras can handle without problem.
We often found it necessary to boost the ISO setting to at least ISO 400 in order to use a reasonable shutter speed -- even with SteadyShot enabled -- while shooting in very bright sunshine. In theory, Sony's Dynamic Range Optimisation, which is enabled by default, should automatically expand the midtones to fix the exposures, but we couldn't find any situation in which the DRO helped either underexposed or high-contrast photos. In fact, we took a variety of DRO/no-DRO test shots, and saw no effect whatsoever.
None of this would be much of a problem if the W200 produced exceptional low-noise photos at high ISO settings. It doesn't. Though the measured results of our noise tests yield extremely low noise numbers across all ISO sensitivities, observation doesn't match the maths. Images become smeary at as low as ISO 200, with detail smudging and brush-stroke-like artefacts, in addition to the typical splotchy-colour noise.
Combined with increasing focus problems heading out to the right side of the lens, plus aggressive 8-plus-to-1 compression (at minimum) to keep those 34MB files under control, and it's simply too hard to get a sharp, artefact-free photo. In order to get some decent shots, we ended up shooting at ISO 200 and bringing up the exposure in Photoshop. Once adjusted, we got a few nice 320x420mm (12.5x16.5-inch) prints. But that's not exactly the point-and-shoot experience most people are looking for, and we certainly wouldn't have cropped in and blown them up, one of the few reasons you'd want such a high-resolution camera.
On the bright side, the W200 does capture some very nice 30fps VGA movies, though you can't operate the zoom while you're shooting.
In a camera with a really good low-dispersion lens, limited image compression, and really great noise- suppression algorithms, the 12-megapixel sensor could possibly yield some excellent photos. The W200 is not that camera. If you derive emotional sustenance from knowing you've got the highest-resolution camera on the block, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W200 might help fill that gaping void in your soul. But if you're looking for a compact snapshot camera that will provide great photos at a reasonable price, almost any other ultracompact camera will deliver better photos for the money.
Additional editing by Nick Hide