The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 seemed too good to be true when it was announced in February. For around £200, you get a wideangle lens with a 5x zoom, 12-megapixel resolution, some of Sony's advanced automatic shooting options, high-definition video capture, and a 76mm (3-inch) LCD, all packed into a good-looking body roughly the size of a deck of cards. Sounds great. There had to be something wrong.
Well, as with most point-and-shoot cameras of its calibre, the W290's photo quality could be better and its performance slightly faster. In the end, though, neither is really that disappointing, and, if you take into account its attractive price tag, the W290 is tough to beat.
Available in silver, black, blue and bronze, the W290 resembles Sony's other W-series Cyber-shot cameras. It's an attractive camera in a pocketable body, but there's some weight to it, so you won't forget it's on your person. Our silver model retains fingerprints noticeably all over the body -- something to keep in mind if that sort of thing bugs you.
One minor gripe with the body design is that the W290's front features concentric ridges that improve grip but also trap grease and dirt, so your fingerprints are imprinted as soon as you touch the camera and they aren't easily wiped off. We'd also like to see a lock on the all-too-easily-opened battery/Memory Stick compartment.
Sony has managed to get almost all of the controls onto the back of the camera without making it feel cramped and confusing, while allowing for a secure one-handed grip that doesn't result in accidental button presses or mode dial changes. This is the case even though there's a 76mm LCD on the back. There are just three buttons on top: the usual power and shutter-release buttons and a Smile Shutter button for instantly activating Sony's have-smile-will-shoot feature.
Gone from this model is Sony's confusing 'home' and 'menu' buttons set-up from previous models. That set-up relied on the user remembering which button to press to access context-sensitive shooting controls and which one to press to access the menu for all settings. Now there's just one menu button, giving you access to shooting controls as well as an option to see all settings.
We also like the camera's ability to warn you about adjusting certain settings. For example, if you set the W290 to spot meter light you won't be able to turn on face detection. The W290 tells you on-screen that face detection is not available because of spot metering being selected. Cameras from other vendors generally make you guess what needs to be shut off in order to turn on a blacked-out option.
Sony has kept shooting options reasonably basic on the W290. Although you don't get full control over aperture or shutter speed, there's something on the mode dial for just about every point-and-shoot user. Going from top to bottom on the dial, there's a movie mode capable of 720p HD-quality video (you can't use the optical zoom while recording, however); program auto with access to ISO, exposure, white balance, focus and metering; Sony's 'intelligent auto' mode; an easy mode that takes away all but a couple of basic shooting options; and 'intelligent scene recognition', which lets you select from 10 scene situations, but automatically handles everything else.
Sony's intelligent auto mode turns in reliable results, picking from eight scene types, and turning on face detection and image stabilisation. Sony's intelligent scene recognition can be set to auto or advanced. Set to advanced, in difficult lighting the camera will automatically take two shots with different settings so you have a better chance of getting a usable photo. Also worth mentioning is that the W290 has exposure bracketing that'll take three photos -- one at the exposure you select and then two more at plus and minus 0.3EV, 0.7EV or 1.0EV.
The W290's overall performance is very good. Start-up to first shot takes a relatively brisk 1.3 seconds. Shutter lag in good lighting is a fairly average 0.4 seconds. In more difficult, dim lighting it goes up to 0.7 seconds. Without the flash on, you'll be waiting an average of 2.3 seconds between shots, which only jumps up to 2.7 seconds with the flash on. Finally, the W290 turns in an impressive burst speed of 2.1 frames per second.
Our expectations for photo quality were low, but the W290 far surpassed them. Colour and exposure are particularly pleasing and accurate. The camera goes from ISO 80 up to ISO 3,200, but usability drops off significantly above ISO 400 (this is typical of cameras in this class). Even at ISO 80, however, photos viewed at full size have a grain to them that only gets more pronounced as sensitivities get higher. It had little to no impact on large prints (13 by 19 inches and below) made from test shots taken up to ISO 400. If you're planning to make prints that large, just keep the ISO as low as possible. More of an issue is the overall softness of photos, especially subjects off to the left in shots.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Video quality is good too, but you don't get use of the 5x zoom while you're recording. Also, if you want to view your recording on an HDTV, you'll need to pay up for a proprietary component cable that connects to the multi-use terminal on the camera's bottom.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Time to first shot||Typical shot-to-shot time (flash)||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W290 is a compelling package. Unless you're extraordinarily picky about your photo quality, it's a great pocket camera at a reasonable price, offering a solid combination of features, usability and design.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet