The Cyber-shot DSC-W380 is the new king of Sony's practical-yet-stylish W-series compact-camera line. It's got a 5x super-wide-angle zoom, 14.1-megapixel sensor and Sony's clever 'sweep panorama' mode. It can shoot 720p high-definition movies too, and, at around £190, it's unexpectedly affordable.
Where's the catch?
There's got to be some kind of catch, right? Well, actually, there isn't -- not really anyway. Sony's W-series cameras don't have the hi-tech, brushed-steel glamour of the slimline T-series models, but they're solid, workman-like and offer good value for money, and never more so than in the case of the W380. It doesn't look or feel like a sub-£200 camera. The metal body and the solid, heavy controls feel like those of a much more expensive model.
The W380 is pretty darned small, too. It doesn't have a 'folded' internal lens like the T-series Cyber-shots, but, when it's powered down, the W380 is easily slim enough to slip into a shirt or trouser pocket.
The 67mm (2.6-inch) screen isn't the biggest we've ever seen, but it's bright and clear. As usual with Sony's slimline compacts, the autofocus is super-fast -- there aren't many digital compacts around with which you can just stab the shutter with a single movement and get the shot. The face-detection feature is very fast too, although it's just as well that you can adjust the sensitivity of the smile-detection mode, because, at the default setting, your subjects have to gurn like village idiots before the W380 will fire the shutter.
The W380 isn't bad in low light, either, despite the sensor's high resolution. You lose textured detail fairly early on, but coarser details and colour rendition hold up well, and Sony's 'clear raw noise-reduction' system keeps the noise down, although the ISO 3,200 maximum is something of a washout both figuratively and visually.
The sweep-panorama mode is really cool. As long as you move the camera at the right speed -- and it's not that difficult to do -- it will capture, stitch and crop a finished panorama in not much more time than it takes to shoot an ordinary image. Unfortunately, you don't get a full-resolution image, and, while the panoramas look great in the camera, they don't have the kind of detail that you get from panoramas that you've shot and then stitched together on a computer in the normal way.
Interestingly, Sony's decided to supplement the camera's Memory Stick Duo compatibility with a regular SD/SDHC slot, supplying various provisos and warnings about the suitability or otherwise of different types of Memory Stick Duo cards for storing HD movies.
Why no HDMI?
There are some other negatives. The HD movie mode is fine, but you'll need a dedicated cable to hook the W380 up to your HD telly, since it has a single bespoke USB/AV/HD connector, rather than a standard HDMI socket.
Also, the controls are basic, although maybe that's no bad thing. The mode dial has unexpectedly heavy click stops, which means you'll never turn it by accident, but you might occasionally struggle to turn it on purpose.
While the menu system is simple, navigating it is a rather slow process. It's activated by a menu button that's microscopically small too. If you have the thumbs of a seven-year-old waif, you should be okay though.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W380 is a very well-designed and straightforward, yet versatile, camera that produces top-quality pictures. It's technologically advanced, but doesn't keep rubbing your face in it. Above all, the finish and controls are absolutely first-rate. Okay, so it's not quite perfect, but every now and then Sony reminds us how technology and class can go hand in hand.
Edited by Charles Kloet