Where compact pocket cameras like this are concerned, the objects most often used to describe their size are decks of cards or cigarette packets. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W690 is smaller still.
It's slim, good looking, and boasts some impressive specs. The camera has also been stripped of complex controls to appeal to novice photographers.
Features for beginners
If what's left to tweak is still beyond your abilities, then switch to easy mode to enlarge the menu font and strip it down to a single option: image size. The larger font is great for anyone with a visual impairment, but it's a shame Sony hasn't applied it across the board -- when you press a hardware control to switch on the flash or activate the timer, it uses the same small font as usual.
The one concession it makes to more advanced controls is the program setting, which gives you access to white balance, focus, metering mode and sensitivity (from ISO 80 to ISO 800 in this mode, although the absolute maximum in other modes is ISO 3,200, with an auto setting for general use and compensation of +/-2EV in 1/3EV steps). You can't manually pick your aperture or shutter speed though.
Low-light performance is good, with colours reproduced accurately at ISO 800. There is a fair degree of dappling at this level, and some grain in areas of flat colour. Both of these impact clarity when zoomed to 100 per cent, but shouldn't be greatly limiting unless you want to crop very tightly onto a detail. Elements such as fine writing on a small bottle remained legible in my tests (see below).
The W690 has 11 scene modes for shooting portraits, landscapes, night shots and so on, and four creative filters covering off toy camera, high colour, partial colour and soft high key effects.
Its specs are impressive, considering the size of the chassis. The sensor tops out at 16.1 megapixels (4,608x3,456 pixels), and it has a 10x zoom, equivalent to 25-250mm on a conventional 35mm camera. Maximum aperture at wide angle is f/3.3, narrowing to f/5.9 at full telephoto. Both of these are pretty much par for the course on a compact.
Minimum focusing distance is 5cm in wide-angle macro mode and 1.5m at full telephoto. Again, both are fair but not exceptional.
Macro performance is good though, with the W690 setting its aperture to the maximum f/3.3 to maintain a shallow depth of field. It was easy to get a fix on chosen subjects in my macro tests, and the results were consistently sharp and evenly exposed.
It takes SD/SDHC/SDXC and Sony Memory Stick, so if you're switching to this from another camera, there's a better chance you can bring your existing memory card with you. Using a Class 4 SD card, I was able to shoot five full-resolution frames in burst mode before it had to pause to offload the cache. Dropping the resolution to 10 megapixels let it carry on shooting, with a gap of around 1 second between each frame.
Naturally, there's no optical viewfinder, so all framing is done using the 3-inch rear LCD screen. Unfortunately, this has a fairly shallow viewing angle, so it's not easy to judge whether your image is accurately exposed unless you're looking at it face-on.
I performed my tests using the W690's intelligent auto mode, allowing the camera to set all its own shooting parameters, while I concentrated on angle and composition.
On first downloading the results and judging them as arbitray hits or misses, there was a higher proportion of misses than I have seen from other compacts over the last few months. Some shots exhibited over-exposed areas as it compensated for darker portions of the frame. Metering for brighter portions and then re-composing the shot usually resolved this, resulting in a properly exposed shot.
The level of detail resolved in accurately exposed shots was impressive though, with the W690's lens quick to fix onto the subject and focusing with razor-sharp accuracy. It's easy to force a shallow depth of field too, to draw the eye to a particular spot in your shot.
Colours were consistently true to their originals throughout my tests under all lighting conditions, both indoors and outside under direct sun and overcast skies.
There was some evidence of chromatic aberration in my results -- a colour fringing around the edges of sharply contrasting objects -- when the subject was backed by a bright, overcast sky. That's seen clearly in the shot below, where a pink halo is apparent along the edges of the branches and leaves of the tree above this garage.
It put in a mixed performance in the still-life test, performing well when using the onboard flash, but less well under studio lighting or ambient light.
Rich colours, such as reds and blues, and wooden textures, were very cleanly captured under studio lighting -- as was the small, fine writing on the back of a stack of memory cards and the label on a miniature spirit bottle. However, it bleached out the detail on the fur of a child's toy polar bear.
The bleached area was recovered when shooting in ambient light, but because the W690 had to hike its sensitivity from the ISO 80 it used under studio lights to ISO 400, it still bleached out the white wall behind the still-life tableau. This resulted in some unnatural contrasts between the subjects and their background. There was a higher level of noise at this level of sensitivity, which manifested itself as dappling against strong contrasts, such as the white branding on a black radio.
Turning off flash suppression resulted in a happy medium, with the W690 dialling back the sensitivity to ISO 200 to recover the detail in the fur and the wall behind the collection of objects. The flash was very well balanced, so although it did introduce some shadows to the scene, they were subtle and didn't distract.
The W690 shoots high-definition video at 1,280x720-pixel resolution, 30 frames per second. You can choose from two quality levels (I picked fine, rather than standard), or drop the resolution to 640x480 for web use. You can also set the white balance and use exposure compensation on the same scale as you would for stills when shooting video.
Rather than pressing a record button when in stills mode, you have to manually switch between stills and video using a slider on the back of the case. A third position on the switch lets you shoot panoramas by sweeping the camera across the scene in front of you.
Video results are good, with colours true to their originals and plenty of detail in the captured footage. The soundtrack is clean and the speaker is sensitive enough to pick up quieter sounds such as footsteps on gravel.
You can use the optical zoom through its full range while shooting, and there's image stabilisation to help smooth out the bumps of slight hand movements at the furthest end of the zoom. The barrel itself moves quietly enough to have very little impact on the soundtrack -- you'll have to listen carefully to pick it up.
Compensation for changing light levels is smooth and measured, amounting to a good video performance overall.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W690 has clearly been designed with novice photographers in mind. Sony has done a good job of taking away all of the technical requirements of operating a camera so you can concentrate on finding and shooting great subjects.
When set to fully automatic, the results weren't as consistent as I would have liked, but when the W690 did well, it did very well indeed. Captured detail was consistently sharp, colours were accurate and the video performance was certainly up to scratch.
It's priced at a level that's very reasonable and puts it in direct competition with the Samsung ST200F. That camera has the same resolution and zoom and put in a great performance in my tests at the back end of June. However, the Samsung's built-in Wi-Fi is an appealing feature that places it ahead of this Sony snapper in my view.