Sony's 7.2-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-W7 has the same great 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD, metal-alloy body, and 3x Carl Zeiss zoom lens as those of its predecessor, last year's DSC-W1, but the W7 improves on it with 2 more megapixels and plenty of extra speed. This compact digital camera shoots and processes its bigger images in less time, making it easier to get that fleeting shot of baby's first step or your boss taking a spill after too much eggnog at the office party. Keen-eyed photographers might find the photos a bit too flawed, and enthusiasts will miss the manual controls, but it's a fairly quick and responsive camera with very solid automatic settings and respectable image quality, making it perfect for mainstream users looking to point, shoot, and make large prints with minimum fuss.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W7's design remains largely unchanged from that of its predecessor, an attractive little 258g camera that will fit in a jacket or a loose trouser pocket. The first thing you notice is its silver metal alloy skin, its simple rectangular shape, and its solid bulk. With no garish colours, shapes, or lettering -- the model name and pixel count are etched discreetly on top of the camera -- the DSC-W7 has the appearance of a serious tool that business users and adults shouldn't be embarrassed to use.
As with many other Sony digicams these days, a big 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD dominates the back of the camera. The screen is bright and refreshes quickly and makes framing and reviewing pictures a pleasure. Unfortunately, it leaves little room for a useful optical viewfinder. This one is small, it crops the view significantly, and what little it enables you to see is distorted. Two status LEDs next to the viewfinder indicate focus and flash readiness.
You navigate the menus and photo review via a four-way directional keypad whose buttons double as controls for the last-image-shot review, flash, macro and self-timer. There's also a zoom rocker, a display button, and a menu button on the back, as well as a dedicated image-size button, useful for switching from 7 megapixels to 5, 3, or even fewer when your Memory Stick becomes cramped.
Without a lot of dedicated buttons or a second status LCD, as many other cameras have, users must navigate through the menu system to change most simple, common settings such as white balance, ISO speed, and even manual focus distance. While the menu is easy to read and use, this seems like a lot of unnecessary work that will slow down photographers who like to tinker with these settings.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W7's capabilities squarely target the user who likes to get the best possible pictures with the least amount of work required, with a few extra features thrown in for fun or convenience. Advanced or aspiring creative photographers who like to use manual settings, though, may want to look at other cameras.
The hallowed words Carl Zeiss and Vario-Tessar appear on the lens, indicating a serious optical pedigree. However, it's slow, with apertures of f/2.8 to f/5.6 at the wide end and f/5.2 to f/10 at the telephoto end, and covers a fairly narrow range (with a 35mm focal-length equivalent of 38mm to 114mm) compared to the best cameras in its class.
Among the camera's notable features are a TV-quality movie mode that records 30fps, 640x480-pixel MPEG video on a Memory Stick Pro card (non-Pro cards can do only half the frame rate). Multiburst mode scoops up 16 frames in less than one second, then tiles the images into one 1,280x960-pixel montage. Besides being very cool, this feature is useful for analysing sports action such as a golf swing. A live histogram makes judging exposure easy before shooting or during review. 30MB of usable internal memory allows you to use the camera even if you've lost your Memory Stick down the back of the sofa.
The camera features three metering modes: spot, which is useful for precision metering in high-contrast scenes with uneven lighting; centre-weighted, which is useful when your subject fills the middle of the frame; and multipattern, a very effective smart mode that analyses a scene at multiple points in the frame and decides which parts to meter and which to ignore. There are also several white-balance presets, including the common sunny, cloudy, tungsten, and fluorescent settings, as well as several typical automatic picture-taking modes, such as Twilight (slow shutter), Twilight Portrait (slow shutter with flash), and Landscape (focus set to infinity).
One missing feature that may irk those who want to take snapshots is the automatic rotation of vertical photos. Those looking for a camera to grow with will find several features missing: aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes; full manual exposure control -- you can choose from only two apertures at any given focal length; full manual focus -- you must choose from five preset focal distances; rear-curtain flash sync, which shows light trails behind a moving object instead of in front of it; and raw file support.