Good low-light shooting without help from a flash is a rarely attained goal in the world of compact cameras. The 10.2-megapixel Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 accomplishes it with three of the company's own components: a new sensor design, a high-end lens, and a fast image processor. But, although the DSC-WX1 is capable of delivering fast performance and some very good photos, those expecting extraordinary results equal to its features will probably be let down. It's available for around £280.
Tiny and light
One of the most remarkable things about the DSC-WX1 is the amount of technology Sony has crammed into such a tiny, lightweight body. Due to its back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor and a fast Sony G f2.4 wideangle lens, the camera has most of the same capabilities as the considerably larger Cyber-shot DSC-HX1. Both the sensor and the G lens are of the quality found in Sony's digital SLR and prosumer camcorder lines.
Sony has managed to get almost all of the controls onto the back of the camera without making it feel cramped and confusing, while also allowing for a secure one-handed grip that doesn't result in accidental button presses or mode-dial changes. There are just three buttons on top: the usual power and shutter-release buttons, and one at the far right for turning on high-speed shooting. Oddly, the power button sits far away from the shutter release, just left of the camera's centre. This makes it easy to accidentally turn the camera off.
A single 'menu' button gives you access to shooting controls, as well as a selection for seeing all settings. Also good is the camera's ability to warn you about adjusting certain settings. For example, if you set the DSC-WX1 to spot meter light, you won't be able to turn on face detection. The DSC-WX1 tells you on the screen that face detection is unavailable 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.
Besides a few specialty modes, Sony has kept the shooting options reasonably basic on the DSC-WX1. Although you won't find full control over aperture or shutter speed, there's something on the mode dial for just about every point-and-shoot user.
Going around the dial, there's a movie mode capable of recording 720p video with use of the optical zoom (you'll hear the motor moving, however); program auto with access to ISO, exposure, white balance, focus and metering; Sony's 'intelligent auto'; an easy mode that takes away all but a couple of basic shooting options; and 'SCN', which lets you select from 11 scene situations, but automatically handles all other settings.
Then there are the more specialised modes. The 'sweeping panorama' option lets you shoot horizontal or vertical panoramas with one press of the shutter release, unlike other cameras, which require you to take several shots. The last two are the 'anti-motion blur' and 'handheld twilight' modes. Both use the camera's ability to quickly capture six images and combine them into one photo with less blur and better detail than you'd get with just one shot. The results are impressive, as long as you don't look too closely at the full-size images. They're quite usable at sizes of 8 by 10 inches or smaller, though.
For those who tend to leave their camera in auto mode, Sony's 'intelligent auto' turns in reliable results, picking from eight scene types (branded 'iSCN') and turning on face detection and image stabilisation.
There are three levels of high-speed, full-resolution shooting, too, and they all live up to Sony's performance claims. Once the photos are shot, however, you have to wait for them to be stored to the memory card, which takes roughly 2 to 3 seconds per photo. The DSC-WX1 also has exposure bracketing that will take one photo at the exposure you select and then two more at plus and minus 0.3EV, 0.7EV or 1.0EV.
The DSC-WX1 is one of the quickest cameras we've tested in its class. The wake-to-first-shot time is 1.5 seconds, with a nearly identical shot-to-shot time of 1.7 seconds. Using the flash only bumps that time up to 2.3 seconds. Shutter lag in bright conditions is a scant 0.3 seconds. In dim lighting, it's only 0.7 seconds. The camera has no continuous-shooting mode, but its high-speed burst mode is capable of snapping 9.6 frames per second at full resolution.
(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)|
When it comes to photo quality, the DSC-WX1 is a tough camera to judge. Going strictly by what happens between ISO sensitivities, it's a fairly typical point-and-shoot camera -- it's good up to ISO 200, but, at ISO 400 and beyond, noise reduction mucks up fine details. This is mainly noticeable when pictures are viewed at full size or when heavily cropped.
The DSC-WX1's consistent colour performance across sensitivities up to ISO 1,600 keeps its pictures usable for prints of 8 by 10 inches and smaller. Photos at ISO 3,200 look washed-out, but can be printed at 4 by 6 inches and smaller, if you're not terribly picky. Some colour noise and artefacts are present at all ISOs, including the lowest setting of ISO 160. If you're going to make poster-size prints and stare at them from a foot away, you're probably going to be disappointed with what you see.
The DSC-WX1's lens offers impressive sharpness in the centre, although photos soften up towards the sides. All in all, though, the lens on this camera is good. There's surprisingly little barrel distortion, considering how wide it is. There's no pincushioning at the lens' longest position, and we didn't see much in the way of chromatic aberration. Colours, white balance and exposure are all natural and vibrant.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
What it really comes down to with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 is expectations. Just because Sony has used a sensor found in its high-end camcorders and a lens based on those from its Alpha dSLRs, should you expect excellent photo quality? It certainly sounds reasonable. But, in the end, the fun-to-use DSC-WX1 is still a point-and-shoot camera, capable of above-average photos under challenging conditions where most other snappers in its class fail.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet