Sony Cybershot DSC-HX1
Super zoom camera with Full HD video, sort of
Review These days you’re rather spoilt for choice when it comes to super zoom compacts, and so it’s simply not enough to offer a camera sporting an extra-long zoom; you’ve got to make it stand out in the crowd. Sony reckons the DSC-HX1 offers something special beyond a 20x optical zoom, to tempt the super zoom customer, including a novel panoramic shooting system and a super-fast continuous shooting mode.
Sony's Cybershot DSC-HX1
The DSC-HX1 has 5-100mm f/2.8-5.2 Sony G lens, equivalent to a 28-560mm zoom on a 35mm camera. Its closest rival is Canon’s PowerShot SX1 IS, another model with a 5-100mm optical zoom, although at £589, the Canon’s suggested retail price is a fair bit more than the DSC-HX1’s £429. That said, the PowerShot SX1 IS does offer a few extras lacking on the Sony, such as RAW recording and 1920 x 1080 HD movies at 30fps – the DSC-HX1 also offers HD recording but with a lower specification.
The product shots outline the basic control layouts, so we’ll just focus on some features. You get a 0.2in electronic viewfinder composed of 201,000 dots and a 3-inch LCD screen with 230,000 dots. The LCD screen is on a hinge and can be swivelled up or down by 90 degrees. It’s not as flexible as some articulated LCD screens we’ve seen, but it’s still a nice feature to have.
The EVF is small and not especially sharp, but in our view, every super zoom should offer some form of viewfinder, because it makes it much easier to support the camera with your hands when using the extreme end of the telephoto setting. Note the lack of a hot shoe; in its place is a stereo microphone for video recording.
Sony alas, insists on adding some proprietary features to the camera, including the use of its Memory Stick Duo format. The DSC-HX1 is compatible with Memory Stick Duo Standard and Pro versions and can even use Duo Pro-HG cards. The latter are up to three times faster than ordinary Pro cards thanks to an eight-bit parallel interface and other features, but the DSC-HX1 only supports a four-bit parallel interface, so you’re wasting your money buying Duo Pro-HG cards to use with it.
No hotshoe, but a stereo microphone instead
The other problem is that Sony uses a multi-function socket for USB, AV Out and HDMI connections. The DSC-HX1 comes with a special cable with connections for the first two, but there is no HDMI cable. Instead, Sony provides an HDMI dongle, which plugs into an HDMI cable and the multifunction socket. Not only does the set-up look unwieldy but, if you lose the adapter or the special cable, you’re stuffed and will have to shell out for another cable which is £33 a pop on Sony’s website.
Gripes over, let’s take a look at the DSC-HX1’s features. It uses a1/2.4in Exmore CMOS sensor with 9.1 megapixels (effective) and offers a maximum resolution of 3456 x 2592, down to VGA. On the top of our review sample was a sticker proclaiming that the DSC-HX1 offered “Full HD 1080 [video],” but that is stretching things a bit both literally and metaphorically.
Sony is still punting Memory Stick storage on this model
The HD video spec is actually 1440 x 1080 at 30fps, and this is upscaled to fill a Full HD 1920 x 1080 display. You get two HD recording options at data rates of 12Mbps or 7Mbps, plus 1280 x 720 and VGA recording modes, all at 30fps. H.264/ AVC compression is used for encoding.
Other features include a Bionz processor, optical SteadyShot image stabilisation system, shutter speed range of 2-/4000sec in auto mode (extended to 30 seconds in manual mode), ISO range 125-3200, 9-point AF system, Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) for improving exposure and contrast, ten scene modes (such as landscape and portrait), Face Detection, Scene Recognition and Smile Shutter systems, various colour modes and colour filters, as well as Anti Motion Blur and Hand-Held Twilight modes. The last two involve the DSC-HX1 firing off six frames, and combining the information from them to reduce blur.
But we’re not finished yet. The DSC-HX1 uses CMOS technology to offer two novel features. The first, Sweep Panorama, automatically lines up and stitches together multiple panoramic images in-camera. The second, High-Speed Burst Shooting (aka continuous shooting), fires off ten high resolution frames in just one second – the PowerShot SX1 IS can only offer 4fps. Sony’s Picture Motion Browser photo management software is included in the box.
So much for the features, how does the DSC-HX1 handle? Well, the answer is, pretty well. The camera’s design is more akin to a miniature DSLR than a compact. It measures 114.5 x 82.8 x 91.8mm and weighs 500 grams with card and lithium-ion battery. It takes around three seconds from switch on to take the first shot but, be warned, if you forget to remove the lens cap, the DSC-HX1 spits it off the end of the zoom.
A flip screen makes handling more versatile
You can use the mode dial to select the usual PASM modes, plus Auto, Easy, Anti Motion Blur, Hand-Held Twilight and Sweep Panorama modes. Just below the mode dial is a control dial. By pressing and turning the dial, you can easily select and adjust various parameters (such as ISO speed, aperture value and shutter speed) - it’s a very nice system.
Wide angle: pig ornament in the distance
Super zoom with image stabilisation off
Dynamic range optimiser off
Dynamic range optimiser: standard mode
Dynamic range optimiser: plus mode
The DRO settings proved subtle to say the least
Sweep Panorama: standard mode
Sweep Panorama: ultra wide mode
Incomplete sweeps produce grey blocks, as shown on the right
The DSC-HX1 uses an inverted L-shaped menu composed of icons and text, and it’s very easy to navigate. If you want to switch between the LCD screen and EVF, you press a small button to the right of the pop-up flash.
The continuous shooting system is good, but limited to just ten frames a time
You get the usual multi, centre and spot focusing, plus semi-manual and manual focus. The semi-manual mode lets you select a predefined distance and leave the camera to focus on that area – Sony says this is handy for times when you are repeatedly shooting a subject at the same distance. Manual focusing worked well and making slow, smooth adjustments to the zoom was not a problem.
In terms of performance, the DSC-HX1 offered a mix of excellent and disappointing results. Let’s start with the good ones. Picture quality was impressive, although noise creeps in around ISO 400. The continuous shooting system was superb; the only snags being that you are limited to ten frames and have to wait around 18 seconds for the data to be written to the card. That said, we were knocked out by the feature.
Sweep Panorama is great for any fan of panoramic shooting. Instead of having to do the usual, and take the first shot, wait for the camera to process the image and then carefully line up the next shot, you simply press the shutter and pan the camera, either horizontally or vertically.
An on-screen guidance bar tells you how far you are into the panoramic sweep, and when the camera is processing the images. You can select two panoramic modes: standard, which has a resolution of 4912 x 1920 when the camera is panned horizontally, and ultra wide, whose resolution is 7152 x 1080. We actually preferred the standard mode, which produces less distortion.
It's hard to return to conventional panoramic systems once you've used Sweep Panorama
Sweep Panorama isn’t perfect. First, the moving camera means that picture clarity is lower in this mode. Second, if you pan too quickly or too slowly, the system doesn’t always work, and if don’t do a complete sweep, the DSC-HX1 fills in any gaps with a grey block. Third, moving subjects can produce some odd picture effects. But we have to say, once you’ve used Sweep Panorama, going back to the standard panoramic systems is not easy.
The camera’s optical SteadyShot system worked a treat and is just what you need when using a camera with such a long zoom. Smile Shutter has three sensitivity levels, including one that can detect a slight smile – it worked well in recognising smiles, but it’s not exactly fast-acting. The DRO system was more subtle than spectacular in its results.
Impressive picture quality, but the video performance could definitely be better
Not so impressive was Hand-Held Twilight mode, which is designed for shooting night scenes without a tripod. We compared it with the DSC-HX1 mounted on a tripod using the standard twilight setting. While Hand-Held Twilight produced a brighter image, the price paid was an increase in noise as the ISO speed is boosted to 3200 in this mode.
But the most disappointing aspect was the video performance. We expected some reduction in resolution, but that really wasn’t the problem. The bigger issue was judder, which made moving vehicles stutter along, as if the drivers were alternatively pressing the accelerator and brake pedals. We have seen better motion on cameras offering 24fps video, so this is puzzling, to say the least.
Apart from lacking a RAW image option and the less than Full HD video, the DSC-HX1 offers a pretty good spec. Features such as a powerful optical image stabilisation system, Sweep Panorama and a lightning fast continuous shooting mode are great to have. Video is fine if you’re taking shots of slow moving objects, but performance suffers if your subject is fast-moving. But overall, we liked the DSC-HX1 and if a super zoom compact is on your wish list, you might find that this camera offers the right set of features and performance for the price. ®
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