SONY DSC-WX1 – Technology Tour De Force [Review]

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Introduction

Once the digicam makers had created face detection and smile sensing, we were left wondering what they’d think of next. Sony managed to think up some new tricks for its digicams, which are squarely aimed at consumers who expect advanced features and the slick design Sony is known for. I couldn’t get my hands on the new DSC-HX5V but the Sony DSC-WX1 shares the new Exmor sensor and other Sony advances like:

  • Hand-held twilight and anti-motion blur shooting modes – the camera takes half a dozen shots in burst mode and blends them into one, not unlike an HDR capability, allowing you to get shots indoors and at night without getting blur from subject or camera movement
  • Sweep panorama function which automatically assembles panoramas from many shots captured by panning your camera across a scene
  • New superfast image processing engine
  • Back-illuminated ‘Exmor R’ CMOS image sensor
  • HD video.

I was curious to see how well some if this new technology worked, and if it could make up for poor photographic technique. As usual, this is a hands-on user review where I grab the camera as most users would and take some photos. For a full product review, check these links

Value Proposition

Sony claims that its new Exmore sensor delivers a 200% increase in sensitivity over a traditional front-illuminated CMOS sensor, and it was this sensor that got my attention – 200% seemed a big call. Most sensors are front-illuminated, and light must pass through the electronic circuitry before reaching the light-sensitive pixels. Back-illuminated sensors place the circuitry behind the sensor, so it can collect more light.

Build quality

The WX1 is small, about the same size as a flip-out mobile phone but a little thicker. It is smooth all over with nicely rounded edges and feels good in the hand. It looks well-built and feels solid. The lens is flush with the body when retracted. Battery is good for about 300 shots, connection cable is Sony all-in-one special.

Ease of Use, Handling and Navigation

The on-off button needs just a firm touch to start things up and the shutter release is the equally responsive big button to the right (on top). There’s no viewfinder, and the dials on the back are a bit small for grown-up hands. The zoom is controlled by two little buttons above the mode dial on the back, which work better than expected.

Navigation is pretty intuitive, and the mode dial tells you what the selected mode does via the clear 2.7” screen. The usual scene modes are on offer through an SCN setting. There are no standard PSAM manual controls, with programmed auto the closest. This gives you access to a bunch of settings you can change in the logical menu.

Image quality

For a digicam, the WX1 is pretty responsive, from start-up to autofocus and shutter release. It had nothing like the painful lag that makes my Canon IXUS 960 IS such a frustrating experience. Reloading is a bit slower so it’s best to use burst mode where you need lots of action shots in fast sequence. Burst mode works at an astonishing 10 frames per second, a great turn of speed at this price level.

The WX1 has another asset: an optically stabilized Sony G Lens with 5x zoom. It starts at f/2.4 wide open, which is reasonably fast, but at the long end the aperture is a very average f/5.9. The lens also start at a superwide 24mm and zooms to 120mm (35mm equivalent). The wide angle is really useful for groups and interiors, but the lens captures lots of scenes nicely.

In macro mode, I couldn’t achieve a decent bokeh but that’s perhaps asking too much of a camera in this class. Without the option of manual controls, I settled on intelligent auto which did a pretty good job of working out what I was trying to do and selected the right mode for it.

Low Light Shooting

In handheld twilight and anti-motion blur modes, the Sony stacks multiple images shot at high sensitivity into a single exposure with reduced noise. Apparently the WX1 can detect subjects that have moved between shots, and select only the clearest frames. This feature worked better than I expected, with less noise than you’d see on other digicams, validating Sony’s claims in this area.

Shooting in burst mode is an old trick for poor light situations – chances are that one of the photos will come out sharp. The Sony WX1 does this for you and picks the clearest shot, so it makes it a lot easier. The photos aren’t perfect but they don’t have that overprocessed look about them. It’s hard to say how much this mode is helped by the fast lens and the new Exmor sensor.

 

Video

The WX1 records high-definition video with sound at up to 1280 x 720 pixels (720p), at a rate of 30 frames per second. Video is as easy as can be, quality is pretty good and the sound that comes with it is surprising in its clarity.

Panorama

The panorama mode was the only real let-down. It was anything but easy, the WX1 time and time again telling me it couldn’t capture the images. I even tried it on a tripod but failed miserably. Part of the problem is the smoothness of your sweeping motion, I suspect, and part of it is having enough objects lined up in the panoramic arc for the camera to focus on. Grand landscapes didn’t work at all for me but a sweep around my office did, though the reproduction was poor.

Verdict on the SONY DSC-WX1

I liked the little Sony WX1 as a take-anywhere and fit-into-just-about-any-pocket, point-and-shoot digicam. The lens is faster and wider than average, and the intelligent auto mode works very well for easy shooting. Low-light performance in twilight mode is impressive, with digital noise well-suppressed and photos are acceptable/usable.

Sony has also shown restraint by keeping the megapixels down to 10. Images show good detail with low chromatic aberration and low lens distortion, if not great acuity. What really impressed me was the camera’s speed. It wasn’t just the fast burst mode but also its focus and shutter speeds, both well above average for a P&S. The processing after shooting in burst or video mode was pretty fast as well, with a little slider on the screen showing the rapid progress.

The most impressive results of Sony’s technical trickery are seen in its poor light performance. Throw in a fast and wide lens, decent build quality and good battery life, and you have a pretty competent all-round camera that can take decent photos in most hands, and good ones with a bit more effort.

How much of the image quality is attributable to Sony’s new Exmor sensor is hard to say, but there’s no quantum leap when compared to competitive cameras like the Panasonic Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7.

Gripes are few and include:

  • Image stabilisation that wasn’t as effective as I expected
  • A panorama mode that was too finicky to work very often
  • Landscape shots lacked sharpness with colours washing out a little
  • Decent bokeh in macro shots was hard to achieve
  • No manual controls
  • No viewfinder

In sum, Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 packs a lot of goodies into a small package at a fair price – around US$300 – but it faces fierce competition from every other maker in this segment.

Amazon currently has the Sony DSC-WX1 for $278 USD.

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
SONY DSC-WX1 – Technology Tour De Force
Author Rating
4

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Kim Brebach is a marketing professional whose experience spans over 3 decades in the IT industry. His interests include photography, cool technology, great music, theatre and books, wine and food, tennis and chess. You can find his photo blog at Get the Picture.

  • Most of the new batch of Sony cameras have this vaunted Sweep panorama mode and, while fine for your general consumer, it is in no way a replacement for a proper pano. The results, ironically NOT demonstrated here, are generally noisy, devoid of dynamic range and can be subject to movement in the direction perpendicular to the sweep direction.

  • This might make more sense in the “Cameras and Equipment” section, than in the “Photo Tips & Tricks” one! 🙂

  • The indoor low light shot looked pretty good and could be made even better with a few processing touches. The $278 price seems reasonable to me, especially if the sweep panorama function really works well.

  • The article mentions about 300 shots before camera battery life is gone. I’d like to recommend carrying spare Sony camera batteries if there will be more than 150 photo shots taken in the same session.

Some Older Comments

  • Sony Camera Battery May 5, 2010 10:10 am

    The article mentions about 300 shots before camera battery life is gone. I'd like to recommend carrying spare Sony camera batteries if there will be more than 150 photo shots taken in the same session.

  • Jason Collin Photography May 4, 2010 06:18 am

    The indoor low light shot looked pretty good and could be made even better with a few processing touches. The $278 price seems reasonable to me, especially if the sweep panorama function really works well.

  • dcclark May 4, 2010 02:28 am

    This might make more sense in the "Cameras and Equipment" section, than in the "Photo Tips & Tricks" one! :)

  • OsmosisStudios May 4, 2010 12:48 am

    Most of the new batch of Sony cameras have this vaunted Sweep panorama mode and, while fine for your general consumer, it is in no way a replacement for a proper pano. The results, ironically NOT demonstrated here, are generally noisy, devoid of dynamic range and can be subject to movement in the direction perpendicular to the sweep direction.

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