Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1

The holiday season is here, as are the accompanying parties and celebratory events. If you're all gussied up, you might as well bring a camera like Sony's fashion-conscious, 10.2-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC TX1, a touchscreen camera that lets you party instead of fussing with camera settings.

Measuring 3.75 by 2.38 by 0.66 inches and weighing five ounces, the DSC-TX1 is small enough to fit into a coat pocket, and it won't take up a lot of room in a purse. The metal body has a front panel that slides down to reveal the camera's 4X Carl Zeiss optical-zoom lens, which has a range of 35mm to 140mm. A power button is on the top, so you can turn on the camera to peruse your pics and still have the lens protected while the camera is in your hands.

Next to the power button is the shutter button, which, like the rest of the camera, is narrow. When using autofocus, I had a difficult time feeling whether the button was pressed halfway down; I relied on the audible cue to tell me when I had pushed the shutter button down far enough for focus. Fortunately, the button responds well when you push it down completely to take a picture, and I saw no shutter lag.

The zoom toggle is conveniently placed next to the shutter button, and very little lag occurs when you're zooming in and out to find the proper zoom point. However, the switch is a bit loose and doesn't feel sturdy, which made me wonder if it would snap over time.

The DSC-TX1 has a three-inch LCD that looks gigantic; it takes up practically the whole back of the camera, which has none of the buttons you'd usually see, because the DSC-TX1 uses an entirely touchscreen interface.

The icons Sony uses are clear and intuitive; for example, the Mode icon, used to change the shooting mode, is labeled "Mode," the playback icon uses the familiar Play arrow, and the flash icon uses a lightning bolt-like arrow. The touchscreen itself works well. The icons are responsive, lighting up when you touch them, and the audible response provides good feedback (you can turn the audio off if you wish).

The problem with the touchscreen isn't in its implementation. The problem is whether it's entirely practical: The touchscreen is a time-hogging hindrance when you want to quickly change settings. With the typical mode dial that you find on most cameras, you can almost instantly change from, say, automatic mode to video mode by simply turning the dial. When you want to make such a change on the DSC-TX1, you have to push the Mode icon on the touchscreen, wait maybe a third of a second, and then press the icon of the mode you want. These steps take a couple of seconds, which doesn't sound like much, but in reality, it can be the difference between capturing or not capturing a key moment.

With this in mind, the DSC-TX1 is best for situations where you won't anticipate needing to adjust the camera (casual snapshot situations, parties, and other get-togethers), or when you don't think you'll need to switch between photo and video modes in an instant. Set the camera, and forget it.

If you do decide to change the recording mode, you have seven modes from which to choose. The Intelligent Auto Adjustment mode, which automatically sets the camera to what the manual calls a "guide," is what you'll probably have the camera set to most of the time. The camera has nine guides: Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Close Focus, Landscape, Portrait, Macro, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight using a tripod. A Scene Selection mode lets you set the camera's settings to one of 12 scene types, such as Pet, Beach, Gourmet, and Snow. The other five recording modes are Sweep Panorama, Program Auto, Anti-Motion blur, Hand-held Twilight, and Movie Mode.

Using the Intelligent Auto Adjustment, you can see the camera change its settings. For example, if you're in a park and you aim at the scenery, the camera Intelligent Auto Adjustment switches to landscape mode. If you then decide to focus on an ant on the picnic table you're sitting at, the camera Intelligent Auto Adjustment switches to macro mode.

The Anti-Motion blur mode takes six pictures at one pressing of the shutter button. Sony says the camera then combines the information of all six pictures to create one sharp image. When I used this feature with moving people, I had a hard time noticing if the picture was truly a combination of information. To me, the pics looked like one blur-less image.

In my informal tests, the overall image quality was pleasing, with good color representation, although some skin tones weren't as smooth was they should be. The pictures also lacked sharpness; detail was noticeably soft. In pictures with shadows, image noise was visible.

In low-light situations (say, a fancy restaurant) the DMC-TX1 does a very good job of picking up detail, but images are still soft and lack sharpness, and you'll see some noise, but not enough to detract from the overall image quality. In fact, for common low-light scenarios, the quality is satisfying.

The DSC-TX1 has face detection, which sets the focus area on a person's face and optimizes exposure for portrait shots. It also has smile detection, which automatically triggers the camera to shoot when it detects a smile. The face detection worked fine, but the smile detection was hit-or-miss, even though you can set the smile detection to one of three levels, with a simple smile at the first level and a big toothy grin at the third level. Smile detection is very handy when you're doing a self-portrait.

Sony's implementation of Sweep Panorama in the DSC-TX1 is so well done that other camera manufacturers should consider a similar method. When you take a panoramic picture, instead of taking multiple pictures that the camera stitches together, the DSC-TX1 has you simply pan from left to right in a single shot. The result is a seamless panorama that's very impressive. About the only problem is if you have extreme variances in brightness in a scene; detail in dark shadow areas are lost if the starting point is very bright.

The DSC-TX1 is capable of shooting video at 1280-by-720 HD resolution, and the videos are saved in MP4 format. If you decide to drag-and-drop the DSC-TX1's videos from the MemoryStick card, know that the camera keeps the video in a separate folder from the still photos.

While shooting videos, the zoom works smoothly. The video quality is like that of the stills: soft, with some skin tones not as smooth as others, but overall acceptable quality.

Macworld's buying advice

The Cyber-shot DXC-TX1 works great as a casual camera at times when you would rather socialize and enjoy your company than mess with a camera's settings. It's about the size of a mobile phone but it takes much better pictures, so you might consider leaving your phone behind and taking the DXC-TX1 to that party. The touchscreen interface borders on gimmicky rather than practical, but it is well done, and would work even better if it were combined with quick-access hardware controls.

[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]

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