Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX100V Review: Feature-Filled Megazoom Excels at Video
At a Glance
A couple of trends are evident in the category of long-zoom cameras. First, companies are outfitting impossibly small cameras--pocket megazooms--with lenses that provide optical zoom ranges of 10X and up. Second, companies are going even bigger with larger-sized fixed-lens cameras, equipping them with optical-zoom lenses that approach 40X.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX100V ($450 as of September 2, 2011) is among the latter--a long-zoom camera with a larger body that resembles a small DSLR. Its 30X-optical-zoom lens is a few steps behind the 36X-optical-zoom Nikon Coolpix P500 and the 35X-optical-zoom Canon PowerShot SX30 IS in zoom range, but the HX100V offers other benefits that may ultimately make it more appealing than its rivals.
Like competing superzoom cameras, the HX100V offers a combination of manual, semimanual, and automatic exposure controls. The camera distinguishes itself from the pack with a few extras: built-in GPS, 3D snapshot and panorama features, excellent video quality, and a blazingly fast 10 frames-per-second continuous shooting speed. A full user guide is also built into the camera for quick reference, and there’s even a search option for it.
Hardware and Design
The 16-megapixel Sony Cyber-shot HX100V offers a backside-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor that the company says is designed for low-light operation. The HX100V’s optically stabilized 30X zoom lens reaches as far as the Nikon Coolpix P500’s 810mm on the telephoto end, but not as far as the 840mm Canon PowerShot SX30 IS. At 27mm wide-angle, the HX100V achieves a slightly narrower maximum than the P500’s mega-wide-angle 22.5mm and the SX30 IS's 24mm.
It isn't the widest of superzoom cameras, but the HX100V’s 27mm wide-angle lens does a good job of capturing landscapes and group shots. The lens is relatively fast, with a maximum aperture of F2.8 at wide angle, though it slows to F5.6 at telephoto.
It takes a lot to stabilize a 30X lens with a reach of 810mm; and though the camera’s Optical SteadyShot system is effective at wide-range-to-midrange focal lengths, you'll benefit from using a tripod or monopod when shooting at full telephoto. A tripod becomes all the more important when there’s not enough light to permit use of a super-fast shutter speed. The rule of thumb is that the minimum shutter speed should equal 1/focal length; in this case, that would be at least 1/810th of a second. At 810mm, however, holding the camera steady enough to keep the subject in the frame isn't easy.
Manual focus is available at the flip of a switch on the lens barrel and through use of the lens focus/zoom ring. Once you press the focus button atop the grip, the camera enlarges the image up to 7X, so you can fine-tune the focus more easily. Frankly, autofocus seems to work better (and faster), but tweaking the focus manually in macro mode is a helpful touch. By using the same ring, you can manually operate the zoom in conjunction with autofocus.
With its lens retracted, the HX100V measures 4.6 inches wide, 3.5 inches tall, and 3.6 inches deep, making it a bit smaller than either the Nikon Coolpix P500 or the Canon PowerShot SX30 IS. With its lens fully extended, the camera's optics don’t protrude much, so the unit is relatively compact for its class; it’s by no means pocketable, however.
At 1 pound, 4 ounces, the camera has enough heft to counterbalance the lens. The grip is raised and grooved, with enough room between it and the lens barrel to provide a solid handhold--particularly for people with large hands. Photographers with small hands may find the grip a little too deep, but it’s nicely contoured for comfort.
Like other superzooms, the HX100V is equipped with both an adjustable LCD and an eye-level EVF (electronic viewfinder). The 3-inch, high-resolution, 921,000-pixel LCD provides a clear view for composing and playback, with a five-step brightness control, and it worked well in our testing under most lighting conditions. The monitor is hinged at the bottom, so you can flip it out and tilt it for overhead and low-angle shots. The EVF is clear, albeit a little dark, and a diopter enables you to adjust the viewfinder to your eyesight. An eye sensor automatically switches between the LCD and the viewfinder, but sometimes it’s faster to switch manually, thereby avoiding a slight delay in the automatic process.
A single media-card slot accommodates both Memory Stick and SD/SDHC/SDXC cards. With newer-model cameras, it’s wise to use cards of above-average capacity and speed, especially to shoot video and/or high-speed bursts.
For the most part, the HX100V’s control layout is standard. The mode dial is packed with 11 shooting options. Buttons include on/off, playback, menu, and direct movie mode. The zoom lever surrounds the shutter button, while a four-way pad provides direct access to the display, flash, self-timer, and single/burst/bracket modes.
Burst speed and bracketing settings require a trip to the menu, however. A dedicated focus button atop the grip offers multipoint, center, and flexible-spot autofocus options. With flexible-spot autofocus, you use the four-way pad keys to position the focus point manually. You activate or disable tracking focus, which works well, via the four-way pad’s center button.
Also of note is a custom button that you can program for direct access to white balance, auto-exposure lock, smile shutter, or the camera’s neutral density filter. A jog dial positioned to the left of the textured thumb rest on the back of the camera lets you scroll through the menus and change several settings directly; you press the dial one or more times to cycle through ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation. The jog dial’s press-and-turn operation can seem a little awkward, at least initially.
All of the other camera settings, including image size, flash level, color mode, and smile shutter, are accessible via the menu. After you press the menu button, a vertical list appears on the left side of the LCD, amounting to a long version of the quick menu found on other cameras--and just as convenient.
Shooting Modes and Features
Like other full-size megazoom cameras, the HX100V offers a more well-rounded feature set than smaller point-and-shoots do. Photographers who prefer manual exposure modes can shoot in aperture-priority, shutter-speed-priority, or full manual mode. Alternatively, a Program Auto mode does most of the thinking but allows users to set parameters such as ISO, metering, contrast, saturation, and sharpness. An MR (memory recall) option on the mode dial is essentially a custom mode, enabling you to select and access three customized combinations of settings.
Alas, there’s no RAW shooting mode. Fine-tuning adjustments, such as contrast, sharpness, saturation, skin softness, and noise reduction are accessible via the menu system. But you can adjust each of these attributes to one of only three levels: low, standard, and high. In this respect, the HX100V falls short of the Coolpix P500--but minimal control is better than none at all.
No-brainer options include intelligent auto, superior auto (a sort of auto-meets-bracketing mode, which takes multiple shots and combines them for the best image), and 16 scene modes. The "smile shutter" option automatically snaps a photo when your subject smiles, and you can adjust smile-detection sensitivity settings (big, normal, slight smile). It works in practice, though you can’t always depend on the smile-triggered shutter to fire fast enough to capture a grin.
One surprising feature of the Sony Cyber-shot HX100V is its continuous-shooting speed. At full resolution, the camera snaps away at up to 10 frames per second for about 10 shots. It takes several seconds to save the data to the card (which is why I recommend getting a fast card), and focus and exposure are set at the first frame. Still, the HX100V’s burst mode is very impressive.
3D features are in the mix, too, as the camera can capture MPO-format still images. Supplementing Sony’s normal Sweep Panorama mode is a special 3D Sweep Panorama that creates wide-angle 3D photos. You'll need a compatible 3D TV and glasses to see the effect during playback, though. Along with the panoramic 3D images, the HX100V uses its fast-burst bracketing capabilities to create 3D shots without your having to pan the camera. A Sweep Multi-Angle mode lets you change your viewing perspective of an image by tilting the camera back and forth during playback.
The HX100V's video resolution is outstanding, producing 1080p AVCHD video at 60 fps at the camera's highest-resolution setting. Automatic features in the HX100V’s movie mode include intelligent auto, intelligent scene selection, and face detection; and you can use the zoom lens (while stabilized) in movie mode. The unit records sound in stereo, but the camera’s speaker is mono.
The HX100V’s in-camera GPS features are fairly bare-bones: The camera captures location (and shooting direction via an electronic compass) and records the information into the EXIF data. It’s a handy feature for travelers or anyone who wants to track where images were captured, but you don’t get an in-camera mapping and location database, as you do with the Casio Exilim EX-H20G.
Not surprisingly, the HX100V doesn’t pick up a signal indoors. In fact, I couldn’t acquire a signal standing close to a single-story building. But when I moved about 20 feet away from the building, the camera acquired the GPS signal in less than a minute, which is faster than the signal acquisition times I've measured for other GPS-equipped cameras I’ve used.
Performance, Image Quality, and Video Quality
In PCWorld Labs’ subjective evaluations for image quality, the Sony Cyber-shot HX100V was a solid performer three measures: sharpness (Very Good), lack of distortion (Superior), and color accuracy (Very Good). However, exposure quality exhibited some automated white-balance issues and a bit of underexposure in our test images, and the camera earned a score of just Fair for exposure quality.
In my hands-on tests, the HX100V’s still-image quality was a mixed bag, though pretty good overall. When shooting at lower ISOs, with the lens at wide to midrange focal lengths, many of my test shots came out razor sharp and with better-than-average details. When I pumped up the ISO and/or extended the zoom, the images got softer and lost detail--hardly an unexpected occurrence with this type of camera, but still noteworthy. I wasn’t surprised, either, that purple fringing occasionally appeared along high-contrast edges when zoomed at telephoto. However, the HX100V delivered (mostly) accurate exposures and pleasing colors.
You can view the full-size images used for PCWorld Labs’ subjective evaluations by clicking the thumbnails at left.
Start-up and power down were a little slower than I had expected, but autofocus speed under good light was speedy; the autofocus speed slowed a bit under low light and at full zoom. Tracking focus was fairly responsive and accurate, though the camera occasionally got distracted and went off-course from its intended subject. Again, you should use a tripod for long shots: The HX100V’s stabilization system works well, except at the farthest reaches of the zoom.
In PCWorld Labs’ subjective video tests, the HX100V emerged as a very good long-zoom option for people who want to shoot video. Our sample footage looked sharp and smooth in bright light, and the HX100V did a much better job than most cameras we’ve tested in creating a usable low-light video scene. The low-light test clip is certainly dark, but the scene's details are visible, and the camera doesn’t jack up the ISO automatically to reduce color accuracy. The HX100V earned a video quality score of Very Good, with a better score in our low-light tests than most other cameras we’ve tested this year.
You can view the test clips used for PCWorld Labs’ subjective video tests below. Select “1080p” in each player to view the highest-quality footage.
Battery life is another strong suit: At 410 shots per charge according to CIPA testing, the HX100V qualifies for a battery-life rating of Very Good. Bear in mind, however, that those results came with the camera’s GPS functionality turned off; you can expect the battery’s mileage to drop considerably if you engage the GPS.
The 30X optical-zoom Sony Cyber-shot HX100V offers a good balance of manual and automated features, as well as standout video and 3D capabilities. It doesn’t match the sophistication of the Nikon P500’s feature set, but its special features and GPS give it a unique position among competing long-zoom cameras.