**Model Design / Appearance**Previous H-series digital cameras came in silver or black colors, but the new H9 and H7 come only in black. The two cameras look nearly identical, with the only noticeable difference being the larger folding LCD screen on the flagship H9. The SLR-like Sony H9 has a look reminiscent of the late Konica-Minolta digital cameras, most likely because Sony bought their technology when they went under. Konica-Minolta’s legacy can be seen in the rounded and large-barreled left side, in the distinctively chunky body shape, and in the pronounced hand grip. The Sony H9 looks a little better than its Konica-Minolta relatives ever did, but that’s not saying much. The H9 leaves the looks up to Sony’s T-series and goes straight for functionality instead. **Size / Portability**The Sony’s specs didn’t indicate the size of the Sony H9, but it wanders in the realm between SLRs and compacts. The ultra-zoom digital camera measures around 4.2 x 3.5 x 3.2 inches – judging from the outlines I drew of it compared to a 4 x 6-inch photo (so this is my best guess without a ruler). The H9 isn’t heavy, probably because of the plastic material of the camera body. There are strap eyelets on each side of the camera, but they aren’t positioned straight across. This is also a legacy from Konica-Minolta cameras – but this legacy should have died with the company. It doesn’t allow the neck strap to hang straight down. The SLR-shaped Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 isn’t enormous, but it will still require a camera bag. **Handling Ability**The Sony H9 has a sturdy plastic housing that is comfortable to grip. There is rubber material that wraps around the hand grip, and there is even a cradle in the material where the middle finger handles the camera. The left side of the H9 is curved and encourages a proper left hand grip around the base of the enormous lens. Handling the Sony H9 feels good since it isn’t too heavy and has comfortable features. **Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size
The menu from this setup portal is as follows.
Here comes the confusing part. There is another setup menu. It is located in a whole series of menus found by pushing the Home button, which is a brand new concept for digital cameras. Pushing the Home button makes a menu appear with the following options: Shooting, View Images, Printing, Manage Memory, and Settings. The Settings portion of this menu has four sub-menus: Main Settings, Shooting Settings, Clock Settings, and Language Settings. Here are the options. The Home menu’s shooting sub-menu is the same one that appears when the Menu button is pushed in a recording mode, and it’s a different way to get to the same spot. The View Images portion acts as a playback mode and allows users to view single images or screens of 6 or 25 pictures at a time. There is also an elaborate slide show menu from this sub-sub-sub-category (translation: nearly impossible to find). The menu will be displayed in the playback mode portion of this review, but the main point from all this wordy madness is that the menus in the H9 are a bit too much. There are menus within menus within menus, and even though the font is nice and readable, it doesn’t make it any easier to find certain settings. **Ease of Use **The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 makes a few attempts at ease of use but doesn’t quite hit it on the head. It is easy to handle physically, and the auto mode is easy to use as all auto modes are. The menu system is confusing though because some options are found in two different places – and there are menus buried within other menus. Sony tried a new concept on this model with the inclusion of a Home button which is similar to a Start menu on a computer with Windows. There is a link to almost all the menus from the Home button’s menu. This is a computer-like interface that has potential, but it doesn’t quite succeed in terms of ease of use on the H9.
**Auto Mode The auto mode is labeled on the mode dial in green, while all the other modes are labeled in black. This makes it easier to find the auto mode, and that is good because the mode dial is quite cluttered. The recording menu is accessible from the auto mode, but it is a little different from the menu that appears in the manual exposure modes. Some options like white balance are left out, but there is the addition of Sony’s new face detection auto focus mode. The functions on the multi-selector can be accessed: self-timer, flash, macro, and display options can be changed. The selector wasn’t labeled on the preproduction model I looked at, but the functions still worked and the labels will be added on the final product. Movie Mode**The Sony H9 comes with a standard movie mode. It doesn’t have any fancy widescreen videos, and even requires users to purchase a Memory Stick Duo Pro card to record video at the standard 30 fps frame rate. Otherwise, video can only be shot at 16.6 fps. Sony tailored the H9 towards families and consumers who shoot sporting events and other activities that require speed and lots of zoom. The 15x optical zoom is also functional in the movie mode even when the mono audio is recording. The H9’s competitor, the Olympus SP-550UZ, has an 18x optical zoom lens that is functional in its movie mode – but only when the audio is turned off. The tradeoff between sound and zoom is unfortunate, and one that Sony users won’t have to make. The Sony H9’s optical zoom is very fluid in the movie mode, even more than when shooting still images. The movie mode’s menu describes some of its features.
The smallest resolution records at 8.3 fps, so it is very choppy, but its advantage is that it emails quicker than the other sizes. The optical image stabilization system works well and is a necessity for any movies that use the telephoto side of the optical zoom. Monaural audio can be captured within close range, about 6 ft, and it even sounds good when played back in the camera. Voices were picked up clearly and distinct from the constant drone of background noise at the convention center where the H9 was reviewed. The Sony H9 can’t record HD or widescreen movies, but it does a great job of recording standard television-quality video. The optical zoom is functional, shakes are minimal with the stabilization system, and the audio sounds good. Video can be recorded up to the capacity of the memory card, which Sony says maxes out at 8 GB. **Drive / Burst Mode**The burst mode has its own button behind the shutter release atop the camera. This cycles through these settings: Single, Continuous, +/- 0.3, +/- 0.7, and +/- 1.0. The continuous burst mode snaps 2.2 fps at any resolution. Specs state the burst can last for a hundred shots. That sounds accurate; I snapped 66 pictures at full res to fill my memory card. Of note in this section is the self-timer, which can be set to delay for 2 or 10 seconds with a push of the bottom of the multi-selector. **Playback Mode **The playback mode is activated by a button to the right of the viewfinder on the back of the camera. The button is set too far into the body, so it isn’t very comfortable to push. Single images can be viewed or index screens can be viewed with 6 or 25 pictures per screen. The index screen can be viewed by pushing the "W" end of the zoom control or entering the View Images portion of the Home menu. Slide shows can also be viewed from here. The following is the playback menu that includes the extensive options from the slide show mode.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 supports HD (1080i) output so users can view high-definition slide shows on their HDTVs. While the camera is compatible with HD viewing, it doesn’t come with a cable. The optional VMC-HD1 component cable costs $40. Sony will also sell a camera dock with a connection to HDTVs. Slide shows can be played with background music. There are four preloaded soundtracks and users can upload MP3s through the Print sub-menu of the Home menu. That doesn’t make any sense, so perhaps that is a preproduction model quirk. Navigating through pictures with the control wheel was handy – but only if moving at the right speed. If you go too slow, you might as well just use the multi-selector. If you go too fast, there are delays and the pictures will keep scrolling long after you take your finger off the wheel. Perhaps this is another quirk with the preproduction model, but there was way too much processing time in the playback mode. When the wheel was moved and a picture appeared, it would look blurry at first and then sharpen up. Pictures can be magnified up to 5x, but the zoom into the picture isn’t very smooth. Videos can be played back but not edited on the H9. Overall, the playback mode has its pros and cons but comes in above average with its spectacular display interface with wide viewing angles, musical slide shows, and cool retouching features. These will be discussed in the picture effects portion of this first impressions review. **Custom Image Presets**The Sony H9 has a host of scene modes that are spread between the mode dial and the "SCN" menu. The "SCN" position on the mode dial has a menu with Twilight, Beach, Snow, and Fireworks scene modes – the typically less frequently used settings. The more common presets are located directly on the mode dial: Landscape, Twilight Portrait, Advanced Sports, Portrait, and High Sensitivity. The abundance of scene modes along with the manual, automatic, and movie modes makes the mode dial a flurry of icons. It is quite crowded, so it takes more than just a quick glance to find what you’re looking for. While the other scene modes are found on the older H5, the new Sony H9 includes a new advanced sports shooting mode. This preset combines a 2 fps burst with a tracking auto focus mode that predicts where the action is moving. This is good for sporting events like track and baseball where the athletes move in predictable patterns. The mode worked well in the convention center; I panned as attendees walked by the Sony booth and they remained in sharp focus in the pictures. The only downside to this mode is that the burst lasts only 4 shots at a time.
**Manual Control Options The Sony H9 has plenty of manual exposure modes and controls. Many are located in the menu system, but some can be changed directly on the LCD screen. Those include ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and focus mode. These can be changed by scrolling with the control wheel and making selections with the Set button. Focus***Auto Focus
While the Sony H5 had a 5-point auto focus system, the H9 upgrades to a 9-point system that works very well. There was hardly any shutter lag and subjects remained crisp whether static or in motion. The auto focus mode can be set using the control wheel and the set button, and is visible on the LCD screen in the manual exposure modes. Auto focus modes include Center, Spot, and Multi. Each mode displays green boxes where it is focused when the exposure is locked. The Spot auto focus mode can be manually moved around the frame. The macro mode can be found by pushing the left portion of the multi-selector. It can focus as close as 1 cm. In the recording menu, the auto focus system can be set to run only when the exposure is locked or continuously (called Monitor by Sony). In the setup menu, users can activate the auto focus assist lamp for aid in low light. New to Sony digital cameras is the face detection technology included on the Cyber-shot DSC-H9. This does not work in the manual exposure modes – only in the Auto and Portrait modes – because it recognizes faces and then meters and automatically adjusts the exposure from them. Faces were recognized quickly and boxes would appear much like Canon and Fujifilm’s face recognition technology. Sony’s face detection is equally as fast, but not quite as effective. Sony claims that their system can detect up to 8 faces in a frame, while Canon and Fujifilm can recognize 9 and 10 at a time, respectively. I tried to get the H9 to recognize multiple faces. It quickly recognized one or two faces in a crowd, but I could never get it to show more than that. This could be a quirk of being a preproduction model though. *Manual Focus
*The manual focus mode is grouped with the auto focus modes when scrolling around the LCD screen with the control wheel and the set button. Once selected, a horizontal bar appears with "1 cm" on the left and "∞" on the right. As users push the multi-selector right and left, they can watch a line move on the bar to show where the focus is on the range. The LCD screen’s resolution is good enough to ensure proper focus. *ISO**The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 has a wide range of ISO settings available with the control wheel and set button interface. Auto, 64, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200 settings are all available at full resolution. There is also a High Sensitivity scene mode located on the mode dial that combines high ISO settings with quick shutter speeds to reduce blur. **White Balance The white balance options can be found in the recording menu with a small live preview behind the text. The white balance can be set to Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash, or One Push. The latter option is Sony’s manual white balance mode. It is set by scrolling to the far right and last option on the list called One Push Set. Once scrolled onto the option, the camera waits about a half-second and then takes a measurement – so users better be centered on something white by this point – and automatically scrolls back to the One Push option. This seems to work well, and it worked best at the Sony booth where lime green colored backdrops and poor lighting seemed to throw all other settings off a bit. Exposure When the shutter speed and aperture cannot be changed in the manual modes, the exposure compensation appears for adjustment with the control wheel and set button. The typical +/- 2 scale is available in steps of a third with a live view. Grouped with the burst modes accessible by a button atop the Sony H9 is the exposure bracketing mode. The camera snaps three shots at either +/- 0.3, +/- 0.7, or +/- 1.0. Metering The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 has a metering button next to the burst button behind the shutter release. This yields Spot, Center, and Multi-pattern metering choices. Shutter Speed A faster shutter speed is available on the new Sony H9 – perhaps. The preproduction model maxed out at 1/2000th of a second, which is where the H5 stopped. Sony representatives assured me that the published specs are correct and that there will be a faster 1/4000th of a second shutter speed on the new model. The specs claim the automatic range will be ¼-1/4000, the program auto range will slow down to a second, and the aperture priority range will wander from 8-1/2000th of a second. The manual and shutter speed priority modes will have full access to the entire range of 30-1/4000th of a second. There is no bulb option. The shutter speeds are changed on the LCD screen with the control wheel and set button; this provides a nice live preview. Aperture **The Carl Zeiss 15x optical zoom lens on the Sony H9 has a nice wide aperture of f/2.7 when the lens is zoomed out. When in the manual or aperture priority modes, users can choose from these apertures: f/2.7, 3.2, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5, 5.0, 5.6, 6.3, 7.1, and 8.0. When zooming in on subjects, these apertures are available: f/4.5, 6.3, 7.1, and 8.0. Considering the length of the ultra-zoom lens, the maximum f/4.5 aperture at the telephoto end really isn’t too bad.
**Picture Quality****/ Size Options**The Sony Cyber-shot H9 comes with 8.1 effective megapixels on its 1/2.5-inch Super HAD CCD and borrows the Sony α DSLR-A100’s Bionz image processor. With these, the camera can snap JPEG images in the following sizes: 8MP, 3:2, 5MP, 3MP, VGA, and 16:9. Pictures can be trimmed to smaller sizes in the retouching portion of the playback menu. **Picture Effects Mode**The Sony H9 has a few retouching effects in the playback menu: some are useful and some aren’t as much. A soft edge filter allows users to scroll a cross around the LCD screen with the multi-selector to determine what they would like focused. Once selected, the camera softens the background; the softness can be adjusted in 5 levels. This is one of the more useful features. It would look great with portraits or even candid shots. Next is a cross filter that places starry crosses on lights and highlights in pictures; the stars come in 9 different sizes and make pictures look ridiculously fake. Remember those toothpaste commercials where the teeth would sparkle unrealistically with stars? It’s like that. There is a partial color filter that allows users to scroll around and select one color in a picture to be highlighted, while the rest of the frame is dulled down to black and white. This looks very similar to Canon’s color accent mode, although it only works while recording and Sony’s only works in playback. The H9 also has a fish-eye effect with 9 levels of distortion. If users do want to play with picture effects in the recording mode, there are a few color filters: Normal, Vivid, Natural, Sepia, and Black & White. These same modes can be found on other Cyber-shot digital cameras. In the recording menu, the sharpness and contrast can also be adjusted to + and – options, along with a DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) choice in the contrast sub-menu. That will be discussed in the Other Features section of this first impressions review.
**Value**The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 retails for $479, which puts it up there with its ultra-zoom competitors. The 12x Canon PowerShot S3 IS retailed for $499 when it was announced last year and can now be found online for about $350. The Fujifilm FinePix S6000*fd* with its long lens and face detection has the same story as the Canon: $499 retail and $350 street. The freshly released Olympus SP-550UZ has a longer 18x optical zoom lens and a $499 retail price, but doesn’t allow the zoom to work with audio in the movie mode and doesn’t have interesting features like infrared and dynamic range optimization. Thus, the Sony H9 is fairly priced with its full feature set.
Conclusion**Everything about the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9 is big. It has a big Carl Zeiss 15x optical zoom lens with optical image stabilization and a big 3-inch LCD screen that folds out and doesn’t skimp on resolution. It can accept big memory cards up to 8GB so it can record long movies and large numbers of photos. The dimensions of the camera are bigger than point-and-shoots but similar to other ultra-zoom models. The 8-megapixel Sony H9 is fully loaded with manual, priority, automatic, and scene modes so there’s a little something for everyone. The wide variety of features attracts all kinds of audiences. The advanced sports shooting mode and wide ISO range are great for families who shoot football games and sporting events in less than perfect light. The NightShot infrared shooting mode works well for birdwatchers and wildlife photographers who want to snap shots of their nocturnal friends. The functional optical zoom lens qualifies the H9 as a legitimate contender in the hybrid market. The preproduction model on the show floor did have some quirks. The control wheel and image processor didn’t sync well in the playback mode and the multi-selector was unlabeled. Still, all other evidence points to success for the gadget-laden Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H9. It will go on sale in mid-May for $479. We look forward to giving the H9 a full review with more extensive testing on its imaging capabilities in the next few months.
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Emily Raymond is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.
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