The front of the S90 (and other ‘Stamina Series’ cameras) lacks the sleek look and strong aesthetics of some of Sony’s previous Cyber-shot models, but it is not completely homely. Weighted slightly right of center is an extending Carl Zeiss lens. The lens extends from the body in two segments. Around the rim of the lens are the words, "Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar, 2.8-5.2/ 6-18." A metallic rim surrounds the base of the lens, above which are several features. In the top right corner of the S90 is the oval-shaped flash, with an auto focus illuminator below its right side. To the left of the flash is a gray circle with a rectangular optical viewfinder cut from its center. The left side of the front is quite plain. There is a Sony Cyber-shot label and a polished finger grip that is about an inch long and protrudes slightly.
The back of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 looks rather neat and organized. The large 2.5-inch LCD screen takes up the left side of the body. A Sony logo is below the screen, while the diminutive optical viewfinder sits above the screen. To the left of the viewfinder are two slots that lead to the built-in speaker. Further left of the viewfinder are two LED lights, indicating the operating status of the camera; reading and writing to the card are indicated with green and orange lights.To the right of the LCD screen are several buttons, interspersed with raised dots to provide texture for gripping with the thumb. There is also an elevated surface on the top right edge that supplies additional grip and support. In the top right corner, the zoom lever resides within easy access of the thumb. Below it are three circular buttons that run down the side of the LCD screen. The top button turns the LCD screen on and off. The middle button is the frequently used Menu button, while the lower, bottom control is for deleting photos and viewing thumbnails. Between and just to the right of the Menu and Delete buttons is the four-way navigational dial, composed of four directional buttons and a centrally located control. While the center button is only used to render selections, the directional buttons scroll through menus and double as other functions when the menu is not engaged. The top dial control also determines flash settings. When the right toggle control is pressed, macro mode can be enabled. The bottom can turn on the self-timer and the left side acts as a ‘back’ button. Each of these buttons is labeled with an icon and an arrow. **Left Side** The left side is void of functions. There is a polished silver metal panel running down the center with words that say, "3x Optical Zoom." The plastic body surrounds the panel and remains flat.
The only feature on the right side is a tiny loop for the wrist strap. Unfortunately, it’s so small that users will need a needle, good eyesight, and lots of patience to string the strap through. No, really. I'm not kidding. Below is a picture of the right side--keep in mind that the DSC-S90 is only 1.6 inches deep--and if you look closely towards the top you can see a tiny metal horizontal bar. This is the wrist strap loop.
From the top, the camera has flat compact surfaces except for its front face, which gently slopes upward into a slightly thicker right-hand grip. On the grip is the shutter release button, encompassed by the mode dial. The dial rotates to the following options: Manual, Programmed AE, Auto, Playback, Movie, Portrait, Landscape, Beach, Snow, Candle, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight. A small line on the left side of this dial shows which mode is in use. Below this line is a polished metal panel that runs down the center of the top and onto the left side. At the left side of this panel are the words, "4.1 Megapixels MPEG Movie VX." To the right side is a built-in microphone, the power button, and a small LED to indicate when the power is actually on.
The S90 has a small optical viewfinder that is not very accurate. If users frame their subjects perfectly inside the window, they will end up with a lot more floor than they thought. Although this is unfortunate, the viewfinder is still helpful for those last few shots when the long-lasting batteries don't quite have enough juice to show the LCD view.
The defining trait of Sony’s new S or Stamina series is the surprising hierarchical configuration based on LCD dimensions rather then megapixels. Traditionally, digital camera manufacturers categorize models based on resolution and offer price reductions for sacrifices in megapixels or sensor size. However, the Cyber-shot S-series interestingly strays from convention and opts for a more automobile-like type of value structure. On Stamina series cameras, the internal features are all the same, but it is the LCD and exterior elements that are augmented. So consumers pay for features rather then performance.
The top of the Stamina line, the S90 contains a large 2.5-inch LCD screen. With 115,000 pixels, there is enough resolution included to project a clear, visible image of the frame and prerecorded shot. The screen will also display live histograms, as well as the menu options and images. The screen can be turned on and off with the button near the top right corner of the screen.
The flash is assisted by the AF illuminator, which helps the camera to focus while preparing human eyes for the bright flash (and reducing red-eye). The flash reaches from 1.6-12.5 feet, which is about average for a compact point-and-shoot digital camera. The following flash modes are available: Auto, Forced On, Forced Off, Slow Synchro, and Red-eye Reduction.
Most point-and-shoots have a 3x optical zoom lens, so the telephoto capability here is typical. However, the Sony S90 does use a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens, which is known for its clarity and high quality. The lens is constructed from 5 elements in 7 groups, with 2 aspheric elements to reduce barrel distortion and color aberration. Measuring from 6-18mm, the lens is equivalent to a 39-117mm lens in 35mm format. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 is compatible with several conversion lenses, including wide and telephoto, as well as protective and special effects filters. The lens can focus as close as 4 inches in its macro mode and 20 inches in all other shooting modes. While 4 inches used to be standard for a macro mode, most compact cameras can now focus within two inches of the lens. However, if consumers know they won’t utilize the macro mode to that extent, it should not sway their purchasing decision too significantly.
Model Design / Appearance
Breaking from tradition, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 does not exhibit the sleek, fashionable form that previous Sony models, such as the T33, are known for. Instead, the S90 has a homelier appearance with a more generic silver-colored plastic body. The camera is largely rectangular in form with rounded edges and a gentle slope on the front to thicken the right-hand grip. While appearance is not the S90’s strongest attribute, the camera instead looks to make its mark with performance and functionality.
Size / Portability
Weighing 7.1 ounces, the Sony Cyber-shot S90 is lightweight, yet has enough heft to convey a feeling of substance and stability to the camera’s form. A wrist strap can be attached to the side of the frame to aid in portability. Although compact, the S90 may be a bit too bulky for a pocket; it measures 4.75 x 2.5 x 1.6 inches, which is a bit longer than most compact cameras. Its surfaces are fairly flat, although the right-hand grip is slightly thicker and protrudes enough to snag on your pants or coat pocket.
Because of the thicker right-hand grip, holding the Sony S90 is slightly more comfortable than holding most flat compact cameras. There is a raised panel with textured dots on the back for easy thumb gripping. In the front, there is an inch-long raised grip for the index fingers – though, unfortunately, it’s a polished material. So while it is a nice protrusion for gripping most of the time, fingers may still slip when the air is humid or hands are sweaty. All around, the camera is easy to handle and control and only gets into a gray area when it comes to portability.
Control Button / Dial Positioning / Size
Regardless of the S90’s 4.75 x 2.5 inch back face, some of the controls on the back of the camera are still undersized. The three buttons to the right of the LCD screen are a bit small, although they are adequately spaced, so users do not have to fear pushing two at once. The four-way navigational dial is amply sized, as well as the crucial shutter release. The mode dial surrounding the shutter release button is an interesting concept, and should increase the ever-important mode alteration time, though the placement does seem to work. All of the buttons on the S90 are properly spaced and easy to find, but due to their meager size many controls are cumbersome to access and engage.
The menus on the S90 are intuitive and are all accompanied by text for clarification. When menu options are scrolled through, users can preview potential alterations on the live feed. For instance, when users scroll through the white balance options, they can see the difference between the fluorescent and incandescent settings on the actual composition and make an appropriate decision about which is more practical for the shot. Oddly enough, many cameras still utilize obsolete menu formats that require users to continually test and check all alterations to determine the appropriate selection – a frustrating and unnecessarily time consuming process that is fortunately avoided on the S90.
The following menu options are available in Shooting modes on the S90: Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, Picture Effects, Recording Mode, Picture Quality, ISO, White Balance, Metering, and Focus. In the Playback menu, the following options are available: Protect, DPOF, Print, Slide, Resize, Rotate, Divide, and Setup.
Ease of Use
With its optimal placement of controls, live view with menu options, and large 2.5-inch LCD screen, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 is fairly easy to use for any level user. With the inclusion of live histograms and a live view of white balance and other menu options, users can make more informed decisions about the shot prior to recording the exposure. All of the buttons are clearly labeled and the menus are printed in text, so quickly finding the right setting is easy. With an affordable price tag, the S90 is even fit for beginners.
The auto mode is represented by a green camera on the mode dial. Once selected, users need only to point, zoom, and shoot. This mode is restrictive, but that’s how it is supposed to be. The Program Auto mode gives users a step toward manual functionality with access to options in the menus. During the time I spent with the S90, the camera’s crucial automatic functions were all rendered instantly with no perceivable lag - a critical element for all fully automatic users. In automatic mode, the Cyber-shot S90 will handle the sensitivity rating (ISO), focus, exposure and metering controls for the user.
Unfortunately, Cyber-shot models often have hidden strings attached. Like fishing lines, these threads are nearly imperceptible at first glance; many of these models offer strong performance, an abundance of features, and a favorable design, but potential consumers beware: there are stipulations. For instance, many models in the new Cyber-shot crop of cameras offer an advanced 30fps movie mode feature – a feature appealing more and more to digital camera consumers; however, to utilize the movie mode on the Cyber-shot S90 at full capability, users will have to purchase the optional MemoryStick Pro, which offers sizes from 256 MB to 2 GB (ranging from $60 – $699 on Sony Style). Only when this memory card is used will the S90 record at full VGA resolution at a rate of 30 frames per second. Without that card, users can only use the MPEG Standard mode of 16 frame-per-second VGA or the Video Mail mode. The latter shoots 8 frames per second at 160 x 112 pixels. This drops an advanced movie mode to a very basic, video recording feature, requiring almost an additional third of the price to be applied for full video capabilities. Although this breaks no defined code of ethics, one has to question the value of the camera when additional parts are required for opitimal performance.
Fortunately, the S90 does include a built-in microphone and speaker, enabling audio recording and playback. The length of video clips is only limited by the capacity of the memory card - also enticing consumers to purchase a MemoryStick Pro card.
Drive / Burst Mode
The S90 has a weak burst mode, which is compounded by the camera’s lack of a strong action scene mode. Capturing 0.7 frames per second at full resolution, the S90 can shoot about 4 pictures before it has to stop and write to the card. In the 640 x 480 resolution, the camera can shoot at the same speed for up to 30 consecutive shots. Considering the slow burst mode, the Cyber-shot S90 would not make a good camera for shooting sports or analyzing golf swings.
Along with the basic postproduction editing options encased within the S90’s playback mode, all basic playback options are also represented; users can choose to display still images in single frames or index pages, as well as play movies with sound through the S90’s built-in speaker. The Playback menu is as follows: Protect, DPOF, Print, Slide, Resize, Rotate, Divide, and Setup. These essential features keep the S90 competitive with other point-and-shoot models while the in-camera editing alternatives definitely distinguish the S90 from the rest of the pack.
Custom Image Presets
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 has seven preset scene modes, including the following: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Soft Snap, Landscape, Beach, Snow, and Candle. The Soft Snap setting is similar to a Portrait scene mode on other models. It is represented by a Portrait or face icon on the mode dial. The only common scene mode that seems to be missing is an action or sports mode; most other digital cameras have this basic mode to capture rapid movements and stop motion. Otherwise, point-and-shooters' needs are well represented on the S90.
Manual Control Options
In the Manual mode, users have access to all of the previous menu options - Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, Picture Effects, Recording Mode, Picture Quality, ISO, White Balance, Metering, and Focus – with the addition of aperture and shutter speed control. The aperture can be adjusted in two steps from f/2.8-f/5.6. The shutter speeds can be adjusted in 46 steps from 30-1/1000th of a second.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 uses a five-area multi-point auto focus, and also has a Center AF option. The lens can focus as close as 20 inches in normal shooting modes and 4 inches in the macro mode. To assist focusing in low light, the camera has an illuminator on its front. If there is not enough lighting or the settings are not optimal, the S90 will show a hand-shake warning on the LCD screen.
Sony calls this a manual focus setting, but really the S90 just automatically focuses at 5 different distances from the lens. This could be the highest maintenance and least accurate "manual focus" method on the market, as users will have to manually move their subjects onto those five planes – don’t forget the measuring tape!**
** All of the S90’s exposure modes, including the scene presets, are located on the main mode dial surrounding the shutter release button. An exposure compensation feature is also included in the standard +/- 2 EV range, alterable in 1/3 stop steps, available to users in every mode.****
The white balance is almost a fun feature to scroll through in the menus. With a live view of the image from the lens, users can scroll through options and watch the color of the lighting change. With this feature, users can make an educated choice about which of the following options they want to use: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, and Incandescent. A manual white balance feature would have been a nice option here, but compact digital cameras are still including a manual option only about half of the time.
The Cyber-shot S90 will automatically select the ISO rating unless the user manually enters the menu and changes it. Users can change the ISO to Auto, 80, 100, 200, and 400. While this range is sufficient for basic point-and-shoot needs, it seems some manufacturers are beginning to catch on and recognize that low-light capabilities are commonly sought by even casual point-and-shooters. With some of the recent compact releases packing ISO 800 ratings, it appears the message is beginning to seep through – users want to be able to record image in marginal conditions without having to glare a high-powered, highly-restrictive flash into the eyes of their subjects.
The Sony Cyber-shot S90 offers an expansive shutter speed range of 30-1/1000th of a second in manual mode. The speed can be changed in 46 steps by pushing the center button of the four-way navigational dial and using the arrows on the LCD screen to alter the shutter duration. When shooting in automatic modes, the shutter speed is automatically set by the camera within a 1/8-1/1000th range and 2-1/1000th of a second in the program auto mode.
The aperture of the S90’s Carl Zeiss lens ranges from f/2.8-f/5.6 in wide and f/5.2-f/10 in telephoto. Unfortunately, the manual aperture setting only covers two steps. This should be noted by users who frequently desire manual alterations. While there is technically some selection offered, it is really only open or closed. All too frequently, digital camera manufacturers advertise manual aperture settings when in reality, the lens contains a filter of sorts that slides across the lens opening and blocks out a majority of light and "stops the iris down" or it is removed completely and the diaphragm is left wide open. Nonetheless, at least the user can make a decision.
Picture Quality / Size Options
With 4.1 megapixels of resolution, the S90 provides five image size options in both 4:3 and 3:2 aspect ratios to select from. The following options are available for still images in Fine or Standard compression modes: 2304 x 1728, 2304 x 1536, 2048 x 1536, 1280 x 960, and 640 x 480. The 3:2 ratio is a nice option to have so that 4 x 6 inch prints are framed correctly. The other settings provide users with a wide range of sizes for printing and emailing.
Picture Effects Mode
One of the Cyber-shot S90’s more advantageous elements is the ability to tweak prerecorded images in playback mode. Users can adjust color, saturation, and hue of captured images within the main menu following image capture. Once the photograph is recorded, users can also change the toning to Black & White or Sepia. These digital overlays or alteration options provide users with a (rudimentary) internal editing program of sorts without the need for external software.
*Software – *The S90 comes with Picture Package for Sony v1.6 for Windows and Pixela ImageMixer VCD2 for Macintosh. A Cyber-shot Life tutorial is also included for Windows only.
Jacks, Ports, Plugs – This camera comes with a battery charger and the batteries, but the Sony Cyber-shot Station camera dock is an optional accessory. The S90 does have A/V out and high speed USB 2.0 jacks on the camera. The A/V out jack is PAL and NTSC selectable.
Direct Print Options – The S90 is PictBridge compatible. To print photographs, users must be in the Playback mode and select the Print option from the menu.
Another fortunate alteration in this year’s Cyber-shot releases is the inclusion of internal memory. With the 32 MB of internal storage, users will be able to capture 16 pictures at the highest resolution using the Fine compression mode or capture 1 minute and 27 seconds of a movie clip at the VGA Standard setting. There is a slot for MemoryStick and MemoryStick Pro media by the batteries in the bottom of the camera. The S90 accepts cards up to 2 GB. The optional memory card will most likely become a necessity, but Sony’s inclusion of a 32 MB internal memory is certainly appreciated.
*Self-Timer – *Like most self-timers on cameras, this one waits for ten seconds before letting the shutter fly.
*Stamina – *The main feature of this camera is its ability to take pictures for long periods of time without running the batteries dry. In fact, Sony estimates that the S90 can take about 580 shots before needing to recharge the included 2100 mAh AA batteries. This is a substantial amount of shooting without having to change batteries or stop to charge and offers a significant advantage to the mobile photographer and vacationing user.
Sony released the P73 in August 2004 for the same $299.95 retail price tag as the S90. However, the S90 comes with a few improvements. While both cameras have the same 4.1 megapixels and 3x optical zoom lens, the P73 has a 1.5-inch LCD screen and the S90 has a 2.5-inch screen. Canon just released the PowerShot A520 for the same $299 price. The 4-megapixel A520 is more compact and has a 4x optical zoom lens, but does not have the internal memory and large LCD screen that the Sony S90 has. The cameras are equals in terms of manual and automatic shooting options, but as far as the flashier features go, it’s give and take. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 is a great value for consumers who want decent shooting options and a large LCD screen with long-lasting battery power. But for consumers more concerned with capturing frequent action shots, the S90 won’t be worth the $299.95.
Complete with all the basics of a point-and-shoot digital camera, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 goes above and beyond with some of its features, but it stumbles into some of the same pitfalls that other manufacturers do in other areas. For example, the optical viewfinder is extremely inaccurate. The burst mode is slow at 0.7 frames per second. The manual focus doesn’t really manually focus. The S90 does have some flashy and redeeming qualities though: a 2.5-inch LCD screen, 32 MB of internal memory, and incredibly long-lasting battery life. The 4.1-megapixel camera is extremely simple to use with the labeled buttons and easily navigable menus. The plastic body is not as attractive as some of the other Cyber-shot models, but the 3x Carl Zeiss optical zoom lens adds some beauty to its front and strength to its performance. Available for a reasonable $299.95 retail price, intrigued consumers should look for the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S90 to hit stores mid-March.
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Emily Raymond is a valued contributor to the Reviewed.com family of sites.
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