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The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is a powerful ultrazoom camera that shoots decent pictures and good looking video, as well as being able to easily take night shots and panoramas. At around $500, It is expensive, but it does offer a lot of features.
In the Box
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HZ1 camera
- Li-ion rechargeable battery NP-FH50
- Battery Charger BH-VH1
- USB & AV out cable
- HDMI adapter
- Lens cap
- Software CD
Our first test looks at color. Specifically, how accurately the camera can capture color. The DSC-HX1 has three color modes: Normal, Vivid and Real. We found that the most accurate color mode was Normal, and that this had very decent color accuracy; the only problem was in the blues, which were slightly inaccurate. For this test, we shoot an X-rite color chart under tightly controlled conditions, then use Imatest software to analyze how closely the captured colors match the real ones. More on how we test color.
The table below shows the colors captured by each of our recently reviewed ultrazoom cameras in their most accurate modes, compared to the original color.
We also found that the HX1 had slightly less accurate colors than some similar cameras we looked at: all of them scored higher because they had better overall color accuracy, although all of them had their own minor issues here and there.
The HX1 offers a small number of color modes: there are options for Normal, Vivid, Real, Sepia and Black & White. Most of them do what they say on the tin, but serious photographers should avoid them: all of the effects can be easily reproduced using any image editing program, and you also get the chance to undo the effect if you don't like it. We'd recommend you stick with Normal mode.
Noise is the curse of the digital camera: it's the grainy look to images that sneaks in and ruins photos. We found in our tests that the HX1 didn't have any huge noise issues, but that the images could get pretty noisy at the higher ISO settings. Most cameras offer a highest ISO setting of 1600, but the HX1 extends that to 3200. However, it does so at the cost of adding a lot of noise to the image, so this should only be used when it is absolutely required; we'd recommend sticking to a maximum of 400 where possible. More on how we test noise.
If we compare the noise in images captured by the HX1 to those captured by other cameras, there is not a lot of difference between them, although the noise does climb a bit less than the others. In particular, the Sony has lower noise at ISO 1600 than the Nikon, but more than the Canon.
The table below shows 100% crops at a range of ISOs, at both high and low light levels. The high level is about 3000 lux, equivalent to a sunny day. The low light level is 60 lux, about what you would get from decent indoor lighting.
Overall, the Sony did well in this test. Although it has moderate noise, the noise is less noticeable than some of the other cameras.
NOTE: The images above are not used in our testing or scoring, but are included here to show real-world examples of the differences between cameras at the various ISO settings.
To test the resolution of a camera, we look at three areas of performance: distortion (how much images become distorted), sharpness (how much detail is captured in an image) and chromatic aberration (how much color fringing there is in an image). Our overall score for resolution (shown above) is based on all three of these tests.
Overall, you can see that the HX1 scored significantly higher than our comparison cameras, thanks to its better overall performance. It's certainly not perfect (especially at the longest zoom setting, which had some issues with sharpness and chromatic aberration that adversely affect image quality), but it is a strong performer overall. More on how we test resolution.
We saw extremely low distortion in the images captured by the HX1. Even at both ends of the zoom range, there was only about 0.3% distortion and was less than 0.1% in the middle, which is barely noticeable. Contrast this with the Nikon P90, which had an extremely noticeable 3.2% barrel distortion in the middle of the zoom range, and 1% pincushioning at the zoom and telephoto ends.
The HX1 also did well in our sharpness test, where we look at how much detail a camera can capture. We test this at three points on the zoom range: at the widest, the middle and at the telephoto end, and we typically see problems at the two extremes caused by imperfections in the lens. The HX1 had good, consistent sharpness at the middle zoom points, but there were some problems at the widest and longest zoom points, where the images were sharp in the middle of the frame, but somewhat soft at the edge. All long zoom lenses have these issues to some degree, though, and it is worth noting that the HX1 is better than most similar cameras. You can see samples of this below.
Chromatic Aberration ()
This is caused when the elements inside a lens act like a prism, with different frequencies of light being diffracted by different amounts. This was a particular issue at the longest zoom settings; in the examples below you can see a distinct blue fringe on the edge crops of our test images, which is caused by the aberration of the lens elements.
Quality & Size Options
The HX1 offers a number of options for taking photos at different sizes, but there are no options for changing the quality of the saved photos, and there is no option to save the RAW files, which is a pity. Serious photographers like to save photos in RAW as they are easier to tweak and edit in image editing applications such as Photoshop.
The DSC-HX1 includes a special mode called Anti-motion blur for hand-held shooting, which we found to be extremely good: in our tests at a shutter speed of around 1/30 of a second, we found that the images with this mode enabled were significantly sharper, as out examples below show. This is because this mode enables the active image stabilization of the lens, where the camera senses movement and shifts an element within the lens to compensate. More on how we test image stabilization.
As the examples above show, the stabilization on the HX1 was more effective in our tests than most of the comparison cameras. The camera also offers another mode designed to help reduce camera shake called Hand-held Twighlight mode: we test and discuss this in our Controls section.
Like most modern point and shoot cameras, the HX1 offers a movie mode. But it is better specified than most, as the camera captures videos at a resolution of up to 1440 by 1080 pixels, which will look great on a HDTV. The HX1 also captures these movies at 30 frames per second, and with stereo sound. The videos are saved as H.264 files, which can be imported and edited in most video editing applications, including iMovie.
We found the video mode of the HX1 to be generally very easy to use: while recording you can use the optical zoom lens and the camera automatically refocuses while recording. This refocusing is rather slow, though, but at least the microphone didn't seem to pick up much noise from the focusing or zoom mechanism.
We test the color accuracy of the video by shooting a video of a color chart under good lighting conditions, then measuring the accuracy of the colors that the camera captures. We found that the colors of the HX1 were very accurate; the camera only produced a few minor color shifts from the original colors. More on how we test video color.
We were also favorably impressed with the sharpness of the video. We test this by videoing a special chart while panning the camera, to simulate how well the camera can capture detail on a moving object. We found that the Sony did an excellent job here, with a lot of detail remaining in the image despite the movement; we found it to be slightly superior to the Canon SX1. One thing to clarify here is that we tested on the 1440 by 1080 (Fine) mode, which uses the least compression. This also means that the video takes up more space, so a 4GB MemoryStick Pro Duo card can only hold about 41 minutes of video. More on how we test video sharpness.
The HX1 has a reasonable selection of features for playing back photos: a thumbnail view allows you to easily move through the captured images 9 at a time and you can quickly zoom in and view individual images. You can also zoom in on these images up to 10x, which is useful for checking the focus of an image or looking for blur. You can also create a list of favorites or view photos sorted by date or event. The camera automatically creates these events based on groups of photos that were shot close together.
The slideshow capabilities of this camera are limited, though; the only way to create a slideshow is to create a favorites list and then scroll through them: there is no way to create a slideshow that will automatically show the photos.
The HX1 has some limited in-camera editing features: images can be cropped, resized and have red-eye removed. There are also a number of filters that can be applied, including a soft focus, fisheye, a starburst effect, a radial blur, a retro effect that blurs and dims the edges. There is also the truly frightening Happy Faces filter, which applies a joker-like fake smile to people's faces. If you value your friends, do not use this feature.
Direct Print Options
The features for printing images directly are basic, but adequate; images can be flagged for printing on the camera using the DPOF system, which most printers will detect when you insert the memory card into the printer. PictBridge support is also offered, which allows the camera to directly connect to a printer and send images to it for printing. Single or multiple images can also be selected easily.
The HX1 includes a viewfinder above the LCD screen. This is an electronic viewfinder, which means that it is really just a smaller version of the screen, showing the same captured image and information. You switch between the two using the Finder/LCD button on the top of the camera. We found the viewfinder to be mostly easy and comfortable to use, although it is a little awkward if you use spectacles as you have to look around to see the entire frame of the images. The image also updates rather slowly; if an object is quickly moving across the frame, you see a trail of images in the viewfinder.
The 3-inch LCD screen on the back of the HX1 has a new angle: it's on an articulated arm which means that it can rotate up or down by 90 degrees for shooting from above or below. It cannot, however, rotate left or right. The screen itself is very clear and bright, and the 230k resolution is sharp enough to check focus and other details. It isn't big or sharp enough to effectively showcase the photos, though.
The flash of the DSC-HX1 pops up from above the lens when required, and it does a decent job of providing light. Sony claims a flash distance of up to 30 feet when auto ISO is enabled, but in practice, we found it was only good out to about 8 to 10 feet. But that's adequate for a flash of this type. There is also a slow-sync option (which combines a flash with a show shutter speed), standard pre-flash red eye reduction and an interesting option called auto red-eye which enables the pre-flash when a face is detected in the preview image.
The lens on the HX1 is a biggie: it has a 20x zoom ratio that has a focal length of 5mm to 100mm. If we translate that to the focal lengths of a 35mm film camera, that's an impressive range of 28mm to 560mm, which covers the entire range of wide angle to a long zoom. As usual, there is a price to pay on the aperture, though; this has a decent range of f2.8 to f8.0 at the widest zoom point, but this range drops to f5.2 to f8.0 at the longest zoom setting. This means that the lens won't be able to gather that much light, so you'll need to either have plenty of light or use a really long shutter speed with the zoom fully extended.
Below are sample shots from the camera at three zoom settings: the widest, the middle and the longest, showing the wide zoom range that this camera offers.
The HX1 uses a proprietary Lithium Ion battery; the Sony NP-FH50. This means that you'll need to go back to Sony if you need to replace this, and a replacement will cost you about $39. Sony does not offer an extended battery, and you cannot use any other types of batteries. So, if you are on the trip of a lifetime, it runs out, and you didn't buy and charge a spare, you're stuck: you can't use AA batteries.
The HX1 stores its photos on a MemoryStick Duo card, a format that is only used by Sony. In order to shoot videos at the highest resolution and quality settings, Sony claims you have to use the MemoryStick Pro Duo variants, which can cope with the faster data transfer this requires. The Pro versions of the cards cost about $14 for a 4GB version or about $75 for the largest 16GB version. The camera does not come with a memory card, so you need to factor in this cost when buying.
Jacks, Ports & Plugs
The HX1 has a decent selection of outputs: included with the camera is a cable that provides a USB connection, as well as a composite video and analog audio output. There is also an adapter that turns the multi-connector into a mini HDMI port that can be connected to a HDTV and which carries audio and video. But this multi-connector port is a proprietary port; if you lose the cable or HDMI adapter or your cat hides it for fun, then you'll have to go back to Sony and pay them about $40 for a new one. Proprietary adapters like this make us kind of mad; everyone loses cables and non-standard ports mean you have to buy the cable from Sony.
You'll also have to lay out about $40 if you want a component video output; the included cable does not offer that type of connection.
There is no shortage of shooting modes on the HX1. If you just want to point and shoot, the fully automatic Easy and iAuto modes have your back, as both make all of the decisions for you. If you like to make some decisions, there are the standard program, shutter priority and aperture priority modes, plus a full auto mode.
There are also several other modes available from the mode dial: Anti Motion Blur, Hand-held Twilight and Panorama. All of these use the super-powered Bionz processing chip to provide extra features. Let's take a closer look at each in turn.
Anti Motion Blur - This mode is like a stabilization mode, but on steroids: it takes 6 photos in quick sequence, then analyzes and combines them to find the one with the least blur and keeps it. Sony claims that this analysis will mean that moving objects are taken from one image, but the static background built from all 6 images combined. This means, in theory, that you get the best of both worlds: the moving object will be as static as possible, but the background will look better because it is an amalgamation of 6 images. The shooting takes about one and a half seconds, while the analysis takes about an additional 4-5 seconds. An example is below: the shot on the right was taken with the Anti Motion Blur enabled, and is much sharper and has more detail.
Hand-held Twilight - This mode won't turn you into a teen vampire who likes to hold hands with humans. Instead, it is designed for taking steady shots in dark situations. When you press the shutter, the camera takes 6 images in quick succession, then analyzes and combines the results into one image. The idea is that the combined photo should have more detail in it, but without the noise and shake you get from a long shutter speed. The analysis is also smart enough that it will discard any images that are too blurry. A sample shot using the Twilight shooting mode (left) and the Hand-held Twilight mode (right) are below. As you can see, the shot with the Hand-held Twilight mode is much sharper, less noisy and has more dynamic range.
Panorama - This mode turns the HX1 into a hand-held panorama mode. To use it, you set the direction you want to pan, press the shutter and then pan the camera until it is done. The camera detects the pan and builds the panorama in memory. It works very well; we found that it was easy to use and produced very attractive results. It's also a lot easier to work with than the usual in-camera panorama method of pan-shoot-pan-shoot-pan-shoot, etc and a hell of a lot easier than doing it on a computer afterwards. But it's not foolproof; if objects move while you are panning (such as a car driving by), they either get a weird stretched look or become squished, depending on which way you are panning. Look at the cyclist in the first panorama: she has been chopped in half.
Auto Mode Features
Focus - The auto focus of the HX1 was generally quick and snappy: we rarely had to wait more than half a second or so for the image to snap into focus. It did swim a bit more in low light, but an assist light is included on the front of the camera body that helped a lot. The camera uses a contrast detection auto focus system with 9 focus points around the center of the image. In the Muti AF mode, the camera tries to get as many in focus as possible, but there is also a Center AF mode that focuses on the center, and a Flexible Spot mode that allows you to choose the focus point from the center 75% or so of the screen.
Exposure - If the exposure settings that the camera picks for you don't cut it, you can set exposure compensation to plus or minus two stops, and bracketing is also supported, with options for exposure bracketing (at +/- 0.3, 0.7 and 1 stops), white balance and color bracketing.
Metering - The HX1 gives you the standard options for metering modes: you can set the camera to multi, center weighted or spot metering modes. If the camera is in face detection mode, it will also meter for the detected faces.
Self-Timer - The self-timer is pretty basic; you get options fro a 2-second or 10-second delay. There is no remote control or interval shooting on this camera. If you are looking to do a self portrait, you could use the smile detection; set the camera pointing at the wall, enable the smile detection, then walk around to the front of the camera and smile.
In addition, there are 10 scene modes available when you turn the mode dial to the SCN setting: High Sensitivity, Portrait, Advanced Sports Shooting, Landscape, Twilight Portrait, Twilight, Gourmet, Beach, Snow and Fireworks.
The HX1 has a handful of picture effects modes: you can add a color filter that accentuates red, green or blue, or one that makes colors cooler or warmer.
The usual suspects for white balance settings are lined up for you to use: there are options for Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent and Flash. There is also a full auto mode and an evaluative mode, where you point the camera at a white object and press the button so the camera can judge the lighting.
The HX1 has a decent aperture range, but it gets a bit limited at the telephoto end of the zoom range. At the widest setting, it ranges from f/2.8 to f/8.0, but the widest aperture falls to f/5.6 at the telephoto end of the range. That could be a serious limitation if you are trying to shoot in low light; f/5.6 doesn't gather a lot of light.
In the auto modes, the HX1 has a shutter speed range of 2 seconds down to 1/4000 of a second. This gets a bit wider in manual mode, where you can have a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds.
The HX1 can take a burst of 10 photos at three different speeds: 10 a second, 5 a second or two a second. That's a useful feature, but the camera then takes about 17 seconds to save these images to the memory card. That's rather annoying, and it also means there is no way to save more than 10 pictures in a burst. Some cameras allow you to capture as many photos as the memory card can hold, but the HX1 is limited to 10 photo bursts.
Shot to Shot ()
With the limitations described above, the HX1 is a fast camera: we were able to manage the advertised speed of 10 frames a second at the full resolution of the camera.
The HX1 also includes some interesting facial recognition features. One of these is the ability to set the amount of smile that you want: you can set this to slight, normal or big smile.The smile shutter feature will then take the shot when it detects the requested amount of smile. You can also set the priority of the focus to either adult or child faces.
The HX1 fits well into the hand: the large hand grip gives you plenty to grip onto, and the controls fit comfortably into the hand: it's not going to slip out of the hand unless you deliberately let go. The two handed grip is a little more awkward, though; if you put your thumb onto the back of the body, it either blocks part of the screen or has to go under the bottom of the camera.
Buttons & Dials
The important controls of the HX1 are well placed: the shutter button falls under the index finger, with the zoom control just in front of this. When you are using the program modes, the jog dial on the back is the way you change settings, and this falls comfortably under the thumb so you can tweak the settings when shooting with one hand. We did find the zoom control a little light, though; it was rather easy to accidentally jog it and change the zoom mode when reaching for the shutter.
The menus of the HX1 use a cross-bar approach, but it is rather different from the approach that Sony uses on their PS3 games console; on the HX1, the categories are on the vertical, while the sub-options are on the horizontal. When you hit the menu button, you are presented with a variable number of options, depending on what category you are in. The automatic modes have 6 categories, while the manual modes have 17. That's a lot of options, so selecting some options can involve a lot of scrolling. You do get a text explanation of what the option is, though, so it should not be too confusing for novices. The most commonly used options (such as image size and white balance) are at the top of the list.
Manual & Learning
The HX1 comes with an extensive manual in both English and Spanish, which is pretty well written and covers all of the functions of the camera. It's a little light on details, though; the Hand-held twilight mode is described in two sentences with no specifics on how the mode really works. The manual can be downloaded here.
Canon PowerShot SX1 IS Comparison
The Nikon has a slight edge if you look at the specs: it shoots higher resolution images (12 megapixels against the 9 of the Sony), has a longer lens (24X against the 20x of the Sony) and is cheaper. But the Sony has superior performance in pretty much every category of our tests: it has better color, resolution and much better stabilization. The only area where the Nikon was superior was noise; although the Sony has the wider ISO range, the Nikon had lower noise in images at the ISO levels it achieved. The Sony was also a vastly superior performer at shooting video. While the Nikon could only shoot grainy standard definition video, the Sony could shoot very attractive high definition video.
Olympus SP-590UZ Comparison
The choice between the Sony DSC-HX1 and the Canon SX1 is a tough one; both scored well in our tests and provide an excellent selection of features. The Canon had the edge in a few of our tests (color and noise in still images), but the Sony came out tops in others (such as resolution, image stabilization and most of our video tests). In the end, the choice will probably come down to the appeal of some of the extra features that are on offer (such as the Sony's excellent panorama and low light shooting features) or price: the Sony is $100 cheaper than the Canon SX1.
The Olympus SP-590UZ has the longer zoom range of the two cameras (26x against the 20x of the Sony) and is also $50 cheaper. But the Sony was a better performer: it produced sharper images with more detail, had superior image stabilization and shoots better looking movies. However, the Olympus had very slightly better colors. Although both cameras are very close in many ways, we think that the Sony would generally be the better option as a general use camera, although some users may want to opt for the extra zoom range of the Olympus.
The Sony DSC-HX1 is a powerful camera that boasts a number of interesting features. And these features actually do what they say: the panorama mode takes great panoramic shots quickly, and the hand held low light mode also produces much sharper and more attractive low light shots. Neither mode is perfect, though; there are definite glitches in the panoramas. The HX1 also produced attractive still images and video; both had good color and plenty of detail. But it's not cheap: at around $500, you could spend just a bit more and get an SLR.
But you do get a lot for your money with the HX1; you get a decent zoom lens and good video quality, and the panorama and low light modes are the cherry on the cake that make it an attractive package for the point-and-shooter who wants a bit more.