Cameras

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 Digital Camera Review

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Introduction

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900, priced at $379.99 captures 12-megapixel images and HD video. However, photos were slightly noisy, and the small lens produced major distortion and chromatic aberration problems.

Front

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Back

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Sides

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Top

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Bottom

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In the Box

Box Photo
  • Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 camera
  • Battery charger
  • Battery
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • Software CD
  • Manual
  • Wrist strap
  • Stylus
  • Cradle

Color

This test looks at how accurately the camera captures known color values from a chart, and the Sony T900 did very well in its standard color mode, though it had some issues with oranges and reds. We test color accuracy by shooting a chart of known color values at 3000 lux of illumination, and use a program called Imatest to see how far the camera deviates from this. Of the comparison cameras, it was overall the most accurate, though the Canon and Fuji also scored well here. More on how we test color.

Color accuracy has long been a stronghold of Canon cameras, but you can see here that both the Sony and Fuji cameras are more accurate than the SD970, and the Casio lagged behind.

Color Modes

The Sony Cyber-shot T900 has four color modes: Normal, Vivid, Sepia, and Black and White. Unsurprisingly, Normal was substantially more accurate than Vivid.

Noise

The Sony T900 scored lower than the comparison cameras in terms of image noise. Noise is a speckling that occurs in photographs, and becomes increasingly noticeable at higher ISOs. We look at how noisy the images are in both bright (3000 lux) and low light (60 lux). We photograph an X-Rite ColorChecker chart at every available standard ISO setting, and use Imatest to track how the noise changes across the entire spread. More on how we test noise.

As expected, noise levels were lower under the bright 3000 lux illumination, except at ISO 3200. The drop in noise at ISO 1600 is undoubtedly due to some form of noise reduction software kicking in, though it's overwhelmed at ISO 3200.

Related content

Compared to other cameras, the noise levels on the Sony T900 were very high up to ISO 800, but more competitive after that. The only camera that had lower noise across the entire gamut of ISOs was the Canon SD970. The Fuji F200EXR was tested in its 12-megapixel mode. It also has a low noise mode, but this reduces the resolution, and our testing regiment calls for always using the highest resolution available.

ISO

The Sony T900 has a very wide range of ISOs, from ISO 80 to 3200, all at full resolution, even though the noise levels are a little high. However, above ISO 800, you can't use burst mode or bracketing with the camera.

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.

Resolution

Our resolution test involves three separate sections: distortion, sharpness and chromatic aberration. We determine these results by shooting our test chart from several distances, then analyzing the resulting photos at several spots across the image area using Imatest software. While the Sony did well in terms of sharpness, it had significant distortion and chromatic aberration, which pulled down its overall score in this area. More on how we test resolution.

Distortion ()

The T900 had noteworthy troubles with distortion. Zoomed out all the way, it showed over 2.5% of barreling distortion, and at maximum zoom it was almost 2%, but this time pincushion. The middle focal length was better, but still very high (1.3%, again pincushion). At either extreme focal length the negative effects of distortion will be very noticeable in your images, particularly if there are straight lines included in the photo. The distortion result for the Sony is significantly worse than any of the other cameras we tested.

Sharpness ()

The sharpness provided by the built-in lens was extremely variable. It had a tendency to be very sharp at the center, much softer as you head outwards, and then sharpen up again towards the edges. It was at its least sharp at the telephoto end, and it's most sharp at mid-zoom. While there are some very sharp areas, this is partly achieved through digitally over-sharpening the captured image. Over-sharpening is a software based process by which the camera tries to make the image look clearer. As a side effect, it can produce edges that look almost like they're outlined, as well as additional compression artifacts.

Chromatic Aberration ()

One of the side effects of the tiny lens on the Sony T900 is significant chromatic aberration. This is color fringing that occurs around objects in the photograph. The T900 had major issues mid-way between the middle and edge of the lens. Overall, the chromatic aberration was the worst at the shortest focal length, 6.2mm.

Quality & Size Options

The Sony T900's range of available sizes is quite expansive, and suitable for most situations, whether to create prints, upload to the web or email. However, there are no picture quality choices, so you're stuck with the one compression algorithm that the T900 uses. The camera cannot shoot in RAW.

Image Stabilization

The Sony T900 uses an image stabilization system called SteadyShot, which we found to work very well. We test by shooting at a shutter speed you would likely encounter in a dimly lit room, where you would really need stabilization to work well. We shoot under approximately 100 lux illumination, with a shutter speed as close to 1/30th of a second as we can get. More on how we test image stabilization.

The SteadyShot system worked very well under our setup, and was one of the most effective stabilization systems we've seen in a point-and-shoot. It improved the shot dramatically, which you can see from the 100% crops above.

Video Mode

There are only three shooting settings while in Movie Mode on the Sony T900: Auto, High Sensitivity and Underwater. The movie controls are similar to those available when shooting stills, but not as complete. Exposure compensation runs ±2EV at 1/3 steps, there are the same choices for white balance as there are when shooting still photos, focus mode can be set to either multi or infinity, metering mode is either multi or center, and the stabilizer is either on or off. The front of the camera has two microphones, so it records sound in stereo.

Video Color

The color can be set to standard, sepia or black and white. The graph below shows the color error, a measure of deviance from known values, so a smaller line is better. The T900 didn't perform very well on this test, partly due to an automatic white balance setting that struggled to correctly deal with the incandescent bulbs we use for testing this section. More on how we test video color.

Video Sharpness

The movie resolution can be set to 720 fine, 720 standard or VGA. All the video resolutions run at around 30fps, with the fine and standard settings referring to a higher bit rate. Our test here looks at how much detail can be resolved when moving horizontally, then vertically when recording in the highest quality mode. The T900 had quite poor horizontal resolution, but very good vertical. More on how we test video sharpness.

Playback Mode

One of the major advantages to the high-resolution, 920,000-dot LCD is that images in playback show up crystal clear, so you can see if a shot came out well or not. The T900 also has quite a variety of slideshow options, so you can show off your holiday snaps to anyone you come across. It comes with four types of music, as well as the ability to upload your own MP3s with the bundled 'Music Transfer' application. There are three different transition effects, and you can chose between showing all images, or just photos taken on a specific date. If you use the cradle that the camera ships with, you can use a standard HDMI cable to plug into an HD TV, but one isn't included. If you don't want to lug the cradle everywhere, you'll have to shell out an extra $30 to Sony for an HD cable that will plug directly into the camera.

The camera also offers some interesting ways to organize your images. It defaults to Date view, which simply files everything by the order in which it was taken. You can mark certain images as your favorites, and only look at those, or browse by folders on the Memory Stick. By far the most intriguing is 'Event View' which analyzes the date, time and frequency of the photographs, and clumps them into 'events'. The logic here is that you most likely take photos in clusters. A dozen or so at the park, then a few later at a birthday party, and maybe some of an especially brilliant full moon. The T900 tries to figure out these events, and can view the images accordingly.

You can also filter your images by faces, and even specific face types, looking for children, infants or smiles. Not having any infants in our testing labs, we make no promises as to how well this works.

In-Camera Editing

There is absolutely no shortage of editing controls with the T900, with every possible twee, tacky or downright ugly filter thrown in for good measure. Plus, since it's a touch-screen camera, there's the obligatory paint mode for virtually scrawling on images as well. Some editing tools are straightforward, like the ability to rotate, trim, resize to 1920x1080 or 640x480, or remove red-eye. Some are slightly more esoteric, but not unknown, like sharpening, soft focus, fisheye lens, retro (like a toy camera) and radial blur. Finally, there are the oddballs: partial color, which leaves a small area of color but fades everything else to black and white; cross filter (adds star-shaped highlights around areas of light in the photo); and the terrifying Happy Faces, which detects a face, then morphs its mouth into a smile. Finally, there's Paint mode, which lets you draw on the photos; stamp tiaras, dolphins and hearts all over them; and add one of 15 different hideous frames, which can then be saved as either three-megapixel images or at VGA size.

Mr. Jerusalem kindly volunteered to show off the Editing Effects that the T900 offers, in all their hideous glory.

Direct Print Options

Direct print options for the T900 are limited. For both PictBridge and Direct Print Order Form (DPOF), you can select which image you want to print, but not multiple copies or a proof sheet of thumbnail images.

Display

Sony is known for creating large, gorgeous LCD screens, and the T900's is no exception. It's a widescreen display with 16:9 aspect ratio ratio, measuring 3.5-inch diagonally, with 921,600-dots. Most other point-and-shoot cameras only offer 230,000-dots, usually in a 2.3-inch or 3-inch screen. The Sony T900's screen is decidedly better quality than any of the comparison cameras, though the Canon has a 461,000-dot LCD, which isn't to be scoffed at. During image playback, photographs are crystal clear and the high resolution of the screen means that you can see detail very well in the images, and easily spot any focus problems. However, when shooting, the Live View system is lower resolution (probably to keep the frame rate smooth), and the images look grainy and poor quality on the sharp screen. The menu system on the T900 is also low-resolution, an issue we've had with previous Sony cameras as well. The menus and icons look distinctly lackluster on the otherwise beautiful screen. It's a bit like watching a VHS movie on an HDTV; it looked fine on an old, low-resolution TV, but looks poor indeed on a high-res display.

Because the T900 is a touch-screen camera, the vast majority of inputs and controls use the screen. Most touch screens currently available are either resistive or capacitive -- Sony uses the former. Capacitive screens, like those found on the iPhone, are more accurate, more sensitive and can handle multiple input points. Resistive screens, on the other hand, tend to be less responsive and less accurate, as well as occasionally requiring re-calibration. The one advantage for users of a resistive screen is that you don't have to use a finger, but can point with any hard object, like the included stylus, a piece of plastic or a fingernail. Overall, though, the T900 screen feels laggy and inaccurate. Sometimes you'll have to press an icon a number of times before it registers, and it generally feels sluggish in responding to inputs.

LCD Photo

The large icons take up most of the screen

Flash

The flash on the T900 is placed roughly in the middle of the camera, slightly more to the right side. It's far enough from either edge that it's unlikely to be covered by fingertips accidentally. The flash is rated to 14 feet 9 inches on auto ISO. The flash can be set to auto, on, off or slow synchronization, which uses the flash at a slower shutter speed to illuminate the foreground subject without losing the background in the darkness. The flash intensity can be set to low, normal or high, and red-eye reduction can be set to auto, on or off. While the flash is moderately bright, there was noticeable light dropoff towards the corners of the image.

Flash Photo

The flash, with an autofocus assist bulb to its left

Lens

The tiny lens tucked in the top right corner of the camera has a 4x zoom ratio, with a 35mm focal equivalent of 35mm - 140mm. You have to be careful when holding the camera two-handed, as it's very easy to slightly cover the lens with a stray finger. The lens doesn't project at all, and is completely silent when it zooms. It has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at the widest lens setting and f/4.6 at maximum telephoto, and a minimum aperture of f/10, meaning you're limited to a pretty shallow depth of field.

Lens Photo

The small lens is particularly susceptible to lens flare and distortion

Battery

The battery is only rated for 200 shots, as powering that huge LCD uses a lot of juice. You won't get a huge amount of use out of a single charge, and might want to carry a spare battery (an extra-cost option, of course).

Battery Photo

The memory card and battery

Memory

Sony is a huge fan of using its own proprietary formats whenever possible, ever since the days of Betamax. The company insists on forcing users to stick with their Memory Stick PRO Duo format, when SDHC cards are cheaper, perform as well or better, and are far easier to come by. The T900 also has 11MB of internal memory.

Jacks, Ports & Plugs

As mentioned above, Sony loves its proprietary formats, and also uses one for the sole I/O port on the camera. On the plus side, the camera comes bundled with a cradle, which lets you plug into standard HDMI, stereo A/V out and mini-USB ports. However, the camera doesn't ship with any HD cabling, only standard definition. If you don't want to lug the extra bulk of the cradle everywhere with you, you can buy cables to plug directly into the camera's port, direct from Sony, for $40 a pop.

Ports Photo 1

The single port...

Ports Photo 2

...and the camera plugged into the cradle.

Shooting Modes

The T900 has a number of shooting modes, but none offers a huge degree of control. Intelligent Auto attempts to recognize the scene at hand and select the best scene mode for it (choosing from Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Twilight using tripod, Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Landscape, Macro or Portrait. Intelligent Auto can also be switched it Scene Recognition + mode, which when the camera recognizes a twilight or backlight picture, it'll take two shots with slightly different settings, depending on the situation. Program mode gives you the greatest control over the settings (such as focus type, metering, ISO, macro, flash and white balance); Easy mode which only shows shots remaining, smile detect, timer, image size and flash; and High Sensitivity (which is tends to chose a higher ISO level than normal auto ISO).

Auto Mode Features

The autofocus mode can be set to Multi (analyzes the scene, and focuses on multiple points), Center or Spot. You can also tap on an area of the screen to focus there, which is a definite advantage to a touch screen. There is also a sort of manual focus capability, but you can only set the focal length to 0.4m, 1.0m, 3.0m, 7.0m or infinity. There is a face detection setting, which can be turned off, on, or set to only function when you tap on someone's face. You can also tell the system to prioritize the focus on children or adults. It also has a smile detection mode, that can be set to automatically take a photo when someone is grinning. If Anti Blink is enabled, after you take a photo, it will inform you if someone is blinking (which strikes us as a little late for it to be of much use.)

Overall, the focusing felt a little slow, especially in low light conditions.

The T900 doesn't have the most expansive exposure controls on the market, but they're not too bad. There are two levels of dynamic range optimization on this camera, normal and plus, both designed to bring additional details out of the shadows.

Multi, center or spot metering are all available.

The aperture range on Sony T900 is average for a point and shoot, maxing out at f/3. We couldn't coax a smaller aperture than f/10, which is very limited, and means you won't be able to get a very wide depth of field with this camera. Depth of field is a term for how much of a scene is in focus as once. A wide aperture (like f/3) will only have a small area in focus, which is great for photographing close up objects. A narrow aperture (like f/22 or so) will have a very large depth of field, which is good for landscape photography.

The shutter speed of this camera is sub-par, with a maximum exposure of only two seconds, and a minimum of 1/1000. The vast majority of cameras on the market run up to at least 4 seconds, and usually 1/1500 at the fast end. Of course, there's no way to manually set the shutter speed, which is another black mark.

There are two levels of self-timer: 10 and two seconds. When coupled with burst mode, the camera will take five images after the timer is up. If a timer is set up for a shot, it will turn off again after an image has been taken, which is frustrating if you're making multiple attempts at an image that requires the timer's use.

Modes Photo

The mode menu

Scene Modes

There are 10 scene modes that can be manually selected: Landscape, Twilight Portrait, Twilight, Gourmet, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, Underwater, Hi-speed, and Soft Snap.

Picture Effects

Picture Effects are filters that are applied while shooting, of which the T900 has none.

Manual Controls

The T900 has white balance presets for sunlight, cloud, three types of fluorescent bulbs and flash, as well as an auto setting. However, there is no preset for shade, and much more noticeably lacking is any sort of manual white balance control, which is a common feature of cameras in this price range. If you set the camera to underwater mode, there are three additional white balance presets: underwater auto, underwater 1 and underwater 2. Since the camera isn't waterproof, if you did want to take it underwater, you can pick up a special housing from Sony for $230.

Drive/Burst Mode

The Sony T900 has only level of continuous shutter speed, with an unlimited capacity. Unfortunately, this mode does not work with ISOs above 800.

Shot to Shot ()

On burst mode, the camera takes 1.76 images per second for five shots, and then slows down to approximately one per second. The T900 is faster than both the Canon SD970 and Fuji F200EXR, however it pales in comparison to the speed demon that is the Casio EX-FC100, which can capture up to 30 frames per second (though only at six-megapixel resolution).

Handling

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 is small, light and incredibly easy to hold. It's very slim, at only 0.66 inches (16.3mm) deep, and so will easily fit in just about any pocket. It has a slight flare on the right side, which makes it easier to hold, as you can easily grasp that and the thumb-pad/wristlet loop on the rear. However, as good as the physical body is for taking with you just about anywhere, the interface is a bit of a pain. The touch-screen system is less responsive than we'd like, which can make navigating menus and changing options clunky and slow. The icons are all much lower resolution than the T900 screen could handle, which makes them look unattractive. The camera has a highly reflective surface, and both the the screen and body of the camera become smeared with fingerprints in almost no time.

Handling Photo 1

The Sony T900 is small and easy to hold, though prone to attracting fingerprints

Handling Photo 2

Buttons & Dials

Being a touch-screen camera, there isn't much in the way of buttons and dials on the T900. The zoom, shutter and toggle between still and video modes are all situated around one small circle of controls. The power button and playback buttons are both to the left of this, and are identical in size and shape. On more than one occasion this has led to us pressing one when we meant to press the other, and some sort of differentiation would have been appreciated.

Buttons Photo 1

The T900 has very few buttons.

The Sony T900's menu is an odd combination of very simple and slightly confusing. Most of the important shooting settings are changed by pressing the Menu button, but the full menu system is accessed by pressing the Home icon. Many of the features that show up in the former are also available in the latter. Since the camera is touch-screen based and the LCD is a large 3.5-inch model, all the icons are large, so they're big enough to hit with fingers. Changing one settings can make others vanish too, without any explanation. For instance, if you select a focus point by tapping somewhere on the screen, all the focus and metering options disappear until you cancel the focus point. Or if you have the flash turned on, all the white balance options except Flash and Auto disappear, without explanation, until the flash is turned off. A much better system would have them grayed out, with an explanatory error that popped up when you tried to click on them, rather than just vanishing.

Manual & Learning

The manual is poorly laid out, and skimps on many necessary details. For instance, even though the camera offers bracketing for shooting, at no point in the manual is this ever explained. While it does adequately describe how to use most of the menu options, an explanation of what these options actually accomplish is often neglected. One nice touch on the camera itself, is the option to pop up an explanation of every setting when you push its button, which at least fills in some of the blanks left by the cursory manual.

Casio Exilim EX-FC100 Comparison

The Canon SD970 perhaps provides the closest comparison with the Sony T900 among our cameras. Where the Casio and Fuji both have a trick they can pull (the former has incredible speed, the latter a new sensor that can reduce noise or boost dynamic range), the T900 and SD970 are both straightforward little machines. The T900 is obviously the winner for aesthetics. Sony designs attractive hardware, and the Cyber-shot is a gorgeous and sleek model, which will fit in even the tightest of pants, and has a stunning LCD. It also had superior performance in color, stabilization, movie resolution and shot-to-shot speed. However, the Canon performed better in all other image quality categories, taking photos with lower noise, higher resolution, and also more accurate color in movies. The Canon has an easier-to-use control scheme, as it avoids the pitfalls of an inaccurate touch-screen system. The Canon menu interface is also well polished, and looks great on screen. While both cameras lack a manual exposure mode, the Canon allows manual white balance readings (which the Sony lacks), and it has more scene modes, though the T900 has a higher maximum ISO. Above everything else though, we found the Canon to be a more pleasant camera to use, offering a more comfortable user experience.


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Fujifilm FinePix F200EXR Comparison

The Casio Exilim EC-FC100 doesn't have much over the Sony in general. Its noise levels were lower than the T900 at low ISO, but higher as ISO settings increase. In most of the tests we ran, it scored noticeably lower, especially for color accuracy, resolution and image stabilization. It doesn't look as good as the Sony, has a significantly lower-quality LCD, and has a menu system and interface that are poorly designed and exceedingly frustrating. The fact that there are separate buttons for playback and shooting modes exhibits a waste of what little space is free on the body of the camera.

But the Casio has a slick trick up its sleeve. Like its more expensive, larger brothers (the EX-F1 and EX-FH20) it can shoot video and still photographs with incredible speed, for slow motion movies or grabbing the perfect shot. If you reduce the resolution from its maximum 9 megapixel to 6 megapixels, you can shoot up to 30 frames per second. In video modes, you can shoot at up to 1000 frames per second (at 224x64 resolution) for incredible slow motion videos, 420fps at 224x168, and from 30 to 210fps at 480x360. The sliver of screen you get at 1000fps is fairly impractical, and requires far too much light to shoot successfully. 210fps on the other hand, gives you a decent size file, and the slow motion is enough to capture all sorts of amazing detail. The high speed in still mode is also great, allowing you to photograph action easily. The Exilim also has a mode that lets you store images continually in a buffer and grab a few shots of an event that happened a second or two before you actually hit the shutter. It's a a neat trick that means you won't lose any important events in the time it takes you to start recording.

It's obvious which of the two is more stylish, and the Sony is also a slightly better camera in terms of pure photographic quality. On the other hand, if you want a camera that specializes in recording fast moving objects (for nature or sports photography, for example), then the Casio probably has a lot of appeal.


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COMP 3

The Sony T900 and Fuji F200EXR both exhibited strengths and weaknesses in our testing. The Sony had more accurate color, much more effective image stabilization, a faster continuous shooting mode and an overall more accurate video mode. The Fujifilm has lower image noise along with sharper, less distorted images. Neither of the cameras has an amazing menu system, but the Fujifilm offers significantly more photographic control than the T900, and provides a manual mode that lets you set aperture and shutter speed. That said, the Fuji's burst mode leaves a lot to be desired when shooting at full resolution (though it is faster if you're willing to sacrifice image size). The Sony is a much smaller and sleeker camera, and certainly looks better in the hand, but the Fujifilm is by no means hideous.

The F200EXR also has some interesting features, courtesy of a new generation of image sensor. The Fuji can halve its 12-megapixel image resolution down to six-megapixels, and shoot in either a mode designed to reduce image noise or another to substantially boost dynamic range. We haven't tested how effective these modes are, but will follow up soon with a full review of the EX-FC100 review which will analyze this unique sensor system.


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Conclusion

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 is a gorgeous camera with some strong points, but also a number of glaring flaws. The camera's most obvious strength is its size and design. At only 2/3 of an inch thick, and with a sleek sliding cover, it's very easy on the eyes. The LCD is wide-screen, 3.5 inches diagonally, and has a razor-sharp 920,000-dot resolution.

In our lab testing, we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent color accuracy and image stabilization, and the image sharpness (though this is partly due to software based sharpening). The rest of the results were less pleasing. At low ISOs it tended to have more image noise than other tested cameras, and the small lens led to significant image distortion and chromatic aberration. The T900 also lacks useful controls and options, most noticeably the ability to take a manual white balance setting or manually control aperture and shutter speed. Even in auto mode, the limited range of shutter speeds and apertures is also a problem. The manual does a poor job of explaining camera functions and how they work. One of our major gripes is the touch-based interface system, which is just that little bit too unresponsive, leaving you wondering if you've hit the proper icon or not. Also, because the icons have to be large enough to press with a finger, there's room for fewer of them on the screen at a time.

If you're in the market for a camera that looks great, is incredibly small, and takes decent photos, then maybe the Sony T900 is for you. We would recommend taking some time to play with the menu system before purchase, though, as it can be quite frustrating. If you have a bit more space in your pocket, the Canon SD970 performs slightly better, and has a much friendlier user interface for the same sticker price.

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