Cameras

Sony Cyber-shot TX20 Review

Sony misses an opportunity to perfect the casual tough-cam.

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Introduction

One of Sony’s smartest ideas last year was the Cyber-shot TX10, a waterproof camera intended not for the extreme outdoor adventurer, but merely for the klutz in all of us.

The body had some actual style—previously a rarity for this type of camera—and nobody could tell by looking at it that the exterior was armored. It wasn’t as durable as the competition, but the protection was adequate for spilled drinks, dips in the pool, or drops to the floor. Despite some problems with design and image quality, these klutz-proof qualities made the TX10 a pretty easy recommendation for young, active shooters. Recognizing the potential of this series, we hoped the TX20 would make improvements and really solidify itself as the go-to casual tough-cam. Sadly, that didn't happen.

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Design & Usability

If we didn’t know better, even we would never guess at the TX20’s durable frame.

The TX20's sleek design disregards actual usage. The smooth, featureless body is difficult to grip because the surface area is so limiting. The entire backside is dominated by a touchscreen and the sliding lens cover is a huge pain to move, so if your hands are greasy from suntan lotion, it won’t move at all.

If touchscreen interfaces like these are the future, give me a time machine to go back.

Buttons? Ha! If touchscreen interfaces like these are the future, give me a time machine to go back. This "advanced" technology mans shooting options with twice the delay and half the precision of regular old buttons. We almost always hate touchscreens, and this chic, unruly interface is why. What buttons do exist are restricted to the right corner of the top panel. Here you’ll find a shallow, error-prone shutter release, keys for playback and video recording (both of which are too small), and a tricky zoom lever that lacks precision.

The small lens is situated at the upper right corner of the front panel (right in the way of your fingers), behind an over-sized sliding lens cover. This cover was one of our biggest criticisms of the TX10, and it has not been fixed. It’s nearly impossible to get any sort of traction on the smooth surface—and no, the models with textured covers aren't better (such as the green one we tested). When your camera is a pain simply to turn on, that’s a problem.

Features

The Sony Cyber-shot TX20 offers a fun palette of features and shooting modes.

We had a bit of adolescent fun with the various picture effects, scene modes, and in-camera editing options we found on the TX20. Sony was wise to include such fun and games, given the camera’s apparent target audience. Scene modes are 16 in number, and picture effects come in seven varieties.

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Program shift is not available, so exposure compensation is your best bet for fine tuning a shot.

Shooting modes, nine altogether, are available from a shortcut “key” on the right side of the touch panel. Program Auto is the most useful, but there is also a dedicated movie mode, a background defocus mode, the aforementioned scene and effect modes, a 3D shooting mode, and two fully automatic options. Program shift is not available, though, so exposure compensation is your best bet for fine tuning a shot.

Another notable point: with the TX20, time is on your side. High and low speed burst modes are both on offer, even though they’re limited to ten consecutive shots, followed by buffer delays. Just like the TX10, we clocked the maximum full resolution burst speed at exactly 10 frames per second—that's very fast for a compact camera. Lastly, 10 second and two second countdowns, as well as face-detecting automatic modes are additionally on hand.

Performance

The TX20 falls victim to luminance noise and pixelation, even at the lowest sensitivity levels.

To begin with, the TX20’s tiny lens can manage a modicum of sharpness at the center of the frame, but elsewhere you’ll find that details are very soft. Moreover, what sharpness does exist has software enhancement to thank—not the genuine quality of the hardware. True, Sony T-series cameras aren’t known for their sharpness, but come on, these results are worse than last year’s TX10, and about even with the TX-66, a non-ruggedized model.

All around noise reduction performance is quite poor.

Of all our image quality tests, the TX20 did the best with color accuracy. The color gamut was extremely accurate for a small camera. In terms of image noise, there is no practical difference between noise levels at ISO 125, 200, 400, or even 800 (at least as far as our test is concerned). In reality, shots become noticeably muddy by ISO 800, and they get worse from there. Thus, all around noise reduction performance is quite poor. Last year’s TX10 outperformed the TX20 considerably, and so does the new TX-66. Luckilyy for Sony, they’re not the only company struggling with noisy tough-cams. On a final note, if you’re concerned about barrel distortion, just zoom in. For some reason, the TX20 produces extremely severe distortion at the closest focal length, but the problem completely disappears halfway down the focal range.

Conclusion

Where the TX20's performance is roughly average for this "vein" of camera, its $329 price tag is not.

The idea of a moderately rugged camera inside a chic body is a lead that other manufacturers should follow. What else can we really say about a camera that fails to outshine its own predecessor?

The only reason to buy a TX20 is because the TX10 is no longer widely available. This is insulting to the consumer base and it's a big disappointment, because the TX10 was an exciting product that had room to grow. Well, instead of capitalizing on the unique, ingenious position of last year's TX10, Sony just twiddled their thumbs, leaving the door wide open for every other manufacturer. We may see a high-quality, stylish tough-cam in 2012, but it isn’t this one.

If you are in any way serious about photography, look to this camera’s competitors instead.

The TX20 has great color accuracy and competent video recording. Its body is impressively slim. But perks like these fade next to the aggravating all-touch interface, the utter lack of ergonomics, and the terrible shutter release. If you are in any way serious about photography, look to this camera’s competitors instead.

Science Introduction

The Sony Cyber-shot TX20 (MSRP $329) is a tough-cam with decent people appeal, but it doesn't deliver image quality that any serious photographer would swoon over. Where its performance is roughly average for this "vein" of camera, the price tag is not, and that's where the real issue comes from.

Color Accuracy

Outstanding color by any standard

Of all our image quality tests, the TX20 performed the best here. The color gamut was extremely accurate for a small camera, resulting in an error rating of only 2.29, which is on par with many SLRs. The worst errors occurred in red and blue shades, however these were far from severe. Saturation was also very accurate, over by only 3.5%.

White Balance

The TX20’s white balance algorithm follows an industry pattern.

Incandescent indoor light was very challenging for the TX20's automatic system, and produced the worst errors. Fluorescent light wasn’t quite as bad, and daylight was handled with ease.

With a custom white balance, both incandescent and fluorescent light were handled much more accurately, and daylight produced the best scores of all. No surprises here.

In context, the TX20’s automatic white balance scores are just about average, while the custom scores are slightly below.

Noise Reduction

Avoiding noise is impossible with the TX20.

The TX20’s handling of noise has strange characteristics that most often result in noisy photographs. There is no practical difference in image noise at ISOs 125, 200, 400, or 800; at least as far as our test is concerned. In reality, shots become noticeably muddy by ISO 800, and they get worse from there. Noise increases pretty drastically at ISO 1600 and 3200, however noise levels are never lower than a full 1.00%, including minimum sensitivity. This is quite high, even for a compact camera.

The ISO range reaches from 125 to 3200 with no extended options. From what we can tell, this includes the “High Sensitivity” scene mode, which seems to offer no additional benefit.

Distortion

Fringing is rampant, but barrel distortion can be cured with a little know-how.

Chromatic aberration is terribly severe in the photos we took with the TX20. Bright blue and orange fringing occurs in high contrast areas. This problem is normally associated with a low quality lens, and given the severity here, we’d guess Sony is using a plastic lens instead of a glass one.

To reduce distortion, simply zoom in a bit. For some reason, distortions lessen at the middle part of the focal range.

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