With 720p HD video recording, is the Sony Cyber-shot H20 a step ahead of the superzoom pack? The What Digital Camera Sony H20 review tests it out...
Sony Cyber-shot H20 – Features
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 is a 10 megapixel compact camera poised at the superzoom end of the market. It’s 10x optical zoom provides ample focal length for picking off subjects from afar, although with only 38mm of coverage at its widest point doesn’t push into the superwide superzoom territory.
There is a secret weapon on the feature front too – the HD 720p movie recording function is, whilst becoming a more commonplace feature on many stills cameras, something that’s not widely available as yet. Sony, being the domineering electronics giant it is, is certainly pushing promotion of HD products.
A manual mode features alongside programme auto (P) for more demanding image makers, with an abundance of scene modes following suit. ‘Easy’ mode and ‘intelligent scene selection’ also add an extra layer of performance by taking the need to think about the controls out of your hands – these modes judge the lighting conditions to select all the appropriate shooting settings for the scene at hand. So there’s functionality for first time users as well as those more demanding, experienced users.
Enhanced Face Detection – including a Smile Shutter option and Face Motion Detection to up the ISO and ensure a faster shutter to keep faces crisply exposed without the blur of any movement – finish the package.
Sony Cyber-shot H20 – Design
The Sony H20, given it’s large 10x optical zoom range, is relatively slender. Some more significant superzooms are of a considerably larger size, but the H20 maintains the sort of size to slip into a bag or, if you’ve got some baggy jeans, perhaps a pocket too. This makes it a very transportable camera given it’s not much chunkier than a lot of compacts on the market.
The H20 body itself is finished in black (and black only) with some silver-coloured trimmings, and has a rubberized grip to assist with holding firmly. The finish is generally rather plasticy, though the construction is rigid, so it feels like a well made bit of kit considering. Even with the lens at full extension the camera never feels flimsy.
Control-wise the Cyber-shot H20 has a number of knobs and buttons to get your hands on. On top of the camera is the standard W/T zoom control, next to a silver thumbwheel to select shooting mode. It’s easy to flick between shooting modes – from Manual to Movie and the like – with a quick rotation. As Face Detection is such a strong feature as part of the H20, it gets a whole ‘smiley’ button all to itself too, to enable quick and easy adjustment of face-based settings. On the back is the 230,000 dot 3in LCD screen to the left, with standard d-pad, menu, playback and trash buttons not straying too far from a comprehensive and usual layout.
The H20’s in-camera menu system is quickly accessed using the ‘menu’ button on the back of the camera. All options appear in a vertical strip to the left, which when selected, reveal their options across the screen. This can make for a lot of d-pad bashing, but successfully breaks down the categories to click in and out of options quickly enough (the last option corrected is the one you will return to upon accessing the menu once again). Menu options differ from mode to mode too, so you’re not overburdened with options that can only be used in Manual when in Easy mode, for example. This helps to keep things that extra bit stream-lined.
Performance, Image Quality & Value
Sony Cyber-shot H20 – Performance
As with any superzoom camera, keeping shots steady at 10x optical zoom – here 380mm – is no mean feat. That’s more an issue with the ability to handhold, so nothing against the camera itself. The Cyber-shot H20 does, on the plus size, offer Sony’s effective Super SteadyShot to provide some alleviation to camera shake. However, with unsteady hands the camera may find it difficult to focus on the correct point when the lens is fully extended – a common issue with superzooms. What may appear fine on screen will tend to reveal softness or mis-focus, but given the limitations for focus control with a compact camera, it’s relatively unavoidable.
It’s also worth noting that Sony continues to promote its own Memory Stick format – which, unlike the more universal SD card type, can only be read in Sony products from cameras to TVs and so forth. Not a problem if you’re starting out with the Sony H20 as a first purchase, but if you already have an SD card then the additional expense of a Memory Stick adds to the bank.
The H20’s battery life depletes somewhat rapidly too. The alledged 290 shots per charge seems overwhelmingly optimistic, as day to day use drained the battery to juiceless much faster. Once the battery is recharged and replaced the camera’s settings return to default also – meaning that annoying shutter sound will turn itself back on, even if your initial preference was for it to be silent.
Additionally, and particularly in poor light, the Sony H20 has a rather noisy screen pre-shot; once the image is taken it will look considerably better, but the irritation of poor screen quality prior to firing the shutter is considerable. Video and stills playback, even a slideshow function, is decently crisp on all counts however, so successful playback is always a joy.
The Sony H20 also includes a manual mode, though the limitations to apertures mean you’ll only get two available to select whatever the zoom range. This isn’t surprising given the compact format, but as with most compacts with an option such as this does create a barrier of limitation.
In general use the H20 is a solid performer. The lens barrel slides in and out with grace at a sustained speed, the flash provides some oomph, and the macro mode works very closely to subject indeed. A little practice with what’s where in the menus and the Sony H20 will soon become your friend, despite its apparent shortcomings.
Sony Cyber-shot H20 – Image Quality
In terms of ISO, the Sony Cyber-shot H20 offers from ISO 80 all the way through to ISO 3200. At the upper end of the scale the results are fairly poor: ISO 3200 dilutes detail significantly and image noise is considerable. At the other extreme, and positively, ISO 80-200 provides very smooth and clean, rich-coloured visuals. The mid-range sensitivities of ISO 400-800 are reasonable, though not strikingly so – image noise becomes gradually more prominent, but signs of image deterioration do begin to creep in from ISO 400. Exposures tend to be good, with the metering working to produce well-balanced images.
Sony Cyber-shot H20 – Value For Money
Most superzooms set you back a lot of money. Add that to the notoriously ‘premium-priced’ Sony brand and the Cybershot H20 ought to come at cost. But actually, it’s really well priced to provide a competitive edge. At around the £220 price point, a bit of internet browsing ought to see prices just shy of the £200 mark. Considering the original asking price is a penny less than £260, that’s not bad going at all. Consider, if you will, the expense of some other superzooms on the market and this puts the Sony in a strong position.
However, there’s a bit of a catch. Many other superzooms have two points to plump them above and beyond the Sony’s spec. Firstly they have wider angle lenses. The H20 provides 38mm at the widest, which is no match for some of its 25mm competitors. Secondly many other superzooms have a longer zoom range, perhaps 12x, 14x or more optical zoom. Admittedly, the latter coupled with a wider lens will likely only reach the same full focal length of the Sony H20’s 380mm offering.
The Sony Cyber-shot H20 is a solid performer of a superzoom compact. Whilst it perhaps lacks the wide angle lens of its competitors, it does pepper other features generously. Face Detection options, Optical SteadyShot, HD 720p movie recording, and a full manual mode all feature for a more than reasonable price to make the Sony H20 an attractive prospect. Plus, what with the Sony emblem shining on the front, and the elegant silver-coloured finish on black, it looks the part too.
It’s not without its errors though. There is notable image noise at high ISO settings, meaning ISO 3200 ought to be firmly kept off your shooting list. Battery power depletes at a rate of knots too, which can be frustrating. But, if the 38-380mm limit doesn’t put you off, the rest of the features stand up on their own, making the Sony Cyber-shot H20 a commendable superzoom.