As the superzoom market continues to hot up, Sony’s latest HX100V dips its oar into the 30x ultra-zoom sector. With unique features such as GPS (Global Positioning Satellite), does it have the goods to be the very best superzoom out there? The What Digital Camera Sony Cyber-shot HX100V review takes a look…
Sony Cyber-shot HX100V review – Features
The Sony HX100V joins an expanding group of 30x optical zoom superzoom cameras, going head to head against the likes of the Canon PowerShot SX30 IS and Fujifilm FinePix HS20 EXR. Where the HX100V sits apart from the competition is with its GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) technology (as represented by the ‘V’ designation in the name) that can track and geotag images with location data.
The Sony HX100V’s 27-810mm (30x) optical zoom has a long-reaching range and can be adjusted by either using the manual zoom ring or zoom rocker on top of the camera – the choice is yours. For added control the same zoom ring doubles up as a manual focus ring by the flick of a switch, meaning that both zoom and focus are always well-positioned for optimum control. Optical Steady Shot, Sony’s brand of image stabilisation, means lens-shifts take place to counteract camera sake for sharper images that benefit image preview in real time. Plus an f/2.8-5.6 aperture means a reasonable amount of brightness and depth of field control at all focal lengths.
On the Sony Cyber-shot HX100V’s inside is a 16.2-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor – the ‘R’ being Sony’s way of saying ‘back-lit’ for an improved construction for better image quality. The sensor size is the same as that found in the majority of compact cameras, however.
As well as a tilt-angle 3in, 920k-dot LCD on the camera’s rear, the HX100V also has a built-in electronic viewfinder (also 920k-dot) that’s ideal for use in bright sunlight or for added support and stability when framing at long focal lengths.
Back when the HX1, Sony’s 2008 superzoom, hit the shelves it was the first model to feature Sweep Panorama. This innovative mode allows for real-time panorama capture that auto-stitches in-camera for immediate results. Not only did this start a craze for competitor manufacturers to create similarly-named (but ultimately the same) modes, it’s also lead the HX100V’s Sweep Panorama to step things up a gear. Now there’s iSweep Panorama HR (High Resolution) that uses a larger portion of the sensor for larger final images and, should you have the right equipment to display it, 3D panoramas can also be shot too.
Stills images are the order of the day and can even be reeled off at a rate of 10 per second in the burst mode. But, as with all things Sony, 3D is also at the forefront. A ‘3D’ option on the mode dial shoots two consecutive images and processes them in camera to create an MPO file that can be played back on 3DTVs or similar devices. The HX100V’s screen itself is standard, so the effect cannot be witnessed on the camera itself.
Add 1080p50 movie capture to the fold and the Sony Cyber-shot HX100V also presents top-spec moving image capture. It’s possible to make full use of the lens’ zoom during recording and full-time autofocus takes care of the focusing for you.
Sony Cyber-shot HX100V – Design
The HX100V is a rather sizeable camera (comparable to a small DSLR and larger than a Compact System Camera), but this is a given considering the ability of its zoom lens. The lens itself only protrudes a couple of inches from the camera body which makes it idea for storage, and this only extends further from the body when the camera is turned on.
Controlling the lens is the most rewarding element of using the HX100V, as it offers a unique switch to quickly toggle between manual focus and zoom. This means the well-located zoom ring around the lens also acts as the manual focus ring. It’s even possible to control the zoom using a rocker switch to the top right of the camera, so there are plenty of control possibilities. Working through the zoom isn’t as immediate or quite as accurate as, say, the Fujifilm HS20‘s hands-on zoom ring (which is truly manual), but the electronic-drive of the Sony still provides enough detail in control and the ‘step’ between each level of zoom is subtle rather than restricting.
Button layout follows a standard rear d-pad, with a one-touch ‘?’ button for the In-Camera Guide mode, a one-touch Movie button for quick recording and the usual Menu and Playback buttons also on the rear. The top sees a Finder/LCD button to toggle between the two, which is next to the main mode dial. Just behind the shutter are a pair of buttons – Focus and Custom – to quickly-adjust focus area and for user-assigned Function use respectively. Rather than individual exposure compensation and ISO control buttons, Sony has opted for a rear thumbwheel that doubles up as a button to jump between these various options – easy enough to use, but less immediate than having independent controls for these other major areas.
Elsewhere small details, such as the battery meter, also add bags extra to user experience: rather than just a simple four bar display, the Sony HX100V also estimates how long you have left to use the camera to the nearest minute, i.e. ‘90mins’. The rechargeable li-ion battery (no AAs here) lasts for a decent period of time and using the DC-IN charger it needn’t leave the camera’s body.
Sony Cyber-shot HX100V review – Performance
In use is where the HX100V really shines. The autofocus system is quick off the mark and the AF Area can be set up in three ways: Multi-AF controls a 9-point AF system; Center AF utilises a central square in the middle of the frame; and Flexible Spot AF lets you control the focus square within a grid of nine by 13 (117 total areas). The only limitation is that there’s no focus sensitivity towards the edge of the frame, which leaves an edge-based ‘border’ that cannot be utilised. Further focus area adjustments, such as positioning, are easily handled using the centre button of the d-pad to reactivate control.
Where the HX100V continues to impress is with its ability to focus close-up to subjects throughout the zoom range. Compared to the competition, the Sony can focus on a subject some meters away at 700mm, for example, and still obtain focus – ideal for getting right into the action. Focus is also presented in real-time, so even when not yet focused it’s possible to see the subject continue to move as focus drifts into that final, confirmed sharpness – a feature that the Fuji HS20 doesn’t possess, for example (the latter freezes the initial frame then jumps to the focused frame, by which time your subject may have moved out of the composition or focus may fail).
The rear LCD screen has a 920k-dot resolution for detailed playback. It’s with its tilt-angle mechanism that it really shows off though: the ability to angle the screen vertically means over-head or waist-level shots are made all the easier, though there’s no horizontal movement available. However, with hands-on movement required to shift the screen itself, fingerprinting becomes commonplace and that plus sunlight can make for tricky viewing when outdoors.
A good job then that there’s an electronic viewfinder above the LCD screen. Possessing the same 920k-dot resolution, this auto-activated finder (there’s an eye-level activation sensor that can jump into finder mode as your face approaches) is a very valuable tool to have. It’s far from the best given that it’s small, rather dark and can be tricky to press your eye up close for best view. But its presence is an absolute essential when working in brighter light or needing extra support at longer focal lengths.
For new-starters the Sony HX100V also covers all bases. The inclusion of an In-Camera Guide mode is easily accessible by simply pressing the ‘?’ button on the rear of the camera. This brings up a variety of helpful options – Shoot/Playback Guide, Icon Guide, Troubleshooting, Objective Guide, Keyword and History. Using a variety of visual and written prompts, these walkthrough areas explain every possible area that the HX100V can throw at you. If there’s an icon that you’ve seen but don’t understand, then open up this menu and it’s simple to click through the whole catalogue of options which are then explained and followed up with shortcuts to jump straight into that mode. Far from being just like a big phone book, though, the menus are suitably visual or can even be searched by using the keyword directory.
Full manual controls feature alongside the usual Auto options, though the presence of both ‘intelligent Auto’ and ‘Superior Auto’ is, frankly, a little confusing. The icons look highly similar, but what Superior Auto does is to capture multiple images and then combine them for best possible results. Intelligent Auto, on the other hand, automatically detects the scene at hand and selects the best options accordingly – it’s the perfect mode for point-and-shoot users. An icon/name change might have made the differences between the two all the more apparent.
There are other more specialist modes such as the much-talked-about iSweep Panorama. The system works well and does a good job of patching up ‘gaps’ between captures for a realistic final result. It’s even possible to shoot both horizontal or vertical panorama shots.
2011 also sees Sony pushing hard in the 3D sector, and not just for its stills camera market. While the professional 3D solutions the company also has may produce excellent results, the more consumer-grade 3D technology as found in the Cyber-shot HX100V won’t stand up to quite such high standards. This is because the camera works by quickly capturing two images from a single lens and then combines them with a blurring technique. This doesn’t help in final image quality and also there’s not the right level of separation between left and right ‘eyes’ (i.e. the two shots) to create a truly believable ‘3D’ image. It does work to some extent, of course, but it’s the 3D iSweep Panorama that benefits more from this. The simple reason is that with the camera moving position and taking multiple images it can combine a more realistic and convincing solution with more pronounced depth.
Burst shooting means the HX100V can reel off 10 frames in a single second (10fps) and it only takes a matter of seconds for the files to be saved. It’s not possible to shoot more than the 10 frames in a single burst, but this is a significant feature for high-speed shooters. Bracketing is also possible (for exposure or white balance) for a trio of exposures.
Last, but by no means least, the HX100V’s 1080p HD movie mode is another very attractive feature. During capture the mode allows for real-time exposure compensation adjustment, but otherwise manual controls are restricted. Full time autofocus does a very good job of sliding elegantly between subjects and the lens can be used to zoom in and out during recording. The AVCHD capture format does mean that the in-camera MTS files will need to be decoded and processed on a computer before they’re ready for editing however (many other cameras output MOV files straight from camera that are more versatile but larger in size – hence this isn’t a ‘problem’, but just something to be aware of).
Sony Cyber-shot HX100V review – Image Quality
As seems to be the trend of late, image sensors continue to cram lots of megapixels onto their relatively small forms. The Sony HX100V is no exception, with a hefty 16.2MP found on its 1/2.3in-sized CMOS sensor. The wiring has been moved to the back for a back-lit construction to help light pass directly. However, techno jargon put aside for one moment, and the fact is that the inclusion of so many megapixels in a small area doesn’t always help image quality for the better. Indeed it can hinder it by preventing a good amount of light from being able to reach each sensor node. The HX100V’s final images are fine, yet when viewed at 100% (native pixel-to-pixel size), even the lowest ISO settings show signs of ‘smearing’ and JPEG processing artifacts which may not convey the fullest detail.
ISO 100-200 are the most detailed sensitivities, with ISO 400 dropping down a notch. From ISO 800 and beyond there’s a notable drop in resolved detail and edge definition becomes smeary. However colour noise is seldom an issue due to well-performing image noise reduction. Indeed, even at ISO 3200, colour rendition is still accurate and blacks are still black, but the drop-off in edge detail and smeary-looking shots won’t cut it for those hyper critical about quality.
In terms of exposure we were impressed by the HX100V’s speed of adapting between varying zoom levels and taking on board complex exposures. Whether using natural or artificial light, exposures came across balanced and of realistic colour.
But let’s put this in perspective: A superzoom is never going to be like a DSLR, in that the sensor is far smaller and not able to resolve the same level of detail – yet it’s a fair balance of size to quality ratio with a long-reaching lens. The HX100V is exactly this. It delivers compact-like quality but has a whacking great lens that’s great for getting in on the action. If the sensor was physically any larger then so too would the camera body in order to accommodate the optics able enough to provide the necessary light circle for the sensor. So little could change as far as the HX100V is concerned – but if that sensor was a 10MP or 12MP version it most likely would have produced better results still.
If a superzoom is an absolute must then there are a few choices out there – the HX100V performs extremely well, if not better than any other, but it’s the Fuji HS20 (at its 8MP EXR setting) that pips it to the post in terms of low-ISO image quality in real world images.
Furthermore the HX100V can only capture JPEG files, it does not have the facility to capture Raw files. However, all manual modes offer three-step adjustment for Color Saturation, Contrast, Sharpness and Noise Reduction – it’s a helpful tool (though you’ll need to look at results on screen to tweak them into your ideal settings) but doesn’t quite compensate for having that Raw file in hand.
Value & Verdict
Sony Cyber-shot HX100V review – Value
As a brand new release, the HX100V costs around £429 (May 2011). Given the inclusion of GPS there was always going to be an extra £30 or so additional cost compared to similar competitor models. While the Fuji HS20 EXR can be found for around £389, Canon’s older SX30 IS is a touch less at the £379 mark. Over time the Sony should naturally come down to a similar level, and with its feature-packed specification there’s plenty on offer for the money.
However, that price point is similar to an entry-level DSLR. It’s worth keeping this in mind should you want a larger-sensored system that you can expand with new lenses at a later date – but always take note that long-reaching DSLR zoom lenses cost a packet of cash, and this is what makes superzooms such attractive purchase options.
Sony Cyber-shot HX100V review – Verdict
In terms of performance the Sony HX100V is king of the superzooms: its close-up focusing and nippy autofocus will do you proud in all manner of scenarios. The dual zoom-meets-focus ring is a great control mechanism that’s well-placed for comfortable use. Other areas such as HD movie and GPS will make it an all the more attractive purchase.
It’s not perfect though: that 16.2MP sensor crams too many pixels in and, in part, this hinders final quality. Exposure and colour are both good, ensuring images will be pleasing for a variety of uses.
Half the battle is getting the shot though, especially when zoomed in to the massive top-end 810mm (equiv) that the HX100V offers. And, with that in mind, the combination of the electronic viewfinder, optical image stabilisation and decent autofocus make this one of the best superzooms out there today.