We love running around during the summer – the beach, ball games, family gatherings, eating out – the usual stuff. In the heat, however, it’s no fun lugging around a hefty DSLR with several lenses. That’s why compact point-and-shoot cameras like the 12-megapixel T90 continue to sell well in this moribund economy. Sony and Canon execs both claim camera and camcorder sales remain relatively strong. After all, taking photos and video clips is an integral part of people’s lives (post to your Facebook page or YouTube recently?) and people want their cameras with them all of the time. Since cell phone camera quality is still pathetic, the point-and-shoot digicam lives! And the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T90 is as easy to carry and use as you’d wish. Now let’s see if it’s worth the $260 it costs in the real world.
Features and Design
We’ve always been fans of the Sony T series, with its super-thin shape and sliding front panel that turns it on and off while protecting the lens. This camera can really go anywhere – pocket, purse, wherever – and you’ll hardly know it’s there. That said, it can stand out if you decide to go beyond the basic black or silver finishes. The camera is available in bronze, blue or pink. Sony mercifully sent us a black one. The T90 measures 3.75 inches wide, 2.4 high, 0.6 deep and weighs a feathery 5.3 ounces with battery and card.
The key reason for its thinness lies in the non-extending lens mechanism. Slide the front panel down, and you’re ready to shoot, as the lens does not have to pop out. Like the T900, it has a 4x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens that’s equivalent to 35-140mm in 35mm terms. We prefer wide-angle (28mm) point-and-shoots, but this range is OK for typical snapshots.
The very attractive T90 looks more like a smartphone than a camera. Its sliding panel has a gloss finish, a nice silver metallic accent, and two low-key logos. In the on position, you’ll see the lens, AF Assist lamp and flash. There’s a two-pinhole mic that records mono sound (not the stereo of the more expensive T900).
The top has another metallic accent, a tiny power switch, shutter button, and a small zoom toggle switch. You’ll note the words “tiny” and “small” in these descriptions, so be warned: you must do a hands-on with this camera, as it’s really compact. If you have large hands, the T90 may be a total bust. Those with small hands may find it just right, but caveat emptor.
All the action on the T90 happens on the back. You won’t find a mode dial or four-way controller on this camera, since all of the commands are handled via the 3-inch touchscreen menu system. It’s rated a decent 230K pixels, but pales in comparison to the 3.5-inch 921K T900. Most people should master the menu system in about two minutes. It’s very straightforward, and Sony provides onscreen definitions regarding the setting you’ve chosen. We’ll dig further into this in the performance section. Also on the back are a small playback button, and several low-key decals.
There’s nothing on the sides, other than a nicely designed tab for the wrist strap on the right. The bottom of the Made-In-Japan camera has a metal tripod mount and a compartment for the battery and Memory Stick Pro Duo card slot. There’s also a connection for the supplied proprietary USB-A/V cable. Unfortunately Sony doesn’t supply the cable for viewing high-def on your TV, you have to pay extra for that (it’s the VMC-MHC1, $39). We’re all for companies making a profit, but in order to enjoy one of the touted benefits of this camera (720p video) it seems like a come-on. Come on, Sony.
Overall, this is one good-looking, compact camera you can carry anywhere. Just do that hands-on test if you’re seriously thinking of buying this one.
What’s in the Carton
The DSC-T90 comes with the usual bundle: camera, battery, plug-in charger, stylus, A/V and USB cables, as well as a wrist strap, but no MS Pro Duo card. The lack of a card isn’t surprising (no one supplies them) but the missing proprietary HD connection is annoying. You also get an owner’s manual (59 pages in English) and a longer PDF on the supplied disk. The CD also has Sony’s latest version of Picture Motion Browser software for handling images. This is a decent free program, and much better than Sony’s older clunker software.
Once the charged battery was inserted, along with a MS Pro Duo card, it was time to greet the summer, which was rather late hitting the East Coast.
Performance and Use
Like the T900, the T90 is a 12.1-megapixel camera, so it captures 4000 x 3000 pixel JPEGs. It powers up quickly as the screen comes to life, and you deal with the touchscreen for all of your settings. Although it has a 3-inch LCD, it doesn’t give full coverage unless you’re shooting video or specifically choose widescreen stills. Since most of the time, you’ll take 4:3 12MP photos, the subject takes up a 2.7-inch diagonal central portion of the screen. The flanking bars have icons you tap to make your adjustments.
On the left are home, smile detection, self-timer, mode and menu. The right has flash, macro and display, which let you eliminate icon clutter. We started off in iAuto, which is intelligent auto, tried scene modes, then program, for more detailed adjustments. Realize these are not DSLR adjustments: basically ISO, white balance, metering, focus type and so on. There are no options for changing shutter speed and aperture (f/stops). If these photographic options are important, move on to another option. Moving through the menus is as easy as a walk in the park on a summer day. The owner’s manual is hardly required, but it’s still good checking out the details of Dynamic Range Optimization, and what the various icons represent. Again, it’s as simple to use as it looks.
We started off in single-shot mode, then on to burst, which is close to two frames per second, a good spec for an aim-and-forget camera. Resolution was set at the maximum (4:3, 12MP), optical image stabilization engaged, as was DRO. When we switched to video, we shot HD. Before getting into the results, let’s say the T90 is a lot of fun to use. Having a camera at the ready that quickly takes snapshots is a real plus. Just be careful shooting with this one, as it’s very easy getting your left index finger in front of the lens, a serious no-no. Also, the zoom lever is really tiny, so you need to hold the camera with left and right thumbs and index fingers at the corners for best results. Again, more good reasons to handle it before you buy.
We took a wide variety of images and video outdoors, as well as inside for our standard low-light ISO test. After the downloads, we made letter-sized prints, examined the files on a monitor, and checked out the video clips on a 50-inch HDTV.
Given our experience with the T900 and Sony cameras over the years, we weren’t surprised by the results. With enough light, the T90 captures high-quality images with nice detail and accurate colors, just what you want from a camera designed for snapshots. The iAuto worked well, as did face detection and Smile Shutter, which automatically clicks the shutter when your subject smiles. Sony’s OIS did a fine job eliminating most of the blur, but always try to brace your elbows against your body for best results. The nine-point focus system also helped ensure crisp images. The tiny zoom switch took a little getting used to, but like the touchscreen menu, you’ll get the hang of it quickly.
Digital noise became noticeable at ISO 400, and got worse as we moved to 3200. Like almost every point-and-shoot, try keeping ISO as low as possible. If you’re shooting a dark scene, just use the flash, which is pretty potent and delivers nicely exposed images.
We attached the camera via the optional cable to review HD clips, and they were decent, nothing more. You’ll never confuse 720p quality with a 1080i AVCHD camcorder, or even some point-and-shoots offering 1080i. But then again, you’re not paying nearly as much. It’s a good option to have, and the mono sound was surprisingly good. You can zoom while shooting video, but handle the toggle gently, as the mic picks up the noise if you quickly snap it.
A final note or two: In our review of the T900 we complained about short battery life, as the 3.5-inch 921K LCD sucked the lithium-ion power cell dry much faster than expected. The T90’s smaller screen made for a world of difference, and the battery lasted close to the 220 shot CIPA spec. We also found it useful to keep a tissue or lens cloth handy, to wipe the fingerprint smudges from the screen.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T90 is a fine camera to pop in your pocket and have with you all the time for quick snapshots and video clips. Although it has a number of flaws, and is truly an aim-and-forget camera, you’ll be happy with the results, and won’t have to think twice about them. We only wish Sony would cut the price of the optional HD video cable.
- Ultra portable
- 3-inch touchscreen LCD
- Quality 12-megapixel images
- Decent 720P video
- Small size could be a detriment
- No aperture or shutter speed adjustments
- Optional cable required for HD video
- Relatively expensive