It’s hard to believe you can buy a 13.6-megapixel point-and-shoot digicam for under $349 USD from a top brand—not simply a piece of junk from some godforsaken outfit working in the farthest depths of this globalized world. Think 13 or 14MP is a lot? There’s no end to the megapixel race as camera makers constantly try to outdo one another day-by-day. We’ve heard 14-plus megapixel compacts are due in September and we even expect 25MP D-SLRs to be introduced at the Photokina 2008 trade show around that time. Pretty amazing stuff…Now the question for buyers is pretty simple—is this total overkill and is an 8MP point-and-shoot like $249 USD Canon SD1100 IS really all you need? Or is a camera like the Sony DSC-W300 just your cup of pixels?
Features and Design
Don’t expect to be wowed by this digicam even though it’s available in charcoal gray rather than the traditional silver finish. However, the body is titanium instead of plastic so that’s a plus as the metal can take more of a beating than the typical plastic shell. Shaped like the proverbial Altoids tin, the –W300 measures 3.68 x 2.31 x 1.1 (WHD, in inches) and weighs only 6.4 ounces with card and battery. There’s no problem sticking this one in a pocket and having it with you anywhere and everywhere. I did just that during my tests.
The front features a 3x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom that extends from the body when you power up. This lens is equivalent to 35-105mm in 35mm terms, a very basic range; I wish Sony went a little wider (28mm) and longer (132mm). Alas no such luck. Also on the front fascia is a small porthole for the viewfinder, a rare thing in a point-and-shoot. There’s also an AF Assist/self timer lamp, flash, pinhole mic and several nice logos and decals. Clean, neat, sophisticated.
Three edges of the camera have metallic silver accents. On the top you’ll find the shutter and a tiny recessed power button that requires a sharp nail to operate. There’s also a miniscule speaker you won’t confuse with a pair of B&Ws. The rear of the –W300 is dominated by a 2.7-inch LCD screen rated 230K pixels. The LCD is decent but gets wiped out by direct sunshine so the small viewfinder on the top left is a welcome addition. To the right of the screen are the controls you’ll find on every point-and-shoot. On the top right is the wide/tele zoom toggle. Below it is the main mode dial that has a few things not found on other digicams including a smiley face. No you’re not in Wal-Mart but this is Sony’s Smile Shutter setting. With it the camera automatically takes a shot of someone when they smile so there are no worries on your end if you don’t press the shutter quickly enough. You can even adjust the type of smile that’ll trigger it (low, medium or high for a toothy grin).
Other mode dial options include full Auto and Easy which limits the parameters you can change plus cleans up the icons on the screen and makes the type bigger. There’s an ISO mode that defeats the flash and raises sensitivity (up to 3200) to shoot in available light. This is done automatically; you can only adjust ISO manually up to 400. The Hi ISO setting jumps this automatic boost to 6400 but drops the resolution to 3MP, a feature I wouldn’t recommend. Another I wouldn’t use is the Hi-Speed Burst mode that again drops resolution to 3 megapixels but lets you take 5 frames per second compared to a solid 1.9 fps at full resolution. Unless you’re shooting sprinters the standard frame rate should be good enough.
You’ll also find a setting for seven Scene modes such as Landscape, Fireworks, Portrait and so on. There’s an O.K. movie mode (640 x 480 pixels at 30 fps), Manual and Program AE. The manual options for a point-and-shoot will always less than a D-SLR but here you can adjust the shutter speed (between 4 seconds-1/1000th) and aperture (f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8). They’re nice options to have but I doubt if anyone buying this camera will use them.
Along with the mode dial there’s the classic four-way controller with center set button. The points of the compass let you change the flash, self-timer, switch to macro and adjust the display by clearing up the many icons. The camera does have grid lines, a favorite feature of mine. Around the controller dial are Menu, Home, Playback and Slideshow. This one is kind of weird where it creates an automatic slideshow with fades and dissolves plus you can even change the background music or download a favorite tune to use. We try this out in the Performance and Use section.
The bottom of the Made In Japan DSC-W300 has a metal tripod mount and a compartment for the battery and Memory Stick Pro Duo card slot (it accepts up to 16GB). There’s also a connection for the supplied hydra-headed output cable (USB, A/V). The camera also connects to an optional dock that offers HD out to your HDTV or you can get the optional VMC-MHC1 cable with component video and stereo audio outs to check out images on the big screen.
This camera comes with a bare bones outfit so you get the battery, charger, wrist strap and software CD-ROM—no owner’s manual or card although there is 15MB of internal memory in case you need to crank off a shot without the Pro Duo media.
Once the battery was charged and a 2GB card clicked into place, it was time to start shooting.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Performance and Use
It wasn’t too long ago I marveled at the fact image resolution hit 4000 x 3000 pixels (12MP)—which is now pretty common. With its 13.6-megapixel sensor, the –W300 captures 4224 x 3168 pixels. And point-and-shoots won’t stop here since we’ve learned 14+MP digicams will arrive in the Fall. In case you’re wondering what you can possibly do with all these pixels think 13×19 prints and the ability to really crop your images and still get a good-sized print. Now if mega-prints mean nothing to you and the only crop you care about is corn, the –W300 may be over-the-top. Yet for only $349 USD we’re not talking about asking former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo for a deal on a loan like some U.S. Senators we’re seeing in the news. Simply put—it’s pretty affordable.
I set the camera at highest resolution with digital zoom defeated, in single-shot mode, with grid lines showing on the LCD and in Auto then shot scenes in Manhattan and the suburbs. I also set the optical image stabilization to kick in when the shutter was pressed halfway rather than continuous. When you’re in Auto this camera—and many other 2008’s—will determine what type of picture you’re taking then move into that particular scene mode. It’s fun watching the icons change as you move the camera. For the most part, this camera “guessed” well. It also handled smiley faces in great style.
The camera has a nine-point auto focus system so it grabs focus quickly and accurately. It doesn’t have the more advanced cross-type AF sensors found on D-SLRs but it’s really not in the same league. For what it is, the digicam works well. Another big plus is the fact the – W300 works very quickly. It has the advanced BIONZ processor so it doesn’t take long to save the 13.6MP images to the card. Surprisingly it has an almost 2 fps burst speed and the camera hardly stopped for a breather as I shot joggers in Manhattan. This level of processing really separates the good cameras from the bad and the Sony is definitely in the good camp.
Image Courtesy of Sony
I moved from Auto and Easy then on to the other options—especially Hi ISO because the weak link in the vast majority of point-and-shoots is digital noise at higher ISOs (400 and above). Unfortunately, the – W300 has this problem as well and I wouldn’t go beyond 400.
Even though this an aim-and-forget forget, Sony offers loads of tweaks if you decide to move the mode dial from Auto. You can bracket your shots, adjust seven levels of white balance and the flash output. The DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) can also be adjusted since this helps bring out details in shadows. Noise reduction can also be tweaked (I kept in standard for the most part), plus saturation, contrast and sharpness can be adjusted as well. You can also add color filters and change the overall tone of the image. While all well and good—along with the aperture and shutter options—I strongly doubt buyers will use them. And why should the casual photographer even care? The camera has to just work well in Auto and Easy – and it does.
After taking several hundred images it was time to make prints and play them back on my HDTV using the optional component-in cable. For the most part I was happy with the prints (8.5x11s). Colors were nicely saturated and lifelike. An American flag decal on a NYC bus really popped off the paper. I shot a terrific church mosaic and could see some excellent detail on the small tiles. The camera handled smiles very well too as flesh tones were properly exposed without the flash wiping out the color. Where the camera had difficulties was indoors without the flash as noise appeared at 400 ISO.
The photos looked very good on a 50-inch plasma. Sony has a very cool built-in slideshow with its own fades, special effects and music. It’s a great way to re-live your memories without creating your own slideshow.
As a go-everywhere point-and-shoot digicam, I have no problems recommending the DSC-W300. You get plenty of pixels, very fast response, optical image stabilization and quick focusing in good light. When shooting in available light without the flash, there’s a bit of a lag saving files to the card but nothing too terrible. The LCD screen works well but has problems with direct sunlight; fortunately the viewfinder saves the day in those instances. Now let’s answer that question posed earlier—is this camera total overkill? Sure but don’t you want 13.6 megapixels instead a cheaper one with “only” 8? I do…
• Takes great daylight shots
• Handles smiling faces with aplomb
• Fast focusing and response time
• Digital noise at ISO 400 and above
• LCD wipes out in direct sunshine
• Would prefer a wider zoom range