The HX1 was one of the biggest hits from the 2009 PMA convention, the camera industry’s toned-down version of E3. Press people tend to be pretty jaded, yet there were audible gasps when this camera strut its stuff during the official introduction. We’re referring to a demo of the sweep panorama function, which lets you take a 224-degree panorama image just by holding the shutter and sweeping the scene. We–along with everyone else–were very impressed when the results were shown on a big screen. Anyone who has tried to stitch photos together on a computer will immediately appreciate this feat. On top of that, the 9.1-megapixel DSLR lookalike grabs 10 frames per second at full resolution, captures 1080p videos, and has a wide-angle 20x mega-zoom, all for $469. This sounds really sweet on paper; let’s see how she works in this big bad world.
Features and Design
Those somewhat familiar with Sony mega-zooms will note the HX1 looks similar to the current DSC-H50, a 9.1MP model with a 15x zoom ($289 at the Sony site). Loads of internal differences set the cams apart, meriting the price difference, but they do look like kindred spirits. The HX1 has a decidedly DSLR feel, but isn’t nearly as heavy. The loaded camera weighs just 18 ounces, versus over 26 for a true digital single lens reflex camera. And if you were to put a potent 500mm lens on a DSLR, it would weigh a ton (around 8 pounds, and costing $7,000 in Canon’s case). With the HX1, you get a wide-angle 20x zoom with a range of 28-560mm with optical image stabilization to help eliminate blur. Yes, we know the quality isn’t the same, but neither is the price, nor the outstanding convenience of having a compact camera with such a wide focal length, with no pack mule required to carry your gear. Still, this is not a svelte Sony T series, and measures 4.67 wide, 3.37 tall and 3.67 inches deep. It’s definitely bulky, but due to its light weight, you wouldn’t have any problems carrying it around all day.
Naturally, the front is dominated by a high-quality Sony G-type lens. This means it has a six-blade aperture, as well as aspherical and ED glass elements to minimize chromatic aberrations. That’s photo geek-speak for techniques used to create sharp images with zoom lenses. (We’ll see about this claim in the performance section.) Also here is an AF Assist lamp, a very comfortable pistol grip, and several low-key logos and decals.
The top has a button to switch between the viewfinder and 3-inch LCD screen, an auto pop-up flash, stereo mic, on-off button, and a mode dial. It has options for Intelligent Auto, program, aperture- and shutter priority, manual, movie, scene, sweep panorama, handheld twilight, anti-motion blur and easy no-brainer shooting. Near the dial are buttons to change the type of focus, and engage the burst mode. The shutter is at the end of grip, which is surrounded by the wide/tele zoom control. You’ll also find a playback button, and another labeled “C” for custom. This can be set to smile shutter, white balance or metering, so you can make quicker adjustments. Smile is the default setting and it clicks automatically when your subject shows their pearly whites.
The back of the DSC-HX1 is dominated by an adjustable 3-inch LCD, rated a decent 230K. It’s useable in most conditions, including direct sunlight. Keep a cloth handy, since it smudges easily. The adjustments are somewhat limited, and don’t compare to the twists and turns available for the Nikon D5000 or Olympus E-620. Basically, you can raise it 90 degrees to shoot with the camera at arm’s length, say if you were holding the camera at your waist and shooting a child or another subject.
Like every mega-zoom, the HX1 has a viewfinder, and because it’s rated 211K, performance is good, with a minimal amount of pixilation. The diopter adjustment is on the left of the housing. To the right of the LCD are the classic digicam controls, including a four-way controller with center OK button. The points of the compass control flash, self timer, macro and display. There are menu and delete keys, as well as a jog dial for moving through menus, changing ISOs, f/stops and so on. All pretty standard stuff.
On the left side is a DC-in port for an optional adaptor, and another compartment for Sony’s proprietary “hydra” connection for USB, A/V and HDMI output. On the bottom of the Made-In-Japan camera is a tiny speaker, along with the battery compartment, and slot for Memory Stick Pro Duo cards.
What’s In The Box
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 comes with a battery and charger, a hydra-headed cable for USB and A/V connections, strap, and lens cap with connecting string. Although we’re not fans of lens caps attached via strings, we suggest you put it place, otherwise the cap will fly away when you power up as the camera boots and lens extends. We learned this the hard way.
It also comes with a special HDMI adaptor for connecting the camera directly to an HDTV. You plug this into the left side, then attach an optional HDMI cable to it. It’s not elegant, but it works. The package also includes an abbreviated 74-page owner’s manual, and CD-ROM with the complete manual along with Picture Motion Browser for downloading and managing your images and movies on Windows computers.
With the battery charged and a 1GB Pro Duo card in place, it was time to start “sweeping,” putting the camera through its paces.
Performance and Use
The DSC-HX1 features a 9.1-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor, the first time this technology has appeared in a Cyber-shot rather than a Sony DSLR or camcorder. CMOS sensors offer faster speed and less noise than CCDs. It also has the Bionz processor, another trickle-down from the company’s DSLRs. At top resolution, the HX1 captures 3456 x 2592 pixel JPEGs – surprisingly there’s no RAW setting. Thanks to the sensor, it also records 1440 x 1080 HD videos at 30 frames per second, using 12 Mbps compression in fine mode, which is a lot better than many inexpensive camcorders.
We started off at top resolution with all main settings at default, other than engaging grid lines. The HX1 has a dynamic range optimizer (DRO) to add detail to shadowy scenes, which is set to standard by default, but you can turn it off just as you can noise reduction (which is also on as a default). Like other good cameras, you can also adjust sharpness, contrast and saturation.
Since it’s summer – or what’s supposed to be summer – we went down the shore, giving us the expanses that make for good panoramas and some fun videos.
Let’s state this upfront: Sweep panorama is one of the coolest features you’ll ever use. You simply set the mode dial to sweep, then press the shutter as you move the camera to the right capturing the scene. The onscreen indicators tell you how far to turn. Once you hit the 224-degree limit, the image is saved to the card. Anyone who has attempted to stitch three separate photos together for a traditional panorama shot and ultimately been dissatisfied with the results will love it; we did. This opens a world of great vistas for the vacationer, or think of possibilities at a family gathering. This is possibly one of the best new features we’ve seen in a long time. One downside: We can see people going broke making huge blowups for wall art. Also, images indoors tended to be noisy, unlike ones taken outdoors.
The camera has two unusual settings on the mode dial: handheld twilight and anti-motion blur. Here the camera takes a series of frames of your subject, then makes a machine-gun sound as it pieces them together, using unique algorithms to eliminate noise. The results were much better than shooting an image in program while simply adjusting ISO (100-3200 is available). The camera pauses for a few seconds as it performs this chore, so it’s really not for quick action, but serves as a good tool.
In terms of general point-and-shoot operation, the HX1 works well. It feels comfortable, focuses quickly thanks to the 9-point AF system and AF assist lamp. In single-shot mode, there’s a little a lag, but if you want to speed things up, just move into burst (high) and you’ll grab 10 shots in a second. While this speed is impressive, realize the camera stops at that point to catch a breather. A DSLR, by comparison, can typically crank out three or four shots a second until the card fills up.
Like many ’09 models, the HX1 has intelligent auto, where the camera makes a scientific guess as to what’s in front of it and switches to the appropriate scene setting. It worked well.
Once we took our stills and HD videos, it was time to perform our due diligence. As noted earlier, we really like the sweep panorama, but expect to deal with some digital noise with indoor sweeps. There was lots of noise once you moved beyond ISO 400, which was a little disappointing given the CMOS sensor. We suggest you stay at low ISOs when shooting in manual modes. If you’re shooting in dim light, definitely use the handheld twilight option; results are far superior with less noise and deeper contrast. Photos taken of early summer flowers were spot on, with bright yellows and lush greens. There was very little purple fringing with severely zoomed subjects, a real plus. Another bonus was the quality of the HD clips: They were top-notch with accurate colors and little noise. The movies taken with this camera were better than many camcorders we’ve tested over the past few years.
It’s hard to live up to great expectations, but as far as we’re concerned, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 did just that. Is it a perfect camera? Hardly, since one hasn’t been invented. Yet this camera does many things well: shoots quickly and accurately with minimal fuss, has a powerful wide-angle zoom, offers manual options and takes fine HD movies. Although it doesn’t shoot RAW files, don’t forget sweep panorama, one of the neatest tricks we’ve seen in a long time.
- Sweep panorama (we really, really liked it)
- Potent 20x wide-angle zoom
- Super-fast 10 fps shooting
- Excellent HD videos
- Good LCD and viewfinder combo
- No RAW setting
- Noisy above ISO 400
- Limited LCD angle adjustments