Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S600 Review

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S600
“This camera is aimed at casual photographers who want decent image quality and not too many frills.”
Pros
  • Terrific price; nice wide angle 3x zoom
Cons
  • Uneven picture quality; no video out!?!

Summary

Available since late last year, the Sony DSC-S600 is a great indicator of 2006 consumer price trends. For $199, you get a 6-megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera with a 3x optical zoom from a well-known brand. No, we’re not talking about Concord, DXG or Vivitar but a top-tier company. Depending on the survey du jour, Sony is considered among the top three worldwide. Another indication pricing is going your way is the recent announcement of the Olympus FE-140, a 6MP digicam with a 3x optical zoom and a 2.5-inch LCD screen for $249 list (due March). Like some competitors, Sony used manufacturers in China to cut cost rather than making them in Japan like the recently reviewed DSC-T9. Now did Sony cut back the build quality of the S600? Of course but the key question is the camera worth the money? We’ll snap the shutter and let you know.

Features and Design

There’s no getting away from it–this mostly-plastic camera feels cheap and lightweight. Even when loaded with two AA alkalines and Memory Stick Duo card, it tips the scales at 6.4 ounces. It measures 4 x 2.1 x 1.5 (WHD, in inches). For portability that’s good but this is as far from a D-SLR “feel” as you can get.

To show how far Sony has gone to compete on price, last year’s top S (for Stamina) Series camera, the now discontinued 4MP DSC-S90, cost $300 when introduced. A number of things had to go in order to hit the magic $200 plateau with the new 6MP digicam. First, the LCD monitor had to shrink from 2.5 inches (115K pixels) to an 85K pixel 2-incher. The S90 was supplied with rechargeable AAs with charger that lasted for 550 shots. The new camera comes with standard alkalines that last 160 clicks and no charger but if you buy rechargeable NiMH AAs, the figure moves to a much more respectable 440. The older S90 also had a lens that accepted add-on accessories but the new one doesn’t. The handy mode dial disappeared as well. Shutter speed also was revised from 30-1/10000th of a second to 1-1/2000th.

Now all is not negative with this new camera. After all it has a 6-megapixel imager versus 4MP. In theory this means more detailed photos and larger prints. The ISO was boosted to a top setting of 1000 compared to 400 for the S90. And perhaps most important, the zoom range has changed to a very wide 31-93mm compared to 39-117mm for the DSC-S90. As Designtechnica readers know, I prefer wider angle cameras since I like them for landscapes, portraits and group shots. Both are Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lenses.

The DSC-S600 is a plain Jane digicam with a primarily silver-tone plastic case. The front has several metal accents but this one won’t win any design awards. You’ll find the usual items on the front including a lens with a built-in cover; the lens extends when you power up. There’s also the AF Illuminator lamp, a feature that separates this camera from most of the low-cost competition. You’ll also see the viewfinder window and the flash that is much more powerful than the S90’s. Sony claims it goes out to over 30 feet at ISO 1000 when you’re shooting wide angle. It does but the digital noise is fierce (more on this in a bit).

The top of the camera has the power and shutter keys along with a tiny microphone. The rear has a centered positioned 2-inch LCD screen (85K pixels), a viewfinder to use when the LCD wipes out and the basic mode switch above the LCD (playback, camera, movie). On the right of the screen are the wide-tele keys and the usual four-way controller with center set key. There are also buttons to review and delete images and to access the menus. To shrink the camera (and save money) there is no mode dial; you have to use the menu system. There are seven scene modes to choose from including High Sensitivity for boosting the ISO. Sony uses an icon-based system that’s a poor second compared to the on-screen menus of Kodak, Olympus and others.

The left side has the USB port covered by a plastic door while the right has the battery compartment and the Memory Stick Duo slot is on the bottom of the camera along with the speakers and tripod mount. Using Duo cards allowed Sony to shrink the camera since last year’s Stamina series models used larger Memory Sticks. Also missing is a way to get the video out from the camera directly to a TV! Last year’s S90 used a hydra-head connector (similar to one supplied with the DSC-T9) that lets you do this handy operation. With the S600 you’re stuck unless you own a TV with a Memory Stick card slot. Why Sony did this is a total mystery since the camera takes good quality MPEG VX 640 x 480 pixel videos at 30 frames per second using Memory Stick Pro Duo cards. This one is a real head-shaker. You can watch the videos on the camera or on your computer but that missing video out to the TV–sheesh.

I have to shout “hurrah” now because Sony finally gave in to constant hectoring from folks like me and eliminated the very poor Picture Package software. Instead you get CyberShot Viewer (V1.0), a straightforward program that helps transfer images into very basic folders or to a calendar view with loads of thumbnails to check out. The camera is supplied with a Read This First sheet to get you started and a 98-page owner’s manual. Now if they could rewrite the manual, Sony would really earn my praises but I’m happy the Picture Package is history (hopefully). The kit also includes a wrist strap, two standard alkalines and a USB cable. In another nod toward frugality, there’s no video cable since there’s no way to perform this task or Memory Stick Duo card (expect to budget $40 for a 512MB card). This is a very basic, no-frills kit in keeping with its low price.

After popping in the two AAs and a 256MB Pro Duo card, it was time to see if the performance was decidedly “no frills” as well.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-600
Image Courtesy of Sony

Performance

The Cybershot DSC-S600 is good to go in less than two seconds similar to new digicams from better brands. Initially shooting in Auto indoors and out gave an excellent sense of the LCD’s quality. It was quite good, working well in dark rooms as well as strong light. Still I was happy to have the viewfinder in really bright sunshine. Sony may have cut the size but the real-world results were more than acceptable.

Shot-to-shot times were also very fast with very little shutter lag. In some instances the shutter seemed a bit too sensitive, firing quickly before I thought the focusing process was complete. When I reviewed the images, I realized the camera simply focuses very rapidly and this wasn’t a fault.

One thing I dearly missed is Sony’s to-the-minute battery readout found on its lithium-ion based cameras. Here it was just a shaded battery. On the plus side, AAs are readily available anywhere in case you run out of juice at the worst moment. I found standard alkalines gave it up before the rated 160 shots. It’s recommended you use NiMH rechargeables for Mother Earth’s sake and for almost three-times the life of standard AAs.

I took a variety of shots outdoors in the crisp winter air as well as some indoor still life images using the Auto settings, scene modes and the High Sensitivity setting using a number of ISO options (1000 is the fastest). If you’re wondering how was digital noise at 1000 I’ll quickly state it was pretty terrible. I hadn’t seen such a swirl of dots since I marveled at some Pointillism-style paintings of Georges Seurat. However, the noise at 400 was under control but still noticeable. Sony and other manufacturers are trying to tame the noise beast in compact point-and-shoot digicams and are making some headway but there’s no panacea this side of a D-SLR. Focusing was very fast with no grabbing but there was some slight delay for flash shots as the AF Illuminator did its thing (it’s worth the wait).

Using the Cybershot Viewer software I quickly download images to my PC (it’s USB 2.0 Hi-Speed). This software is radically improved compared to the Picture Package with a simple user interface and storage options for your shots. In default they are downloaded to a folder with the day’s date. Then if you want to look for images by date you can go to calendar view. The software doesn’t provide all the tweaks of Photoshop Elements but you can do the basics such as Auto correction and you can adjust brightness, sharpness, saturation, crop and remove red-eye, about all the target buyer of this camera would want to deal with. I would like to see an auto delete function of images on the card once the download is successful. Perhaps in Version 1.01…

Prints were made with a Canon MP780 with no editing done to the files. I made a number of 8.5x11s on glossy paper (Canon Photo Paper Pro) then checked the results. Unfortunately quality was uneven. Some of the shots, particularly those taken indoors with the flash were spot on. Colors were very accurate and not too over-sharpened. However, when I took shots of the same subject (an art pottery vase) using available light at different ISOs, the colors were different from setting to setting (ISO 200, 400, 800, 1000). This was very surprising as I typically like the output of Sony cameras. Yet when I shot in straight Auto, the images were just right of the various still life subjects and furry cats.

Results outdoors were similar. Shooting in Auto, the camera worked just fine, shooting in Program while adjusting ISO, quality was uneven. While shooting outside I did miss the telephoto close-ups but I’ll give that up for the 31mm wide angle view anytime.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-600
Image Courtesy of Sony

Conclusion

With the Cybershot DSC-S600 Sony was clearly trying to hit a “price point,” as they say in the business. In this case it was a 6MP camera with a 3x optical zoom for under $200 from a respected company. As of January 2006, the HP 717 ($239), Kodak Z760 ($299), Pentax Optio S6/S60 ($259) and the Olympus FE-120 ($229) were the few with similar basic specs. The Sony is aimed at casual photographers who want decent image quality and not too many frills. In that instance, Sony succeeded by providing an O.K. compact point-and-shoot camera that does an adequate job in Auto for a very good price. For someone who wants even a smidgeon more, this digicam is not for you. There’s nothing even resembling aperture- and shutter-priority or manual focus. And the uneven picture quality in Program mode was worrisome. For those photographers who want something better, Sony has plenty of other options (DSC-W7, DSC-R1 ). Canon has them too. The DSC-S600 is not quite a blister-pack camera you’ll find at Wal-Mart but it’s pretty close. Why Sony eliminated the video out to a television boggles the mind. Perhaps the engineers thought every person buying this $200 camera has a sleek Sony flat screen TV with Memory Stick slots. Wrong. Maybe they will over time but not today. That said the DSC-S600 with its uneven performance is for novices looking for a bargain.

Pros

  • 6MP resolution
  • Fast response, virtually no shutter lag
  • Hurray! New software supplied
  • Uses AA batteries

Cons

  • Uneven picture quality in Program Mode
  • Very cheap feel
  • No simple video output

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