Two years ago Sony shook up the digital camera world with the introduction of the DSC-T1, the first 5-megapixel model with a huge 2.5-inch LCD screen and an ultra thin form factor thanks to a non-extending 3x optical zoom lens. Even at $550, it was a smash hit and was followed by many competitors and various iterations by Sony itself. The recently introduced Sony DSC-T9 is the latest edition and it adds some significant improvements including a 6MP imager, higher sensitivity (ISO 640) and Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization, a very important feature for a camera that’s held by your fingertips. Even better the camera is cheaper than the original by a 100 clams. Now is this the pocketable camera of your dreams? Let’s fire it up and see, shall we?
Features and Design
The black- or silver-cased Sony CyberShot DSC-T9 is very compact, measuring 3.6 x 2.2 x .8 (WHD, in inches). That point-eight figure is a bit misleading since that’s the thickest part; the lower portion of the camera is .625 inches. This is a long way of saying this camera is very thin. And at 6 ounces with battery and card, it can be popped into a pocket or purse without breaking a sweat or requiring a trip to the chiropractor. I really like this aspect of the camera since it’s so small you really can take it anywhere and grab spur-of-the-moment photos. To me this is what photography is all about.
The camera’s style is very minimalist, with very few buttons or decals. I liked it. The DSC-T9 has a sliding front door. Simply move it down and the camera powers up. Some people don’t like this because it can accidentally open while in your pocket or bag and drain the battery. The coolness factor trumps that in my opinion. Lay this baby down on the table and you’re sure to start a conversation (a positive one, I might add). It looks like a sophisticated cigarette case used by Bette Davis in one of her ’40s classics like Now Voyager. When in the open position, you’ll see the built-in flash, the AF Illuminator (Assist) lamp and the lens that does not protrude. It a 3x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar that’s equivalent to 38-114mm in 35mm terms, the usual point-and-shoot focal length. Like all digicams, you have options for digital zoom boosts but your resolution drops when you engage it so keep it turned off.
As noted, this camera has a minimalist style so our tour won’t take long. The top has power and shutter keys as well as a speaker and a button to engage the optical image stabilization feature (keep it on). The rear of the T9 is dominated by the 2.5-inch LCD screen rated a very good 230K pixels. To the right of the screen is the wide/tele zoom switch, the usual four-way controller with center set key, as well as buttons for Menu, display, delete and quick review. The four-way keys do double duty for adjusting the flash, macro position, the self timer and so on, the typical stuff you find on a point-and-shoot digicam. Above the center of the LCD is a basic mode switch (play, still, video). Unlike larger digicams, there’s no mode dial so you have to go into the menu system to change them. It’s a bit of a pain but something had to go in order to keep the overall size down. Once you get into the menu system there are nine to choose from. It’s an icon-based system and it’s a bit behind the times when compared to the onscreen descriptions from Kodak and others.
On the right side is a door for the battery and Memory Stick Duo slots. The bottom has a tripod mount and input for the hydra-headed multi-use cable that lets you connect the camera to a TV, computer or DC charger. In order to shrink the camera, Sony had to eliminate the USB, AV and DC ports.
The camera comes with a basic kit: body, rechargeable lithium ion battery rated a solid 240 shots and AC charger, a wrist strap, cable but no Memory Stick Duo card; expect to buy a 512MB card for around $40. Even though the camera has a hefty 58MB of internal memory (more on this later) with 6MP files you’ll run out of space pretty quickly (it holds 19). Sony includes a nice “Read This First” quick start guide and a 110–page Owners Manual written in the traditional Japanese style. And Sony still includes the inadequate Picture Package software CD ROM (v1.6.1). The photo editing capabilities of Picture Package are improving but it pales in comparison to Adobe PhotoShop Elements, Microsoft’s Digital Image Suite or the bundles supplied with Canon and Kodak cameras. Sorry, guys, I’ll keep complaining until you get it right. There’s also a program lets you add musical sound tracks so you can listen to a favorite track as you review your snaps. More on this later. We charged the battery, loaded a 512MB Memory Stick Pro Duo card and started shooting.
Image Courtesy of Sony
I’ve said it before and will repeat myself again: the days of slow response are gone, especially with new digicams from top brands. Slide down the front door and in less than two seconds, the LCD springs to life and you’re ready to shoot. The quality of the LCD is quite good and the lack of a separate viewfinder was no problem at all even under different ambient light conditions. There’s a backlight up switch in case it’s too dark and the screen handled direct sunlight well. I did find there was a bit of blur as you moved the camera from one scene to the next. It was annoying but not a deal breaker.
One of the key new features of the T9 is Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization, a technology found in better Sony camcorders. Besides cutting down on blurry shots (it’s never entirely eliminated), it lets you shoot in available light with a better chance of getting a good, in focus image. I tried a number of interior shots with the system on and off with the camera set on “no flash.” The results with it on were quite good. The camera also has a higher ISO than previous T series cameras (640 versus 400). There’s noise galore at 640 but the 400 setting is decent, not great. Again this helps you with available light shots and won’t be a problem unless you make 8.5×11 prints or larger. Note: as a trend for 2006, manufacturers are upping ISOs and improving noise reduction. We haven’t handled the others yet but in theory this is good news. An example is the new Fujifilm FinePix V10 ($349, due March) with an ISO of 1600; it doesn’t have image stabilization though. And Sony’s new point-and-shoot 6MP DSC-S600 is rated 1000 ISO.
There’s also another issue with super thin cameras that is very important; there’s nothing to hold onto in order to steady it. You have to use four total fingers from both hands, sort of like a praying mantis and shaky images are the result. The OIS cuts down on this noticeably.
The DSC-T9 was used in a variety of situations (indoors, outdoors, in Auto and various scene modes). I found the camera to be a pleasure to use although occasionally there was focusing delay and the LCD screen went black while saving the image. The flash was strong but not overwhelming so faces tended to look more lifelike. Since the camera has an AF Illuminator lamp, low-light exposures were quite good with a minimal amount of grabbing. This lamp is really a must-have feature in my book, no matter what size or shape camera you’re considering. As with almost all really compact cameras, there are red-eye issues but that’s what good editing software is for!
Also realize the camera has a good movie mode so you can take a quick clip. The MPEG Movie VX setting using Memory Stick Pro Duo cards records 640 x 480 pixel videos at 30 frames per second, basically VHS levels.
Taking the card out, it was time to make some prints to see how this 6MP camera performed. I’m a big believer in card readers since they make transferring images very simple. I’m an even bigger believer after using the supplied Picture Package software. It just amazes me Sony continues to use this junk. The interface is bad and if you need help, the onboard help is almost a parody of poorly-written Japanese-to-English owner’s manuals. I guess the folks at Adobe are happy about this. Better yet, just download a free copy of Kodak’s EasyShare software and you’ll be in business. One of the reasons I’m complaining is the fact I tried to download music to the camera for the slideshow background music. I’m no Ray Ozzie but I can use software. I couldn’t get it to work so I used the four sound tracks supplied with the camera. They’re O.K. not tunes from Mariah Carey or Sheryl Crow. The slideshow mode is fun so if you take a bunch of shots at a party, you can pass the camera around and everyone can see them.
I made a number of 8.5×11 prints on a Canon MP780 printer using files straight from the card (no tweaking). Even so I was impressed with the overall quality. Colors were quite realistic with no over-saturation or sharpness. They simply looked good and much more than acceptable for the vast majority of photographers.
Image Courtesy of Sony
I really liked the looks of the DSC-T9 and it takes solid but not D-SLR level photos yet that’s an unreasonable expectation for a $400 point-and-shoot camera. Only a few competitors like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX9 and the Konica Minolta DiMage X1 have image stabilization which really make this camera stand apart from the pack. Alas as readers of the site know KM is leaving the camera business so there are even fewer competitors. Although a bit expensive this point-and-shoot camera is definitely an Editor’s Choice. Now if they only could hire some good software engineers or simply license a “light” version of Abode Photoshop Elements!
- Amazingly compact, attractive
- Optical image stabilization
- Very high-quality LCD screen
- Fast response
- No viewfinder
- Few manual adjustments
- Supplied Picture Package software is pathetic