Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W7 Review

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W7

“Casual photographers looking for a high-quality point-and-shoot camera should give this 2005 digicam a long look.”
  • Seven mega-pixels for a song; excellent point-and-shoot camera
  • Auto focus has trouble in some situations; terrible software bundle

Summary

It’s amazing just how low digital camera prices have fallen.  Sony made big news four years ago when it introduced the first 5-megapixel camera for under $1,000 (the DSC-F707).  Now, Sony has a compact 7.2MP digicam with a 3x optical zoom for $399.  It’s an excellent camera for those who want superior point-and-shoot quality without breaking out the owner’s manual every five minutes or paying for a call to the local Geek Squad.

Along with superior resolution, the DSC-W7 mirrors the trend in cameras with huge, 2.5-inch LCD screens to frame and review your shots.  We love the bigger screens; they make reading menus much easier, and you have a larger palette on which to compose your photographs.  That said, the DSC-W7 is not without its flaws, especially when it comes to focusing in certain available light situations.  And that Picture Package software is just plain awful.

Features and Design

The silver-finished DSC-W7 has what Sony and others euphemistically call a rangefinder design.  On some level, it has a Leica feel, but it sure isn’t an M-System camera or the $1,599 Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC1 (which is as close as you can get to a digital version of a film rangefinder and has a price to match.  It’s a clone of the Leica Digilux 2.)  The W7 is about the size of a thick deck of playing cards, the lens fully retracts into the body, and a handy cover protects the lens when you power it down.

The mostly metal camera has a very nice feel; there’s a rest for your middle finger on the faceplate.  Holding it that way puts your index finger right by the shutter button, with your thumb on the wide/tele toggle adjustment.  It has a 3x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens that’s equivalent to 38mm-114mm in 35mm terms, close to the traditional point-and-shoot film camera range.  The top of the unit is very clean; there is a Power button as well as the classic Mode dial, which gives reassuring clicks as you move it into position.  Although the camera is geared to casual photographers (the basic Auto and seven scene modes for typical settings such as Portrait, Landscape, Beach and Snow), there are some limited manual adjustments available.  In the M manual mode, you can change aperture (only f2.8/5.6 in wide angle and f5.2/f10 in full telephoto) as well as shutter speed (30-1/1000th of a second).  In P program, there is a raft of options, ranging from exposure compensation to white balance.  It’s nice that they’re available, but I doubt if the targeted buyer will care one iota about them.  Still, they do come in handy, as you’ll soon see.

A huge, 2.5-inch LCD screen, rated 115K pixels, dominates the rear of the DSC-W7; it’s one of the real joys of this camera.  There’s also a tiny optical viewfinder, the classic four-way adjustment keys, and Delete/Resolution, Menu and Histogram/Screen Off buttons.  It’s very logically arranged and understandable; Sony engineers are to be commended for it.

The bottom of the camera has a compartment that holds the two supplied AA NiMH batteries and Memory Stick flash media slot.  Sony recommends MS Pro in order to get the best movie clip quality, so budget for this as you comparison shop.  A quick Google search suggests that a 512MB Pro stick costs around $80 or less.  There’s also a teeny-tiny speaker for listing to your mini Hollywood products, but don’t expect the impact of War of the Worlds.

This is one nicely-designed compact camera, even though it doesn’t have the sex appeal of ultra-skinny models like Sony’s DSC-T33 or -T7.  In the carton, you’ll find everything you need to start taking photos other than the flash memory–strap, batteries, charger, cables, owner’s manual and the poor software.

Sony DSC-W7
Image Courtesy of Sony Electronics

Performance

This camera is as easy to operate as a light switch.  Once you charge and load the two AA NiMH batteries and the flash memory, it’s time to start taking photos.  Here’s where the large LCD comes into play:  The screen is so big that you can easily read the clear onscreen menus and set the camera as you’d like–or simply start shooting in Auto or one of the scene modes.  Even though the menu is very understandable, I’d like Sony to follow the lead of HP and Casio by using in-depth descriptions of what each scene mode does.  Again, it would be a nice plus for the point-and-shoot photographer, but it doesn’t really detract from the camera.

The screen is very good, even in bright light, but I did find myself going to the viewfinder in strong sunlight.  The screen has an Auto Gain Up in the dark.  When it gets too dark, just press the shutter halfway and the AF Assist lamp shoots out a beam of orange light, so you can see what’s hiding in the pitch black.  Think of it as Sony’s version of night vision goggles!

Start-up time is very fast–just around a second.  Like all digicams, you press the shutter half way and the camera’s circuitry does its thing.  Once you’re happy with the composition, simply click and you’ve saved a 7-megapixel file (3072 x 2304) with virtually no lag time.  Sony and other major manufacturers have really addressed this very real consumer complaint and have sped digicam operations to the point where they are close to film cameras.  I even did a double take when I realized this was a 7MP camera in my hands; it was that fast.

The camera is CIPA rated to deliver 380 shots with the LCD on, using the two supplied batteries; that’s than enough for a day’s shooting–and then some–in our real-world trial.  The 512MB card holds around 137 full resolution images, close to six rolls of film, meaning you’ll run out of things to shoot or space in your card before the batteries quit.  We kept the screen on all the time and did a lot of zooming and shooting videos.

In Auto, this camera works beautifully.  Colors are very accurate, focusing is quick and, simply stated, the results are excellent.  The flash is very powerful and rated out to almost 15 feet.  The AF Assist lamp practically guarantees a well-exposed snapshot, no matter how dark the situation.  Where I did find some issues was in shooting images with soft edges; the Auto Focus tended to “grab” the subject rather than lock in.  This was a bit annoying, but reframing the shot or changing the default focusing from Multi-Point to Center easily dealt with it.  A warning icon appears if the camera thinks you’re going to blur your shot, another nice touch.

With a 7MP file, you can make powerful 8×10″ and 11×14″ prints.  You can also crop the image pretty severely and still have enough left over for a good-sized print, the key benefits for paying a little extra for the firepower.  The very similar 5MP DSC-W5 costs $50 less.  The -W7 also has a 14x Smart Zoom at VGA resolution, separating it from its less expensive sibling.  We’re not big fans of digital zooms in any shape or form, since resolution always drops.  For us, this feature (found on every digicam) is for emergency purposes only.  We suggest you shoot at full resolution, then use your editing software to enlarge the subject.  Just make sure the Digital Zoom feature is disabled via the menu system.

The quality of the MPEG Movie VX Fine mode is also very good (640 x 480 pixels at 30 frames per second), pretty close to VHS levels.  As noted, this requires the more expensive Memory Stick Pro media.  The only other downsides to the video clips are the facts that they can only be recorded in Mono, and you cannot zoom in MPEG mode.  Remember, digital cameras are not replacements for camcorders; they just are nice options for grabbing spur-of-the-moment clips.  And since this camera does not have image stabilization like the DSC-H1, your viewers will get a little seasick unless you have a very steady hand or a tripod.

Sony DSC-W7
Image Courtesy of Sony Electronics

Conclusions

Casual photographers looking for a high-quality point-and-shoot camera should give this 2005 digicam a long look.  It feels substantial, is easy to operate and takes very good images.  As noted, focusing can be a bit squirrelly in certain lighting conditions, but it’s just a slight annoyance, not something that would make me feel negative about it.

I will continue to nag Sony for the really poor Picture Package software and forcing consumers to use the higher-priced Memory Stick Pro media.  It’s really insulting that this software is anywhere near a camera of this quality.  Even third-tier companies like Vivitar give you more.  Hopefully, you have a software suite from an older camera, but if not, pick up Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 for around $90 and you’ll be set for years.  And again, a Memory Stick costs more than the more ubiquitous SD cards.  Other than these issues, the DSC-W7 is a winner.  And spend the extra 50 bucks for the 7MP imager if you’re considering the DSC-W5.  The picture quality is well worth it.

Pros

  • Effortless, fast operation with little shutter lag
  • Excellent 7MP picture quality with very accurate colors
  • Large, 2.5-inch LCD screen
  • 3x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens
  • Long battery life from two AA NiMH batteries
  • AF Assist lamp for well-exposed flash photos
  • 32MB of internal memory

Cons

  • Auto focus tends to “grab” with certain subjects
  • Terrible Picture Package software
  • Requires expensive Memory Stick Pro for best movie mode
  • No RAW or TIFF option

Editors' Recommendations