Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V Review

5.0
July 9, 2012 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V is a new premium travel-zoom compact camera. A 20x 25-500mm lens, built-in GPS tracking, full 1080i high-definition video with stereo sound, an 18 megapixel CMOS sensor, high-resolution 3-inch screen, manual shooting mode, 10fps continuous shooting, 3D photos, ISO range of 100-12800 and fast auto-focusing are all present and correct. Read our in-depth Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V review to find out if its the best travel camera that your money can buy...

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V is a feature-packed travel-zoom camera that sits at the top of the Cyber-shot range. Offering a 20x, 25-500mm zoom lens, 18.2 megapixel back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor and built-in GPS tracking complete with a compass, the HX20V also has full 1080i high-definition video recording with stereo sound and HDMI output and 3D Sweep Panoramas and 3D Still Images. Other key features of the Sony HX20V include a 3 inch LCD screen with 921,000-dots, fast 0.13 second auto-focusing, 10fps burst shooting mode at full resolution, ISO range of 100-12800, Optical SteadyShot with Active Mode, Intelligent Auto Plus, Program and full Manual shooting modes, artistic Picture Effect modes, Intelligent Sweep Panoramas, and support for both Memory Stick PRO Duo and Secure Digital cards. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V is available in black or brown for £329.99 / $399.99.

Ease of Use

The DSC-HX20V is Sony's latest travel-zoom camera, following 2011's popular HX9V model. Travel-zooms now typically offer at least a 16x or bigger lens in a compact body that you can still fit inside a pocket, with some models upping the ante to a 20x lens. The Sony DSC-HX20V joins the party with a 20x, 25-500mm extending optical lens with respectable maximum apertures of f/3.2 at the 25mm wide-angle setting and f/5.8 at the 500mm full telephoto setting.

The HX20V's lens is a real joy to use, with a 20x zoom in such a small package making this camera incredibly adaptable, with everything from ultra-wide landscapes to candid long-distance portraits within easy reach. The 25mm focal length provides an entirely new wide angle of view that can only increase your creativity. You won't want to go back to a "standard" 35mm zoom after using the 25mm lens on the DSC-HX20V, or even a 28mm one - 3mm at the wide-angle end really does make a big difference.

Even when set to 500mm, the lens doesn't extend too far from the front of the HX20V, making it look to all intents and purposes like a "normal" compact camera. The combination of the f/3.2 aperture, effective optical image stabilizer and maximum ISO speed of 12800 makes this camera well suited to hand-held low-light photography, not to mention the wealth of dedicated shooting modes. Sony has fitted a dual image stabilisation mechanism in the shape of both optical SteadyShot and an ISO range that extends up to ISO 12800, much you'll find on your average point-and-shoot. Note that as with most recent Cyber-shots, you can't actually turn off the SteadyShot function, Sony assuming that its better turned on permanently.

Despite its big zoom lens, the HX20V is still quite a slender camera, measuring just over 3cms at its narrowest point and weighing 254g with the battery and memory card fitted, with a large 3-inch, 921k-dot resolution LCD screen at the rear As you'd expect with a screen of that size on such a small camera, the HX20V has no optical viewfinder to fall back on in brighter lighting conditions.

Providing the means of gripping the camera is a quite substantial textured, rubberised protrusion on the front and a small thumb-shaped lozenge on the rear, making the DSC-HX20V easy to get to grips with despite its mostly smooth recycled plastic surface. Also located on the front of the HX20V is the centrally located lens and a porthole on the left for the self-timer/AF illuminator. There's a pop-up flash unit on top of the camera which is automatically raised when you select a flash mode.

Press the small On/Off button on the top plate and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V quickly readies itself for action in a just over a second. The adequately sized shutter-release button has a definite halfway point, very quickly determining focus and exposure with a bleep of affirmation even in low-light, focus points highlighted as green rectangles on the LCD. Go on to take the shot and the JPEG images are committed to memory in a single second, the screen momentarily blanking out and then displaying the captured image before the user can go on to take a second shot.

Sony CyberShot DSC-HX20V Sony CyberShot DSC-HX20V
Front Rear

The shutter release button is encircled by a responsive forefinger-operated push/pull rocker zoom lever, with the camera taking around four seconds to zoom from wide-angle to full telephoto. The HX20V's twin built-in stereo microphones are also located on top of the camera, plus the Custom button which as the name suggests can be customised to access one commonly used setting, such as ISO speed or Exposure Compensation.

A round shooting mode dial with a knurled edge and positive action completes the HX20V's top-plate, letting you quickly switch between the various shooting modes that are on offer. Sony has included Intelligent Auto scene recognition, which works in virtually identical fashion to the intelligent auto modes of Panasonic's and Canon's compact ranges. Simply point the HX20V at a scene or subject and the camera analyses it and automatically chooses one of 11 pre-optimised settings to best suit. There's also the Superior Auto mode, which places greater emphasis on reducing blur and noise and increasing the dynamic range.

Adding to the HX20V's snapshot simplicity, these features accompany face recognition and smile shutter functionality on board, the former mode biasing human faces in the frame and the latter mode firing the shutter when it detects a smiling subject. The Face Detection system automatically adjusts the focus, exposure and white balance for people in the frame, and can even be set to distinguish between children and adults. Smile Detection offers three self-explanatory options, Big, Normal and Slight. Used in conjunction, the Face and Smile Detection systems do result in more hits than misses, especially in contrasty lighting conditions, although all those smiling faces could ultimately freak you out a little! The self-portrait options in the self-timer menu work by automatically taking the shot with a two second delay after either one or two people have entered the frame.

In addition to the regular Program mode, which provides the full range of camera options and additionally allows you to change settings like the ISO speed and metering, is the welcome inclusion of a fully Manual mode that lets you independently set the aperture and shutter speed, which will instantly appeal to the more experienced photographer. The range of apertures on offer is unfortunately rather limited to just two settings at either end of the lens (f/3.2 or f/8.0 at 25mm and f/5.8 or f/14 at 384mm) with the camera employing a built-in Neutral Density filer, but the ability to choose from 30 - 1/1600th second shutter speeds and set both the aperture and shutter speed if you wish opens up a lot of creative potential. Sadly there are no Aperture or Shutter priority modes, which would have narrowed the skill gap between Program and Manual, and there's no support for the RAW file format either, which would really have been the icing on the cake for serious photographers looking for a backup-pocket camera to their DSLR.

The Intelligent Sweep Panorama mode lets you capture a panoramic image very easily without the use of a tripod. All you need to decide is whether you would like to start from left or right, top or bottom. Then press and hold down the shutter release while doing a "sweep" with the camera in hand. Exposure compensation is available before you start the sweep, but the exposure is fixed once you depress the shutter button. After you are done with the sweeping, the camera does all the processing required, and presents you with a finished panoramic image. There are three modes, Standard, Wide and High Resolution, with the latter mode successfully stitching together a 42.9 megapixel image - not bad for a humble compact! Note that if you do the sweeping too slowly, or you let go of the shutter release button too early, the panorama will be truncated.

For those who like a healthy dose of gimmickry with their gadgets, the HX20V offers a 3D still image mode - an addition to the now expected 3D Sweep Panorama mode and the 'cheat' of the lenticular print-like Sweep Multi Angle mode, also again featured here. This option doesn't require two lenses and two sensors to produce a stereoscopic image. Instead the Sony takes two consecutive shots from two different vantage positions and combines them for its 3D effect. Like all of its stereoscopic rivals you'll still need a 3D equipped TV to properly view the results.

Sony CyberShot DSC-HX20V Sony CyberShot DSC-HX20V
Pop-up Flash Top

In the Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur shooting modes, the DSC-HX20V takes six shots in a rapid sequence, typically at a high sensitivity setting and a (relatively) fast shutter speed, and then combines them into a single image that has somewhat less noise than a single shot taken at the same ISO and exposure settings. In our experience, the difference between the two modes is that in Anti Motion Blur mode, the camera is more willing to pick a really high ISO setting like ISO 1600 to maintain a fast shutter speed, whereas in Hand-held Twilight mode, it will only go as high as absolutely necessary to avoid camera shake at the chosen focal length. If light levels are truly low, however, the HX20V will pick a high ISO speed even in this mode.

Backlight Correction HDR is a feature where the HX20V automatically shoots two frames quick succession, varying the exposure for each one then combining them to create a single image with the most detail possible in both the shadows and highlights. You can see from the example on the Image Quality page that this feature produces a photo with noticeably more dynamic range than one taken using one of the standard shooting modes, but at the same time without replicating the often "false" look of many HDR programs. Note that you should mount the camera on a tripod to avoid any unwanted camera-shake, and we were disappointed that you can only turn Backlight Correction HDR on or off, with no options for varying the intensity of the effect. Background Defocus attempts to mimic the sharp subject and out-of-focus background effect that DSLR owners typically enjoy, again shooting two frames in quick succession but this time varying the aperture.

Present and correct is the increasingly ubiquitous ability to shoot High Definition video clips, but unlike its main competitors the HX20V does so at full 1080p HD rather than 1080i or 720p, and also with stereo sound rather than mono. The various options are 1920x1280 or 1440x1280 pixels at 50p or 50i in the AVCHD format, and 1440x1280, 1280x720 or 640x480 pixels at 25fps in the MPEG4 format. During video recording you can take a 13 megapixel still image by pressing the shutter button, or alternatively grab a still from your video footage during playback.

There is full use of the 20x optical zoom during recording so you can really make the most of that massive focal range, plus the ability to change the EV level, white balance, and metering options and turn on either standard SteadyShot or the Active Mode mode, which provides up to 10x more effectiveness with no side-effects. There's also a direct HDMI output from the camera, useful for playing back your footage on a HDTV set, although sadly there's no HDMI cable supplied in the box. The dedicated Movie button on the rear of the DSC-HX20V allows you to start recording a movie with a single push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button - a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on most compacts. You can also activate the movie mode via the Shooting Mode dial.

GPS is a feature that has slowly but surely been finding its way into digital cameras as the technology has got smaller and cheaper to implement, making its debut on last year's HX5 and unsurprisingly being retained by the HX20V. This potentially allows you to seamlessly geo-tag your photos (latitude and longitude co-ordinates are stored in the EXIF data) and then sort and display them using geo-friendly websites such as Google Earth and Google Maps or the supplied Picture Motion Browser PC software. The HX20V also uses the GPS to keep the camera time accurate, has a built-in compass that shows shows which direction you were pointing when the picture was taken, and can plot your progress using the new GPS Log Recording function even if the camera is turned off.

The GPS function can be manually turned on or off and the current GPS status is displayed as a small icon on the LCD screen. Three bars appear next to the icon when the GPS has synced with one or more satellites, which unfortunately takes a few minutes from powering on the camera. Thankfully once it's synced, the HX20V's GPS receiver works a lot better than most other GPS-capable cameras that we've reviewed, saving accurate positioning information for the majority of the images that we shot in built-up central London, making this camera much more useful for urban photographers. The main downside of the HX20V's GPS is the subsequent drain on battery life, with the camera only managing just over 300 shots with GPS turned on instead of the 400 that it can manage without.

Sony CyberShot DSC-HX20V Sony CyberShot DSC-HX20V
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

The rear of the DSC-HX20V is dominated by the large 3 inch LCD screen, with the resolution now a satisfyingly high-res 912k dots. To the right of the screen is the useful one-touch movie record button and a small button for playing back your images. Users have the ability to dip in and out of created folders of images or the calendar view, view thumbnails, select slideshows and choose transitional effects and accompanying music, or delete shots. Press the shutter button halfway and you're helpfully catapulted back into capture mode. And that's basically it. With a press of the Menu button in playback, users have access to a few in-camera retouching effects, including the ability to crop and sharpen an image and apply red-eye correction.

Underneath the Playback button is a traditional round navigation pad which you can use to navigate through menus and options, in conjunction with the small button in the middle which activates whatever it is you've chosen. The four directions on the navigation pad also provide a quick way of setting the Display, Flash, the new Photo Creativity interface and Continuous Shooting/Timer options. The Photo Creativity makes it easier for beginners to change the colour, brightness, vividness and Picture effect modes, with changes previewed in real time on the LCD screen.

Finally, there are buttons for the camera's menu system and for deleting images underneath the navigation pad. The menu button accesses most of the camera's main functions - image size, burst settings, bracketing, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, focus mode, metering, smile detection, and face detection - plus an icon at the bottom to open the four Settings menus. The latter includes the ability to deactivate the camera's 'bleep' that otherwise sounds at every button press, choose the movie format and activate red-eye reduction if required.

The navigation pad also doubles up as a control ring that's used to set the aperture and shutter speed in the Manual shooting mode, amongst other things. The ring is a little small and over-sensitive, and having to press the tiny central button to toggle between the ISO speed, shutter speed and aperture quickly becomes a bit tiresome, but the ability to take full control of the HX20V is still very welcome.

Pressing the drive mode button brings up two options, single or burst, with high-, mid- and low-speed continuous options then available in the Menu system. Out of these, the high-speed continuous mode is the most remarkable. The HX20V takes up to 10 full-resolution photos at a frankly astounding 10 frames per second, which is faster than most compact cameras and indeed most DSLRs too. The only fly in the ointment is that once the burst is completed, it takes over fifteen seconds for the camera to clear the buffer, during which you cannot take another picture. In the other two continuous shooting modes, the Sony HX20V also takes up to 10 pictures, but at slower speeds of 5 or 2 frames per second.

The bottom of the Sony HX20V features a standard metal screw thread for attaching it to a tripod which is conveniently located in the centre. A plastic cover protects the lithium-ion battery and the removable memory card, with the HX20V supporting the SD / SDHC / SDXC format in addition to Sony's own proprietary Pro Duo Memory Stick format. There's also a hardly worth it 11MB internal memory to fall back on which can store 7 full-resolution still images. The right side of the HX20V has a small metal eyelet for the supplied wrist strap and also the HDMI port underneath a sturdy plastic cover, while there are no controls on the left side (looking from the rear).

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