Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 Review
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The Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 is the latest addition to Sony's range of slim and stylish ultra-compact digital cameras. The TX1 isn't just another incremental update, though, because it features the new 10 megapixel "Exmor R" back-illuminated CMOS image sensor. This new technology promises to greatly improve low-light performance, resulting in cleaner images with less noise. Featuring a metal body, sliding front plate and folded lens optics, the Sony TX1 measures just 14.1mm thick whilst offering a 35-140mm equivalent 4x zoom lens, 3-inch touch-sensitive rear screen, Super SteadyShot optical image stabilisation, face and smile detection technology, ISO 3200 and intelligent scene recognition. The Sony TX1 also boasts continuous burst shooting up to 10 frames per second at full resolution, Sweep Panorama mode for extra-wide landscapes, and 1280x720 pixel 720p HD movie recording with stereo sound and HDMI output. Available in silver, grey, pink and blue, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 currently retails for about $380 / £385.
Ease of Use
The DSC-TX1 is the latest model in a long line of fashion-conscious Sony Cyber-shot touch-screen compact cameras, coming after the T90 and T900 which rated well on Photography Blog earlier this year. Like both of those earlier models, the TX1 features a sliding faceplate that covers and protects the lens when not in use, and also acts as another means of activating the camera when it's slid open. The TX1 is minimalist and slender, measuring a mere 14.1mm at its narrowest point, with a large 3-inch, widescreen ratio 230k-dot resolution LCD screen at the rear.
As you'd expect with a screen of that size on a compact, the TX1 has no optical viewfinder to fall back on. In fact the only physical controls the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 possesses are a rectangular playback button situated top right of the LCD, plus a top-mounted on/off switch recessed into a mirrored strip. Alongside this is a second larger rectangular button for the shutter release and a small rocker switch for gliding through the 35-140mm equivalent focal range provided by the internal non-extending lens.
The mostly metal TX1 feels rock-solid sturdy yet lightweight at just 142g with the supplied NP-BG1 battery inserted. Providing the only actual means of gripping the camera are a narrow 'bezel' around the screen, with a couple of raised ridges and eyelet for attaching a wrist strap over to its right hand side. As well as inevitably festooning the screen itself with fingers and thumbprints (that only show up when it's switched off), the polished front plate also attracts smears. So you'll be wiping this camera clean almost as often as you'll be taking pictures with it. Commendably both the body and screen do seem resistant to scratches, although it's a good idea to invest in some kind of protective cover.
The lack of physical substance also suggests the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 will be prone to camera shake. So Sony has fitted a dual image stabilisation mechanism in the shape of both optical SteadyShot and an ISO range that extends up to ISO 3200. If not quite class leading, it's better than you'll find on an average point and shoot. As with its recent predecessors, present and correct on the TX1 is the increasingly ubiquitous ability to shoot High Definition video clips at a maximum 1280x720 pixels video at 30fps, here in PC friendly MPEG-4 format with use of the optical zoom and the ability to fire off a snap in the middle of filming. There's also a direct HDMI output from the camera, useful for playing back the 60 minutes of footage that can be stored on a 4GB Memory Stick (Duo or Pro variety), although sadly there's no HDMI cable supplied in the box.
Sony has included intelligent auto scene recognition in its line-up of shooting modes, accessed via the left-hand onscreen toolbar, and working in virtually identical fashion to the intelligent auto modes of Panasonic's and Canon's compact ranges. The user points the TX1 at a scene or subject and the camera analyses it and automatically chooses one of 11 pre-optimised settings to best suit. Adding to its snapshot simplicity, this feature joins enhanced 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.
With the camera looking fashionably understated when inactive, press the teeny, recessed power button on the top plate or slide open the faceplate to reveal the lens and, like its forebears, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 readies itself for action in a just over a second. The rear LCD bursts into life sound tracked by a musical flourish (which thankfully can be turned off). The adequately sized shutter release button has a definite halfway point, determining focus and exposure with a bleep of affirmation, focus points highlighted in green on the LCD. Go on to take the shot and maximum 10 megapixel resolution 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.
In revealing the lens, also exposed is the TX1's built-in microphone, plus a small and narrow window for flash and a porthole for the self-timer/AF illuminator. As we've found in the past, with the lens situated to the far top-right of the camera's front, when holding it steady with both hands, it's all too easy for the ends of fingertips to dip forward and therefore into shot. However, once thus 'bitten' you quickly learn to subsequently avoid it.
Talking of fingertips, to the right of the shutter release button, if viewed from the back, is a small rocker switch for operating the zoom and alternating between wideangle and telephoto, the raised lip of which is only just large enough to connect with the pad of your digit. The action of the zoom itself is leisurely smooth rather than rapid, gliding unhindered through the focal range in a single, steady motion.
With the TX1's degree of design minimalism meaning that is it for the front and top of the camera, moving to the rear of the TX1, we find a single playback button top right of the screen. Other than that single physical control, every other operation takes place in the virtual realm, the central portion of the screen displaying the image in 4:3 ratio on its default setting, while two menu bars with white text or icons on an all-black background frame it on either side, in effect cropping the screen's full 16:9 ratio.
The screen on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 is responsive without being overly sensitive and, with use, we didn't find ourselves accidentally selecting the setting next to the one we intended as often as we initially thought we might. Touch-screen operation is either love it or hate it. Luckily the buttons and icons on the Cyber-shot TX1 are just large enough for finger operation (with an alternative plastic stylus provided in the box that clips onto the wrist strap). That said the busy array of options around the screen - especially in Program mode - can be rather distracting, although thankfully easily toggled on and off.
The icon at the top of the left-hand bar, in regular stills capture mode, is the means of accessing the TX1's Menu with a finger or stylus jab. Press this lightly and the user is instantly provided with some of the camera's main functions - shooting mode, image size, macro mode, EV, ISO, white balance, Focus mode, Metering Mode and others - plus an icon top-right to access the 4 Settings menus. The latter includes the ability to deactivate the camera's 'bleep' that otherwise sounds at every button press.
Back to the left-hand bar, and below the Menu button we firstly find a self-explanatory smile detection icon, a second for turning flash on or off plus a forced on and slow synchro setting, a third providing access to the various self-timer choices, and a fourth for the burst shooting modes. On the right-hand side are two interactive icons, the all-important Mode button which provides access to the optimized scene settings, along with intelligent auto, program, sweep panorama, anti motion blur, hand-held twilight, plus shooting video. The movie mode has its very own underwater shooting mode and the choice of of 1280x720 (Fine or Standard) or lower VGA quality clips, plus the ability to change the EV level and curiously self-timer options.
The 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. The catch is that it's of relatively low resolution: the shorter side is invariably 1080 pixels, whereas the longer side is 4912 pixels for a 'standard' panorama, and 7152 pixels for a 'wide' one. Note also that if you do the sweeping too slowly, or you let go of the shutter release button too early, the panorama will be truncated.
There are two more shooting modes that are new to the Sony T-series - Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur. In both of these modes, the camera 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 my 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 TX1 will pick a high ISO speed even in this mode.
Pressing the drive mode icon brings up a number of options, including single shot, high-, mid- and low-speed continuous options. Out of these, the high-speed continuous mode is the most remarkable. The TX1 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 TX1 also takes up to 10 pictures, but at slower speeds of 5 or 2 frames per second.
The default 'normal' display, as described above, can be changed to an image-only option by simply holding down dragging the left-hand icon bar off the screen (or via the more mundane Shooting Display Settings menu option), which as it sounds turns off all the toolbars and buttons (apart from the display itself). The touch-screen interface can also be used to set the focus point by simply "pointing" at the subject that you want to focus on - very intuitive, although it doesn't cover the entire frame. Gridlines can also be added to the display to aid composition, but sadly there's no histogram either during shooting or playback, which is a rather serious omission on a camera that is focusing so much on delivering better quality images.
Staying with the rear screen menus and options, switch to playback mode via either the dedicated physical button or onscreen icon, and review options are again presented left and right of screen, running top to bottom. Looking first at the left, users have the ability to dip in and out of created folders of images, view thumbnails, select slideshows and choose transitional effects and accompanying music, or delete duff shots. Also useful is the ability to be able to zoom in and scroll around an image to check focus and exposure simply by tapping and flicking the screen. Press the shutter button halfway or hit the onscreen camera icon at any point and the user is 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. 'Painting' onto an image - or more likely scribbling all over it - adding a stamp or a frame is also encouraged.
The bottom of the slender Sony TX1 features the merest of embellishments. There's a standard screw thread for attaching it to a tripod, alongside which is a narrow flap with lockable catch that protects the shared lithium-ion battery and removable media (an optional Memory Stick Duo or Pro variety with a hardly worth it 11MB internal memory to fall back on). Sony claims the battery is good for up to 250 shots or 125 minutes of video from a single charge, which isn't particularly long-lasting, so if you're looking at this as a possible travel companion you'll definitely want to take its charger and possibly a spare battery with you.