Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 Review
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 is a new super-zoom digital camera, offering a 10x image stabilized Carl Zeiss lens covering a focal range of 38-380mm, housed in a compact, go-anywhere package. Other key features of the Sony H20, successor to last year's H10 model, include a 10 megapixel sensor, 720p HD movie recording, large 3 inch LCD screen, enhanced Face Detection and Smile Shutter functions, and Dynamic Range Optimisation. There's also a Intelligent Scene Recognition mode for beginners and full range of manual exposure modes for more experienced users. With an official price of $280 / £269 on launch, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H10 is certainly good value. Zoltan Arva-Toth discovers if the Sony H20 can compete with its main super-zoom rivals.
Ease of Use
Those who take only a quick look at the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 may be forgiven for thinking it to be just an incremental upgrade to the H10 model of last year – but if you read on, you will find out that significant improvements have been made to the handling, the feature set and the image quality alike.
What hasn't changed is the stabilised, 38-380mm equivalent, f/3.5-4.4 Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar zoom lens, which is not nearly as wide as that of some of the competing compact super-zoom models like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 or the recently announced Casio EX-H10, but does at least provide more reach at the telephoto end. Like most small-sensor compact digicams, the Sony H20 makes do without an iris diaphragm in the lens, meaning that the term 'stopping down' only refers to the engagement of a built-in neutral density filter. In consequence, you only have two 'aperture settings' at your disposal, irrespective of where you are in the zoom range. Another corollary is that stopping down hasn't the slightest effect on depth of field, which can thus be only controlled by changing the focal length or the camera-to-subject distance when feasible.
The right-hand grip, which seemed hardly more than an afterthought on the H10, is much more of an integral part of the body on the Sony H20, and it now sports a textured rubber coating too, which feels nice to the touch. The newer model also has a thumb rest on the back of the body, which is similarly rubberised. All this means that the H20 is noticeably more pleasant to hold than its predecessor.
The controls on the top of the H20 have also undergone some changes, in terms of both design and functionality. Most importantly, the shutter release is now encircled by a zoom lever, just like on the majority of compact cameras – this solution is more intuitive than the rocker buttons that were located on the rear panel of the preceding model. Furthermore, the elongated power button of the H10 has given way to two round buttons, one of which offers the same on/off functionality, whereas the other one toggles the 'Smile Shutter' function.
When the camera is in 'Smile Shutter' mode, you do not need to use the shutter release at all – the H20 constantly monitors the scene for smiling faces, and when it detects one, it fires off the shutter automatically for you. The sensitivity of the 'Smile Shutter' can be tailored in the menu. This is a fun feature that will likely keep any company entertained for a fairly long time – but we would really love to be able to reprogram this button to directly access ISO settings or exposure compensation, both of which functions are menu-driven on the H20.
The mode dial is in the same place as on the H10, but it no longer features the confusing high-ISO mode that did not belong on the dial anyway. Fortunately, the full-manual exposure mode, which definitely puts the Sony H20 ahead of its direct competitors, has been carried over. Obviously, with no iris diaphragm in the lens, you don't get much in the way of actual aperture control - but having a manual mode is still nice when shooting in constant light, for instance. The Program and Movie modes have also been retained – what's more, the H20 now offers HD video recording as well, at 1280x720 pixels. Another improvement is the ability to use the zoom while recording a movie. The microphone does pick up some of the zooming sound, but it's fairly unobtrusive, and not a huge price to pay for what is still a rare functionality on most digicams. Film clips can be colour, black and white or sepia toned. Exposure compensation, the metering and focusing mode and white balance can be set for movies as well as stills. You can also use image stabilisation.
The Sony H20 features two auto modes, Easy and Intelligent Auto Adjustment, the latter of which is labeled with a lowercase 'i' followed by a camera icon. In this mode, the camera analyses the scene in front of the lens and picks the scene mode it deems appropriate. Of course, there is a separate SCN setting on the mode dial if you want to pick the desired scene mode yourself.
Moving to the back of the camera, we are presented with a completely re-thought and accordingly redesigned user interface. We have already mentioned that dropping the rear zoom rockers in favour of a top-mounted lever has freed up space for a rubberised thumb rest, but this is not the only change. Those who have read our review of the H10 will remember that we criticised that camera's Playback button for being too small and occasionally difficult to push – well, apparently Sony have listened and made it bigger. Not only that, they also moved it to a better location, where the Menu button was on the H10. The latter has in turn occupied the position of the Home button, which is now gone altogether. The only things that have remained practically unchanged are the 3' LCD screen and the four-way pad (although the latter is now black instead of silver).
The LCD is gorgeous and remains visible even in direct sunlight – it's really among the best screens out there, which is great news as there is no eye-level viewfinder of any sort on the H20. The four-way controller provides essentially the same functionality as on the H10, with the Left button giving access to the macro mode, the Down key bringing up the self-timer options, the Right arrow controlling the flash mode and the Up button cycling through the various display settings, including a live histogram, which I found really useful.
The long, multi-page menu of the Sony H20 is similar to that of the H10 but importantly, it now wraps, meaning you can now simply jump from the end to the top without having to work your way back. This menu is essentially a graphical user interface that lets you modify a legion of settings, particularly in P and M modes. These include image resolution and aspect ratio (4:3, 3:2 or 16:9), drive mode, colour settings, ISO sensitivity, ambient and flash exposure compensation, metering, focusing mode, smile detection sensitivity, red eye reduction, white balance (which now has a custom setting, something we missed from the H10), Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO), contrast, sharpness,, SteadyShot image stabilisation and camera setup.
Many of these are self-explanatory, but a few deserve special attention. Among these are the focusing mode, DRO and SteadyShot settings. Focusing can be automatic or manual, with the auto-focus options being Multi, Centre and Spot AF. Face detection can also be activated and tailored to your needs. This means you can tell the camera to give priority to adult or child faces. Manual focus isn't what you would think it is: you can only set the focus to one of four predefined subject distances, including 1m, 3m, 7m and infinity. Nevertheless it's useful when you want to do street photography with the lens fixed at the wide end - you simply set the subject distance to 3m and shoot away happily, knowing that everything between less than 2m and infinity will be in focus. This speeds up the camera as it doesn't have to engage the AF, and increases the chances that you'll capture the moment.
The DRO settings are off, DRO Standard and DRO Plus. DRO is the same thing other manufacturers call D-lighting, i-Contrast and Shadow Adjustment Technology - it automatically lifts the shadows to prevent them from coming out too dark when photographing a contrasty scene. This is done in a way so that it doesn't affect the midtones or the highlights – see a demonstration in the Image Quality section.
SteadyShot is Sony's brand name for image stabilisation. You can specify if you want it to kick in only when you half-press the shutter release button or to be always on or turned off. 'Always on' drains the battery quickly, so it is not really recommended. Turning it off might be a good idea when the camera is mounted on a tripod, so that the stabilisation system won't cause any motion blur by trying to counter vibration that is not there.
|Pop-up Flash||Battery Compartment / Memory Card Slot|
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 is powered by a proprietary lithium-ion battery and records images on Memory Stick Duo and Memory Stick Pro Duo cards (note that it is not compatible with the older, bigger Memory Sticks). Battery and card share the same compartment, and each has a practical lock that keeps it from falling out of the camera when the cover is open. The tripod mount, which is made of metal just like that of the H10, has been moved further away from the battery/card compartment door, so now it is possible to change batteries and memory cards even when the camera is mounted on a tripod – another small but very welcome improvement over the preceding camera model.
There is only one connection port on the H20, and this is what you use to hook the camera up to a printer, computer or standard-definition TV set via the supplied 'octopus' cable. To connect the Sony H20 to an HDTV, you will need a separately sold Type2b-compliant HD output adaptor cable.
In use, the Sony DSC-H20 proved to be a capable and responsive camera. The AF system is surprisingly fast, especially at wide angle. One thing I noticed was that it seemed to be 'always on', adjusting itself continuously even when I was not holding the shutter release pressed halfway – this is no doubt one of the reasons why the system was faster than on most compacts, although it did mean that things would go out of focus occasionally, without my intervention. The ability to set the focus manually to one of a few predefined distances meant that you could effectively 'zone focus' with the H20, something few other digicams will allow you to do.
Camera operation was smooth and straightforward, though I did miss dedicated direct-access buttons for ISO control and exposure compensation. As noted earlier, I wish the 'Smile Shutter' button was reprogrammable to perform one of these tasks. Card read and write speeds were adequate with the Lexar branded 512MB Memory Stick Pro Duo I was using. Curiously, the H20 would regularly display an error message saying, 'this Memory Stick may not record or play', even though the card worked just fine. This was just a minor annoyance though, as a half-press of the shutter release always caused the warning to disappear. Overall, the Sony DSC-H20 was a pleasant, versatile and rewarding camera to shoot, and one you could take pretty much anywhere, even in a standard shirt pocket if you were so inclined.
All of the sample images in this Review were taken using the 10 megapixel JPEG setting, which gives an average image size of around 4Mb.
In terms of image quality, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 represents a step forward from the H10, which itself produced images of more than respectable quality. We have found the noise behaviour to be better in the ISO 400-800 range, where the camera captured photos that I would not hesitate to print at 18x24cm or bigger. Auto white balance, a weak point of the H10, has been improved and is now much more reliable. There is also a custom white balance option, which was missing from the previous model. And the colours appear to have been tweaked for the better too – specifically, the H20 produces much more natural looking foliage greens than the H10. Finally, the dynamic range of the photos is very good for a small-sensor digicam, especially with the Dynamic Range Optimiser activated.
The available ISO sensitivity settings range from ISO 80 to ISO 3200 (ISO 80 to ISO 800 with the Dynamic Range Optimiser set to DRO Plus), and the quality is surprisingly good up to and including ISO 800. No, it is not DSLR class, but it's still much better than what we've seen from most other small-sensor compacts. At ISO 1600 there is a noticeable drop in quality, and ISO 3200 is best avoided, especially if you are shooting for printed output.
ISO 80 (100% Crop)
ISO 100 (100% Crop)
ISO 200 (100% Crop)
ISO 400 (100% Crop)
ISO 800 (100% Crop)
ISO 1600 (100% Crop)
ISO 3200 (100% Crop)
Here are two 100% crops which have been Saved as Web - Quality 50 in Photoshop. The right-hand image has had some sharpening applied in Photoshop. The out-of-the camera images are just a little soft at the default sharpening setting and benefit from some further sharpening in a program like Adobe Photoshop. You can change the in-camera sharpening level if you don't like the default look.
Original (100% Crop)
Sharpened (100% Crop)
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 handled chromatic aberrations excellently during the review, with purple fringing being much less of a problem than I had expected them to be.
Example 1 (100% Crop)
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 has an excellent macro mode. Maximum magnification is achieved at a subject distance of 2cm, with the lens zoomed in to about 63mm (equivalent). The first image shows how close you can get to the subject (in this case a compact flash card). The second image is a 100% crop.
The flash settings on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H10 are Auto, Flash On, Slow Syncro, Flash Off and Red-eye Reduction. These shots of a white coloured wall were taken at a distance of 1.5m.
Flash Off - Wide Angle (38mm)
Flash On - Wide Angle (38mm)
Flash Off - Telephoto (380mm)
Flash On - Telephoto (380mm)
And here are some portrait shots. The flash caused quite a bit of red-eye and red-eye reduction mode made little difference. There is, however, a second red-eye correction tool available in playback.
|Flash On (100% Crop)|
Red-eye Correction (100% Crop)
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20's maximum shutter speed is 30 seconds, which is great news if you're seriously interested in night photography. The following photo was taken at a shutter speed of 4 seconds at ISO 80. We have included a 100% crop to show you what the quality is like.
Night Shot (100% Crop)
These examples are 100% crops from two photos taken at 1/8th second at the 380mm equivalent setting. As you can see, the Super Steady Shot image stabilisation system can mean the difference between a sharp and a blurred photo when taking hand held shots at shutter speeds that are critically slow for the focal length used.
Shutter Speed / Focal Length
Image Stabilisation Off (100% Crop)
Image Stabilisation On (100% Crop)
|1/8th / 380mm|
Dynamic Range Optimizer
DRO is Sony's solution to bring up the shadows in a photo taken in contrasty light without blowing out the highlights. The available settings are Off, Standard – marked as D-R in the menu – and DRO Plus, marked as D-R+. These photographs, taken at identical exposure settings, illustrate the difference.
Off (100% Crop)
D-R (100% Crop)
D-R+ (100% Crop)
This is a selection of sample images from the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 camera, which were all taken using the 10 megapixel JPEG setting. The thumbnails below link to the full-sized versions, which have not been altered in any way.
Sample Movie & Video
This is a sample movie at the highest quality setting of 1280 x 720 pixels at 30 frames per second. Please note that this 21 second movie is 22.8Mb in size.
Front of the Camera
Front of the Camera / Turned On
Rear of the Camera / Image Displayed
Rear of the Camera / Menu Displayed
Top of the Camera
Bottom of the Camera
Side of the Camera
Side of the Camera
|Battery Compartment / Memory Card Slot|
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 is much more than an incremental upgrade to last year's H10. With this camera, Sony has demonstrated that it is a company which listens to user feedback, as most of the issues we criticised the H10 for have been addressed. The engineers have redesigned the handgrip and the controls, added important features like custom white balance and HD video recording with zoom, and improved those aspects of image quality that needed to be addressed, including automatic white balance, colour, noise, dynamic range and chromatic aberrations. These enhancements have transformed the Sony H20 into one of only a handful of digital cameras that manage to achieve maximum user satisfaction with a minimum of frustration.
Is it a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 beater then? In some respects, yes. The full-manual exposure mode is a real competitive advantage, even with the inevitably limited aperture control provided; the flash is more powerful and the lens provides more telephoto range. On the other hand, the H20 lacks true wide angle, where the TZ7 goes out to a nearly ultra-wide 25mm equivalent. Furthermore, the TZ7 is more solidly built, has a dedicated exposure compensation button and arguably produces sharper images with less distortion (though the H20 is not that far behind). At the end of the day, the choice between these two cameras boils down to what kind of photographer you are and what features you value more.
If it weren't for the lack of wide angle and quick access to ISO and exposure compensation, we would be tempted to award our highest 'Essential!' rating to the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20. With these few deficiencies, we feel more comfortable giving it our second-best rating, 'Highly Recommended', which is well deserved and a step up from the 'Recommended' award we gave to its predecessor last year.
|Ratings (out of 5)|
|Value for money||4.5|
Reviews of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 from around the web.
It's not the best superzoom on the market, simply because it doesn't go wide enough to be as flexible as its rivals, which offer 28mm-equivalent zooms or wider. The H20 delivers better quality at full zoom though, and has a great movie mode, so it's got to be worth a look for those reasons alone.
Read the full review »
|Precision Digital Zoom||Approx. 20x(Total)|
|Smart Zoom||up to 57x (with VGA)|
|Focal Length (f= mm)||6.3-63|
|Focal Length (f=35mm conversion)||38-380|
|Macro (cm)||Wide: Approx. 2-Infinity, Tele: Approx. 90-Infinity|
|Filter Diameter (mm)||58 (with Lens Adapter)|
|Conversion Lens compatibility||YES|
|Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar Lens||YES|
|CCD Type||Super HAD CCD|
|Effective Pixels (Mega Pixels)||Approx. 10.1M|
|A/D Conversion (DXP) (Bit)||14|
|Clear RAW NR||YES|
|Auto Focus Method (Intelligent)||YES|
|Auto Focus Method (Continuous)||NO|
|Auto Focus Area (Multi Point)||YES|
|Auto Focus Area (Centre weighted)||YES|
|Auto Focus Area (Spot)||YES|
|Auto Focus Area (Flexible Spot)||NO|
|Focus Preset (m)||1 / 3 / 7 / Unlimited distance|
|Aperture Auto Mode||YES|
|Aperture Priority Mode||NO|
|Aperture Manual Mode||YES|
|Shutter Speed Auto Mode (sec)||2" - 1/2000|
|NR Slow Shutter||YES|
|Hand Shake Alert||YES|
|Exposure Control||+/- 2.0 EV, 1/ 3 EV step|
|White Balance||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent1, Fluorescent2, Fluorescent3, Incandescent, Flash|
|Automatic White Balance||YES|
|Light Metering (Multi Pattern)||YES|
|Light Metering (Centre weighted)||YES|
|Light Metering (Spot)||YES|
|Sharpness Setting||Plus / Minus 1step|
|Contrast Setting||Plus / Minus 1step|
|ISO Sensitivity (REI)||YES (Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200)|
|Scene Selection||Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Twilight using a tripod, Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Portrait|
|Flash Mode||Auto, Forced Flash, Slow Syncro, No Flash|
|Distance limitations using Flash (m)||0.2-7 (wide), 0.9-5.5 (tele)|
|Auto Daylight Synchronized Flash||YES|
|Super SteadyShot capability||NO|
|Optical SteadyShot capability||YES|
Auto Focus System
|Flash Mode||Auto, Forced Flash, Slow Syncro, No Flash|
|Auto Daylight Synchronized Flash||YES|
|LCD Screen Size (inches)||3|
|LCD Total Dots Number||230.400|
|LCD Monitor Type||TFT|
|Auto Bright Monitoring||YES|
|LCD Field of View (%)||100|
|LCD Field of View (%)||100|
|Recording Media||Memory Stick™ Duo, Memory Stick PRO Duo™. Memory Stick PRO Duo™ High Speed, Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo™ (same speed as PRO Duo), Internal memory (11MB)|
|Recording Format||JPEG, MPEG4|
|Memory Stick™ Pro Interface||Parallel|
|DCF (Design rule for Camera File System)||YES|
|DPOF (Digital Print Order Format)||YES|
|Burst Mode (shots)||100|
|Burst Interval (approximately sec)||0.57|
|Still Image size (12 Mega 4000 x 3000)||NO|
|Still Image size (10 Mega 3648 x 2736)||YES|
|Still Image size (8.0 Mega, 3264 x 2448)||NO|
|Still Image size (5.0 Mega, 2592 x 1944)||YES|
|Still Image size (3.1 Mega, 2048 x 1536)||YES|
|Still Image size (VGA, 640 x 480)||YES|
|Still Image size (16:9 mode, 1920 x 1080)||YES|
|Still Image size (16:9 mode, 3648 x 2056)||YES|
|Still Image size (16:9 mode, 4000 x 2248)||NO|
|Still Image size (3:2 mode, 4000 x 2672)||NO|
|Still Image size (3:2 mode 3648 x 2432)||YES|
|Moving Image Size (MPEG VX Fine, 640x480, 30fps)||NO|
|Moving Image Size (MPEG VX Standard, 640x480, 16.6fps)||NO|
|Moving Image Size (QVGA: 320x240 30fps)||NO|
|Moving Image Size (QVGA: 320x240 8.3fps)||NO|
|Moving Image Size (1440x1080 30fps Fine Approx.12Mbps)||NO|
|Moving Image Size (1440x1080 30fps Standard Approx.7Mbps)||NO|
|Moving Image Size (1280x720 30fps Fine Approx.9Mbps)||YES|
|Moving Image Size (1280x720 30fps Standard Approx.6Mbps)||YES|
|Moving Image Size (640x480 30fps Approx.3Mbps)||YES|
|HD (High Definition) Playback||YES|
|Slideshow with Music||YES|
|Cue & Review (MPEG)||YES|
|Auto Image Rotation||YES|
|Battery Remaining Indicator||YES|
|Exposure Warning Indicator||YES|
|Disk / Memory Stick remaining indicator||YES|
|PTP (Picture Transfer Protocol)||YES|
|Print Image Matching||YES|
|Shop Front Mode||YES|
|Start up time (approximately sec)||1.7|
|Menu Language||English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Greek, Romanian, Croatian|
|Multi use Terminal with HD||YES|
|Multi use Terminal||YES|
|Digital I/O (USB)||NO|
|USB 2.0 Hi-Speed||YES|
|Battery System||Lithium G|
|Stamina (battery life) with the supplied battery(s) in normal shooting condition||290 shots, 145min (CIPA standard with LCD screen on)|
|Battery for Clock||Manganese-Lithium (MS614SE)|
|Weight with Accessories (g)||279|
|Supplied Software||Picture Motion Browser Ver.4.2 (Windows only) + Music Transfer|
|Supplied Accessories||Rechargeable battery pack (NP-BG1), Battery Charger, Multi Connector Cable, Wrist Strap, CD-ROM, Lens Cap|