Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 Review

April 6, 2010 | Mark Goldstein |


The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 is a feature-packed compact digital camera, offering a 10x, 25-250mm zoom lens, 10.1 megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor, built-in GPS tracking complete with a compass and full 1080i high-definition video recording with stereo sound and HDMI output. Other key features of the Sony HX5 travel-zoom camera include the new Intelligent Sweep Panorama mode, which now compensates for moving objects, a 3 inch LCD screen, 10fps burst shooting mode at full resolution, ISO range of 125-3200, Optical SteadyShot with new Active Mode which cuts camera-shake while you're shooting handheld HD video, Intelligent Auto, Program and full Manual shooting modes, and support for both Memory Stick PRO Duo and Secure Digital cards. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 is available in black and gold for £329.99 / $349.99.

Ease of Use

The DSC-HX5 is Sony's first entry into the increasingly popular travel-zoom sector, which typically offers a 10x or bigger zoom lens in a compact camera that you can still fit inside a pocket. Panasonic started the trend a couple of years ago with the debut of the market-dominating TZ-series, but they've since been joined by offerings from Samsung, Nikon, Casio and now Sony, who have seemingly stuffed virtually all of their competitors' main features into the new HX5. It really does read like a traveller's wish-list, with even a Manual shooting mode included, something that took Panasonic three generations to finally offer on the recent DMC-TZ10 and TZ8 cameras.

The Sony DSC-HX5 has a conventional 10x extending optical lens with respectable maximum apertures of f/3.5 at the 25mm wide-angle setting and f/5.5 at full telephoto. The HX5's lens is a joy to use, with a 10x zoom in such a small package making this camera more adaptable than you might first think, 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-HX5, or even a 28mm one - 3mm at the wide-angle end really does make a big difference. Even when set to 250mm, the lens doesn't extend too far from the front of the HX5, making it look to all intents and purposes like a "normal" compact camera. Also, the combination of the f/3.5 aperture, effective optical image stabilizer and maximum ISO speed of 3200 makes this camera well suited to hand-held low-light photography. 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 - you can see some examples on the Image Quality page. Note that you can't actually turn off the SteadyShot function.

Despite its big zoom lens, the HX5 is still quite a slender camera, measuring less than 3cms at its narrowest point and weighing 200g with the battery and memory card fitted, with a large 3-inch, 230k-dot resolution LCD screen at the rear. As you'd expect with a screen of that size on such a small camera, the HX5 has no optical viewfinder to fall back on. Providing the means of gripping the camera is a slightly indented vertical channel on the front and a similar thumb-shaped indentation on the rear, making the DSC-HX5 easy to get to grips with despite its smooth metal surface. Also located on the front of the HX5 is the lens, a small and narrow window for the flash and a porthole on the far right for the self-timer/AF illuminator.

Press the small round On/Off button on the shiny silver top plate and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 quickly readies itself for action in a just over a second. The adequately sized shutter-release button has a definite halfway point, determining focus and exposure with a bleep of affirmation, 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. 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 HX5's built-in stereo microphone is also located on top of the camera, plus a tiny but handily placed button for turning on the various Burst modes, including that headline-grabbing 10fps mode.

Sony CyberShot DSC-HX5 Sony CyberShot DSC-HX5
Front Rear

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 HX5 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 HX5 also takes up to 10 pictures, but at slower speeds of 5 or 2 frames per second.

A round shooting mode dial with a knurled edge and positive action completes the HX5'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 HX5 at a scene or subject and the camera analyses it and automatically chooses one of 11 pre-optimised settings to best suit. For complete beginners, there's also the Easy shooting mode, which employs the same intelligent auto scene recognition system, but also reduces the number of features available to a few key ones and simplifies the display with bigger text and icons.

Adding to its snapshot simplicity, these features join 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. The enhanced 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, which is toggled on and off by pressing left on the navigation pad, 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! New for the HX5 are the self-portrait options in the self-timer menu, which 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/3.5 or f/8.0 at 25mm and f/5.5 or f/13 at 300mm) 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 improved and renamed 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.

Sony CyberShot DSC-HX5 Sony CyberShot DSC-HX5
Front Side

The main catch is that the final panorama is 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. The major area of improvement on the HX5 relates to moving objects in the frame. The standard Sweep Panorama mode always recorded people and anything that moved as several ghost outlines, which meant that you could really only record static, empty scenes. The HX5 seems to have solved this problem completely, with all of our test panoramas including just one instance of the moving object.

In the Hand-held Twilight and Anti Motion Blur shooting modes, the DSC-HX5 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 HX5 will pick a high ISO speed even in this mode.

Backlight Correction HDR is a brand new feature where the HX5 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.

Present and correct is the increasingly ubiquitous ability to shoot High Definition video clips, but unlike most competitors the HX5 does so at full 1080i HD rather than 720p, and also with stereo sound rather than mono. The various options are 1920x1280 or 1440x1280 pixels at 30fps in the AVCHD format, and 1440x1280, 1280x720 or 640x480 pixels at 30fps in the MPEG4 format. There is full use of the optical zoom during recording so you can really make the most of that 25-250mm focal range, plus the ability to change the EV level, white balance, and metering options and turn on either standard SteadyShot or the new 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-HX5 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 brand new feature for Sony compacts, and also one that has slowly but surely been finding its way into digital cameras as the technology has got smaller and cheaper to implement. 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 HX5 also uses the GPS to keep the camera time accurate, and even has a built-in compass that shows shows which direction you were pointing when the picture was taken!

Sony CyberShot DSC-HX5 Sony CyberShot DSC-HX5
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

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 HX5'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 HX5's GPS is the subsequent drain on battery life, with the camera only managing just over 225 shots with GPS turned on instead of the 300 that it can manage without.

The Sony HX5 is one of the first cameras on the market to support TransferJet, a new wireless transfer protocol that's supported by most of the major manufacturers. TransferJet allows you to very quickly (up to 375 Mbps) and easily copy images between two compatible devices - Sony recently showed us a neat docking station that instantly transferred files from camera to picture frame just by resting the camera on the station, with no need to pair the two devices. There are a few limitations - TransferJet is reliant on using a compatible Sony Memory Stick, which as you'd probably expect are more expensive than the standard ones, and the receiving device must also be compatible with this relatively new protocol.

The rear of the DSC-HX5 is dominated by the large 3 inch LCD screen, although the resolution is a rather disappointingly average 230K dots, resulting in a slightly grainy display that's out of step with the rest of the camera. To the right of the screen is the 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, Timer and Smile Shutter options. 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 bottom of the Sony HX5 features a standard metal screw thread for attaching it to a tripod which is rather inconveniently located in the corner. Alongside this is the HDMI port, then a plastic cover that protects the lithium-ion battery that provides a respectable life of 300 shots and the removable memory card, with Sony now supporting the SD / SDHC format in addition to their own proprietary Pro Duo Memory Stick format that they have persisted with for so long. There's also a hardly worth it 11MB internal memory to fall back on which can store 9 full-resolution still images. The right side of the HX5 has a tiny eyelet for the supplied wrist strap, while there are no controls on the left side (looking from the rear).