Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 Review
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 is a slim and stylish ultra-compact digital camera featuring a metal body, sliding front plate and folded optics. Highlights of the T900 include a 12.1 megapixel sensor, 35-140mm equivalent 4x zoom lens, large 3.5-inch touch-sensitive rear screen, Super SteadyShot optical image stabilisation, face and smile detection technology, ISO 3200 and intelligent scene recognition. The Sony T900 also boasts 1280x720 pixel 720p HD movie recording with stereo sound and HDMI output. Available in silver, black, red and bronze, the Sony DSC-T900 currently retails for about $380 / £369 - carry on reading our in-depth review to find out if it's worth considering.
Ease of Use
Resembling less a digital camera than a minimalist work of art in its dormant state, the brushed metal faceplate of Sony's latest slender compact in the DSC-T900 very much echoes the earlier T500 model's look and feel. That's both in terms of larger than average 3.5-inch touch screen for the iPhone generation round the back, and stereo microphones nestling left of the internally squirreled Carl Zeiss zoom lens at the front. Here the lens is of the 35-140mm equivalent variety, neatly hidden behind a sliding cover when not in use - and at no point protruding from the body when it is.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 slots in just above the simultaneously reviewed T90 in Sony's current line up (£90 more at a manufacturer's suggested asking price of £379), while the T500 is also still available at the time of writing for those who will settle for a 10 megapixel stills resolution rather than the T900's 12MP. We had the silver version in for review, with a black alternative also available to UK consumers. Standing the T90 and T900 side by side, the latter is the 'fatter' of the two at 15.1mm wide as opposed to the T90's 13.9mm depth, though you'd barely notice. Certainly the T900 will still slip comfortably into a jacket or trouser pocket, its metal build also ensuring it will withstand the odd glancing elbow or knock. At 147g with 'accessories' it's also light enough not to feel like you're carrying around anything heavier than a mobile phone.
As we remarked in our overview of the T90, Sony hasn't exactly been stretching itself on the design front regarding its latest Cyber-shots, seemingly shrugging 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' or words to that effect. Whilst that makes for less excitement for us reviewers, the consumer is the winner, as the T900's slide-open-and-shoot simplicity means that anyone can be taking pictures within moments of getting the camera out of the box, even though some of the touch screen operation - which we'll come to later - occasionally feels convoluted.
Like its stylish sibling, the Cyber-shot DSC-T900 incorporates Sony's own version of an intelligent auto mode, allowing users to merely point and shoot while the camera analyses the scene before it and cherry picks exposure settings to suit. We also get optical image stabilization for the 4x optical zoom provided, face detection and smile shutter functionality for portrait fanatics, plus a Bionz processor as found in Sony's Alpha DSLR range. Like its compact predecessors the T900 features Sony's double anti blur technology, which translates as Optical SteadyShot plus additional high sensitivity, the latter maxing out at a respectably high ISO 3200.
But in fact the rear screen's resolution betters the equally fresh T90 in providing extra dots for its larger size - 920k in total (as opposed to the T500's 230,400), thus matching that of semi pro digital SLRs. That's useful as the widescreen LCD can be utilized for framing and reviewing not only stills but video also, with top HD resolution of 1280x720 matching the T90, but again falling short of a Full HD 1920x1080. Sony claims that inserting a 4GB Memory Stick Pro or Duo will allow for an hour's worth of video footage to be captured.
As with the T90, since most of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900's key functionality is accessed via the screen, few physical controls remain. It's noticeable that the T900's larger screen size over the T90 means its operation is ultimately less fiddly however, with more space meaning there's less of a chance for the sausage fingered to accidentally make a wrong function or feature selection.
Like the T500 we get a thumb switch for alternating between stills and video capture modes. This is located top right of screen, in turn encircling the shutter release button. The positioning actually works; said switch providing a useful and fast way of alternating between capture modes as desired. To the left, like the T90, we find a lozenge shaped playback button to retrieve captured images for viewing. This again feels conveniently placed.
Moving to the top plate we find a second lozenge shaped button - this time for power on/off, though once you've set the camera up sliding open or shut the lens cover has the same function. Thus the user can be instantly up and shooting with a similar ease to taking snaps on a mobile phone, courtesy of the largest control on the camera: the shutter release button. With a half press to determine focus and exposure, go on to take a picture on the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 in single shot mode and a maximum resolution JPEG is committed to memory in approximately three seconds. The screen blanks out and then displays the captured image momentarily before you can go on to take another.
A protruding lip for controlling the zoom encircles the shutter release button at the front; the transition from wide angle to maximum telephoto being smooth and steady in operation - and refreshingly near silent with it. As we noted in our review of the T500 back at the start of the year, said zoom 'lip' provides purchase for your middle fingers as your forefinger hovers over the shutter release button. However with a thinner screen surround than the T90 due to its larger overall size, just gripping the T900 means that fingers and thumbs stray onto the screen, so smearing it is really unavoidable. Be prepared therefore to be constantly wiping it clean when the camera's not in use.
For the additional outlay over the same resolution T90, the T900's users are provided with the addition of an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) desktop docking station-come-charger into which the camera slots, sitting upright. Unfortunately, as with the T500, the requisite HD lead is an optional extra. AV out, USB in and mains power connections complete the available ports - for which dual purpose cabling is provided - again these are accessed via the docking station, with the T900 in situ, rather than actually being built into the base of the camera.
Given the user's heavy reliance on the screen, you'd expect battery life to be affected. And so it proves; the supplied NP-BD1 cell is good for just 200 shots from a single charge, which is lower than average, so it was back on the charger for our Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 after just a weekend's use. As with the T90 and T500, the central portion of the svelte camera's screen displays the image before your lens in 4:3 ratio if shooting in that standard default format, 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 widescreen ratio.
Visible in both capture and review modes and situated at of the left hand bar is a means of accessing Sony's 'Home' menu with the jab of a finger or supplied plastic stylus. Here the user is instantly provided with an overview of the camera's main functions - shooting, playback, slideshow options, direct printing, 'memory tool' (with the ability to format the media in use, copy or create new recording folders) plus a composite set up menu. As with the T900's forebears, it's here in set up that users can disable the loud and cheery 'bleep' that otherwise sounds at every button press and so prevents candid photography.
Bottom of the left hand bar we find the second virtual button, marked 'Menu'. Press this and the side toolbar turns white, introducing the opportunity to fine tune shooting settings such as image size and resolution, single shot or continuous capture record modes, exposure compensation (+/- 2EV), intelligent scene recognition, smile detection (with big, normal or 'slight' smile options) plus regular face detection, red eye reduction (automatic or on/off). At the bottom of this run of options is the ability to jump straight to the set up menu that mirrors exactly what you can access via the Home button. On earlier incarnations of this menu system we were confused as to why Sony felt the need to divide what we saw as common ground functionality between separate Home and Menu settings. Though it still baffles us, it's something we've gradually got used to over successive generations, hence it's slightly less infuriating.
Between the Home and Menu buttons on the left hand toolbar are again the usual self-timer options (off, ten seconds or two seconds), presented as a fold out bar, plus access to the camera's record modes, which comprise the expected pre-optimised scene settings (for shooting in snow, at the beach and the ilk) plus program and intelligent auto modes. Like the T90 we also get an easy mode with simplified display, access to ISO settings and a further background softening portrait option.
Press the Menu button again while in program mode and as you'd expect there are a wider range of options at your disposal, including manually adjusting white balance and flash intensity, selecting the dynamic range optimizer to help recover shadow detail, and choosing which colour or SteadyShot anti shake mode to use: either active when shooting, continuously on, or off.
In Program mode, as on the T500, an additional toolbar appears along the bottom of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900's screen, with, moving from left to right, an additional choice of focus options - multi AF, centre AF or spot, plus manually selectable ranges of between one to seven metres and infinity. Next along this bar is a choice of metering modes - the standard multi, centre or spot - plus, next again, a touch sensitive means of adjusting ISO and exposure compensation.
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Finally, in this mode the bar to the right hand side of the screen (in standard 4:3 ratio capture modes) features icons for turning flash on or off (along with forced flash, and slow synchro settings) plus macro on/off. At the top of the right hand bar, the formerly self-explanatory 'back' button when in selection mode has been replaced with a simple 'X' icon that serves the same function, and at the bottom we find a display button.
A press of this provides the choice of the default 'normal' display as described above, a 'simple' or an image-only option, which as it sounds turns off all the toolbars and buttons (apart from display itself). Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 users can also call up a live histogram or disable it, plus adjust LCD brightness. Switch the capture mode from regular stills to video, and users have the ability - again via the left hand bar - to select auto, high sensitivity or underwater shooting modes. With a further press of the menu button users can additionally adjust image size and alter compression levels, white balance, exposure compensation, basic focus and metering modes, plus select a colour, sepia or black and white mode to shoot in.
Staying with the rear screen menus and options, switch to playback mode via the lozenge shaped button top right of the LD and review options are again presented left and right of screen, running top to bottom. Down the left, users have the ability to dip in and out of image folders, start slideshows, or delete unwanted shots. Also useful is the fact that you can scroll up and down through an entire folder of images, presented on screen as a grouping of 12 sufficiently large thumbnails at once, which saves time.
Press Menu in playback mode and there's the ability to protect an image from accidental deletion, view images by date taken, event or earmark as favourites, or select images for direct printing. Unlike some less user friendly rivals, should you press the shutter button halfway at any point you'll be helpfully catapulted back into capture mode. And that's basically it. Touch screen operation is either love it or hate it - luckily the buttons, icons and 3.5-inch screen itself are just large enough for finger operation, though as mentioned a plastic stylus is also provided.
Moving to the base of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900 we discover the standard screw thread for attaching the camera to a tripod. Next to this is a narrow flap with lockable catch that protects the shared lithium ion battery and removable media - here Memory Stick Duo or Pro - plus an uncovered port for 'docking' the camera with the provided desktop station.
Like recent incarnations of Cyber-shot, the T900 is best viewed as a premium quality snapshot camera. It's fashionable yet practical, even if the functionality of the touch screen is something users will either love or hate. But what of the images themselves, do they mark the T900 down as a triumph of substance over style, or vice versa?