The travel zoom keeps on giving and Sony wants to be the company to give - well, sell - the most: the introduction of the Sony Cyber-shot HX50 will see the Japanese giant be able to boast that it makes the smallest and lightest 30x compact in the world.
At just under 4cm thick it's really not bad going for a compact with a 24-720mm f/3.5-6.3 equivalent zoom under the hood. It's not super-slim, but this kind of lens wasn't seen in far more sizeable superzoom cameras just a couple of years back - albeit at three times the size. Granted the HX50's lens extends rather, er, extensively when pushed out to the max but the barrel collapses right down and back into the body when the camera's switched off.
Big zoom lenses without the size is Sony's angle, and it's one we rather like. For the point-and-shoot holidaygoer, traveller or straight-up photo enthusiast, this well-rounded zoom has a fair amount going for it.
We doubt it will produce pro-standard results based on its significant optical range, plus the f/3.5-6.3 maximum aperture - which affects the amount of light able to enter the lens depending, in this case, on how far the zoom is extended - is fairly standard stuff. But we've not seen such capabilities from a small-scale model before.
Performance-wise the HX50 is a lot like its HX-series compadres, such as the HX20. Both models move smoothly through the zoom range, while autofocus is swift and praiseworthy - even at the longer end of the zoom. The built-in optical stabilisation works rather well too, and we were happily holding shots steady from the top of the London Gherkin without much trouble at all.
Under the hood the HX50 comes equipped with the same 20.4-megapixel sensor as found in the HX300 superzoom. Its back-lit construction, which Sony terms "Exmor R" is designed to produce lower-noise shots due to the wiring being placed at the back of the sensor's construction to leave a clearer path for light to travel. However we thought the aforementioned HX300 model had pushed the megapixel boat towards the upper limits, considering the 1/2.3-inch sensor size. We've shot some in-camera snaps with the HX50 and reviewed them on the 3-inch LCD screen, but this isn't a final firmware model so it's not possible to pass any absolute judgement at this pre-production stage in the product's cycle.
As can be seen in our hands-on shots, the HX50's layout has a variety of dials that will lure in the higher-end user. There's a mode dial to dive between point-and-shoot and manual modes, accompanied by a secondary exposure compensation dial to its side. On the back the rotational d-pad adjusts major settings, while the custom button can, as its name suggests, be set up to fast access your favoured setting.
Then the biggie: there's a multi interface hotshoe to the top centre which can be used in conjunction with various peripherals, including the FDA-EV1MK electronic viewfinder. Now that might be a good shout for the user who wants it all, but given that the viewfinder is priced at around £330 - the HX50 itself is anticipated to cost £350 - you'll want deep pockets too.
Combined the two do make for a grand user experience, even if some of the truly high-end stuff lacks. For example, where the heck's the raw file capture? We get that such a versatile lens will probably cause all kinds of blips and cover them up via means of JPEG processing, but we'd have thought that such a mode would have been included without a second thought, even if just to boost some shadow and highlight detail in post production or the like. Can't have it all, eh?
There are in-camera filter options on offer, including new toy camera, soft high key, beauty effect and more. Fun? It can be at the right times, but we would have liked raw files to have been included that much more.
Then there's the competition to think about. Panasonic's also unveiled its latest compact camera, the Lumix LF1, which has a larger sensor and built-in 0.2-inch electronic viewfinder. Of course that doesn't encompass the extensive zoom offered by the HX50, but it's still an attractive prospect to consider.
The HX50 also comes with built-in Wi-Fi - but no NFC, despite Sony's drive of the one-touch share concept throughout 2013 so far - and even though "GPS" (global position satellite) appears on the side of the pre-production body that we got to play with, it sounds as though this won't make the final cut - possibly as a way of keeping battery life to its best: Sony's quoting 400 shots per charge from the HX50 which, in context to its near competitors, sounds like a winner to us.
There's some good stuff here: the HX50 is like an advanced mini superzoom compressed into a small, good looking body with rounded edges. It may not have a large sensor, wide aperture It's expected to hit the shelves at the beginning of May, priced £350 in the UK.