The W300 is a svelte and stylish snapper from Sony; its titanium, scratch resistant bodywork has a good heft (though it’s a pity the scratch resistant coating did not extend to the screen, which arrived already scratched from previous reviewers), as does the number of pixels crammed onto the camera’s 1/1.7-inch Super HAD CCD: you get 13.6-megapixels worth of them.

A 2.7-inch colour LCD is rather refreshingly backed-up by an optical viewfinder, though that is a little blurry to use; it’s useful none the less as it can help to save battery power or give you another framing tool when the screen’s hard to use – in direct sunlight for example.

Handling wise, the camera’s small size means controls are also small, the on/off button being a little fiddly on the top plate and the zoom buttons on the back also proving a challenge for my rather large thumb.

A cluster of other controls on the back include a small mode dial for access to the main shooting options and includes an Easy mode (like point and shoot, but with even less information about what’s happening, the green auto mode, a high ISO mode and an extra high sensitivity mode of ISO 6400. Here the resolution drops to 3-megapixels as well and noise is very intrusive indeed at this setting.

A smile shutter mode allows the camera to monitor faces for a smile and only then will it trigger the shutter and this works rather well as long as faces are not too small in the scene and they are looking directly at the camera. It’s part of the face detection AF system, which also works well enough, providing the faces on show are not in profile or backlit.

Eight scene modes include a soft focus mode, landscape shooting and night scene mode too, so the usual (but limited compared with some maker’s cameras) suspects for fast access to basic shooting opportunities.

A four-way jog button layout provides the flash, macro and self-timer modes, toggles the display and helps scroll through the camera’s menus or images in playback. A neat “Home” button allows you to quickly fire up the camera’s entire menu system that uses a PlayStation 3-alike XrossMediaBar layout for options.

A dedicated slide show button is also a novelty and plays music along with the images stored on the camera’s modest 15MB of internal memory or on the Memory Stick Duo (or Pro Duo, or Pro Duo High Speed or Pro-HG Duo) external memory cards.

However, menus and the menu system overall is frustratingly slow to use, seemingly trawling your button selections through the stickiest of treacle, so fleet of foot this camera is not. Ditto image processing, particularly if you use the effective D-Range Optimiser system, which can nicely balance highlights and shadows without affecting detail in either, and when noise reduction is active. The W300 can take up to 5 seconds to process an image and this despite Sony’s BIONZ image engine beavering away in the background.

Use the small, rather underpowered flash, and the processing and recharge time for a shot extends to around 6 or 7 seconds.

On the plus side the camera features Sony’s "iSC" technology, or Intelligent Scene Recognition, whereby the camera "looks" at the scene to be shot and selects what the camera "thinks" is the correct mode for the subject, and it does it rather well too.

Metering is good while the white balance is okay, although the auto setting can produce slight orange casts in mixed indoor lighting. In terms of image quality overall, as long you keep the sensitivity to the below ISO 400 you’ll not be disappointed. Above here, things become more problematic, as all those tiny pixels (even though this is a slightly larger sensor than found on some similar competing compacts) jostle for light.

Image noise is intrusive over ISO 800 and above ISO 1600, think screen use only for those shots. Luckily the effective image stabilisation allows use of lower sensitivities even in lower light and thankfully, the crisp 3x zoom lens provides a bright, F/2.8 aperture that helps get a good amount light onto the sensor, well at least at the wide end of the zoom.

Within the camera’s program and manual modes, you get to control the ISO used (via menus) up to ISO 400, or you can switch to ISO Auto and here the camera picks an ISO from the range available, up to the highest ISO of 3200. Or you can use the "ISO" and/or the "ISO+" mode from the mode dial to get at the highest, ISO 3200 and 6400 settings respectively.

Colour and detail within images is excellent up to ISO 400, BIONZ processing making a good fist of balancing detail, colour and sharpness, though I’d argue images are slightly soft at the default setting. I also noticed purple fringing on some high contrast shots but it’s no worse than on similar models from other manufacturers.

Verdict

Overall then, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W300 provides a robust and scratch free snapping environment thanks to its superb build. Handing is on the twee side as the camera controls are small but you do get an optical viewfinder, always a bonus in these days of big screen compacts.

Image quality is more than suitable for most prints sizes up to and over A3 providing you don’t push the sensitivity levels too high, but it takes while to get used to the slow menus and write speeds, both something of a disappointment on a camera such as this and at this price.

The W300 suffers problems with noise at higher sensitivities and although it’s well made, is suitably specified and jam-packed with pixels, it is just too sluggish at pumping pixel data from the camera to memory card to achieve a higher score.