Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W380 camera

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W380 is a compact camera that offers a range of features in a pocket-friendly package. Aimed firmly at the point and shoot end of the market, the W380 is amongst the smallest compact cameras out there measuring 91.7 x 51.9mm, but not the slimmest at 19.7mm thick. Weighing 133g (with battery and memory card), it is certainly light too.

But small and light only really impresses if the quality of construction and materials is beyond question and with the W380 that isn't the case. Assembled from plastics, the W380 feels cheap, a feeling exacerbated when you power it on and deploy the lens. Unfortunately the two sections of the telescopic lens housing rattle around alarmingly, both when extended and when folded away, so we have some concerns over the build quality of the camera overall.

We don't often mention packaging unless something really noteworthy crops up and in this case we think it is worth giving Sony a slap on the wrist. The box has the Full HD 1080 logo on it, with the words "Still image" in tiny print underneath. At first glance you might be fooled into thinking it shoots 1080 video, which it doesn't and this seems to be deliberately misleading.

In keeping with the small dimensions, on the rear of the camera you'll find a 2.7-inch screen, although the 960 x 240 pixel resolution and viewing angles of this screen are limited, so it isn't the most impressive for viewing or composing your images.

Controls are relatively simple, however, and clearly marked on the camera. The top plate offers power and the shutter release. To the right of the screen on the rear you'll find all the other controls. These are fairly conventional, with a mode dial offering just six shooting positions, in keeping with the simple positioning of this camera.

Those six shooting modes include the normal iAuto mode, which scans the scene and picks the appropriate preset, which works well enough for landscape, macro and backlit subjects especially. Easy mode is exactly as it suggests, giving a simple display free from the additional information the other modes offer. The Scn or scene mode gives you 11 presets, again, a simpler approach than the bloated offering that some rivals will give you.

Program mode offers the most control, where you can adjust the ISO, white balance, metering mode, focal zones and so on. After this you get the video shooting mode and the headline Sweep Panorama has its own place on the dial.

Sweep Panorama works rather well, guiding you through a slow sweep across the scene to capture a very wide image, 180 degrees in total. The resultant image comes out at 4912 x 1080 pixels, so whatever screen you show it on, it will always be a narrow band. It is, perhaps, a little too wide. We've seen similar offerings on compacts before (e.g., Olympus, but with single shots stitched together), which aren't as wide, but aren't as smooth either. It’s a nice feature to play with, even if the resultant image is lacking in detail.

Below the mode dial is the normal four-way controller with a central "ok" button. Again, like other parts of this camera, the build quality is questionable, giving a suspicious creak when pressed. This offers a toggle for the display information, flash control, self timer and lets you engage Smile Shot.

Video capture (MPEG4) is offered at an "HD" 720p resolution, but despite cramming in those horizontal lines to qualify for the HD badge, the quality isn't anything special. Video is typically noisy in both the image and audio senses. In good light we found that noise was evident along with a general lack of detail, indoors the noise was apparent too as you'd expect. At this price though, you shouldn't expect the greatest performance, and the video is fine for online use, but lacks the impact you might want if you plan to play it on your HD TV. It's disappointing that there is no HDMI and only a bespoke connection, a bundled cable offers a Composite video connection to your TV.

We said that video was noisy in the audio sense too. This isn't just the on-board mono microphone, which typically suffers from wind noise, but the camera also seems to whirr and chirp whilst recording video and in quiet scenes you'll hear this in your audio track. It might be the Optical SteadyShot image stabilisation, but the noises were present both when handheld and tripod mounted. Optical zooming is possible, but again, you'll hear the lens grinding in and out.

The lens is a Sony Lens G, offering 5x optical zoom, equating to 24-120mm in 35mm terms. It is rated at F/2.4 at the wide angle, which is becoming the average for compact cameras, but doesn't really offer enhanced low light shooting which the numbers suggest. It isn't blighted by excessive distortion at either end of the range to its credit.

The W380 starts-up in a couple of seconds (with a clatter, as we mentioned), snapping off the first picture fairly fast. There is something of a delay as images are buffered to the memory card - it accepts SD/SDHC or Sony's Memory Stick Duo in a slot on the bottom alongside the battery.

Focusing is good and quick, often picking up the subject with little effort. Metering is good and we were happy with the balance of colours that came out of our test shots. Details can get a little lost, especially in high contrast scenes, and edges display the customary purple fringing that many smaller compact cameras exhibit.

Noise is a problem in lower light, with maximum ISO 3200 setting giving a completely mottled appearance, however images up to ISO 1600 would be fine to use online for candid shots where quality isn't important. Noise is evident from even low ISO settings in lower light conditions however, which impacts on image quality overall.

The flash is a little harsh and it does tend to produce red-eye. If faces are recognised you can clean this red-eye up within the camera. Face detection works rather well and goes hand-in-hand with the Smile Shutter, which will take a shot when it detects a smile. This works for self-portraits too, but you do really have to smile and give it some teeth. For those with a sombre disposition, you might find it will never take a picture. For those happy chaps out there it can be a lot of fun, and a great way to catch children at the right moment.

The Sony Cyber-shot W380 is a simple camera to use however, with the P (program) mode the only real area letting you dive into any significant settings. For those who just want a point and shoot model, then this should appeal: why get carried away with shooting modes you don't want? Access to settings is easy too, with the Menu button springing up a left-hand on-screen menu for you to change those settings pertinent to that shooting mode.

The battery offers around 220 shots from a full charge, which given the size of the camera, is about average. The camera also comes in a range of colours, offerings black, silver, gold and the "red" model we tested, although we'd say it was bordering on pink.

Verdict

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W380 is a simple to use camera that will return average results for those looking for a point and shoot compact. It doesn't try and complicate things or set itself above its station, except perhaps with the 14.1-megapixel sensor, a number that seems unnecessarily high for this type of camera, which is likely to be the cause of the image quality problems we detected.

We like the simplified mode dial and easy access to features like the Sweep Panorama. The compact form is appreciated too, but the build quality does raise suspicions: it feels cheap in the hand and the button presses and screen pass this on to the user experience too. The video offering is also disappointing, especially on the audio front.

Overall then, we are left with a camera that can be bettered by many from a performance and build quality point of view, but for those with a limited budget it may appeal, with a few fun features thrown in.