Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX5 digital camera review

On first glance the 10.2 effective megapixel resolution DSC-TX5 seems a modest addition to Sony's Cyber-shot series. Like the other credit-card sized models in the same range it resembles a cigarette case or makeup compact with its slender depth and shiny-mirrored metal fascia. The top half again slides down and opens to reveal lens and integral flash, activating the camera as the user performs this task. So taking a picture with the TX5 is pretty much as easy as taking one with a camera phone.

With overall dimensions of 94 x 56.9 x 17.7mm and a weight of 144g with card (SD, SDHC or Memory Stick Pro Duo) and battery, however there's rather more to this camera than meets the eye. And thankfully so, as with a high-ish asking price of £339 this isn't your average beginner's model.

Though not outwardly resembling the destruction-proof likes of the Pentax W90, Canon PowerShot D10 or even the Olympus Mju Tough cameras with their extra bulk and padding, this slimline Sony matches its rivals for near-indestructible spec. In a first for this manufacturer it is dustproof, waterproof to depths of 3 metres (or 10ft), shockproof-ed against drops from 1.5 metres and freezeproof to minus 10°C. Sony claims it is the thinnest and smallest camera of its ilk. One thing is sure; it's clearly much tougher than it looks, and gripped in the palm feels as well made and solid as you'd expect a product from this brand to be.

The other big talking point here is the fact that Sony's point-and-shoot operation is almost entirely controlled via 3-inch, 230,400-dot resolution widescreen ratio touchscreen, the camera's rear plate being devoid of any additional physical controls whatsoever. The only ones to be found are small and embedded within the top plate: lozenge-shaped shutter release button, teeny on/off button, rocker switch for controlling the zoom, plus dedicated playback button so shots can be reviewed without otherwise sliding open the lens cover to power the camera up.

So the TX5 manages the trick of looking fashionable in a minimalist way yet feeling fully functional. As expected at this snapshot level, consumers get a choice of body colours, here a luminous pink or green, red, black or silver.

At its heart this compact Cyber-shot features an Exmor R CMOS sensor, a higher-end feature which has trickled down from Sony's DSLRs, rather than the CCD conventionally found in this class of compact; its manufacturer claims this makes the camera twice as effective in low light. Further helping handheld photography in low light, and selected from among the camera's nine pre-optimised scene modes are Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes. To combat the effects of hand wobble in these modes the TX5 captures a burst of six frames in rapid machine gun-like succession and combines them to produce a single low noise, blur free image. An odd side effect we found is that this also seems to subtly de-saturate the colours otherwise present in the image.

In addition the Cyber-shot DSC-TX5 sports a wide-angle 4x optical zoom, focal range running from 25-100mm in 35mm film terms. As with the rest of its T-series siblings, at no point does the internally stacked Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens protrude from the body - so there's no chance of inadvertently clunking it against the sliding lens cover, whilst this also ensures overall dainty dimensions are maintained. Aiding usability the zoom is silent in operation, so it's no surprise that Sony has also allowed this feature to be accessible in HD video mode; 720p resolution at 30 frames per second and recorded in readily accessible on PC or Mac MPEG4 format.

Switch the camera on and you'll find the TX5 responds near instantaneously to any finger prod, though a plastic stylus that affixes to the wrist strap is also provided in the box. Despite its elongated 16:9 ratio, the LCD displays still images in the standard 4:3 digital photo ratio as its default setting, the black bands that therefore crop the image left and right used to house the operational icons, rather than having them more intrusively running top, bottom or across the screen, as on touchscreen compact competitors such as Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FS33.

On the Sony, captured images can be scrolled through simply by virtue of trailing a fingertip across the screen. Tapping an image allows the user to progressively zoom in and check detail. The TX5's touch panel therefore works as intuitively as you'd want a touchscreen product to.

As mentioned at the outset, recording of photos and video is to SD/SDHC or Memory Stick Pro Duo media. Unusually, these share a single slot, located next to the battery compartment at the camera's base. Though this might have been a space saving exercise, it makes for slightly fiddly operation if using Sony's proprietary Memory Stick - as it is physically smaller than SD so doesn't seem to fit as comfortably in the wider space provided. You have to wiggle it in and out of the slot, which is fiddly.

Nitpicking perhaps, and sure enough there are plenty of positives about the TX5 - HD video, plus Sony's unique and visually impressive Sweep Panorama function, which automatically stitches together a sequence of shots to provide a much broader single image than the already wider-than-most 25mm equivalent lens will otherwise allow. And all from a good-looking camera that will slip unobtrusively into a trouser, shirt, jacket pocket or handbag.

Holidaying with the camera, we inevitably found ourselves taking out the TX5 with us in preference to the higher end (but much bulkier) Panasonic G10 hybrid we also had with us at the time. The result is that you'll more likely end up taking pictures in situations you might not necessarily have bothered to before.

Under ideal shooting conditions the Sony delivers warm and colour-rich images that are sharp enough. Squeezing a wide-angle lens into a small space has had a slightly detrimental effect in that we noticed a loss of sharpness towards the corners of our frames when shooting at the widest possible setting. The Sweep Panorama pictures also have a look and feel closer to a video grab than a photograph upon close inspection; slightly fuzzy. Still, this feature again prompts the taking of images that you might not otherwise have considered worthwhile, so is a useful extra - particularly when you want to capture a scene with a 180°+ fullness that is closer to what your eyes perceive than is usually possible via a conventional lens.

The Exmor R sensor also lives up to the low light hype - to a point. Our test shots at ISO 1600 were as low on noise as those taken at ISO 800 with conventional CCD sporting compacts, and at the very top setting of ISO 3200 pictures still resembled photographs, rather than the fuzzy watercolour-like images rivals would produce at this setting.

So, the TX5 shapes up as a surprisingly comprehensive tool - surprising given its conventional (for Sony) and unassuming exterior. Just watch out for fingertips straying into shot when holding the camera in both hands to steady it; the lens positioning at the top right hand side of the fascia makes this a problem you quickly become familiar with.

Verdict

The Cyber-shot DSC-TX5 is something of a digital Trojan horse. That's down to the fact that it may well be the best looking "rugged" camera we've seen to date - unless the more obvious physical brawn of the Pentax Optio W90 appeals - and this doesn't seem to have compromised either form or function. With its slender 17.7mm depth in fact it's easy to forget about its toughened qualities and treat it with as much care as you would a conventional compact; that said we did manage minor chips to the paintwork carrying it in a pocket with keys.

Ultimately the Cyber-shot DSC-TX5 provides a wider array of features and shooting possibilities than more conventional compacts - but of course this versatility comes at a premium. Whether you think this justifies a price comparable to what could otherwise be spent on an entry-level digital SLR and lens bundle - in theory offering wider creative possibility, but additional bulk with it, probably depends on whether or not you're already an existing DSLR owner. Recommended, but with the caveat that a £299 price tag would be much more like it.