Looking for a snapshot camera diminutive enough to squeeze into the tightest of pockets, yet still packing in most of the latest must haves and remaining usable in the practical sense? Almost an exact match for a credit card, apart from its still slender 16.8mm depth, Sony’s flat fronted 14.1-effective megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-T99 with its slide open and shoot lens cover might just be the answer.
It weighs 105g without rechargeable lithium ion battery, SD card or Sony’s Memory Stick Pro Duo (which share the same slot), comes with an attractive brushed metal faceplate, and official dimensions are 93 x 55.6 x 16.8mm. You certainly wouldn’t want it much smaller.
In the dinky stakes it goes up against the likes of Nikon’s Coolpix S5100 and the Olympus FE-5050. But unlike those models the T99 also offers a 3-inch 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio touchscreen LCD at the back, with standard 230,4000 dot resolution, which means the T99 is almost free of physical controls. If you find touchscreens a little fiddly, this Sony provides an “easy” shooting mode that lets users enlarge font and on-screen button sizes, as well as pare back functionality to the bare essentials.
The only buttons found on this camera are located on its top plate. There’s the necessary shutter release button and main power button, both recessed and level with the sleek curve of the body, with a dedicated playback button on the slope just above the LCD at the rear, plus a toggle for operating the internally stacked 4x optical zoom. This is situated at the top right edge of the top plate and has a ridged surface so your finger doesn’t slip as you nudge it left or right to zoom back and forth. The extra purchase is useful as, like the camera itself, it’s tiny. So those with sausage fingers are advised to look elsewhere.
Of course in searching for a competent pocket snapper you don’t want to spend so little that you end up with a dud. And in that respect the T99 is a reassuring £179; not too pricey given its happy snappy status, nor so cheap you start to worry it might not be up to the job.
However there has to be some concession to budget, especially when other similarly featured cameras are stacked within Sony’s Cyber-shot range. One of those is the fact that the T99 offers “just” 1280 x 720 pixels video clips rather than the Full HD 1920 x 1080, and there’s no dedicated HDMI output for hooking it up to a flat panel TV, just standard AV/USB out via an exposed port at the base and supplied multi purpose cable. It also shoots in MPEG4 format rather than the AVCHD of pricier models, although on a positive note the former is easier accessed on older Macs and PCs.
Fortunately, although there’s no dedicated video record button so that shooting mode has to be first selected in preference to others, the full extent of the very quiet optical zoom can be accessed when shooting video, as well as stills. The zoom’s action is smooth and steady, helping to avoid those jerky transitions. It glides through its entire wide-angle 25-100mm equivalent focal range in a couple of seconds, which isn’t bad. The touchscreen also is responsive, with only the very briefest of pauses at each inquisitive prod.
There are three different ways to power up this camera. Either slide open the lens cover – the simplest option – alternatively press the playback button if all you want to do is review pre-captured shots or video, or press the top mounted control, the camera then prompting you to open the lens cover anyway. The shortest route to firing off the first shot takes all of a couple of seconds, time enough for the rear LCD utilised for shot composition to blink into life. Slide the lens cover shut to immediately power the T99 down. Operation really is that easy.
A half press of the shutter release button and green-framed auto focus point/s appear on screen with a beep indicating sharpness and exposure has been determined and the user is free to take the shot. A top resolution JPEG is committed to memory in 3 seconds. The LCD blanks out briefly and then freezes with the captured shot as the image is being written to the choice of card or internal 32MB memory.
In terms of image quality we noticed some loss of focus towards the edges of the frame when shooting at maximum wideangle, and when taking photographs or video under grey wintry skies, it’s fair to say results distinctly lacked bite. Colour, unusually for a Sony, appeared flat and washed out, while the small lens struggled to provide the pin sharp detail that we like to see. Pixel fringing between areas of high contrast also made a showing.
Sony has included its dynamic range optimizer (DRO) settings on the T99 for theoretically better results when you’re faced with dark foregrounds and bright backgrounds. These are manually swappable with “standard” being the default, and “DRO Plus” being the more extreme. The feature here appears more window dressing than practically useful.
For anyone attempting to shoot in low light without flash, the possibility of handshake and camera wobble is real as there’s nothing in the way of a grip on the T99 to get a firm hold on when shooting handheld.
Both the rear screen and metal fascia are slippery to the touch, and the LCD will rapidly become full of finger and thumbprints as you wrestle with it. Above ISO 800, as expected, image noise begins to creep in, pictures progressively gritty in appearance at ISO 1600. By ISO 3200 we’re losing detail to the extent that images take on the look of Impressionist paintings rather than sharply defined photos. The above is no great surprise given that the T99 costs what it does of course. Good results are achievable, but it’s hit and miss.
Just small/large enough for usability not to suffer unduly, the T99 feels like good value for its asking price if all you want to do is take the occasional snap.
Inevitably there are better performing examples out there for just £50 more – including Sony’s own Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 that adds Full HD video, 3D Sweep Panorama (to the T99’s 2D variety), bright lens and an Exmor sensor. The pictures from this camera are a lot better in comparison.
That said if all you really do want to do is point and shoot and get fair quality results with minimal fuss and without spending a fortune, then the T99 should be more rather more satisfactory.