Sony Cyber-shot HX200V review

4.5 out of 5
£429

For

Manual zoom and focus ring, extensive zoom range, excellent image stabilisation, faster and more accurate autofocus than much of the competition, GPS

Against

No raw file shooting, image quality ok but no better than standard compact

Impressed by last year’s HX100V model, the arrival of the latest HX200V left team ‘Lint excited about what new surprises this Sony superzoom would have in store.

Touting the same 30x optical zoom – or 27-810mm equivalent – lens as its predecessor, the biggest change to this latest model comes in the form of the new 18.2-megapixel sensor that’s under the hood. But will this megapixel increase see a shift in image quality for better or worse?

What’s the angle?

Like buses, you wait ages for one and then three come along at once. The superzoom market seems to be following the same trend: the release of the Fujifim HS30EXR, Nikon P510 and now the Sony HX200V mean that there’s a lot of choice out there. And that’s not forgetting last year’s Canon SX40HS and Panasonic’s FZ150.

The HX200V houses a 30x optical zoom lens instead of the super-wide-angle 24mm of many competitors, it has an ever-so-slightly-longer 27mm equivalent as its widest-angle. It’s still good enough for group shots, and while that 3mm may not sound like much it does make a notable difference in how much the frame "opens up". But this also means that once zoomed in to its full potential the camera has an 810mm equivalent zoom. That’s some far-reaching stuff, ideal for picking off distant subjects so that they fill out the frame.

The Sony’s other standout feature is the inclusion of GPS – Global Positioning Satellite – technology. It’s not so much a rarity in many gadgets these days, but it’s found in only a handful of superzoom cameras.

Activate this feature and it’s possible to attribute shots with location data that can come in handy when cataloguing, uploading online or associating to some websites. The HX200V also goes the extra mile by offering log record – a feature able to trace your journey and then play back the route and any associated images in Google Earth.

At the controls

Although the HX200V is a near carbon copy of its HX100V predecessor – excluding a redesigned grip – we’re pleased as punch with overall layout.

On the back of the camera there’s a 3-inch, 920K-dot vari-angle LCD, complimented by a built-in 201k-dot electronic viewfinder. Although the small size can prove a frustration and the viewfinder resolution isn’t especially high – indeed it’s the very same finder as its predecessor, or that found in the Nikon P510 – it’s still a welcome tool. However, the similarly priced Fujifilm HS30EXR does outperform every other consumer superzoom in the viewfinder department, so the Sony has some catching up to do.

Most compact cameras have a zoom toggle control around the shutter to control zoom. Now, while the HX200V has this control its lens also has a manual ring that can be instead. To make it more versatile the flick of a switch to the side of the lens barrel assigns it manual focus control instead. This means both zoom and manual focus are ideally placed to the hand, and controlling the camera feels more advanced than a standard compact. Whichever control you chose, there’s the benefit to different shooting styles - the zoom toggle is great for an extra steady hold in movie mode, or you may zoom with the toggle and manually focus with the lens ring. It’s a cracking design.

The lens itself also features Sony’s optical SteadyShot image stabilisation technology to counteract handshake. As the technology is lens-based it provides not only a steadier preview image when composing, but also helps keep shots all the sharper. With such long focal lengths available this is an essential to have – and it works a treat.

Another quirky new feature is the display level; a spirit-level-like digital gauge that can overlay the screen or viewfinder to assist with shooting that perfect, straight horizon.

Pro performer?

Just behind the shutter button the HX200V has a dedicated focus button that opens up the autofocus area controls: there’s multi, centre point, or flexible spot AF where the focus area can be user-defined on the LCD screen by using the rear d-pad. This last option adds that extra level of control that will be essential for certain shooting situations, though the auto modes are also reliable.

The autofocus system is quick and responsive, and although close-focus isn’t the camera’s strong point, it’s more than capable of acquiring subject focus throughout the full range of the zoom, right to its full extension that’s not something that can be said for all its competitors. A quick comparison between the Nikon P510 and Fujifilm HS30EXR sees the Sony come out on top - it’s quicker and more accurate.

Just next to the focus button is a custom button that, by default, controls exposure lock but can be also set up to quick-access white balance, ND filter, metering or smile shutter instead.

New sensor: triumph or too trying?

When we reviewed the HX100V in May 2011, we remarked that although image quality was good, the 16.2-megapixel sensor wasn’t able to pull off the “critical detail” that we’d hoped for.

So for Sony to squeeze in yet another two million pixels and up the resolution to 18.2-megapixels in the HX200V set alarm bells ringing. More megapixels spread across the same 1/2.3in sensor surface means light is spread more thinly, which can produce a poorer signal and, therefore, poorer image quality.

However the HX200V’s images are similar, if not better-processed, than the previous model, in spite of the resolution increase. At the preview launch of the HX200V we were told that this latest sensor is twice as sensitive at the sensor level compared to the HX100V, thanks to a new design. It seems this little nugget of information seems to go some way to explain our findings.

The HX200V’s images appear sharper compared to the HX100V’s shots, and any purple fringing – those "bleeding" purple edges around some subjects - are cleared up with greater attention.

ISO sensitivity begins at ISO 100 and ranges up to ISO 12,800. High ISO settings can be useful in low-light conditions, where the signal is amplified and processed to produce a bright, accurate exposure. However, such amplification produces image noise which shows as white and/or coloured flecks throughout an image. In-camera processing attempts to remove such nasties, but in so doing softens and blurs detail and mutes true colour presence.

The Sony’s ISO 100-200 settings are of good enough quality, while ISO 400-1600 progressively diminish in quality but still remain of use. ISO 3200 is significantly softer, ISO 6400 of little use and ISO 12,800 close to useless. We’d not recommend shooting above ISO 1600 in order to hold on to some of that all-important detail in your shots. Though, ideally it’s ISO 100 that’s the real winner.

Like its predecessor there’s also in-camera controls for sharpness, colour saturation, contrast and noise reduction to add that extra lick of detail. It’s only possible to see the results off-camera though, so you’ll need to tweak with the settings and view files in full before you know what suits. Not many consumer cameras have such detailed menu settings, so kudos to Sony. It’s just a shame that there’s no raw file capture available.

As with any superzoom camera, those looking for a DSLR-beater will need to consider the compromises of an all-in-one “big lens compact sensor” purchase. Casual users will be more than happy with the HX200V’s image quality, yet those looking to use full resolution files for critical detail prints might not get quite everything they want here.

But there’s more

As well as controls for brightness, colour and vividness, the HX200V also introduces a smattering of picture effects. These range from the casual, such as Toy or Pop, to the more extreme, including partial colour, that isolates red, green or blue within a scene and sets everything else to black and white (also known as colour popping).

And if that 30x optical zoom isn’t quite enough for you then the inclusion of Sony’s latest technology, dubbed “Clear Digital Zoom”, is able to digitally zoom from 30x up to 60x while upscaling the image so that the output size is still the same 18.2-megapixels in size. The algorithm that Sony uses to do this isn’t too crude either: a bit like Photoshop’s clever resampling and the HX200V’s shots retain enough detail. Not bad for what is, in essence, a digital zoom mode. There is a cut-off point where it’s a bit out of its depth, but this is digital zoom at its best and offers a quick and efficient way to gain a 1620mm equivalent.

The camera’s main mode dial is host to a variety of manual and auto modes, including the famed sweep panorama. Sony’s pioneering technology, which captures images in real time as the camera is rotated and stitches them together into a panoramic shot, is now available in its latest carnation: iSweep Panorama. This adds the ability to shoot a full 360° shot, or the usual 270° at a higher resolution than its predecessor.

Movie mode, too, is an eye-catching 1080p at 50 frames per second. Activated via a one-touch movie button on the rear of the camera, the settings and autofocus are automated, though it’s possible to use the 30x zoom in real time. It’s slow to progress through its zoom range, but this keeps the resulting footage smoother as a result. Autofocus can be a little slow to catch up compared to stills shooting, but it does a good job for the most part and the image stabilisation is excellent.

Verdict

The HX200V takes Sony’s already decent superzoom formula and further improves the recipe.

Although we had anticipated that image quality would be a step down compared to its predecessor, the HX200V’s new 18.2-megapixel sensor delivers the goods. Sure the shots aren’t going to see off those from larger sensor cameras such as DSLRs, but they are sharp and well processed, even if no more standout compared to other compact cameras.

Its the 30x zoom lens with its manual zoom/focus ring and zoom toggle combination that makes the HX200V what it is. Autofocus is fast and image stabilisation is also a winner. There are few moans to be had, though at £429 it is a pricey bit of kit – more expensive than its nearest competitors.

The HX200V may be up against some other tip-top 30x zoom cameras but it more than holds its weight. This is one feature-packed superzoom that delivers across the board.