The Sony Cyber-shot HX20V is part of Sony’s summer refresh of its compact camera range. The update to the excellent HX9V, the HX20V’s title digits may have jumped by a margin of 11, but can this latest model crank up the performance dial by similar proportions?
Big zoom, little body
There was a time when compact cameras wouldn’t offer much in the lens department. The Sony HX20V, along with other models such as the Panasonic Lumix TZ30, has changed this: the small-bodied Sony crams in a 20x optical zoom lens. Such a zoom used to be the stuff of far larger superzoom cameras, but the travel zoom market is catching up to the consumer demand for far-reaching lenses.
With a 25mm (equivalent) wide-angle setting the HX20V is great for capturing wide-angle landscapes or group portrait shots, yet the 20x zoom’s maximum 500mm equivalent can pick off far-away subjects too. Although versatile, the compromise can, at times, be the more critical quality. For example purple fringing – purple edges that "bleed" or "shadow" subject edges – is noticeable at the wider-angle zoom settings, as is some softness towards the edge of the frame.
Still, as with all such cameras, there’s a weigh-up between overall quality, product price, and what’s technically possible within the confines of the design. The Sony’s lens is all about its formidable range, whereas its f/3.2-5.8 aperture – which controls the maximum amount of light that can enter the lens at wide-angle through to telephoto focal lengths – is straightforward "bread and butter" stuff, rather than anything special. Again, this is a consideration of both scale and cost: anything more impressive would require the whole camera design to bloat to undesirable proportions. As it stands the HX20V is a mere 34mm wide when switched off. Impressive stuff.
But there are equal highs: the lens-based image stabilisation system works a treat, steadying images in preview and ensuring sharp shots after pressing the shutter.
If there’s one thing the HX20V isn’t short of, it’s an abundance of features.
There’s global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to geo-tag images or a new log record setting to trace a journey in real time. Like with other recent Sony models these logged routes can then be played back via Google Earth and will also display any images shot on the route.
Although there’s a small pause after taking a photo, which makes shot-to-shot time a teeny bit slow, the HX20V counters this with its fast 10 frames per second burst mode. The camera whirrs through all 10 shots in less than a second, then shows a two by five grid of each image as they render to the SD card.
But it’s the overall autofocus performance that demands the most praise. Compact cameras have got faster and faster in the past couple of years and this Sony is up there with the best of ‘em.
Not only will the camera acquire focus in next to no time irrelevant of the focal length, but it’s the range of focus types that also impresses. If you’re a straightforward point-and-shoot kind of person then the camera will take care of all your needs using multi AF and face detection. There’s even a smile shutter that will recognise when your subject is smiling sufficiently before the camera will take a shot.
More advanced modes come in the form of centre AF, flexible spot AF and two manual modes: semi manual and full manual focus. Although the manual focus “jolts” between focus depths, rather than smoothly transitioning with total accuracy, it’s a desirable feature that will only be found in other high-end compacts.
Like the recent – and, we might add, similar-named – Sony HX200V superzoom camera, the HX20V has updated from its predecessor’s 16.1-megapixel sensor to new 18.2-megapixel 1/2.3in CMOS sensor.
It seems that camera manufacturers are still playing "the megapixel race" by squeezing more pixels on to the same, small sensor sizes. It’s a risky strategy as the theory goes that more megapixels means less light, a weaker signal and, therefore, lower image quality.
However the HX20V manages to impress. Shots are colourful, well exposed and, for the most part, auto white balance is on the money too.
The ISO 100-12,800 sensitivity range may sound broad but, like so many other compacts, the upper echelons of this range aren’t of much use. Avoid ISO 3200-12,800, however, and the Sony does a cracking job for this target market.
In part this is down to the back-lit sensor dealing well with low-light situations, but there’s also an impressive superior auto mode that can (though doesn’t always) snap multiple frames and process each differently to generate a single image that’s both sharper and lower-noise than a standard shot. And it really works.
Although the lowest ISO settings are clear, processing gets incrementally more aggressive to the detriment of images from about ISO 400 and above. Hardened image-makers may find the resulting "smoothed-out" appearance lacking ultra-fine detail, though we think shots are well matched for the point-and-shoot snapper or travelling holidaymaker.
Just like its HX200V cousin, the HX20V has controls for image brightness, colour and vividness - offering more user control than many other compacts offer. In addition there are picture effects that range from partial colour – which isolates or "colour pops" – in a choice of red, green, blue or yellow, among other more conventional in-camera options such as toy camera or black and white mode.
Once at the full extent of the camera’s zoom there’s another trick up Sony’s sleeve: "clear digital zoom" technology is a digital zoom that can magnify a further 2x (to a 1000mm equivalent maximum) but still outputs a full-size 18.2-megapixel file. The algorithm that Sony uses to do this is a bit like Photoshop’s resampling method, whereby surrounding pixels are examined to define what the new pixels should look like. There is a cut-off point where this mode is a bit out of its depth, but the results we obtained at the shallower end of the digital zoom were decent.
As well as the aforementioned superior auto mode, a variety of scene modes, iSweep Panorama, and a Manual setting also feature. However, there's no sign of either aperture or shutter priority settings, just manual or programme auto modes. A complaint we had of its HX9 predecessor.
Movie mode also features on the mode dial, or can be activated using the one-touch button to the rear of the camera. The 1080p files are captured at 50 frames per second and it’s possible to use the zoom while recording to get the utmost out of capture.
The HX20V is a top travel zoom camera, but it’s just too expensive. Just shy of £400 is about £100 more than the Canon PowerShot SX260, and £70 more than the Panasonic Lumix TZ30’s launch price.
If you’ve got deep pockets then there’s plenty of goodness to be had: that big zoom range, a small and well designed body, great autofocus ability, stacks of features including GPS, 10fps burst and great auto modes.
Overall we’re definitely a fan, but with so many manufacturers clamouring for a place at the top of the travel zoom compact podium, the Sony is let down by that hefty price tag.