Cameras with big zooms yet handily pocket sized bodies - colloquially known as "travel zooms" - are being pumped out by manufacturers at a rate of knots, with recent recommended examples to be found amongst Panasonic's TZ series and in Canon's PowerShot SX210 IS.
The trade off in each case is that a longer internally folded lens necessitates a slightly broader depth than less ambitious 3x or 5x zoom compacts. And here a 10x optical zoom - providing a 25-250mm equivalent focal range in 35mm film terms - gives rise to the Sony Cyber-shot HX5's overall dimensions of 102.9 x 57.7 x 24.6mm and a weight of 170g excluding battery and card.
So how do you make this zoom compact stand out from the crowd? While Sony hasn't gone to town on the headline resolution, sticking at a sensible 10.2 effective megapixels from a 1/2.4-inch Exmor R CMOS sensor and offering low light sensitivity up to ISO 3200, this is coupled with a high quality "G" series lens.
The HX5's other main talking points are GPS tracking with nifty on-screen compass that shows the direction the camera was pointing when the photo was taken. The idea is that the location of geotagged images can be viewed when you're back from travelling as online maps, aided and abetted by the bundled Picture Motion Browser PC software.
Despite the marginally wider camera proportions - comparable in this example to a cigarette packet - the HX5 will still squeeze comfortably into a trouser pocket, and in being the usual solid-feel mix of metal and plastic it's more attractively styled than Canon's SX210 IS, matching Panasonic's likewise competing TZ family for looks. We had the sober black version in for review, but the HX10 is also available with a gold garnish.
The HX5 powers up for action in just less than 2 seconds, lens extending to maximum 25mm wide-angle setting - primed for any landscape shot that happens to present itself - the rear 3-inch, 4:3 ratio fixed LCD blinking into life to enable shot composition.
The screen is used for both framing and review in the expected absence of optical viewfinder, visibility being clear enough that we weren't reduced to cupping a hand around the screen when using the camera outdoors in the summer sun. While given the size of the screen it instinctively feels like this should be a touchscreen model - something we're becoming more used to in every variety of gadget - it isn't, shooting modes selected via a conventional dial on the top plate.
For those aiming to shoot in bright conditions, as an aid for shooting against the sun when you don't otherwise want to use fill-in flash, Sony has for the first time implemented an automatic exposure-adjusting Backlight Correction HDR (High Dynamic Range) feature on the HX5. Taking inspiration from similar functionality introduced on the company's Alpha DSLRs, the camera takes two images in rapid succession - so quick that in daylight you won't need a tripod, one biasing exposure for shadows, the other highlights - and combines them in camera to produce a single image that manages to avoid looking unnatural.
Press the shutter release button halfway in regular single shot mode and AF points illuminate in green onscreen, a simultaneous beep confirming that focus and exposure have been determined. Take the picture and a full resolution JPEG is committed to memory in 2-3 seconds. All timings are more than respectable for a camera in this price bracket, and generally the HX5 is as responsive to each button press, function navigation and selection as we'd have hoped for.
As, thankfully, with all the most recent Cyber-shots, there's a choice of using the widely compatible SD/SDHC cards or the manufacturer's own memory Stick Pro Duo; both sharing the one slot. Alternatively there's a 45MB internal capacity to fall back on if you've forgotten to buy the optional media at the same time as the camera.
On the HX5 we also get Sony's visually impressive Sweep Panorama function, more sophisticated than competing versions (Fujifilm's mostly excellent HS10 for example) in that it can now "intelligently" exclude moving subjects to help avoid blurred, disjointed overlaps when the process ends to form a single elongated shot. Panning left to right as instructed by the on-screen arrow, we tested this feature in London's busy Oxford Circus interchange and, although we experienced some ugly overlaps on occasion, on the whole achieved pleasingly seamless results.
Add in Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels AVCHD format video clips in stereo - this feature also located via the shooting mode dial though possessing its own separate red record button top right of the camera back - and, coupled with the above, makes the HX5's £299 asking price seems very fair. Unlike you might expect though, such current must-have functionality hasn't hindered or over-complicated operation. As the outward appearance indicates, at its heart this is a point-and-shoot model, with intelligent/smart auto control the most prominent of the 10-strong options on its top-mounted shooting mode wheel.
The snapshot nature of the camera inevitably means functions are biased towards not just landscapes but also taking people pictures - self-portraits at arm's length included. A new face detection-equipped Portrait setting for the latter ensures the HX5 checks you're adequately framed before the camera's shutter fires automatically.
Obviously with any camera with a longer lens reach intended for use handheld, camera shake can be a problem, resulting in blurred shots. Rather than just relying on software to boost shutter speed and ISO to combat this, the Sony more effectively utilises optical image stabilisation, avoiding telltale softness even when shooting at maximum telephoto (full zoom) setting. Stabilisation kicks in when shooting video, not just stills, so, along with the fact that the near-silent optical zoom can also be accessed in movie mode, the Sony comes slightly closer than most to being able to stake a claim as a jack-of-all-trades "dual" camera.
Luckily, with images downloaded and viewed on your desktop, photo quality is almost a match for the HX5's specification list, with warm, well saturated colour and plenty of detail delivered by regular single shot stills mode, as our test images testify. In terms of critical sharpness, results from the Sweep Panorama function are not as impressive as those from the most recent Sony NEX models - because here the panorama is in effect a video grab rather than a sequence of high-resolution stills - but they're still undeniably fun.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX5 is a competently constructed and thoughtfully featured compact at a keenly competitive price. For the amateur photographer wanting both portability and versatility in the one device - without actually trading up further and spending twice the outlay on a Micro Four Thirds type hybrid camera - the above combination ensures that the HX5 is well worth any expectant traveller seeking out. The only feature it conceivably misses out on at this level is the new 3D Sweep Panorama functionality added to the most recently announced trio of Sony Cyber-shot point and shoots. But unless you're the proud owners of 3D-enabled TVs to view the results on, the HX5 does more than enough to justify a place in your pocket, without battering the wallet next to it.