Sony’s latest HX100V has a massive 30x optical zoom, GPS technology, and can even snap 3D images. Just how does it stand up against other superzoom models out there? We spent some time with the camera at its launch at Focus on Imaging.

The Sony Cyber-shot HX100V updates the HX1 that was announced back in 2009. The latter was the first camera to debut Sony’s now well-known (and well-copied) Sweep Panorama mode - something that the HX100V picks up and takes one step further.

But it’s not all about live panorama capture. Not even by half. The HX100V has some really impressive features that bring it bang up to date with the competition out there and, from our first use of it, we’re generally really impressed with the possibilities.

Fans of the Fujifilm HS10, or the new HS20 which we’ve also been playing with at this year’s Focus on Imaging, will see a whole host of similarities between the pair.

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The HX100V’s lens is a 30x optical zoom that equates to a 27-810mm equivalent. The original HX1 offered a 20x lens by comparison, so the latest model well and truly blows that one out of the water and aligns the model with other popular releases such as the Canon PowerShot SX30 IS. But, and here’s the really good part, the HX100V’s lens also includes a manual ring that can control the zoom or, by the flick of a switch to the side of the camera, turns into a manual focus ring. It’s really nice to use and the fact the control has a dual purpose means it’s very well placed for both tasks. Our only complaint with the model that we saw - which, by the way, is an unreleased pre-production model with more work yet to be done to it - was a slight delay from spinning the zoom ring to the lens actually moving. We presume this will be a fix that’ll be made prior to the model’s full and final release.

Where the HX100V goes one step further than the likes of the Fujifilm HS20, however, is with the inclusion of a lens-based image stabilisation system, otherwise known as Optical SteadyShot by Sony. It’s an absolute essential for long lenses with huge focal ranges such as this and works a treat too.

Using the HX100V is really good fun - and we like that from a camera. Not only are the lens controls potentially great, but there’s also both an electronic viewfinder and tilt-angle LCD screen. The first of the two is really nice to have, though it’s certainly not the best viewfinder in the world. Electronic viewfinders, inherent in the way they’re built and operate, are a lot like miniature versions of the LCD screen but tend to lack the same degree of resolution. The HX100V is no stranger to this as the image is fairly small, there was some lag and the resolution wasn’t especially high when viewed to the eye. But on the plus side at least there’s an extra level of support when shooting at those super-telephoto lengths. Moving onto the LCD screen and its rise over the HX1’s 230k-dot resolution to a higher-specified 3-inch, 920k-dot version can only be a good thing. The tilt-angle mount also means more obscure shots can be composed as you needn’t be facing front-on to the camera.

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The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the addition of a "V" at the end of the HX100’s name. Some kind of twisted Japanese logic mean that “stands for” GPS. The data is saved into the invisible back-end of the image file, known as EXIF data, where it can be brought up as a means to catalogue or arrange your images by place and time, or even upload and interact with online maps for example. Usually GPS technology means an extra chunk of cash is added onto the price of the camera, but the HX100V’s anticipated £400 price tag is actually really fairly reasonable for what it is. Most Sony products carry a bit of a price-premium, but the HX100 seems to be fairly balanced in its price approach. 

The HX100V’s image quality is something Sony was reluctant for us to reveal in any great length due to the camera’s currently unfinished status. However, from what we’ve already seen, the current quality is pretty decent. Those thinking that, because the HX100V looks at least a little bit like a DSLR, quality will be DSLR-like may well be disappointed however. There’re a few reasons for this: Primarily that the small 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor is far less significant than what you’d find in a DSLR system. But they’re very different beasts, so a comparison isn’t really worth thinking about.

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Then there’s the rise from the HX1’s 9-megapixels to a fairly staggering 16.2-megapixels in the HX100V - something we struggle to approve of. 16 megapixels produces a far larger file and image than your average punter is going to want to use and, given the massive zoom range, cropping is unlikely to be needed to a particularly great extent. Still, Sony is persisting with the megapixel race and a full 16 megapixels it is, but there are one or two other tricks up the company’s sleeve.

Closer examination of the spec sheet shows that the HX100V’s sensor is an Exmor R - the “R” standing for (and this is considering that same confused Japanese naming logic) “back-lit”. Now that’s a key difference, as backlit sensors are constructed entirely differently to conventional ones. It may sound a tad boring, but the wires in the sensor itself are moved further to the base in order to not interfere with the passing light and, therefore, you get a cleaner, brighter and better signal for, so the theory goes, a better final image. Still, will this be enough to counteract such a high megapixel count? Hopefully some intelligent processing technology will lead to image quality that you can’t shake a stick at. Until we get a final production model we can’t say much more than that though…

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Moving on from stills to moving images and, as is the trend in “stills” cameras these days, the Cyber-shot HX100V can capture Full HD 1080p50. The compression uses the H.264 codec and the quality is pretty buff indeed, though we didn’t have the opportunity to witness it outside the confines of the camera’s rear LCD screen. Should you want to do so then the camera does offer an HDMI-out port that can run images or movies to your HDTV or, if you have a 3D TV, then that can cater for the HX100V’s 3D shots too. But that’s a whole other thing…

Sony, a great purveyor of 3D solutions, seems fairly excited to introduce 3D to its stills cameras, the HX100 included. We’re sitting on the fence for this one, however, as there are just too many things that can go wrong when a single lens has to capture two images and stitch them together. Moving subjects aren’t really eligible for shooting, the composition needs to be totally different to a usual still image and, fairly crucially, the lack of distance separation from the first and second shots doesn’t provide quite the pronounced 3D effect that you may be looking for. As we’ve mentioned before, it’s currently only the Fujifilm W3 3D that can capture “truer” 3D images as it has a twin lens system and separation that’s similar to the 6.5cm between a human’s eyes. At the moment too many of these crucial things are overlooked for the sake of sticking “3D mode” on the box. At present the HX100V’s version feels a bit too primitive, not that we can knock it for being pretty darned clever.

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Elsewhere and the HX100V can now produce larger Sweep Panorama images than before. Something that, as yet, isn’t quite finished enough to critically comment on. The files we shot had various issues, but these will be fixed up in the immediate future we’re sure. Of course the idea of a bigger file makes a whole lot of sense for the type of use a panorama would usually be aimed at. It’s just a shame that, for any shooting mode, there’s no RAW capture available.

Price when reviewed:

First Impressions

All in all we’re very impressed with the HX100V. It’s the most highly-specified superzoom on the market, assuming you can forgive its less-than 35x zoom (think Canon SX30 IS) and not-so-wide 27mm wide-angle starting point (see the Fujifilm HS20’s 24mm wide-angle). But otherwise there’s not much that can better it, and, despite some shortcomings inherent in superzoom cameras, we think this’ll please a whole lot of people when it hits the shelves this April. 

Photos by Stuart Miles.