16mp in my pocket? Are you kidding me?
What is it?
The Sony Cybershot HX9V is a top-end compact all-in-one camera, akin to the Coolpix S9100 or Fujifilm F550EXR. With a 16mp 1/2.3" BSI CMOS sensor and a 24-384mm (equivalent) f/3.3-4.9 zoom optically-stabilized lens, this is one of the so-called all-in-one travel cameras, because it tries to be everything all at once, in a small, pocketable form.
Lens fully extended (384mm equivalent)
Sony emptied the shelves when putting features into this little beast. There's an HDR mode, a 3D mode, special anti-motion blur facilities, a twilight mode to lower noise by stacking images, a built-in GPS, a panorama sweep mode, and more. Believe it or not, it can shoot 16mp images at 10 fps when set for that. HD video doesn't just give you 1080P, it gives you 1080P at 60 fps (2x or 2.4x slow motion depending upon how you view it) (PAL regions get 50 fps.). You can even download audio files for incorporation with in-camera slide shows.
Where they cut back that impacts serious shooters boils down to basically two things: limited exposure modes (P and M, no S or A) and no raw files. Depending on what you're expecting and how you shoot, that might take the HX9V off your consideration list right there, but it'll pretty much take all of the all-in-one travel cameras off your list. (The Fujifilm F550EXR shoots raw, but in my estimation, that camera doesn't provide you enough basic goodness to warrant fiddling with it.)
The camera comes in black for US$380 or less.
How's it Handle?
I've looked at a lot of the all-in-one travel cameras. In particular, the Coolpix S8100, S9100, the Fujifilm F550EXR, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS8. I've not written about them because they just failed to accomplish anything that was interesting to me. My bar is set at the Canon Powershot S95 or Panasonic LX-5 as a minimum. To get enough attention from me to get reviewed here a compact camera has to get above that bar in some way. Handling is part of it, performance is the other part.
The HX9V barely clears the bar in handling. Oh, the basics are all there: mode dial (even though we only have P and M for serious shooters) and the overloaded direction pad interface you expect on compacts. What saves Sony is two things: (1) the Menu button brings up something akin to a Quick Menu while shooting, and it's very easy to navigate and understand. Changing critical things like white balance may be a few button presses away, but it doesn't feel like lots of button pressing. Moreover, these things aren't cryptic icons, but fully formed options that display useful contextual help. You'll find what you need fast and easy enough. (2) The Custom button on the top of the camera can be assigned to ISO, white balance, or exposure compensation. In other words, just enough of the most-often used controls are not far away. You can also save three camera settings into memory and recall them. On the flip side, this is a small camera, so the buttons are small, and in the case Custom button, indented, so difficult to toggle for some.
The HX9V has a mild rubberized grip, so despite its near S95-like size, it's easily holdable, a welcome change from some other cameras in its class. The mode dial tends to stay put.
How's it Perform?
Again with the small batteries (910mAh). With a GPS on board, that can chew through your batteries pretty quickly. Especially since the GPS isn't exactly instant in acquisition, so you'll be powering it on for longer periods if you really like that feature. Carry extras. Always. Even if you don't use GPS.
While the camera is slow to power up (2+ seconds), the autofocus speed and shutter lag feel better than expected. Image review is slow and tedious for some reason.
Most users will probably be a bit surprised by this camera. At first glance, the JPEGs look quite good for 16mp. But a close up pixel peeping inspection will show noise reduction being used. The lens appears up to the resolution of the sensor, too, so there's not a lot of falloff of sharpness to the edges. Contrast seems a bit over the top for me at the default settings. Distortion is well controlled and it appears that Sony may be doing chromatic aberration reduction in-camera, too, as there simply isn't any worth speaking about.
High ISO performance (and by high, I mean ISO 400 on this size camera), is disappointing. Sony is over aggressive in all forms of noise reduction (luminance and chroma), which gives you the plastic-fantastic look in small detail. Of course, with 16mp, small detail is indeed small. If you're using this camera for Web work and small prints, you'll probably not mind at all. I wish there was an option to tune the NR, but alas, there is not, nor is there a raw option.
The HX9V has a few processing tricks up its sleeve, though. There's a Twilight mode multiple shot stacking that works pretty well for static subjects in low light. The panorama stitching sometimes works like a charm for me, but seems to be a bit more finicky in pan speed and consistency than some of the others I've tried. The HDR function is a little hit or miss: sometimes it gives me stunningly good blending, sometimes you see clear ghosting. The background blur and 3D modes seem gimmicky to me, and neither quite give me what I was expecting.
Video performance is unexpectedly great. That's really the reason why I'm covering this camera at all. If you need a relatively clean 1080P/60 at base ISO, this little camera is ready to give you a very nice 28Mbps AVCHD stream. As a poor man's in-a-pinch slo-mo producer, it's the best of the bunch so far (though some of the dedicated, attach-to-anything cameras, such as the GoPro or Contour should be looked at, too).
It fits in a shirt pocket and it has a lens that goes from here to there, exactly as you'd want. For the small sensor size, the results are (barely) up to snuff in stills at low ISO, great in video. A serious shooter can do worse with some of the other compacts. Far worse in a few cases. It's a shame that Sony thought they needed to hide two things from us: raw shooting (and/or settable NR), and a bit more top-level control. The question is whether you go for an all-in-one or go up-model to something like the Olympus XZ-1 that shoots raw. For casual shooting, the Sony will do. For serious shooting, unfortunately, you'll have to move up. For video, however, the HX9V is a real shirt-pocket bargain.
||Stuffed to the gills with features. Except raw, A/S modes, and NR tuning.
||The small sensor holds this camera back. The lens doesn't. Video great.
||Getting into the price range for larger sensor cameras lowers the rating.
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Ratings last updated: 8/3/2011