Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.Thanks to its big, left-mounted, swiveling lens barrel and comparatively small body, you'll have no problem picking out the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F828 from the current lineup of prosumer cameras. If you're looking for a compact or lightweight model, this isn't it; the Cyber Shot F828 weighs about 2 pounds with battery and media loaded, making it the heaviest non-dSLR camera we've seen. On the other hand, it's very compact compared to a digital SLR, and if you don't mind the bulk, this camera's smooth handling and comfortable ergonomics may win you over. With a rubberized grip for your right hand and a lens barrel that rests easily in your left, it has a solid, well-balanced feel. Manual focus and zoom rings encircle the lens barrel, which swivels up and down about 100 degrees to handle odd shooting angles. Its black magnesium-alloy and plastic body is well constructed--there's nothing flimsy about the DSC-F828.
With two hands on the camera, you'll find that operating the controls is convenient and quick. The buttons are clustered in two easily accessible areas where your thumbs and your right index finger fall naturally: in a panel on the lens barrel and on the upper-right rear. You can change many frequently used settings via button and dial combinations, and a little joystick-style control that you operate with your right thumb lets you select other options via the logical and quickly navigable menu system. The joystick also lets you designate autofocus areas. There's a separate setup menu for less frequently changed options, which, in general, is a good idea because it makes for a streamlined shooting menu. However, we don't think it's the right place for the red-eye-reduction flash setting; that should be in the main flash menu. We also would have liked a dedicated ISO button on the body so that we can quickly adjust for changing light levels.
Located next to the mode dial, a tiny status LCD shows a few basic settings, a battery meter, and shots remaining. The more useful information screen on the main LCD and the EVF gives you the remaining battery life in minutes, a live histogram, and more current-setting indicators. When you change settings with the command dial, a virtual dial pops up on the display and cycles through your options as you spin the physical dial.
You get a good range of general controls. There's automatic exposure with a Program Shift function or plus or minus 2EV exposure compensation, as well as shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and fully manual exposure. You can select evaluative, center-weighted, or spot metering, in addition to sensitivity settings from ISO 64 to ISO 800. Standard advanced shooting options such as autobracketing, selectable autofocus points, and autoexposure lock are available too.
The DSC-F828's consumer-oriented lineage shows in, for example, Picture Effects settings such as Solarize and Negative Art, but this emphasis isn't just about gimmicks. There's a useful selection of scene modes for snapshot photographers (Portrait, Landscape, Twilight, and Twilight Portrait), and the video mode is class-leading. You can capture 640x480 MPEG-1 video at 30 frames per second (fps) with sound up to the capacity of your memory card, and you can zoom and focus while shooting--a rarer capability than you might think. The useful Voice mode records an audio clip when you take a photo. If you want to send images directly from the DSC-F828 to a printer, you're in luck: It supports PictBridge, EXIF Print, and Epson PIM II.
On the other hand, if you're looking for the most advanced photographic features, you'll notice some omissions. Although you'll find manual white balance, a choice between Standard and Real color modes, and adjustable saturation, the preset white-balance options are relatively limited, and there's no support for the Adobe RGB color space. There is also a limit to the fine-tuning you can do: increments for EV, flash level, and other adjustments aren't selectable, and you can't save your preferred settings as a custom user mode. In addition to the pop-up flash, there's a hotshoe, but there's no PC sync terminal, and compatibility with advanced features on external flash units appears restricted. Fortunately, there is a way to expand the camera's advanced capabilities post hoc: Sony's new--if uninspiringly named--Image Data Converter software for processing RAW files surprised us with its intuitive interface and range of image controls. It lets you make fine adjustments to parameters such as sharpness, contrast, saturation, and hue, and you can use it to select white-balance settings by color temperature or tweak your photos with a graphical tone curve. We only wish that the DSC-F828 could capture RAW files fast enough to make this a possibility for more than the occasional shot. When it comes to performance, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F828 once again comes through for sophisticated snapshot photographers but falls short for the most advanced amateurs. The main drawback for serious amateur photographers is the DSC-F828's glacial shot-to-shot time for RAW images (about 12.8 seconds) and TIFFs (about 10.6 seconds). As an EVF camera, it isn't the best tool for critical focusing either, although its EVF is one of the better ones we've seen. If those shortcomings aren't a big problem for you, read on; there's a lot to like about this camera's performance.
Everyone will appreciate the smooth operation of the lens controls. Sony equipped the DSC-F828 with a mechanical zoom ring and a servo-controlled manual focus ring, and they offer just the right combination of tension and fluidity for quick, precise composition and focus. The zoom ring is also marked with 35mm-camera-equivalent focal lengths, and when you're in manual focus mode, the LCD or the EVF shows focus distances and an icon that indicates when your subject is sharp. When you activate Expanded Focus, a close-up of the center of your scene will appear in the EVF or on the LCD as soon as you touch the manual focus ring. If you're using the autofocus in a brightly lit area, it will typically lock in a quick 0.3 second. All that still can't help the DSC-F828 compete with an SLR for critical focusing, but it compares very well to the EVF-equipped competition.
Both the EVF and the LCD are among the better ones we've used, and you can adjust their backlighting and the LCD brightness. The EVF's 235,200-pixel resolution and relatively quick refresh rate give you a smooth picture in most situations, although the picture gets slightly jumpy in very low light. We only wish there were a sensor to automatically switch between the EVF and the LCD when you bring the camera up to your eye. Flipping the EVF/LCD switch manually doesn't sound like a big deal, but you'll be an unhappy photographer when you have a split second to get a shot, bring your camera to your eye, then can't see anything because you've left the camera set on LCD.
Whether the DSC-F828 gives you speedy performance depends on how you use it. If you're shooting JPEGs, you'll enjoy a competitive shot-to-shot time of about 1.7 seconds, or 1.9 seconds with the flash. You'll also get one of the best continuous-shooting capabilities in this camera's class, capturing 3fps in bursts of seven shots. If the resulting EVF blackout is problematic, you can retain your view with the Framing Burst mode, which slows down only slightly to 2.7fps. Multi Burst mode records 16 1-megapixel images in less than a second and plays them back in succession on camera or puts them all in one frame when you download.
Unfortunately, speed flies out the window as soon as you leave the safety of JPEG territory. With TIFF and RAW files, you'll get the terrible shooting speeds we mentioned above, and all the continuous shooting modes will be unavailable. There's one unfortunate performance flaw that we think will irritate photographers of all stripes: The DSC-F828 powers down after 3 minutes of inactivity, and that's not negotiable. There's no override and no sleep mode. You'll have to either get used to flipping the power switch a lot or make a habit of constantly tapping the shutter release so that the camera doesn't shut off. It takes about 1.6 seconds to start up and take a shot.
Sony equips the DSC-F828 with more tools for combating the forces of darkness than a vampire slayer. Whether the lights or the scene contrast are low, the hologram AF will help you by projecting a laser pattern onto your subject, giving the autofocus system a point on which to lock. There's also an autofocus-assist lamp; under unfavorable test conditions, the autofocus locked in a quick 0.7 second. If it gets so dark that you have difficulty seeing your LCD or EVF image, just flip on the NightFraming infrared view. The scene will look greenish, but when you release the shutter, the infrared light will shut off, the flash will fire, and your photo emerges in full color. If you happen to like that greenish look or if your subject is out of flash range, you can take infrared photos by activating NightShot. Except for a chronic problem with chromatic aberration, we were very pleased with the photos we shot with the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-F828. In general, its image quality ranks among the best available from the current group of 8-megapixel EVF cameras. Our test photos had appropriate exposures, excellent sharpness and detail across a broad tonal range, and pleasing color. The DSC-F828 uses a new RGBE color filter to improve color accuracy, and in our tests, the camera captured an excellent range of realistic hues, especially in the aptly named Real color mode. Standard mode produces the punchier shades typical of Sony cameras. Sharpness and detail were excellent, among the best in this camera's class. The automatic white balance worked well, as did the presets and the manual setting.
The DSC-F828 also does slightly better than most of the competition when it comes to noise. Like all 8-megapixel EVF cameras, this one produces noticeably noisy images at ISO 200 and higher--that's just what happens when you cram more than 8 million pixels onto a 2/3-inch sensor. But our test photos were somewhat cleaner than those from most competing models, which we especially appreciated at ISO 400. Still, if you do any shooting at the maximum ISO 800 setting, you'd better like the grainy look.
Unfortunately, despite its fancy Zeiss T* lens coatings, the DSC-F828 suffers from more frequent chromatic aberration than many of its competitors. When we photographed in hard light, we could count on purple and sometimes green fringing showing up along high-contrast edges in our images. We did a fair amount of shooting with the DSC-F828 in all sorts of lighting conditions, and most of our images didn't have any chromatic aberrations that would catch your eye in an 8x10 print. But if you do a lot of photography with bright light sources, make very large prints, or just really, really hate fringing, this camera probably isn't the best choice for you.
The DSC-F828 offers very good video quality for a still camera. If you have a large enough Memory Stick, you can capture lengthy 640x480 videos at a smooth 30fps. The ability to zoom and focus while capturing keeps the quality consistent during long clips of changing scenery. You won't get the kind of quality from the DSC-F828--or any still camera--that a dedicated video camera will give you. However, if you just want to shoot the occasional vacation or special-event clip, you'll get very watchable results that you can show on both a TV and a computer screen.