All of the other controls are on the right flank of the 1.8-inch TFT LCD monitor, although some often-used settings, including EV adjustments and scene choices, require a trip to the menu system. The knurled Mode knob has seven positions, for full auto, programmed, or manual exposure; scene options; picture review; movie clips; and setup. One key cycles through LCD options, a second acts as a Trash button and serves double duty to set image resolution, while another summons the Sony's easy-to-navigate menu system. The four-way cursor-control pad with embedded center OK button uses the directional keys to adjust the basic flash options, enter Macro mode, activate the self-timer, or review the most recent image taken.
Unfortunately, some frequently accessed features can be reached only via the menu system. For example, the cursor-pad flash button lets you choose between Off, Fill, Forced, or Slow-sync flash modes, but the red-eye option must be set from the menu. If you want to fine-tune exposures (easy using the live histogram), you'll find EV adjustments tucked away in a menu. If you exit the menus with EV selected, it will pop up first the next time you hit the Menu key, but EV access from the back-panel buttons would be more convenient. Sony includes red (full buffer), green (subject in focus), and yellow (flash charging) LEDs next to the optical viewfinder. Sony's minimalist approach with this camera takes a toll on its feature set. For example, the Cyber Shot DSC-P150's 3X optical zoom lens doesn't stack up against the 5X zooms found in the Pentax 750Z or the Olympus C-7000. It lacks convenient aperture- and shutter-priority modes, and manual focus is limited to several preset distances. Instead of the TIFF and raw file formats that several competitors include, the Sony offers only JPEG with just two compression options, nor are there snapshooter favorites such as time-lapse and panorama-assist modes.
The zoom range falls into the neither-fish-nor-fowl category at 38mm to 114mm (35mm-camera equivalent), with not much of a wide-angle view at the wide end of the scale and only anemic telephoto magnification at the long end. Close focus in macro mode goes down to 2.7 inches at the wide-angle setting, and about 12 inches in the telephoto position but manual focus is limited to five preset distances (0.5 meter, 1 meter, 3 meters, and 7 meters, as well as infinity), making it relatively useless for close-up photography.
The autofocus system offers center or five-area multipoint autofocus with single and continuous focus options; you can only choose the focus area the old-fashioned way, with focus lock. Unfortunately, the P150 was all too willing to snap off a picture when the image was not in focus.
Auto and programmed exposure modes work well, but manual adjustments are limited. You can select spot or multipattern metering, but only two f-stops (f/2.8 and f/5.6, with f/5.6 and f/10 at the telephoto position) are available, along with shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/1,000 second. Its nine mundane scene modes include Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Soft Snap (portrait), Snow, Beach, High-Speed Shutter (sports), Fireworks, and Candle. Sony satisfies your curiosity with a helpful chart in the manual showing how each scene mode affects the settings for macro, flash, autofocus, burst mode, and other options.
There are basic white-balance presets as well as auto, but you can't fine-tune white balance or set it manually. The underpowered flash unit is rated for distances of only 11 feet or less in wide-angle mode and out to 8 feet using the telephoto zoom.
Minimovie fans will like its 640x480-pixel, 30fps or 15fps video clip option (although the highest frame rate requires use of Memory Stick Pro storage), especially since simple trimming of the images in the camera is possible.
There's nothing minimal about the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-P150's performance. It woke up and reported for duty in less than 3 seconds, then snapped off pictures every 1.9 seconds, adding only a second when flash was used. Although burst mode is limited to five shots at full resolution, you can drop down to 640x480 VGA resolution and shoot 100 images in 100 seconds or cram 16 shots into one frame to analyze your tennis stroke. Shutter lag was minimal at 0.6 second under high-contrast lighting, and the focus-assist light kicked in under more challenging, low-contrast lighting to keep shutter lag down to a manageable 0.9 second.
The long battery life is good news, because unless you purchase the optional dock, the lithium-ion battery must be charged in the camera. There's no way to recharge one battery while shooting with a spare without the optional Cyber Shot Station accessory.
Only the P150's viewing systems fell short of our expectations. The adjustable-brightness LCD was often difficult to view under full sunlight, and the tiny optical viewfinder didn't provide enough magnification for making careful compositions. And though we were able to get well-exposed flash pictures even beyond the Sony's rated 11-foot maximum flash range, red-eyed pupils were a problem even with the camera's preflash red-eye prevention system activated.As long as you don't scrutinize its photos too intently, you'll be happy with the P150's image quality. It delivers snappy, saturated colors, although often with a slight yellowish cast. And the white-balancing system (both the automatic and manual presets) often fails to provide neutral hues. Overall, the P150 produces good exposures, with lots of detail in the shadows, though it doesn't fare as well in the highlights, which it tends to blow out.
Noise became detectable at the ISO 200 and ISO 400 settings, especially in the shadows, but no worse than in photos from competing models, nor was the P150 especially prone to optical or sensor-induced fringing. Some blooming was visible in bright objects, and like virtually every other digital camera, it blew out the highlights. We did notice some JPEG artifacts that would become a problem if you plan to enlarge, crop, or enhance your photos.