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.Finished all in black, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-V3 looks businesslike, if not especially distinctive. Its magnesium-alloy-and-plastic body is compact but dense, weighing 13.9 ounces with its battery and Memory Stick installed. The camera feels very well built overall, and a rubberized coating on its grip gives your hand an excellent hold on the body.
For the most part, Sony intelligently arranged the V3's controls, but the exposure-compensation and AE Lock buttons require somewhat awkward left-handed activation. Crucial exposure settings are adjusted via a thumbwheel. Overall, the controls work more efficiently than those on most consumer models but not on most dSLRs.
The majority of the V3's features can be accessed via the Menu button, although a few--flash controls and image size, for example--are given dedicated buttons. Though the menus are easy to learn and quick to navigate with the four-way controller, we prefer to avoid the menu system for frequently accessed settings such as metering, white balance, and burst mode. The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-V3 incorporates a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 4X zoom that covers the fairly standard range of 34mm to 136mm (35mm-film equivalent). It opens to f/2.8 at its wide end and f/4.0 at its telephoto setting. Threads around the lens accept optional 0.7X wide-angle (VCL-DEH07VA, $149.99) and 1.7X telephoto (VCL-DEH17VA, $149.99) converters. There is also a hotshoe for an external flash.
For advanced photographers, Sony provides a complete set of exposure controls, including all four main exposure modes and seven scene modes. There are three light-metering options: multi, center-weighted, and spot. Exposure compensation is available in 1/3-stop increments to plus or minus 2EV. The camera can display a live histogram in all exposure modes. White-balance choices include auto and manual as well as five presets. You can set the light sensitivity to auto or set it manually to ISO 100, ISO 200, ISO 400, or ISO 800.
In an infrequent but welcome practice for Sony, the DSC-V3 can store pictures and movies on either Memory Stick Pro or CompactFlash media. The camera supports photo capture in raw format as well as JPEG and TIFF and ships with a moderately capable (though not pro-level) program called Image Data Converter 2.0 for Windows and Mac for converting raw files to RGB images.
You can take JPEG pictures at six different resolutions and two compression settings. Sony also supplies some of the better movie-capture capabilities available in a digital camera: the V3 will record clips of 640x480, 30fps video with sound for as long as your card capacity allows. The V3 also offers Sony's unique NightShot and NightFraming modes, which greatly ease shooting in limited-light environments. NightShot takes infrared photos, while NightFraming uses infrared to better preview the scene on the LCD. Though the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-V3 is fairly compact, it has a large, sharp 2.5-inch LCD that works well indoors and out. The optical viewfinder is on the small side and not terribly bright or sharp. It also shows only about 81 percent of the actual image (at wide angle). The LCD shows 100 percent of the actual image.
The maximum range of the built-in flash is about 10 feet in Auto ISO. Using the flash approximately 50 percent of the time, we got 740 shots on a single charge of the camera's 4.4WHr lithium-ion battery.
For the most part, the V3 operates reasonably quickly. Start-up time is a mediocre 3.7 seconds, but shot-to-shot times for JPEG images, both with flash and without, are very good at about 1.5 seconds. Shutter delay is a fast 0.5 second, even in low light. Lamentably, shot-to-shot time for raw images is more than 12 seconds--a definite obstacle to shooting in that format. In burst mode, the V3 can take as many as eight pictures at about 2.5fps. It also has a MultiBurst function that can take as many as 16 reduced-resolution images as fast as 30fps. It combines the 16 shots into one photo that looks something like a contact sheet.
The V3 owes its short shutter delay to a quick and decisive autofocus system that works very well in low light. The AF system offers both multiarea and spot settings, and you can move the spot-AF patch around the image area. Though the V3 lacks a full-blown manual focus, you can select from 14 preset distances, which you set with the thumbwheel. The lens zooms relatively quietly and smoothly but a bit slowly. Sharpness and detail on the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-V3 are good but not class-leading. Big enlargements from this camera will be mildly hampered by some JPEG and edge artifacting and a bit more noise at ISO 100 than some competitors produce at their lowest ISO settings.
On the other hand, Sony has done a fairly good job controlling the V3's noise at higher ISO settings, and we got unusually good results at ISO 400. Even at ISO 800, images are usable if you don't mind doing some noise-reduction work and you're willing to accept some graininess in your pictures. The camera's Carl Zeiss lens exhibits mild barrel distortion at its wide-angle setting but virtually no distortion at telephoto.