You used to have to lay down half a grand to buy one of Sony's T-series cameras, but the company's latest entry to the line costs a little more than half that price, while still managing to include all the hip features one expects in an ultracompact camera these days. The 8.1-megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-T20's 3x optical, 38mm-to-114mm, f/3.5-to-f/4.3 zoom lens and 2.5-inch screen aren't very impressive, but Sony does include its Super Steady Shot optical image stabilization, as well as face detection and sensitivity of up to ISO 3,200. Also, if you have an HDTV, the DSC-T20 offers 1080i HD output, if you're willing to spend an extra $40 for Sony's VMC-MHC1 component video cable or $80 for the company's CSS-HD1 high-definition Cyber-shot station.
Sony sticks with the trademark sliding lens cover on the T20, this time accenting it with a shiny silver rectangle that provides a nice counterpoint on the color models and blends in seamlessly on the silver model. Unfortunately, like the camera's LCD screen, this silver portion is a magnet for fingerprints, especially considering that you have to touch it to slide the lens cover open and closed. If you're bothered by fingerprints, you'll definitely want to carry a microfiber cloth with your T20. Since the proximity of the flash to the lens caused plenty of problems with red-eye and dust backscatter in the DSC-T10, Sony moved it a little further from the lens on the T20. You'll still get red-eye from time to time, of course, and may even see some dust particles light up, but it shouldn't be as bad as the T10. Though we didn't have extraordinarily bad results with the T10, a fair number of readers professed consternation with those issues. The rest of the physical camera design follows the normal T-Series modus operandi, with power and playback buttons on the camera's top, a zoom rocker in the upper-right of the camera's back, and remaining buttons residing on the bottom-right of the back. The Menu and Home buttons are a tad small and slightly difficult to push with the fleshy part of your finger. I found myself using my finger nail to press them.
The menu system has been completely redesigned, however. The Menu button now brings you to either the shooting or playback menu, depending on the mode you're using at the time. A second button labeled Home brings you to a general setup menu where you can select shooting or playback mode and adjust a variety of other setup functions. If you're used to another camera's menus, you should probably tour these menus, or read the manual carefully, since certain functions may be in a different place. For example, you have to delve into the Home menu if you want to format your memory card, while many cameras have this function in the Play menu.
Overall, the menus are well designed. The shooting menu lines up all available functions on the left side of the screen, and available options extend to the right across the screen as you move from one to the next. In program auto mode, you can adjust all the expected functions, such as metering (including center-weighted and spot), sensitivity (up to ISO 3,200), exposure compensation, white balance, and more. I was pleasantly surprised to find flash compensation, and while there are only three steps (minus, zero, and plus), it was enough to keep the flash from blowing out flesh tones when sitting across a small restaurant table. Also, if you're a more experienced photographer, you might like the fixed-focus options, which let you set focus at 0.5 meter, 1m, 3m, 7m, or infinity in case you don't want to wait around for autofocus to do its thing.
That brings us to one of the more complained-about issues with the T10--from our readers, at least. The T10 and T20 can both occasionally capture an image without completing the autofocus process. According to posts by our readers, Sony tech support has said that the cameras are designed to do this, though we don't know why. That means you have to be sure to press the shutter halfway and wait for focus lock (aka prefocus) before capturing your images if you want to be sure to capture an in-focus image. I typically prefocus when I shoot to cut down on shutter lag, so this doesn't interfere with my normal shooting routine, but if you don't like to prefocus, this might not be the camera for you.
Performance results were pleasingly quick in our lab tests. The DSC-T20 took 1.3 seconds to start up and capture its first JPEG, and took 1.3 seconds between JPEGs thereafter with the flash turned off. When we turned the flash on, that wait increased to 2.9 seconds. Shutter lag measured an impressive 0.4 second in our high-contrast test and 1.3 seconds in our low-contrast test, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively. In our continuous shooting test, we were able to get about 2 frames per second regardless of image size.