Camera manufacturers seem to have chosen megazooms as their latest battlefield--and thankfully, the fight isn't just about who's got the biggest lens. In this case, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 incorporates several technologies from the Alpha DSLR products, including a 1/2.4-inch 10-megapixel Exmor CMOS sensor (for 9-megapixel images) and 20X f2.8-5.2 28-560mm-equivalent optically stabilized lens based on the company's higher-quality G series optics. In theory, the combination should deliver better photo quality than we're used to seeing in this class. In practice, it doesn't. Fast performance, solid video, and some truly interesting features make it worth considering, but the specter of middling photo quality will haunt your decision like the ghost of vacation pictures past.
The design ranges along a continuum from smoothly functional to awkward. It's relatively compact for a megazoom, just over a pound with dimensions of 4.6 inches wide by 3.4 inches high by 3.6 inches deep, with a big grip that makes it comfortable to hold. The body is somewhat cluttered with buttons. On the top left you've got a button that toggles between the too-small electronic viewfinder and the tiltable but low-resolution 3-inch LCD. Behind the pop-up flash sits the stereo microphone. Next to that is the power button, with a review button and custom button that you can use as one of only three shortcuts: white balance, metering or Smile Shutter. At the front top of the grip is the shutter with a zoom switch. The zoom feels pretty typical for this class; it operates smoothly, but because it's stepped you never quite stop where you expect. In the middle lie the focus selection and drive mode buttons.
You adjust aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity via a jog dial that falls under your right thumb. I like this type of operation, and it's a blessing because the standard four-way navigation switch plus enter button is irritating to use. It's too flat, with no travel, so you always feel like you have to press harder but can't. In addition to traversing the menus, this switch toggles macro mode, flash options, self-timer, and display options. Within the top-level menus you can set image size, white balance, metering, bracket size (in third, two-third or full-stop increments) and type (exposure, white balance or color), face detection, flash intensity and red-eye reduction, Dynamic Range Optimization amount, noise reduction amount, color effects, contrast, sharpness and Steady Shot image stabilization mode.
Finally, the mode dial offers all the typical shooting modes--manual and semimanual (PASM), intelligent auto, Easy, Anti Motion Blur (raises ISO sensitivity and shutter speed), programmed scene, and movie--plus two novelties: Sweep Panorama and Hand-held Twilight. In Sweep Panorama mode, you pan the camera horizontally or vertically while it continuously snaps enough shots to build a 4,912x1,080 (standard) or 7,152x1,080 (wide) panorama, which it automatically stitches together when you lift your finger from the shutter. It's fun and amazing to play with, and the results look decent--if you don't look too closely. The 1,080-pixel limitation makes the images too low resolution to resolve any real detail, the exposure gets fixed at the beginning, which can result in blown-out highlights with bad fringing, and anything in motion produces a variety of odd effects. There's no manual but a high-resolution alternative if you'd like the shoot a better-quality panorama.
However, the Hand-held Twilight mode, for low light but flash-free shooting, fares a lot better. Here, the camera bursts several shots at a high ISO sensitivity, then combines them to produce a brighter, sharper photo with lower-than-normal noise. I was initially skeptical, but it works surprisingly well and is a compelling feature for photographic night owls.
The HX1 unequivocally leads its class for performance. It powers on and shoots in a surprisingly zippy 2 seconds, and typically focuses and shoots in 0.4 second. It's a hair slower than the SX1 at focusing and shooting in low-contrast conditions, but delivers in a still respectable 0.7 second. At 1.4 seconds for two sequential shots--1.7 seconds with flash--it's pretty fast.