For a lot of people, the only thing that makes a point-and-shoot better than a smartphone for taking pictures is a zoom lens, and for many of those people, the more zoom range, the better.
That's how we end up with the Sony Cyber-shot HX300 and its 50x f2.8-6.3 24-1200mm lens. It's the same range found on the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS and the Fujifilm FinePix SL1000, but the Sony's apertures are wider at both ends (though just marginally more so than the SL1000's), making it a bit better in low light than the Canon, at least at the wide end.
It's a new lens for Sony, and with it comes improved autofocus (AF) for better performance in telephoto and enhanced optical image stabilization (OIS) made possible by, according to Sony, "a second zoom group of lens elements that shifts rapidly to correct for the slightest of hand movements."
The OIS does work really well and the AF is nice and quick, even with the lens fully zoomed in. However, that doesn't mean you'll want to skip a tripod for all situations, and although it's quick to focus, the camera can slow you down in other ways.
The rest of the HX300 isn't significantly better or worse than last year's version of the camera, the HX200V, so really it's all about the lens. If you're looking for more-advanced features with the same zoom range, definitely check out the Canon PowerShot SX50 HS. The HX300 is more fun to use, though, and overall a better option for snapshooters.
Photo quality from the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX300 is very good to excellent, though it really depends on your needs and expectations. If you're considering buying this instead of a high-resolution digital SLR, you'd be disappointed. A 20-megapixel sensor doesn't guarantee good image quality and most pictures from the camera viewed at full size aren't impressive. However, there's plenty of usable resolution here, particularly if you're shooting with plenty of light.
Below ISO 400, shots look good printed up to 10x13, which is more than most people need. Getting a very good 8x10 photo with some enlarging and cropping is certainly possible, too. And if you never print your shots, the HX300's images look great on a computer screen or HDTV with minor cropping or enlarging.
As the camera goes above ISO 400, subjects do get noticeably softer, but shots are usable at small sizes up to ISO 1600. If you want better low-light shots of still subjects, Sony's Handheld Twilight mode still produces some of the best high-ISO photos I've seen from a point-and-shoot. However, I wouldn't bother using the two highest ISOs, as they look more like artist's renderings than photos and have off colors.
Again, the HX300 is not a dSLR (it can't even capture raw images), but for people looking for a long lens and some better control over results than the average point-and-shoot offers, it's a safe bet.
The HX300's video is as good as its photos. With plenty of light you get nice-looking, smooth video when recording at the camera's maximum AVCHD resolution of 1080/60p. There is very little trailing on moving subjects or judder when panning the camera, though some is noticeable when viewed at larger screen sizes. In low light, movies do have more visible noise and artifacts and look softer, but are still very good. You do have use of the zoom lens, which you may hear moving in quieter scenes. Audio quality in general is very good, too, but unfortunately you're limited to the stereo mic on top.
In general, the HX300 is a pretty fast camera. As with its image quality, the performance doesn't match that of an SLR, but that's honestly not something you should expect from this class of camera. From off to first shot, for example, takes 2.1 seconds. Give that the camera has to turn on and push the lens out, focus, and shoot in that amount of time, that's reasonably fast. In our tests, the HX300's shutter lag -- the time from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- is 0.2 second in bright lighting and 0.4 second in low-light conditions.
Shot-to-shot times vary depending on how much processing the camera has to do, but overall they felt fast. In our lab tests the camera took less than 0.8 second between shots. However, if you use a mode or high-ISO setting that requires extra processing, it can be a couple of seconds before you're able to shoot again. Using the flash will also drive the wait up, slowing it to about 3.8 seconds between shots.
Burst shooting carries a similar penalty. Though the HX300 can take 10 shots per second at full resolution, once it's done shooting, it keeps you waiting about a second per shot while it stores the images. There's also no option to continuously shoot with AF, so focus and exposure are set with the first photo.
Worth noting, too, is that the zoom lens doesn't move all that fast. That's fine for movies where you'd want slower, controlled movement. But if you're trying to track a fast-moving subject, it can seem a little slow.
Design and features
The HX300's body, despite the larger lens, is basically unchanged from the HX200V's, which is to say the camera is fairly large and heavy, even with its plastic body. Most of the weight is the lens, too, making it feel slightly unbalanced. Still, there's plenty of lens and a well-formed right-hand grip to help you keep it steady.
While it may not look like it has many direct controls for settings, it actually has a fair number. There's a zoom control around the lens barrel, which is good for small zoom adjustments and can be used for manually focusing the lens, too. You'll also find a programmable Custom button on top, right behind the shutter release and zoom ring, which can be used for an exposure lock, white balance, metering, and Smile Shutter, Sony's smile-activated shutter release.
Next to that is a Focus button that can change your autofocus mode or, if you're manually focusing, give you a focus check so you can see if your subject is actually in focus. Lastly, there's a jog dial to the right of the thumb rest for changing ISO, exposure compensation, shutter speed, and aperture. You have to press in on the dial to advance through until you arrive at the one you want to change. If you make a lot of changes to these things, it can get tiresome.