Of all the megazoom cameras I've handled, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 ($500 as of September 2, 2009) is by far the fastest. It starts up in about 2 seconds and has almost no lag time between shots. Its sharp, tilting 3-inch LCD screen makes shooting overhead and from the hip a breeze.
It's also one of the few advanced point-and-shoot cameras equipped with a CMOS sensor (the Sony Exmor R), a feature that allows handy special functions such as Twilight Mode (a high-ISO setting that shoots remarkably noise-free images) and Sweep Panorama (a mode that stitches photos together as you pan across a scene). The optical image stabilization does a good job of minimizing camera shake, even when the camera zooms to the full extent of its 20X optical zoom lens (28mm to 560mm). And Sony crowned the HX1 with a high-quality G-series lens.
Unfortunately, when you pull the photos off the DSC-HX1 and view them on anything bigger than the camera's LCD screen, the the images look miserable. Onscreen, they're splotchy at full size.
In jury evaluations conducted in the PC World Lab, the images fared no better. Color accuracy was a strong suit; but in image distortion and sharpness, the DSC-HX1 did not fare well. Though it earned an overall imaging score of Good, but its photos were noticeably softer and muddier than shots taken with rival cameras--not the kind of shortcoming that's easy to overlook in a $500 device.
In addition, getting to the Settings Menu (to access image format, enable the digital zoom, set flash sync, or perform any of a number of other functions), you must scroll through the main on-screen menu, hit the Settings Menu button, and then wait nearly 4 seconds while the Settings Menu loads. The buttons themselves are also clumsy to use.
Though Panorama Mode is fun to play with, the resulting images are, again, subpar. The camera's other major weakness is its small (to the point of being useless) electronic viewfinder. But the flip-out, swiveling screen is sharp and versatile enough to make up for that deficiency.
Not all of the news is bad, however. The DSC-HX1 shoots 10 frames per second in burst mode. In Twilight Mode (designed for low-light situations), the camera takes a series of shots and layers them, creating a far sharper image than you'd get using a high ISO. This model has all of the latest automatic functions, too, including smile detection, face detection, scene recognition, and ten automatic scene modes.
The DSC-HX1 shoots high-quality video (1440-by-1080-pixel resolution at 30 frames per second), captures sound in stereo, and can zoom (very slowly) in video mode. The macro capabilities are excellent; the camera can shoot subjects as close as 1 centimeter away from the lens.
Battery life is another strong suit. In the PC World Lab's battery test, the DSC-HX1 shot 472 images on a single charge of its lithium ion battery, earning a battery-life score of Superior.
Ultimately, though, a camera is only as good as the images it can produce. The Sony DSC-HX1 is exceptionally fast and has some slick, fun technology working for it, but its images failed to measure up to our expectations for a $500 camera.