Sony DSC-P51 Review

Steve's Digicams

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P51

Steve's Conclusion

The CyberShot DSC-P51 is a compact 2.0-megapixel digicam that delivers very good images. It is the little brother of the 3.2 MP DSC-P71. The DSC- P51 has a 2x Zoom (41-82mm equivalent) and a stepless 3x digital zoom. The P71 has a 3x optical and a stepless 2x digital zoom for about $120 more than the approx. $279 street price of the P51. The P51 has the ability to record still images as well as movie clips without sound and features a number of exposure options even though it is basically an automated 'point -N- shoot' camera. The P51 can capture still images in up to 1600 x 1200 size in JPEG format. If printing 4x6" prints (or any standard "photo" size), you can select the 1600x1072(3:2 ratio) format which is the perfect ratio for non- cropped prints. When you want a smaller image select a size from 1280 x 960, 640 x 480 or 320x240.

The power source is 2-AA batteries. Sony includes two healthy 1750MAh NiMh AA size rechargeable batteries and the BC-CS1 13 hour Charger, faster chargers are available optionally. I was happy to see that Sony is using standard AA size batteries to power the P51. Too many cameras these days use proprietary battery packs which are expensive and often obscure. It's nice to be able to use rechargeables or "off the shelf" batteries. There's a multitude of brands of NiMh AA size rechargeable batteries to choose from as well as fast AC or portable 12v chargers. In a pinch you can even use a set of one-use alkalines but they always end up in the local landfill. NiMh rechargeable cells are the way to go and will power this digicam for up to 90 minutes with the LCD display ON or recording one image every 3 seconds for about 1800 images with the LCD off according to Sony's specs. I found battery life when using the high-capacity 1750mAH NiMH was very good even when using the color LCD frequently to check the pictures.

I had my doubts about the Memory Stick modules when they first appeared but they are now plentiful, larger in capacity (up to 128mb as of 09/2002) and have been reduced in price numerous times. Memory Sticks are slower at Read/Write operations than CompactFlash but Sony still promises performance improvements with the larger cards coming in the near future. I find the inclusion of an 16 MB Sony Memory Stick only a 'starter card' as it has the capacity of about 17 images (1600x1200-fine, averaging 860,000 bytes per image) or one 20 second movie clip. The P51 has Video output NTSC/PAL (switchable) which allows connection to a TV for "slide shows "(cable included.) In any event, it is a must in my book to get an extra set of batteries and the biggest card(s) available as it is a lot more fun to shoot a bunch and later pick the best to print than it is to worry about batteries and available storage.

The P51 is equipped with a 2x Zoom, 6.3 to 12.6mm (41 to 82mm equivalent), lens with a not too fast F3.8 maximum aperture which makes it an average performer in low-light situations. The F2.8 max. aperture of the DSC-P71 makes it better than average in low light. What Sony does include is the focus assist illuminator which, in low light, allows the camera to 'see' to focus. This is a feature that is becoming an industry standard and Sony has been one of the pioneers. A continuous focus down to about 4 inches (10cm) allows you to shoot close ups of small objects. The lens exhibits the usual amount of optical distortion as most in its class and there's mild barrel distortion in full wide angle. When you turn off the camera the zoom lens ratchets into the camera and the built-in lens cap closes automatically. It is recessed from the front of the camera amply to prevent damage to the lens or the cover itself. This is less troublesome than other lens covering designs.

The P51 uses a 1.6" TFT color LCD (61,000 pixels) for viewing or reviewing. The typical LCD is almost useless in the direct sunlight but Sony took a few extra steps to make this a very useable LCD. The biggest help is the non-glare surface of the LCD. The wide angle view is a dead giveaway that this is a significant upgraded LCD as some that other manufacturers use tend to be. The color saturation and contrast of the LCD helps to confidently decide whether or not to keep images while reviewing in the field when space was running low in the 128MB memory stick.

Lenses and imagers can't do their magic to capture great images unless they can focus. Unlike other manufacturers, Sony did not drop the ball on low light level focusing. As I mentioned before, the P51 has an illuminator that allows auto focus lock in low or no- light conditions. It also has the three area multi- point auto focus system that helps pick out your subject even if it's not in the center of the frame. The Multi-Pattern light metering uses 49 independent points of light metering to more accurately meter the subject in the scene and pick an optimum exposure for you. Simply, it does more for you if all you want to do is 'point -N- shoot.'

The DSC-P51's performance is very impressive. The start-up time is less than four seconds from turning on the power until you capture the first image. The shot to shot time is less than two seconds even at the largest image size and highest quality. Add about another 1 or 2 seconds if using the flash. The time it takes to write to the media is not an issue as it is less than three seconds but no need to wait for it to finish before taking the next image as it streams the data to the card. I shot about twenty frames one after the other without any processing delay noticed. Movie mode has the updated MPEG and HGX resolution that yields a 320x240 movie at 16fps whose length is now determined by the storage media's capacity. It streams the data to the memory stick so additional movies can be shot almost instantly.

The Program AE modes make it easy for the beginner or experienced photographer to capture that special moment but it does limit the slow shutter speed to 1/30th second. Landscape mode sets the focus to infinity, while the Twilight scene modes (see Sample Photos page) allow slower shutter speeds (down to 2 seconds) and Slow-Syncro Flash to illuminate foreground objects. There is no direct control of the shutter speed or aperture but exposure compensation allows some manual control. By selecting the Twilight or Twilight+ modes you can capture some amazing low light or nights shots. The DSC- P51 has automatic Noise Reduction when the shutter speed is longer than one half a second which reduces the red-green- blue "Christmas light" look (electronic noise) to the shadow area of a long exposure.

The DSC-P51's images are impressive. It may be fairly small in size but there's nothing too small about the 1600 x 1200 pictures that it creates and 5x7's that you'll be proud of. Sony's P9's focus and imaging system have some issues with indoor flash pictures of people but the P51 seems to remedy them by matching the optics' ability with a 2.0 megapixel imager. The indoor pictures of people with flash do very well and print nicely (see Sample Photos page). The P51 is accurate even in low light conditions. The overall image quality, sharpness and color balance is on the same level as cameras with its physical size with larger resolution capabilities.

The DSC-P51 is a good choice for anyone that wants a camera that can be easily carried in their pocket or purse and wants good quality images. The 2x optical zoom and 1600 x 1200 image size (2.0 megapixel) are good features and it keeps you well under that $300 price point. At $279 (as of 09/2002), I feel the Sony CyberShot DSC-P51 will make a great camera for just about everyone that's looking for a point- n- shoot, just be sure to purchase a larger Memory Stick and a second set of batteries.

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