Sony DSC-T90 Review
By Mike Flacy
For 2009, Sony has updated their popular DSC-T77 from last year (2008) by introducing the new Cyber-shot DSC-T90. Like its predecessor, the T90 is a very compact digicam that is not only stylish, but also very durable with an all metal exterior. Many of the features we saw on the T77 are included on this newer model, like the "folded" Carl Zeiss 4x optical zoom lens, 3.0-inch "wide" touch panel LCD, Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization, iScene technology, 9-point AF system, HD (1080i) video output, in-camera photo editing, Smile shutter mode, Face detection, and DRO (Dynamic Range Optimizer) technology. Sony has improved the T90 with a 12-megapixel image sensor, new Intelligent Auto exposure mode, and a 720p (1280x720) HD video mode.
Like its predecessor, the T90 is a simple point-n-shoot digicam that was designed to be taken just about anywhere. In fact, this is still one of the smallest lines of digital cameras I have ever used. With 11 scene modes, Easy, iAuto and Program AE, this is also one of the easiest to use. Like we saw with the T77, the touch screen LCD really adds a new level of dimension to the camera. Since there are very few buttons that need to be placed on the body, Sony was able to make their "T" series models more compact. The menu system is a breeze to navigate thanks to the easy to identify icons that are right on the screen. The T90 also allows you to touch the LCD to choose the focus area while taking pictures, and while reviewing pictures you just touch the screen to enlarge or magnify an area of the picture. Another feature that we were very glad to see was a touch screen calibration option in the menu. Many touch devices on the market these days do not offer this, which can make them difficult to use; especially if you have "fat" fingers.
The design and layout of the T90 is identical to the T77. I found the ergonomics of this camera were pretty good when you consider its size. You can comfortably shoot with one or two hands, just be sure you watch out for your fingers on the left side of the camera. The lens is very easily blocked, as it is located in the top left corner of the camera. I found using the "pinch" technique worked very well to help eliminate any chances of this. You will also want to check the front of the lens for finger prints often, otherwise your photos will turn out soft and have a wired bright cast to them. The only controls or buttons that remain are the power, play, shutter release and zoom lever. As mentioned in the paragraph above, all of the other camera settings are accessed via the on-screen touch menu. The screen can be operated with your fingertips or the included "paint" stylus pen. The LCD benefits from a nice anti-glare coating that allows you to frame images in bright lighting conditions without much fuss. This display also gains up nicely when using the camera in lower lighting, however the live image does get a bit grainy. Fingerprints are always something you deal with on a touch screen, but like past models, they never caused any problems when using the camera.
Like most of Sony's models, the T90 is a very robust camera. From the time you flip the front cover down until you are able to take your first photo is between ranged between 1.7 - 2 seconds, mainly dependent on my reaction time. Shutter lag is less than 1/10 of a second when the camera is pre-focused, and only 1/10 of a second including autofocus. In single exposure mode, the shot to shot delay averaged 1.8 seconds between frames with the flash off, and 2.5-3 seconds with the flash on. The only area where the T90 disappointed me was in burst mode. Sony also claims this model can capture images at 1.8fps using the continuous shooting mode for up to 100 frames in a row. I found that this mode performs better than what Sony claimed when capturing only 5 frames or less. However, when you shoot a longer sequence, the camera slows down dramatically. In burst mode I was able to capture the first 5 frames in only 2.1 seconds (2.4fps), however after the fifth frame, the T90 slowed to about 1fps. So, in a 10 shot sequence, the overall frame rate was only 1.4fps. Our tests were performed using a Sony 4GB Memory Stick PRO Duo Mark 2 memory stick, iAuto mode, flash off, review on, and all other settings at the factory default unless noted. Times may vary depending on camera settings, lighting conditions, media, etc.
The quality of the T90's 12-megapixel images are good for a camera of this size. Exposures are good, and colors look very natural. There is a bit of edge softness present in most of our landscape type outdoor photos, however this is very common for cameras in this category. Image noise is a bit higher than I would like to see, and the new Sony Clear RAW NR system sacrifices detail when trying to help reduce noise. Using the Auto sensitivity setting, the decent job of keeping the ISO down, even when shooting indoors it liked to keep the sensitivity in the 200-400 range. At those settings you will not see much noise or softness in your typical 4x6-inch prints, but you will see traces if you view an image on your PC at anything above 50%. The new 4x optical zoom offers a a bit more versatility in composing your shots, especially when compared to the typical 3x lens. With an equivalent zoom range of 35 - 140mm, you are going to have a decent filed of view for landscape type photos or group portraits as well as tight portraits and macro shots. I was hoping that this new "T" series models offered a bit wider filed of view for better indoor photography. This lens showed typical barrel distortion at the wide angle extreme, however I also saw above average amounts of purple fringing (Chromatic Aberrations) through our outdoor images. We used iAuto for all of our sample photos, which performed rather well. The camera was able to properly detect what type of scene I was shooting almost instantly, whether landscape, macro, etc.
When shooting indoors, the T90 performed well. One thing you have to understand is the fact that this camera is tiny, therefore the flash unit is equally tiny. Sony claims a maximum flash range of up to 9.5 feet at wide angle (ISO Auto). I achieved the best results when shooting no more than 5 feet away, using the telephoto end of the zoom range to tightly frame my subject. Red-eye was very common in our people photos, even with the Red-eye reduction flash mode enabled. Because of this, I prefered to keep the red-eye flash off as the pre-flash adds about a half a second to the shutter lag time, which can cause you to miss spontaneous moments. Thankfully, the T90 offers an effective in-camera Red-eye correction option. One of the many "cool" features on this camera is the Smile Shutter mode. This is a function that was introduced a couple years ago, and seems to becoming more and more popular, with almost all of the manufactures including some for of this on their consumer cameras. You can choose three levels of sensitivity, and I found that the medium (default) option worked very well. I was impressed at how fast the camera would fire once the subject smiled. Overall, this is a great and "stealthy" feature that will help you capture photos of those who always run from the camera. It was also Very useful while trying to take some photos of young children, that can change their facial expressions as fast a lightning bolts sometimes.
Sony has finally heard our cries for HD, with the addition of a 720p (1280x720) HD movie mode on the T90. You can choose from Fine or Standard modes, both at 30fps as well as a smaller VGA (640x480, 30fps) option. As with past models, the higher quality movie options require the use of a Memory Stick Pro Duo card. One feature that is not common on digicams is the ability to use the full range of the zoom while recording. One thing we found off was Sony actually claims a different zoom range of 38 - 152mm when using the HD movie mode, compared to 35 - 140mm when shooting still images. The T90's HD movie mode captured good quality video, especially when you take into account that this is an Extremely tiny digicam. As with any consumer model, when shooting in marginal lighting, the video is going to get grainy, so be sure you have plenty of light if quality is of high concern.
The T90 uses Sony's NP-BD1 3.6v 680 mAh InfoLITHIUM rechargeable battery pack for power, which is charged out of camera in the included AC charger. This handy unit features fold-away prongs, making it easy to charge while you are on the go; just find an outlet and you are good to go. Sony claims this pack can power the camera for up to 220 images on a full charge. I was able to capture about 90 images, several short movie clips, and conclude all of our other tests before the battery was exhausted. As with past models, I highly recommend you purchase a second pack to keep charged and ready at all times, especially since you can be charging one pack while using the other.
Bottom line - Sony's latest "Tiny" Cyber-Shot model, the DSC-T90 offers amazing performance, loads of user-friendly exposure options and technologies as well as good overall image quality. The high-end features of this camera (3.0-inch touch panel display, 720p HD movie mode, durable metal construction, etc.), along with its compact size help justify the lofty price of US$299 or less. While you may be able to find a cheaper 12-megapixel model that takes better quality images, it will be tough to find one that can keep up with the T90 in the shooting performance department. Therefore, I feel the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T90 offers a great value for such a capable ultra-compact model.
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