Sony DSC-W170 Review

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W150

Steve's Conclusion

Sony has released numerous new W-series models for 2008, including the DSC-W120, DSC-W130, DSC-W150, and the DSC-W170. The W150 and W170 models are almost identical, with resolution being the only real difference between the two.

The Cyber-shot DSC-W170 reigns as the "top dog" in the W-series lineup for 2008. Offering 10-megapixels of resolution, a large 2.7-inch "Clear Photo" LCD, a 5x optical zoom lens, Super SteadyShot, Face detection, and iSCN technologies, this ultra-compact packs the punch of a more expensive high-end digicam. With full Auto, Easy, and 10 pre-programmed scene modes, the W170 is perfect for those who want simplicity. However, it also offers a Program mode, with advanced options that novice users will appreciate.

The exterior of the W170 and W150 are identical, and are available in four stylish colors (champagne, red, black and silver). What we consider an ultra-compact, the W170 offers a nice comfortable feel in your hands, and the metal exterior seems to be pretty rugged. Like we found with the W120 and W150, the ergonomics are great, for the most part. The orientation of the shutter release button and zoom controls are good, however, I found some of the buttons a tad too small, like the Playback, Slideshow, Menu, and Home buttons. If I didn't pay close attention and use the very tip of my fingers, I would sometimes press both the button and part of the 4-way controller at the same time. However, this is a minor concern, and once I got used to it, it didn't cause many problems.

The 2.7-inch "Clear Photo II" LCD was a pleasure to use both indoors and out. The only issues I found were when shooting outdoors, it could benefit from a non-glare coating, and is very prone to fingerprints; you'll need to wipe it clean often. This display offers a nice view for framing (with 100% coverage), and because of its larger size, the font size and icons are very legible.

A feature that isn't seen too often on cameras this size, is the W170's eye-level, zoom-coupled optical viewfinder. Many manufacturers are eliminating these useful tools to accommodate the larger LCD screens. These optical viewfinders are helpful when following fast moving objects in burst mode or when wanting to conserve precious battery life. The size of this viewfinder however is tiny and only covers approx. 80-85% of the captured image, so you'll always capture more than you see.

Shooting performance was impressive for a consumer model. Power up to first image captured measured 2.3 seconds. Shutter lag, the time between depressing the shutter release and capturing an image, was almost instantaneous when pre-focused and only 1 - 3/10 second including autofocus time, depending on the amount of focus change required. The shot to shot delay measured 1.6 seconds between frames without the flash and between 3 and 4 seconds using the flash, depending on subject distance and battery life. Burst mode was impressive. I was able to capture 10 full resolution (10M) images in 5 seconds, about 2.0fps, which surpassed Sony's claim of 1.6fps. The LCD only briefly displays the last captured image between shots; this is when the optical viewfinder comes in handy. Switching to playback mode took about a second.

One thing I would like to note is, when you first put the battery back in the camera after charging, it takes about 6 - 7 seconds for the camera to power up and snap the first shot. However this is only the first time you put a freshly charged pack in. Our tests were done using a Sony 1GB Memory Stick PRO Duo card, 10M quality, Program mode, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.

When using the full resolution 10-megapixel mode, the W170 can produce some very pleasing pictures. The majority of our outdoor photos are sharp, well exposed, and show good color saturation. The Auto white balance setting worked well, as did the Auto exposure system. Like the W150, I noticed that there were small traces of noise in lower contrast areas when viewing images at 100%, even at ISO 80. However, this is something you will not likely see in your typical 4x6 or 8x10-inch prints. Unlike most compact models, the W170 sports a versatile 5x optical zoom lens, giving you plenty of room for composing shots. It covers a 35mm equivalent range of 28 - 140mm, a bit wider than the W150's 5x zoom, and much wider than many of the other models in this class. The 28mm wide angle extreme will allow you to capture beautiful landscape type shots or large group portraits, while the telephoto end will help bring subjects closer. Overall this lens complements the W170 nicely, with moderate barrel distortion as well as noticeable amounts of chromatic aberrations (aka purple fringing) in areas of contrast.

One of the "coolest" features on Sony's new models is the "Smile Shutter" mode. Like a self-timer, Smile Shutter does not allow the camera to fire until the subject or subjects within the frame are smiling. You simply press the shutter release, and the camera takes care of the rest. It will then capture up to 6 photos automatically, firing when it senses one of the subjects within the frame smiling. This is a really "neat" addition, and I found it worked quite well, especially when trying to snap pics of people who always cover up their face and hide. This, along with the Face detection system help make the W170 a great choice for those who love taking people/portrait type photos.

The Face Detect AF mode finds and locks onto subjects faces quickly, and the addition of smile shutter insures you'll get nice big smiles. The only issue I found with this mode was, it tends to choose higher ISO settings, which can create more noise than wanted. If you look at our Smile Shutter example on the samples page, you can see plenty of noise in the darker shadow areas; and this was at ISO 200. However, we had no problems making nice looking cropped 4x6-inch prints of that image for family and friends.

Indoors, the W170 performs well, as long as you are within the limits of the tiny built-in flash unit. Sony claims a typical range of up to 13 feet at wide angle using ISO Auto. While it will have enough power to illuminate your subject in small to mid sized rooms, do not expect this flash to light up the background behind your subject. I achieved the best results when shooting from about 5-7 feet away, using the zoom to help fill the frame with my subjects face. I did find that there was quite a bit of red-eye, especially with small children, even using the Auto Red Eye Reduction feature. However, you can quickly fix that in-camera using the Red Eye Correction feature in the Retouch menu.

The W170 offers the same Movie modes that we have seen on Cyber-shot models for some time now. You can capture high-quality MPEG 640x480 "VX" Fine video at 30fps, 640x480 Standard (16.6fps) or 320x240 (8fps). Like most digicams that record audio in movie mode, the optical zoom may not be used while recording, but can be preset before hand. When using 640x480 "VX" Fine mode, a Memory Stick Duo Pro card is required. Video quality is average for a consumer model. I found the built-in microphone did pick up the sound of a slight breeze quite easily. I was surprised that our indoor movies didn't get "too" grainy. There was visible noise in the clips, but not as much as you would usually see from a compact camera.

A small, but powerful NP-BG1 3.6V 960 mAh Lithium-ion battery pack powers the W170, which is charged in the handy BC-CSG AC charger. This pack allowed me to capture about 85 samples (including several movie clips) as well as complete all of our tests without having to recharge; this was using the LCD 100% of the time and reviewing images often. Sony claims this pack can power the W170 for up to 390 images with the LCD on. While we did not capture near as many photos as Sony claims is possible, I found battery like was quite good.

Bottom line - while the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170 shares almost all of its features with the less expensive W150, the higher resolution 10-megapixel imager and wider view of the 5x zoom justify the extra $50 you'll spend. This is a very capable consumer point-n-shoot, with robust performance, plenty of exposure options, great image quality, and loads of useful and "cool" technologies. With a street price of $299 or less, the Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 offers a good value. If you don't feel the need for 10-megapixel, be sure to check out our review of the 8-megapixel DSC-W150, which offers most all of the same features for a bit less money.

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