Sony DSC-S85

Steve's Digicams

Sony DSC-S85

Steve's Conclusion

The DSC-S85 advances on the 3 megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-S75 by adding another million pixels of image resolution, exposure bracketing, 3-frame burst mode, all black body and now is packaged with a 16MB Memory Stick. It incoporates all of the features found in the S75 and exterior-wise is the identical in size, shape and weight.

The minute you pick it up you can appreciate the larger handgrip, it gives the camera a real solid feeling in your hand. Sony used the same excellent Carl Zeiss 3x optical zoom lens as the S75. It must be extended when the camera is powered up and this requires about six seconds before you can take the first picture. If you forget and leave the lens cap on it just beeps at you and displays a "Lens cap attached" message on the LCD. You remove the cap and the camera continues its power up sequence without having to be turned off and on again. The lens is sharp and fast with a F2.0 maximum aperture, it is a good low-light performer. The zoom mechanism is too fast however, it needs to have more step positions to make it less sensitive.

All of the new Cyber-shot cameras now have an onboard focus assist lamp that allows the camera to operate in complete darkness up to a range of about 9 feet. Not only does it aid the autofocus system it also brightens up the LCD viewfinder image enough to make it useable in the complete darkness too. The autofocus system is quick and very accurate, under normal conditions it attains a solid focus lock in a second or less. The S85 is an excellent macro performer with a close focusing distance of about an inch and a half. And when you need it, the focus can be set manually with one of thirteen preset distances. You press the FOCUS button on the back and then use the Jog Dial to pick the appropriate distance. You can see the effect of changing the focus settings on the color LCD. The one thing I wish it did was magnify the view when changing the focus, the Olympus cameras do this and it makes critical focusing a lot easier.

Sony has now grouped all of the control buttons on the rear of the camera along with the monochrome data LCD. This makes changing most camera settings a breeze as you can push a button to go into macro mode, change the flash mode, set the self-timer, enable spot metering, change exposure compensation, set the AE Lock or go into manual focus. The mode dial on the top is large and easy to operate and has positions for Program AE, Shutter speed priority, Aperture priority, Manual, Movie, SCeNe (landscape, portrait or twilight depending on menu setting), Playback and Setup. When in shutter, aperture or manual mode, the Jog Dial is used to change the settings - it's very intuitive and easy. The Jog Dial is also used for changing the manual focus presets and the exposure compensation values. Located around the Mode Dial is the power switch which is large and easy to operate with your thumb. It has been positioned so that it is not accidentally switched on inside the camera bag. The 4- way selector switch is used to navigate the simplified menu system and to select images during playback. In record mode when the menu is not displayed the 4-way switch selects the functions of four different camera features, very nice engineering.

Placing many of the major functions on external buttons has made the record mode menu system drastically simpler. You can easily change white balance settings between auto, indoor and outdoor and there is now a "one push" custom setting. It could be improved even further if there were the usual presets for incandescent, flourescent, sunny and cloudy, hopefully we will see that on the next model. The ISO speed is Auto by default but you can lock in 100, 200 or 400 if desired. Still image size options are available for 2272x1704, 2272 (3:2) for "perfect" print size, 1600x1200, 1280x960 or 640x480. And now you can choose between Fine and Standard JPEG compression quality or pick the uncompressed TIFF setting for ultimate printing quality images. There is a "Burst 3" position for capturing a three picture sequence but it still lacks a real continuous burst mode. New in the S85 is autoexposure bracketing, settable for +/- 0.3, 0.5 or 1.0EV steps. Other exposure options include Text, Email and a Voice mode that lets you attach an audio note to a still image. The flash output intensity has three levels; High, Normal and Low to better handle those difficult lighting conditions. Image sharpness is user selectable for 2 steps to sharper or softer, just remember that an over-sharpened image is not a good thing. And for those that like their pictures a little "different," there are the picture effects; solarize, B&W, sepia or negative art.

If you like capturing moving images you now have several options. Motion JPEG with sound can be recorded up to the capacity of the Memory Stick in MPEG EX mode. The image size can be 320x240 or 160x120 but the capture rate is only 8 frames per second. The MPEG HQ mode has a 16fps capture rate but is limited to a maximum clip length of 15 seconds. You can also select the Clip Motion mode which will take up to ten pictures at 160x120 or 80x72 resolution and generate an animated GIF file. Both movie and Clip Motion files can be played back on the LCD or output to a television set via the Audio-Video Out cable.

The S85 for a four megapixel camera is quite robust in its shot to shot time, it requires about three and a half seconds to process the large/fine mode JPEG images. It still lacks a real continuous mode because it has no large RAM buffer like those found in the Olympus C-3030 and others. There is a "Burst 3" setting that lets you capture two pictures in sequence at 1.4fps which works out to 0.7 seconds per shot and then it takes about six seconds as it writes the data to the Memory Stick before you can take another burst sequence. The uncompressed TIFF images may offer the best possible image quality but it takes thirty seconds to process and store each image during which time you can do nothing but watch a progress bar on the LCD screen.

Power is no problem thanks to the Sony InfoLITHIUM "M" series 7.2v battery that packs enough power for over two hours of recording. As with all the InfoLITHIUM-equipped cameras, the S85 displays the battery runtime on the color LCD in minutes so you never have to wonder how much battery power you really have left. I can't say enough about this as every other camera has a battery level display with four or five bars that stays on full right up to about the last two minutes just before it goes dead. NiMH batteries are good but lithium is undoubtedly the best and Sony proves this camera after camera. The battery is located behind a large door on the bottom of the handgrip, you'll also find the Memory Stick card slot down there too. While we're talking about the bottom, the tripod socket is badly positioned off to one side but I think it was done so as to give better access to the battery compartment.

The color LCD is a 1.8-inch TFT type with excellent readability even in bright light thanks to a very bright backlight. It has a protective covering that makes it easy to remove nose prints and resist scratching. If used as a viewfinder it gives you as close to a 100% coverage preview as possible, it is very accurate. Downloading images is quick thanks to a speedy USB port connection. There's an accessory shoe on the top to accomodate the HVL-F1000 external flash that plugs into the TTL connector on the side. Image playback is more robust than previous cameras thanks to a low-res thumbnail that is presented while the full size image is being decoded. The real bottom line for any camera is image quality and the the S85 has got that in spades. Thanks to its 14-bit DXP A/D converter and 4-megapixel imager the camera captures an image with a wide dynamic range and this equates a better looking image with very true colors.

Sony appears to be sending a clear signal to the other camera makers that it intends to dominate the digicam market. The new S85 is the first four megapixel camera and it's priced at an amazing $799. The three megapixel S75 is just $699 and with the Cyber-shot P1, P30, and P50 cameras Sony pretty well has the field covered no matter what your needs or budget is. And there's still the revolutionary MVC-CD300, CD200 and CD1000 cameras that use CD-R and CD-RW discs, the super-telephoto FD97 and all the other floppy disk-based Mavicas too. Most all of Sony's cameras include the InfoLITHIUM rechargeable battery and AC power supply as part of the base package. If you're in the market for a high resolution digicam the S85 is going to be very difficult to pass by at this price.

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