Sony DSC-W50 Review
The Cyber-Shot DSC-W50 and its sibling, the W30 are Sony's compact and stylish entry-level digicams for 2006. They boast a 6-megapixel imager coupled with a high-quality Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 3x optical zoom lens. With identical photographic features and performance, the only distinguishing feature between the W30 and W50 is the LCD monitor, the W30 having a 2-inch device and the W50 sporting a larger 2 1/2-inch LCD. Beginner to intermediate users will have the ease of a fully "Auto"matic exposure mode plus 7 pre-programmed scene modes when they want to be more creative. Program AE mode allows more advanced users to change settings for exposure compensation, focus mode, ISO, sharpness, saturation, contrast etc. The W30 and W50 lack Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and manual modes, features required by the advanced photographer.
The W50's body is durable, stylish and functional. Its controls are well-placed, leaving adequate room for your right thumb and preventing accidental activation. The tripod mount of the W50 is better located than that of the W30, positioned so that more of the camera's bottom surface contacts the tripod head. The menu system is logically organized and will be quite familiar to current and past Sony users.
The placement of the 2 1/2-inch LCD leaves room above it for the optical viewfinder. The LCD is quite usable in sunny outdoor conditions, helped by an LCD Backlight brightness adjustment when needed. It's also usable in dim lighting, intensifying the viewfinder image to help you compose the shot. But LCD viewfinders do have their limitations, and while higher-end digicams are trending to ever larger LCD's at the expense of optical viewfinders, we're happy that Sony chose to include an optical viewfinder on the entry-level W50; the optical viewfinder is small, but you'll be happy it's there in both dim and very bright ambient lighting, and when you want to conserve battery power.
Sony equipped the W50 with a very nice Carl Zeiss 3x zoom lens. It offers a zoom range typical of this class, 38-114mm in 35mm equivalence, providing adequate field of view for interiors and landscapes and moderate telephoto magnification for portraits and distant subjects. The lens produced sharp results from corner to corner throughout its zoom range, with moderate amounts of barrel distortion at wide angle and pin cushioning at telephoto. Chromatic aberrations were well controlled, with very little purple fringing present in high contrast areas.
Shooting performance was quite good for a camera in this class. Power up to first image captured measured just 1.5 seconds. Shutter lag, the time between depressing the shutter release and capturing an image, was less than 1/10 second when pre-focused and 3/10 second including autofocus time; add 1/10 second to those times if using the LCD viewfinder. The shot to shot delay measured a fast 1.1 seconds without the flash and between 1.3 and 4 seconds using the flash, depending on subject distance. Shutter lag when using red eye reduction flash mode measured 8/10 second, during which the LCD viewfinder goes blank; this is another time when you'll appreciate the W50's optical viewfinder.
The W50 offers two sequential shooting modes (Burst, Multi Burst.) In Burst mode, I was able to capture 3 6M/Fine frames in 1.4 seconds, with buffer clearing to the Memory Stick PRO taking just over 2 seconds before the next burst can be captured; the LCD only briefly displays the last captured image between shots. Using Multi Burst with the interval set at 1/30, I captured 16 frames in 5/10 of a second; these frames are then saved as a single 1-megapixel animated image. Our tests were done using a SanDisk Ultra II 1GB Memory Stick PRO Duo, Large/Fine quality, Program mode, flash off, preview off, and all other settings at default (unless noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
I was pleased with the image quality of the W50's 6M Fine mode. Outdoor images were well-exposed and sharp with true to life colors. Indoor shots are limited to small rooms and small group portraits because of the W50's limited flash range (13 feet at wide angle) and the lens limited field of view at its full 38mm wide angle. Portraits had realistic skin tones, but the red eye reduction flash mode proved only marginally effective because of its relatively weak power. Autofocus worked quite well in dim lighting, helped by the focus assist lamp. Flash power was well controlled at close range, making the W50 a good candidate for capturing images of small objects for online auction listings.
Despite being positioned as an entry-level camera, the W50 is equipped with a versatile sensitivity range of ISO 80-1000, enabling hand-held photography in lighting conditions that would otherwise require the use of a tripod or flash. Although noise is quite noticeable throughout and saturation suffers at ISO 1000, the images are far more usable than those ruined by camera shake at lower ISO settings and shutter speeds. The noise level drops noticeably at ISO 800, being most evident in shadow areas. Image noise is not an issue at ISO settings of 400 and below.
The W50 also features a high-quality MPEG VX 640x480 sized movie mode. You can choose either standard (16fps) or fine (30fps) quality as well as a 160x112 8fps mode that's efficient for posting on the web or sending movies via email. Our movie samples were nice and sharp with very little compression noise. The autofocus system does a fair job of keeping up with fast moving objects, but sometimes drifts out of focus. When using the 640x480 Fine mode, it consumes about 1.3 MB per second; be sure to get a sizable Memory Stick PRO Duo if you intend to take a lot of moving images.
The W50 is powered by a tiny SONY NP-BG1 Lithium Ion battery. Despite its small size, the battery powered the W50 through the capture of 160 images and a lot of other testing without displaying a low battery indication. The battery is charged outside the camera in the included BC-CSG charger. Make sure to get a spare and keep it charged to avoid the disappointment of finding a dead battery during a unique photo op.
The Sony Cyber-shot W50 is a good all-around performer. Weighing-in at just under 6 ounces (including battery and Memory Stick Duo), the W50 is both pocketable and stylish while still providing the optical viewfinder that its competitors frequently omit. With very good image quality, 6-megapixels of resolution, versatile sensitivity range, high-quality movies and an MSRP of under $250, the Sony DSC-W50 is a very good value. If you like the W50's features and image quality but prefer to spend a bit less, consider the W30; it sports a smaller 2-inch LCD without brightness adjustment for about $20 less.
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