Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 Gordon Laing, March 2010, updated April 2010
 
   
 

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 verdict

Sony is no stranger to super-zoom cameras, having produced the popular Cyber-shot HX1 and H20 last year alone, but the HX5 represents its first attempt at squeezing a big zoom into a truly pocketable package. And on the whole it's a very successful camera which takes the concept of Panasonic's best-selling travel zoom series while adding a number of uniquely Sony features.

Despite being packed with gadgetry and its fair share of innovation, the HX5 is ultimately about having a long optical zoom in a compact camera. It may actually sport the shortest total range of its rivals, with 'just' 10x compared to the 12 and 14x of the Panasonic TZ10 / ZS7 and Canon SX210 IS respectively, but starting at an equivalent of 25mm and not stopping until you reach 250mm, there's very few occasions when you'll curse it for not zooming wider or longer. So with a super-zoom range and decent stabilisation in a pocketable form factor, the HX5 achieves its primary goal.

Beyond the zoom, it's all about the features and we'll start with the exposure modes. The Manual mode with its paltry two apertures (the smaller probably achieved with a neutral density filter) may be of limited use, but the automatic options are where the HX5 really shines. Its fully automatic mode with scene detection does a great job of recognising what you're trying to achieve, while also offering a backup shot with a different approach for extra security if desired.

   
   
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5

The face detection works seamlessly, quickly identifying and differentiating between children and adults, while optionally triggering the shutter with a sufficiently happy smile. Then there's the unique modes which exploit the camera's quick continuous shooting to improve your chances of a sharp, low noise result in low light. Our favourite remains the iSweep Panorama, which actually generates a pretty good-looking panoramic image moments after you swing the camera in a wide arc. No tripod or software required – the HX5 does it all automatically. So forget the manual options and use the HX5 in one of its many cunning auto options – even die-hard exposure tweakers will be won over, especially when they see how much better the Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes are than Program at high sensitivities.

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Sticking with continuous shooting, the Cyber-shot HX5 goes way beyond the capabilities of most compacts, not to mention many DSLRs. Forget slow burst rates or reduced resolutions: the HX5 can actually fire-off ten full resolution frames at 10fps. Sure it then stops after ten images and takes the best part of 20 seconds to record them to the card, but during that short burst it's right up there with pro sports DSLRs, allowing you to capture action sequences which are simply out of reach of most cameras. And it's not just talk either – we managed to capture fast action in practice with the HX5 as you'll see in our Sample Images Gallery.

While most compacts seem happy to stick with 720p video, the Cyber-shot HX5 takes another leap forward by offering nothing less than Full HD. Sure it's interlaced, not progressive, but in direct comparisons, the 1080i footage out-resolved 720p material from rival models. Zooming-out from full telephoto while filming may result in the focus briefly drifting, but the camera manages to keep the subject sharp and stable the majority of the time.

At this point the HX5 is already looking strong, but we haven't even mentioned one of its other headline features yet: a built-in GPS receiver which can record your position and local time on images. The HX5 was actually the first pocket super-zoom to be announced with built-in GPS, although Panasonic's Lumix TZ10 / ZS7 followed very shortly afterwards. As described in our GPS Section though, both cameras take quite a different approach to their positioning implementations. Unusually for the gadget-leader, Sony has taken quite a basic, purist approach on the HX5, where the camera records the latitude, longitude, altitude and heading on images, with the latter indicated as an animated compass in real-time when composing images.

At this point the Sony looks like the stronger product as the Panasonic doesn't bother to record altitude or heading, but rather than just embedding co-ordinates in images, the Panasonic also looks them up against an internal database and actually tells you where you are when you're composing the shot; it even knows the location of over half a million worldwide landmarks and is happy to tell you when you're at a tourist spot, sports ground, church or any number of other places. The Panasonic also locks-onto the GPS signal quicker during day-to-day use thanks to regular checks while the camera's powered-down.

So in use, the Sony feels like a camera with GPS bolted-on, whereas the Panasonic GPS implementation feels more integrated, fun and useful, even if it's not recording as much raw information. It's also worth remembering you could match much of the Sony's GPS experience by simply geo-tagging images from any camera with the help of a handheld GPS (see our forum tutorial).

Moving on, Sony makes a big deal about the low light capabilities of its 'Exmor R' CMOS sensor, claiming high sensitivity and low noise. Unfortunately there was little evidence of superiority in our tests though, with the HX5 suffering from the relatively high levels of noise reduction we've become used-to from Sony with smearing of fine detail. Like most compacts the best results are had below 400 ISO, and side-by-side against the Panasonic TZ10 / ZS7 in our High ISO Noise results page, there was certainly no advantage to the Sony. Sure the HX5's images contained less visible noise, but this again was due to overly aggressive (and non-adjustable) noise reduction rather than a cleaner image. That said, the HX5's unique Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes delivered a genuine advantage over shooting in Program at higher sensitivities.

It's also worth noting that for all its impressive gadgetry, the HX5 is equipped with a screen with an average 230k pixels. While not unusual, it remains a disappointment compared to the Panasonic which delivers more detailed images in playback, not to mention finer menus, thanks to its higher resolution screen.

So on the plus side you get a big zoom in a small body, Full HD movies, very quick continuous shooting, some great auto modes and a built-in GPS. But on the downside you have a manual mode that's of limited use, a GPS that simply records data with little added value, a screen with average resolution, and a sensor which performs no better than the competition despite claims to the contrary. So before our final verdict, let's see how the HX5 measures-up against the competition.

 

Compared to Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10 / ZS7

 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10 / ZS7
 
 
Panasonic's Lumix TZ10 / ZS7 is the latest in a long line of enormously successful pocket super-zooms from the company which arguably came-up with the idea in the first place. As such, the TZ10 / ZS7 is the model to beat and therefore the main rival for Sony's HX5. Both cameras unsurprisingly share a great deal in common including super-zoom ranges packed-into very similar-looking bodies, HD video, 3in screens, HDMI ports and GPS capabilities. Delve into the specifications though and significant differences emerge.

In its favour, the HX5 boasts higher resolution movies in the 1080i format, much faster shooting at 10fps in the full resolution (albeit only for ten images), in-camera HDR (albeit with only two images), image-stacking to reduce noise at higher sensitivities, wireless sharing of photos with TransferJet, a compass (driven by the GPS), and Sony's innovative sweep panorama which can automatically stitch together multiple images in-camera taken in a single pan. The HX5 also records altitude data which is absent from its rival.

In its favour, the Lumix TZ10 / ZS7 features a slightly longer 12x zoom to the Sony's 10x range (25-300mm vs 25-250mm), a more detailed screen (460k vs 230k), full PASM modes (the Sony offers P and M, but not Aperture and Shutter Priority), location name and landmark details on-screen (driven by the GPS and a built-in database), quicker acquisition of nearby new locations in the default mode, support for SDXC cards (although at least the Sony HX5 now works with SDHC alongside Memory Stick), multiple aspect ratios without compromising the angle-of-view, and two extra Megapixels (although in our tests they recorded roughly similar degrees of real-life detail).

The 1080i video coupled with 10fps burst shooting gives the HX5 two key advantages over the Panasonic, but the TZ10 / ZS7's built-in database of locations coupled with quicker response makes the GPS more useful, and many will prefer its broader manual exposure controls, higher resolution screen and slightly longer zoom. There's a lot to weigh-up, but if you decide the Lumix TZ10 / ZS7 has the better feature-set for your style of photography, you won't be disappointed. See our Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10 / ZS7 review for more details.



Compared to Canon PowerShot SX210 IS

 
Canon PowerShot SX210 IS
 
 

Canon's PowerShot SX210 IS will be another big rival for the Cyber-shot HX5, with both cameras again featuring super-zoom ranges, HD video, HDMI ports and 3in screens packed-into pocketable bodies. Look a little closer though and again some key differences emerge. Most obviously are their respective zoom ranges. Sony's HX5 may feature a big zoom lens considering its size, but it's actually the shortest of the pocket models here with a 10x range equivalent to 25-250mm. Canon's SX210 IS may start a little less wide at 28mm, but its longer 14x range allows it to zoom around 50% closer with a maximum telephoto equivalent of 392mm.

Both cameras sport 3in screens with 230k resolution, but again there's important differences. The SX210 IS features a wider 16:9 shaped screen which is a perfect match for its HD video, although the compromise is photos taken in the best quality mode will only occupy a smaller area with vertical stripes running down either side. But those who regularly shoot HD video will love the shape of the Canon screen. In terms of resolution, the Canon features 14.1 effective Megapixels to the Sony's 10, and while this does allow it to capture finer details, the difference may be subtler than you'd think – see the results pages on our SX210 IS review for a full comparison.

In its favour, the HX5 boasts higher resolution movies in the 1080i format, much faster shooting at 10fps in the full resolution (albeit only for ten images), in-camera HDR (albeit with only two images), image-stacking to reduce noise at higher sensitivities, wireless sharing of photos with TransferJet, Sony's innovative sweep panorama which can automatically stitch together multiple images in-camera taken in a single pan, and of course built-in GPS capabilities.

Canon may have boosted its resolution, zoom range and fitted a widescreen monitor, but some will be disappointed not to find GPS on the new model. But none of the current compact super-zooms can get as close to distant subjects as the new Canon, and none can fill their screens with HD video. If these are important to you, the SX210 IS could be the model for you. See our Canon PowerShot SX210 IS review for more details

 

Also consider the Nikon COOLPIX S8000 – a slim pocketable super-zoom with a 10x optical range, 14 Megapixels, 720p HD movies, and a 3in screen with 920k / VGA resolution. Look out for our upcoming review.


Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 final verdict

Sony's first pocket super-zoom hits the ground running with a feature-set which genuinely stands out from the competition. None of its rivals feature 10fps continuous shooting, 1080i video recording, or the same degree of innovation and consistent success with their automatic modes. You get all this with a 10x optical zoom and GPS packed-into a body that'll squeeze into most pockets.

What's not to like? Well as discussed in detail above, the manual mode is of limited use, the GPS simply records data with little added value, the screen has average resolution, and the sensor doesn't meet the image quality claims made by Sony – although to be fair it's no worse than the competition, it's just not any better. It's also a missed opportunity not to implement the excellent Handheld Twilight or Anti Motion Blur modes in Auto mode at higher sensitivities, as they really do deliver superior results.

The biggest threat to the Sony HX5 is of course tough competition from a number of key rivals, most notably Panasonic's TZ10 / ZS7. There's no clear winner between them, with the choice boiling down to which feature-set better suits your requirements, and which of their downsides are least important to you. Sony enjoyed the edge in automation, whereas Panasonic featured better manual controls with more opportunities to tweak and adjust. Panasonic also boasted a better-integrated GPS experience with your actual location named on-screen, although Sony recorded more raw data for use later. Sony also sported far superior continuous shooting and more detailed movies, whereas Panasonic had a finer screen and a slightly longer zoom.

We could go on (and indeed we have throughout the review), but by now a clear leader should have emerged for you personally. The bottom line is Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-HX5 delivers a highly compelling combination of traditional and unique features, and while it may fall down on a couple of aspects, the overall experience remains very strong. As such it easily earns our Highly Recommended rating, although it goes without saying you should very carefully compare it against Panasonic's equally good TZ10 / ZS7.

UPDATE: See our new results pages showcasing the Handheld Twilight and Anti Motion Blur modes.



Good points
10x zoom with 25mm wide angle.
HD movies at up to 1080i.
Built-in GPS with compass.
Very fast continuous shooting at 10fps.
Innovative and effective auto modes.

Bad points
No location names on-screen from GPS.
GPS often slower to lock-on than Lumix TZ10 / ZS7.
Low noise claims not realised. No better than rivals.
Adjustable 'aperture' of very limited use.



Scores

(relative to 2010 compacts)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

18 / 20
16 / 20
17 / 20
19 / 20
17 / 20

87%


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