You’d be hard-pressed to find a camera that offers more features than the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V ($350). Two years ago, its 16X-optical-zoom lens would have been enough to turn heads. In today’s world of ever-shrinking cameras with ever-expanding zoom ranges, that zoom lens is simply one of this camera’s many distinguishing factors.
For example, the HX9V offers three ways to capture 3D images, excellent 1080p video capture at a category-leading 60 frames per second, GPS functions and a digital compass for geotagging images, a searchable in-camera help guide, a 10-fps burst mode at full 16-megapixel resolution, manual controls, and one of the best implementations of a low-light shooting mode of any camera.
Despite that stellar résumé, the HX9V has a few omissions and shortcomings that may peeve experienced photographers: The camera has no RAW shooting mode, it offers no aperture- or shutter-priority modes to go along with its manual shooting option, it has a small sensor crammed with 16 megapixels, and its aperture maxes out at F3.3 at the wide-angle end of the zoom.
However, the HX9V makes up for most of those deficiencies with heaping helpings of creativity and versatility. This top-rated pocket megazoom camera may ultimately appeal more to gadget hounds. Its video capabilities are unmatched in its class, and it’s a great entry point into 3D still-image capture, as it’s an excellent camera beyond its 3D modes.
Hardware and design
The Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V is Sony’s latest camera to feature a low-light-optimized, backside-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor, and this one clocks in at 16 megapixels. The camera’s ultrawide-angle 16X-optical-zoom lens (24mm to 384mm in 35mm film equivalent) has a maximum aperture setting of F3.3 at wide-angle to F5.9 at full telephoto. You have full manual control over the camera’s aperture and shutter settings independently, but aperture- or shutter-priority modes aren’t in the mix.
The camera’s long-zoom lens remains steady at full telephoto thanks to its optical stabilization system. When recording video, you also have the option of engaging the camera’s “Active Steady Shot” mode to compensate for an even greater range of motion.
The HX9V is compact for its impressive optical-zoom range, but still not entirely pocketable. Its body measures 1.4 inches deep, 4.25 inches wide, and 2.4 inches tall, which is pocket-size only for NBA players and cargo-pants aficionados. Its rubberized handgrip and textured thumb rest are a great ergonomic tandem; together they make the camera feel very secure when you’re shooting with one hand.
You operate the camera’s pop-up flash via in-camera menus—you’ll find no physical button to make it pop up—but you can physically click it down with your finger to hide it.
One slight oddity is that the battery charges inside the camera. The HX9V comes with an outlet adapter that lets you charge the camera via a USB cable, and you can also charge the battery while the camera is connected to a computer. The socket on the camera’s bottom is proprietary, however, so not every USB cable will work for charging the battery and offloading media.
The Cyber-shot HX9V’s 3-inch LCD screen is extremely bright and crisp, making it a standout display for reviewing photos and navigating in-camera menus. However, its LCD quality can be a bit misleading while you’re reviewing and composing photos in the camera: Colors often look brighter and more vivid on the HX9V’s screen. It’s a good idea to use the camera’s histogram to make sure that your shots are properly exposed.
Like many recent Sony cameras, the Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V accepts both SD/SDHC/SDXC cards and Memory Stick Duo cards; its dual-card slot accepts one format or the other at a time. It’s also compatible with the proprietary TransferJet Memory Stick cards, which allow you to share images and videos wirelessly with other TransferJet devices within close physical proximity.
Shooting modes and features
Over the past few years, Sony has honed its lineup of creative in-camera features for a variety of shooting conditions. As with many other recent Cyber-shot cameras, the HX9V’s shooting modes are notable for their innovative takes on common photography challenges in addition to their entertainment value.
For example, Handheld Twilight mode uses exposure bracketing and automated image stacking to create well-exposed shots without a flash in low-light settings. The HX9V also has easy-to-use scene modes that instantly create panoramic images and shallow-depth-of-field, blurred-background shots without your having to adjust the camera’s aperture settings. (Click on any of these sample images to view a larger test shot.)
This year’s Cyber-shot cameras also include assorted options for shooting 3D still images, including a 3D Sweep Panorama mode that works just as the camera’s normal panorama mode does: You press the shutter and pan the camera from side to side, and then the camera creates an ultrawide-angle image. In addition to the 3D panorama option, the HX9V offers a 3D Still mode that simply creates a three-dimensional snapshot (no panning required), as well as a Sweep Multi-Angle mode that lets you change viewing perspectives after snapping a shot by tilting the camera back and forth.
You’ll need a 3D TV and the appropriate glasses to see shots taken in 3D Sweep Panorama and 3D Still mode in their full three-dimensional glory, but you can view the Sweep Multi-Angle shots in-camera without using glasses.
More-traditional shooting modes include a 10-fps burst mode that comes in handy when you’re trying to capture fast-moving subjects, a motion-tracking autofocus option that also helps with action shots, and two separate Auto modes: a normal “Intelligent Auto” mode that works much as any other camera’s Auto mode does, and a “Superior Auto” mode that uses exposure bracketing to boost colors and image brightness.
The camera’s video capabilities also go a few extra steps farther than most competing pocket megazooms, thanks to a smooth 60-fps frame rate for 1080p video recording and a handful of scene modes that are available while you’re recording movies: a background-blurring “Soft Snap” mode; a dedicated Twilight mode for low-light recording; dedicated video modes for fireworks, snow, and beach scenes; and manual controls over ISO sensitivity when shooting video.
Beyond those shooting modes, a few other helpful in-camera features are in the mix. The mode dial provides access to a “Memory Recall” option, which is essentially a custom setting that lets you toggle among three user-defined manual exposure presets. This camera also has an In-Camera Guide that’s more extensive and helpful than anything I’ve seen before, thanks to a searchable index that covers everything from basic shooting advice to clear definitions of in-camera modes to photo-printing tips.
In general, using this camera makes it clear that Sony has a lot of experience in creating a wide range of handheld gadgets beyond cameras, from phones to game consoles to media players. The Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V is simply more fun to use and more advanced in interface design and features than most cameras we’ve seen in its class.
Performance, image quality, and video quality
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V errs on the side of oversaturating colors and overexposing shots in Auto mode, so it’s a good thing the camera has manual adjustments available for exposure compensation. Its pop-up flash is a bit too strong, producing blown-out bright spots and washed-out highlights in a lot of cases. In Auto mode without the flash, we saw grayer whites and oversaturated colors, as well. To get the most out of this camera, you’ll need to use its specialized scene modes, and even then, it’s not the best pick in terms of color accuracy.
Even so, the HX9V earned scores of Good for exposure quality and Very Good for sharpness in our lab’s subjective tests for image quality. Color fidelity and distortion were its main weak spots, as on each of those categories it turned in a score of Fair.
You can view the full-size test images we used for our subjective evaluations by clicking the thumbnails below; press the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard to scroll through all our sample images.
Although we’ve seen better still-image performance from similar cameras, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V is a serious force to be reckoned with in the realm of video capture. Test footage taken in the camera’s highest-quality 1080p, 60-fps setting in AVCHD format was incredibly smooth and sharp; the HX9V also does a decent job in low-light settings. The camera earned a video-quality score of Superior, putting it among the top point-and-shoot cameras in terms of video quality that we’ve tested thus far in 2011. Audio captured through its top-mounted stereo microphones also received a score of Superior.
You can view the test footage we used for our subjective evaluations, in bright light and low light, below. Select 1080p from the drop-down menu in each player to see the highest-resolution video.
Battery life is solid, but nothing extraordinary. With the GPS functionality turned off, the HX9V is rated at 300 shots per charge of its lithium ion battery, which translates to a battery-life rating of Good.
In-camera GPS features
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V’s in-camera GPS features are fairly basic, as they’re limited to geotagging shots for mapping purposes once you’ve offloaded the images from the camera. You don’t get the in-camera mapping features and real-world location names found in the Casio Exilim EX-H20G, but the HX9V does offer the ability to geotag photos and instantly place them on a map interface via Flickr; you can also drag and drop them into Google Earth once your shots are on the desktop.
You can view the raw longitude and latitude data for each shot within the camera by using the “Detailed Data” option during image playback. Thanks to the camera’s digital compass, it shows you which direction you’re facing in real time while you’re using the camera, and directional data is included in each photo’s GPS data too.
The initial satellite linkup can take up to 5 minutes, and you’ll need a clear view of the sky; some delays I experienced may have been due to the fact that I tested the camera’s GPS functionality on a very overcast day. Your satellite connection time may vary. You can turn the GPS functionality off to preserve battery life, which is a good idea if you’re not using the feature.
Like the camera’s 3D shooting modes, the HX9V’s GPS features are nice to have, but we wouldn’t suggest buying the camera for its GPS functionality alone.
Macworld buying advice
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V holds a lot of appeal for photographers who won’t mind a camera that does things differently from the norm. If you’re willing to trade away RAW shooting, aperture-priority mode, and shutter-priority mode for a range of innovative in-camera modes that cover everything from low-light shooting to 3D panoramic images, the HX9V is a top-notch option. It’s a superb still camera for shooting video, and it’s one of the best pocket megazooms of 2011.
Among the three excellent cameras at the top of our pocket-megazoom chart, we’d recommend the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS for manual-minded photographers, the Nikon Coolpix S9100 for casual users who want the best image quality in the class, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V for anyone who wants groundbreaking in-camera extras and top-shelf video performance.