Sony HX20V £349
12th Jun 2012 | 15:30
18.2MP travel compact with a 20x optical zoom, Full HD movies and GPS
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V, the latest flagship pocket compact in its High Performance range offers an all-in-one solution for travellers who don't want to pack a DSLR or compact system camera, yet still require choice when shooting stills and video.
Travel zoom cameras have quickly become something of a saviour of the photographic industry. Their broad focal ranges yet pocket-sized proportions distance and differentiate the compacts from the smartphone threat.
With a solid-feeling metal build, stereo microphones, integral GPS, top-of-the-range G series lens, plus serious black finish, it certainly resembles a premium camera.
A high-ish price tag of £349 in the UK and $398 in the US pitches the Sony HX20V against the class-leading Panasonic Lumix TZ30 - both cameras featuring a 20x optical zoom range - as well as high-powered bridge cameras such as the 30x zoom Fuji HS30.
On the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V, the core focal range is equivalent to 25-500mm on a 35mm camera, and the camera witnesses the debut of what Sony calls its Advanced Aspherical (AA) lens design, the purpose of which is of course to deliver a big zoom in a fairly small body.
The camera's dimensions measure 106.6 x 61.9 x 34.6mm, with a leather effect rubber grip plus Optical SteadyShot stabilisation helping to avoid blur when shooting handheld at maximum telephoto, and effectively so, as it happens.
Value-added features such as the auto stitching Sweep Panorama extend the scope for how much information can be squeezed into your frame.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX20V finds room for the same 18.2 megapixel 1/2.3-type Exmor R CMOS sensor used by the Sony HX200V, while avoiding its sibling's mini DSLR bulk and being cheaper with it. Also onboard is its image enhancing Pixel Super Resolution technology, helping to reduce if not wholly prevent the blocky appearance of conventional digital zooms.
In doing so the Sony HX20V looks to deliver what many could consider a very fair compromise of small size, yet big imaging performance. That's if potential purchasers can justify paying £150/$200 more than less flashy but still fully featured travel zooms such as the 18x zoom Samsung WB150F, also with GPS.
Lending the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V a more rarefied air, however, are DSLR-style features such as a software-boosted maximum sensitivity of ISO 12800 (against the Samsung's ISO 3200), high speed Bionz processor, and AF timings of 0.13 seconds in daylight. This latest high-powered Sony Cyber-shot certainly looks the part and reads as capable on paper, but how does it prove in practice?
Build quality and handling
With the grip at the front providing room for your two middle fingers and a further pad at the back for the thumb, it's possible to shoot one-handed at maximum telephoto with the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V, leaving the forefinger free to squeeze down on the shutter release button or toggle the zoom lever that surrounds it.
A body-only weight of 221g, without the 320-shot rechargeable battery or choice of SD or Memory Stick Pro Duo inserted at the base, further adds stability when held in the palm.
18 megapixel stills and Full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels video clips captured at 50fps are composed and reviewed via the 3-inch, 4:3 aspect ratio LCD screen on the backplate, the 921k dot resolution ensuring that visibility is good, both indoors and out.
There's no additional viewfinder, and clean lines are further preserved by the fact that the flash is sunk into the top plate when not in use.
Sony has, however, found room for a tiny shooting mode dial, ridged edging providing greater purchase for the thumb. If we're nit-picking we could have done with the dial's action being slightly stiffer to avoid slipping accidentally onto an adjacent setting when fetching the camera out of a jacket or back pocket.
On the dial itself, we're provided with the usual complement of intelligent auto and creative settings - 10 in total. Here manual options are divided between Program mode and Manual mode, the latter also including the ability to adjust aperture value and shutter speed.
The two fully auto modes are similarly divided, to provide exposure-adjusting and sharpening Superior Auto, plus subject-recognising Intelligent Auto. Also present and correct are separate scene, 3D and panorama shooting options.
Video also gets a dedicated setting on this top plate dial, as does, interestingly, a shallow depth of field-aping Background Defocus mode, while a red video record button features top right of the backplate. This button is inset, so requires a deliberate dig with a thumbnail to activate.
While separate playback, menu and delete buttons on the backplate keep operation straightforward and intuitive, readily falling under the thumb, the centrepiece here is a jog dial-come-scroll wheel. With a thumb press to one of its edges this can be used for gingerly tabbing through settings, or it can be spun to progress quicker.
Ranged around this are display, flash, self timer and continuous shooting settings, while when in Intelligent Auto mode a press of its bottom edge will access the Photo Creativity options.
This enables brightness and saturation to be tweaked in the camera pre-capture using an on-screen slider, while a few digital filters - including a pop art and toy camera style effect - can also be applied.
Missing here is a miniature mode option, but in truth filters are only likely to be applied in moderation, if at all.
Give the top plate power button of the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V a press and within two seconds the lens barrel has extended from flush with the body to its maximum wide-angle setting, soundtracked by the buzz of lens mechanics.
The display settings here are interesting, in that with subsequent presses of the rear dial the user can call up a live histogram displaying brightness levels across the image or an on-screen spirit level, thereby enabling straight horizons even when shooting handheld.
Hold a finger down on the zoom lever and the camera zips through its focal range from extreme wide angle to maximum telephoto in all of three seconds, although once again there's that low waspish buzz.
To compensate for this, the zoom is much slower - and a good deal quieter - when used after the movie record button has been pressed, taking seven to eight seconds to travel the same distance. This isn't altogether a bad thing, as transitions are much smoother on the resulting footage.
Half squeeze the shutter release button in stills mode and there's the briefest of adjustments before the shot snaps into focus and a cluster of AF points appear highlighted on screen.
Squeeze the button fully and the shutter fires nigh instantly, the captured full resolution frame remaining on screen for a second or two, while it's being written to card.
In terms of image quality, this being a Sony camera and with default settings in place, colours really pop when downloaded to your desktop computer, with vibrant reds and lush greens being particularly striking. Shots straight from the camera display a good amount of contrast and deep blacks too, subtly adding depth and dimension to its frames.
In terms of low light performance, you'll probably want to stick to ISO 3200 and below, or at ISO 1600 if you want to avoid having any grain at all. Shots taken at ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 have an artificial look - the result of software trickery to boost the sensor performance while limiting noise.
At maximum setting there is a watercolour look for sure, but it's far from a deal breaker.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V, we've shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Sony HX20V is capable of resolving up to around 22 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100, score: 22 (Click here to see full resolution image)
ISO 200, score: 22 (Click here to see full resolution image)
ISO 400, score: 22 (Click here to see full resolution image)
ISO 800, score: 20 (Click here to see full resolution image)
ISO 1600, score: 16 (Click here to see full resolution image)
ISO 3200, score: 16 (Click here to see full resolution image)
ISO 6400, score: n/a (Click here to see full resolution image)
ISO 12800, score: n/a (Click here to see full resolution image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG images from the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V have similar signal to noise ratio (SNR) results to the Panasonic TZ30 at mid-range sensitivities (ISOs). After that is doesn't perform as well, although it's consistently better than the Fujifilm F770 EXR. The very high SNR values at the highest sensitivity settings are the result of heavy smoothing which takes out all of the noise at the expense of detail.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX20V once again offers its manufacturer's Sweep Panorama function, automatically compositing together a single elongated frame from a burst of images. The result is a 20MB (as opposed to an average 6-8MB) file. While exposure is even and the result's dramatic, movement has resulted in some 'diced' subjects on the far right.
A long lens reach on a pocket camera is the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V's chief selling point - and here it has come up trumps, bringing out the inner Chris Packham, enabling us to shoot handheld and capture impressively detailed close ups of wildfowl.
You can also get up close and personal with this Sony camera and still capture bags of detail and colour even when shooting at maximum 25mm equivalent wide-angle setting. Here we're only a centimetre or two from our subject, so that it dramatically fills the frame.
Another extreme wide-angle shot, and here one delivered with minimal barrel distortion, which is a boon for any landscape or cityscape photographer. However, to be picky, we notice softness towards the very edges of the frame.
By contrast, a shot taken from exactly the same vantage point, but this time at maximum zoom setting, pulling the house at the very end of the terrace - some 200 metres or more away - bang to the fore.
Another shot taken on the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V at maximum telephoto setting, enabling us to play at amateur paparazzi. Capturing sharp candids at maximum zoom has the benefit of enabling shots to be just that - candid - while throwing the background nicely out of focus.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO image, see the cropped (100%) versions below taken from the darker side of this scene.
If you're in the market for a travel zoom camera that delivers remarkably consistent, colourful and detail rich results, offers a solid-feel build that should withstand bouncing around in your backpack - plus you're prepared to pay a top-end price - then the Sony HX20V should come high up on your wish list.
A high-quality metal construction including padded rubberised grip provides a firm hold when shooting towards the telephoto end of the zoom, which, when coupled with SteadyShot image stabilisation, means that sharp shots can be achieved handheld in a wide variety of conditions
Aside from the odd performance niggle, the £349/$398 asking price of the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V is the issue here; it is on the high side. This money would alternatively buy you a bridge camera with an even larger zoom, such as the 30x Fuji HS30, or stretch to a lower-end compact system camera, such as the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1.
The chief selling point here remains the ideal compromise between the broad zoom range and compact dimensions, and on the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V such far-reaching scope as afforded by a 25-500mm equivalent focal range will deliver a huge amount of compositional opportunities without you needing to take a step forward or back.
The Sony HX20v isn't the cheapest travel zoom on the market, but a high-ish asking price for what at the end of the day is just a snapshot camera has to be set against the value of a consistent performance.
This camera provides very usable results throughout the zoom range, and even when shooting handheld at maximum telephoto setting. Add in GPS, Sweep Panorama and 3D options and we have a capable jack-of-all-trades.
Further good news comes in the fact that we were seeing street prices of £299.99 in the UK and $350 in the US for the Sony Cyber-shot HX20V as we were putting the finishing touches to this review, which removes a healthy chunk of any barrier to purchase.
Simply put, this is one of the better travel zoom cameras we've encountered to date, and, as we're due to be heading off on our own holidays soon, we're loathe to let it go.