So here we have it then, the first truly compact 7-megapixel digital still camera. With its own in-house developed 1/1.8 CCD, Sony have built on the success of the 5MP P100 to produce a basically similar camera with a higher resolution and a completely new CCD. We were very satisfied with the quality of the images from the older P100, so let's see if any improvements have been made or if the 7-megapixel CCD is just a marketing hype.
Using the camera
Apart from the new, brushed metal strip running across the front of the camera the slim Sony DSC-P150 shares its good looks with the 5MP DSC-P100, as both models are virtually identical. For more detailed information about camera functions and the like we would advise you to look at our P100 review again as generally speaking the only difference between the two cameras is the all new 7 megapixel CCD.
All controls on the Cybershot DSC-P150, with the exception of shutter release and on/off button, are located on the back. They are well placed to make operating them as easy as possible. The main dial, which sets exposure modes like Program, Scene modes or Manual among others, can be conveniently operated with your index finger without the need to take the camera away from your eye when you are using the tiny optical viewfinder. All other controls on the back are clearly labelled so their use immediately becomes obvious. Beside this - when making a selection with the four-way dial - the relevant icon enlarges slightly on the 1.8" LCD screen and lights up in yellow momentarily to indicate the choice you have just made. Very convenient.
The camera handles really well and feels well balanced. Despite the rather unconventional shape as far as cameras go, it is well possible to capture images single-handedly. At 147g it is just heavy enough to feel solid and stable in your hand and the small thumb grip on the far right of the rear panel certainly helps here. All buttons are metal and certainly give the camera a quality feel.
The 1.8" LCD screen has an anti-reflective coating with 134.000 pixels. Because of its high refresh rate, previews are smooth and clear. The screen struggles a bit in bright sunshine though when it is rather difficult to assess image detail, although it is better than many others in that respect. Its low light performance is good as the LCD brightens when you half press the shutter and activate the AF illuminator.
Shooting performance is excellent. The camera is ready to go in under 1 second and the reaction of the shutter is almost instant when pre-focused and less than half a second including autofocus. Capturing action shots shouldn't be a problem with the Sony DSC-P150. If you need to capture several images after another to record a sequence of actions, Burst Mode lets you capture 5 images at 7Mp in fine mode in under 4 seconds, after which the camera needs a few seconds to clear the buffer before it is ready for action again. Overall we were very impressed with the camera's performance in day to day shooting.
To preview the last image simply press the left-hand switch on the four way dial which instantly shows your latest result. To review all images, the playback setting of the main dial shows all the pictures on the memory card. Calling them up and enlarging them by up to 5 times is very quick. Switching between playback and recording takes less than a second.
The bias of the camera is towards easy picture taking and this is clear from the many automatic options, such as the nine scene modes or the green Auto mode. Several features however show that more advanced users will certainly find something to their liking in this DSC-P150.
Full manual mode lets you choose from two apertures and shutter speeds between 1/1000 and 30 secs (1/8s max. in Auto mode), with assistance from the meter that indicates deviation from the correct exposure in 1/3 EV steps. A live histogram shows highlight and shadow detail while several other options such as exposure compensation, ISO settings, saturation, sharpness and contrast, can be set through the menu system. However, most consumers will only use Program mode and will never feel the need to dive into the menu system as there are dedicated buttons for flash and macro mode, image size and self timer, since these are the options the majority of snap-shooters are likely to use most.
In the box
The Sony DSC-P150 comes complete with a 32Mb Memory Stick to get you started. An elaborate printed manual that fills you in on all the possibilities of the camera; wrist strap; USB and AV cables - the DSC-P150 supports USB 2.0; info-lithium battery (NP-FR1) and charger. A full battery should be good for about 320 images or 2 hours and 40 minutes of recording time (CIPA standard). In our tests we felt that there was certainly more stamina in the battery than we were used from Sony and so their claim could well be true. A tendency that can be seen in many of today's cameras is that batteries seem to get smaller and more powerful by the day. However the days that my first digital camera needed a recharge after about 30 minutes of LCD use or 30 photos are not that far in the past.
Sony provide Picture Package V1.0 as an image viewer, to transfer and arrange your images on your PC. It can be set to automatically transfer your images to the computer or you can drag and drop images from Windows Explorer as the Sony DSC-P150 shows up as a separate drive and files can be moved by a simple mouseclick. Photo-editing possibilities of the program are rather limited but you can sort photos by date, burn them on CD or create automatic slideshows, which is rather nice. To play back slideshows on TV the Cybershot Station CSS-PHA, which is available as an after-market accessory, accommodates the DSC-P150 camera while at the same time charging the battery.
With the optional Cybershot Marine Pack (MPK-PHB) the Sony DSC-P150 becomes an underwater camera with water resistance to a depth of up to 130 feet. For greater flexibility the DSC-P150 can be used with optional telephoto and wide-angle conversion lenses.
The DSC-P150 is equipped with the excellent f2.9-f5.2, 38-114mm (eq.) Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens from the P100. As we have come to expect from this unit, image quality is excellent and there is really not much to fault this lens. The results from the Sony DSC-P150 show nice vivid colours and superb image detail. Chromatic aberration is hardly noticeable in high contrast situations and distortion at the wide end is very reasonable for such a compact lens system. Images are nicely saturated and that is exactly the way we like it. Should you prefer more muted colours, saturation, contrast and sharpness can be adjusted 1 step over or under the standard setting.
We found exposure to be spot on all the time although you should take care with large areas of bland sky in the picture. It is quite easy to underexpose your shot if an overcast sky dominates your image. In cases like these it is best to exclude the sky from your image when metering and half press the shutter to set the exposure before recomposing the picture and pressing the shutter release fully.
Autofocus (5 area Multi-point, Center AF or 5-step Manual) worked well although with very near objects we noticed later that sometimes objects were not in focus. If you forget to switch to macro, or if you come closer than 6cm in macro mode, the camera will not be able to focus properly but you can still press the shutter release, only to notice later that results are unsharp. Sharp focus is indicated by a tiny green light in the corner of the LCD screen that lights solid when the camera has focused and blinks when images are out of focus. As the light is so tiny it is easy to miss with the result that you will not notice an unsharp close up until you get home.
We never felt the need to adjust white balance settings in our day-to-day image situations as the Auto setting worked perfectly well. Some may complain that there is no user definable manual white balance setting, while others might argue that sometimes it is best not to filter out the warm glow household lighting casts on your image to preserve the atmosphere of your surroundings.
Flash has the usual options, although its range is rather limited as we have come to expect from cameras this size. These small flashes are best reserved for providing fill-in light in daylight situations or for lighting single portraits at close range since they are underpowered to light up anything larger or farther away than say 3.5 metres. We liked the possibility to adjust flash intensity, as sometimes you only need a very tiny amount of fill-in as you don't want the flash to be noticeable and then it is nice to know that you have a choice. Dynamic range is excellent and it seems that the new 7Mp CCD (3072x2304 pixels) certainly is an improvement as it is capable of capturing considerably more image detail without a significant increase in noise, even at higher ISO settings.
Since many other manufacturers are already using CCDs made by Sony, chances are this new CCD will find its way into a good number of third party cameras soon. The new Canon G6 is one of the first to use it, but it certainly won't be the last. One clever marketing factor that makes upgrading existing cameras much easier is the fact that the housing for Sony's new 7Mp CCD is actually the same size as the older 4 and 5 Mp CCDs, making upgrading possible without the need to design a completely new model from scratch. And that is exactly what Sony themselves have done with their older DSC-P100 when they transformed it into the DSC-P150.
"Is there a marked difference in image quality then?" I hear you ask. Well to be honest, yes and no. If you regularly make big enlargements you will certainly notice an improvement in quality and obviously more pixels mean larger images. However if all you do is make 4" x 6" printouts of your beach holiday in Littlestone-On Sea you do not really need the 7 megapixels at all as you won't see the difference anyway. Compare this to conventional 35mm film. Why do some people buy professional film and why are some consumers satisfied with cheaper brand alternatives? Personal preferences certainly play a part here as well as the aim the images are used for. What remains is that the new Sony CCD certainly sets a standard for things to come and will undoubtedly help to further improve picture quality of present and future digital cameras.
The Sony Cybershot DSC-P150 is the top of the line in Sony's ultra-compact P-series cameras and it certainly does a great job of capturing quality images. The camera follows the usual Sony pattern - it is easy to use with the most important functions readily accessible accompanied by a well-designed on-screen display. Image quality is impressive and noise seems to be well-controlled. There is plenty of resolution to create large photo-quality prints. Add to this the pleasant rendition of colours in day-to-day shooting situations and you will agree that Sony are offering an excellent package here.
If you are looking for a quality compact this "take-anywhere" camera should certainly be at the top of your list and we feel that snap-shooters as well as more advanced enthusiasts will be more than satisfied with what the DSC-P150 has to offer. Whether you really need 7 megapixels is for you to decide after careful analysis of your type of photography, but if you do the Sony DSC-P150 certainly delivers.