How tiny can these digital compacts really get. OK, I know we had a similar size camera from Minolta some time ago, but this is a true 5-megapixel model which is no larger than a deck of cards and which is supposed to take serious pictures. Well that's the idea anyway. But is this really a serious camera meant for the serious photographer? I mean - let's face it - there is no tripod mount, no optical viewfinder, and with a flash like a Christmas tree candle the Sony DSC-T1 is a joke surely. Or is it? Let's find out what Sony has come up with this time by taking it for a test drive and finding out if it really is a photographer's dream or a true nightmare.
Using the camera
Picking up the camera you notice that it feels much heavier than you would expect for such a small size. Since the body is made of metal, it has a solid, well engineered feel to it and the stainless steel material gives the impression of quality and durability.
Instead of an optical viewfinder Sony has fitted this really huge, 2.5inch LCD screen with an excellent resolution of 211.000 pixels. It occupies about two-thirds of the camera's back area and images on the screen are clear and bright. Framing images through the LCD is almost as convenient as using a traditional, optical finder.
The lens is a Carl Zeiss, Vario-Tessar affair and truly meant for serious photography. Although its maximum aperture of f3,5 is pretty slow, there is a 3x zoom, equivalent to 38 - 114 mm in 35 mm terms. Its construction resembles the Minolta Dimage X-series cameras of some time ago, which also had a lens that was placed down the body rather than directly behind the lens opening. The light is redirected downward to the CCD-sensor by a prism. This construction obviously helps to keep the camera's size to a minimum. Other efforts to minimise the camera's size include a new rechargeable InfoLithium battery the size of a matchbox and the inclusion of the brand new Memory Stick Duo card, which is even tinier than the original Memory Stick.
This new generation of memory card has a higher speed of writing and reading data, with the new Memory Stick PRO Duo being the faster variant of the Memory Stick Duo card. Targeted for digital music players, digital still and video cameras, the PRO Duo has more storage capacity, faster data transfer and the possibility to record real time, high-resolution photos or videos with the embedded MagicGate technology for secure transfer of copyright protected content. The size of the PRO Duo is only one third of a standard Memory Stick and is available in sizes of 256 and 512 Mb, but capacities are going up as we speak. At the moment the only devices using the new type of card are the Sony DSC-T1 and DSC-U50 digital cameras, a Sony digital music player and the Sony Ericsson P800 camera/phone combination. To make the new card compatible with other cameras Sony include a Memory Stick adapter through which the new media can be used in devices
featuring a standard Memory Stick slot whereas a CompactFlash adapter is available as well.
Pushing down the lens cover at the front makes things come alive at the back. The LCD screen lights up and shows information about the camera's current settings. In less than two seconds you are ready to go. When pressing the shutter the camera locks focus in about half a second. In dark conditions focusing is aided by the AF-assist light at the front next to the lens. Shot-to-shot speed is excellent with a delay of around a second between shots and there is no noticeable shutter lag, which is a good thing. Digital cameras have got a lot better in this respect and lag time is now almost as short as on conventional analogue cameras. No doubt due to Sony's Real Imaging Processor the camera can capture four high-speed burst shots in less than two seconds flat. This is one mighty quick camera.
Although the Sony DSC-T1 is really meant to be a point-and-shoot camera, it has many of the bells and whistles of higher end Sony models. Snapshooters will probably opt for Auto mode, which is a simple point-and-shoot mode that provides few controls. Program mode offers much more control over the way the image is recorded. ISO sensitivity, contrast, saturation and sharpness can all be set by the user, as well as flash level and metering among others.
Apart from Auto and Program mode, there are eight predetermined shooting modes to choose from. When using one of these, the camera automatically chooses the optimum settings to match the selected scene. So even beginners can get high quality images under less than ideal lighting conditions. It is interesting to note the Magnifying Glass mode - which is in fact a super macro mode - that allows images to be captured as close as 1 cm (0.39 in.) from a subject, thereby magnifying the subject by 3.3 times to show details that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. Other scene modes include twilight, portrait, landscape, snow, beach, high speed shutter and even fireworks.
The Sony DSC-T1 is packed with advanced features to deliver the best picture quality possible. There are two metering modes. The by now familiar matrix or multipattern metering is bound to deliver a perfect exposure most of the time but in extreme lighting conditions the user can opt for spot metering as well. Standard focusing mode is the five-point AF system, which automatically detects where the main subject is located in the frame. Two other focusing modes that can be selected are Centre AF or Spot AF. The former locks the focusing point in the centre of the frame whereas the latter narrows the centre focusing point even further tying it to the spot meter. In addition to this, the focusing method can be set to single AF, which is the standard setting that locks focus when the shutter button is pressed halfway. Continuous AF, which starts focusing when the shutter button is pressed halfway but will refocus as soon as the subject moves - an ideal option for action photography.
And finally MonitorinG AF, where the camera starts focusing before the release button is pressed and which sets focus when the shutter button is pressed halfway. Manual focusing is possible as well.
That Sony really wanted to produce a serious camera is illustrated by the large number of features presented with the advanced photographer in mind. There are seven white balance settings including fluorescent and flash. Although the built-in flash is fairly weak and only covers a modest distance of up to 1.5 m (5 ft) it is possible to adjust flash levels in three steps. Indoor focusing is aided by a bright orange AF-lamp - an addition usually only found on high end cameras. Exposure compensation over +/-2 EV is possible in 1/3 stop increments. Shutter speeds range from 1/1000 to 1 second in Program Mode and even up to 2 seconds in some Scene modes (Fireworks). Noise reduction is applied automatically when speeds fall below 1/6 seconds. Picture effects such as sepia, solarized or negative art are possible. Contrast, saturation and sharpness can be set at three levels (plus, normal and minus) according to your own preferences. There is a movie mode at 30 frames per second,
which makes it possible to capture full screen movies of up to 640 x 480 pixels. Their length is only restricted by the size of the Memory Stick. A 512Mb PRO Duo card can hold about 6 minutes of video at this quality. The LCD screen is backlit, and both the intensity of the backlight and the brightness of the image can be adjusted. Even in direct sunlight the image remains clearly visible because the screen is non-reflective. Images are saved as JPEG with a choice of Standard or Fine compression.
In the box
Apart from the Sony DSC-T1 and the usual extras like power cable, USB and video cables, wrist strap and 32Mb Memory Stick Duo , Sony include a docking station for easy downloading of images and automatically charging the 3.6v 2.4Wh InfoLithium ION Battery. Sony claims a battery life of about 80 minutes or 170 images with the LCD backlight on and about 100 minutes or 200 images with the backlight turned off. It takes about 2.5 hours to completely recharge an empty battery.
Besides the 32Mb Memory Stick Duo an adapter is included to make the new card suitable for devices that use the traditional Memory Stick. A CompactFlash adapter is available as an extra accessory.
Downloading images is easy thanks to the included docking station. Just place the Sony DSC-T1 in the cradle with the screen facing you, make sure the single external connection at the bottom of the camera is securely located in the docking station and you are set to go. When transferring images through Sony's Image Transfer software, a window displays previews of the photos flying in and by default saves them in the My Documents/Image Transfer folder. Pixela's ImageMixer Software can be used to do some basic image manipulation like adjusting hue, contrast or saturation and sharpness. Images can be cropped, resized or rotated. A printed manual is included which does a good job of explaining all the functions of the Sony DSC-T1.
It is not surprising that a lens like the Carl Zeiss Vario Tessar f3.5-f4.4 / 6,7-20.1mm (38 - 114mm eq.) delivers sharp images - after all we are talking decades of experience in lens design here. There is only slight barrel distortion in wide angle shots and hardly any noticeable pincushion distortion at maximum tele. Chromatic aberration is minimal and only slightly detectable in extremely high contrast areas.
Images are remarkably noise free, although in some subjects a little shadow noise is present. This is probably due to the fairly high compression level Sony apply in the Sony DSC-T1. In general though images are bright and accurately exposed with nicely saturated colours.
Contrast is mild rather than strong and although the ideal setting is largely due to personal preferences this can easily be adjusted in the relevant menu section. Some flare can become visible in "contre-jour" lighting and this might be due to the construction of the lens in combination with the prism that directs the light downwards to the sensor. Dynamic range is excellent, showing plenty of detail in shadow and highlight areas in all lighting circumstances.
After using the camera for about two weeks, we have come to appreciate the Sony DSC-T1 as a versatile and handy little camera that can be carried anywhere. It is stylish and light, and above all delivers excellent image quality. A few flaws that we experienced were the fact that the battery compartment door is rather flimsy. Plus when you open it to change the Memory stick Duo , the battery will fall out if you are not careful, since there is no latching mechanism to hold it in.
Being as small as it is, has its advantages in that it will fit any purse or pocket. Still, some users will probably miss an optical viewfinder, as holding the camera high in front of you is not everybody's idea of taking a picture discreetly. Besides a traditional optical viewfinder can help prevent camera shake, because when you hold the camera to your eye it is easier to keep still than when holding it at arm's length in front of you. So, while the shape of the camera certainly has its advantages, in some aspects it is also a little less practical than more traditional cameras. Still, there are not too many external controls and they are all clearly labelled and placed sufficiently far apart to make them practical for most people. As long as you are careful not to let your left-hand fingers stray into the lens' field of view.
Seeing that images captured with the Sony DSC-T1 all produced excellent colour and saturation and were easily good enough to be printed at sizes up to A4 at high resolution, we have to conclude that this is a serious camera after all. It is less suited for recording family events because of its limited flash range and persistent red eye when using flash indoors. However, snapshooters and more advanced photographers who are looking for an extremely compact quality camera, to record their holiday adventures or take with them on their travels, could do worse than put the Sony DSC-T1 high on their list of likely candidates. We are sure they won't be disappointed.