EVF vs. D-SLR
Sony's decision to build an EVF camera with a 10-megapixel APS-C-sized sensor is a clear challenge to the digital SLR. In that spirit we undertook an apples-to-apples comparison of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 and its closest true D-SLR competitor, the eight-megapixel Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. (The 10-megapixel Nikon D200 has since arrived -- see Editor's Choice, page 32 -- but it is really a different class of D-SLR.)
Although both the Sony and the Canon have CMOS sensors with similar dimensions and pixel counts, they are surprisingly different in most other ways. The Digital Rebel XT is pint-sized and featherweight compared to the large, hefty R1 -- exactly contrary to expectation. With its good-sized handgrip and large, smooth shutter release, the well-constructed Sony actually felt better to us than did the XT, which is easy on the neck but tends to cramp big fingers.
The viewfinders of the two contenders are worlds apart, however. The Sony's electronic viewfinder (EVF) is an excellent specimen of its kind, and slightly bigger than the Canon's optical viewfinder -- but it's no match for the latter's physical immediacy and clarity. It produced a perfect image when lighting contrast was moderate, but looked harsh in midday sun.
On the other hand, the Sony's jumbo-size external LCD screen is about twice as big as the XT's, and easily visible even in bright daylight. Being "live," it can be used for shooting as well as image review, while the Canon's screen is strictly for the latter. The Sony LCD's tilt and swivel permits all kinds of shooting angles not possible with the XT, waist level being our favorite. The R1 can also switch automatically from the LCD to the EVF as you bring the camera to your eye.
We judged the R1's shutter response to be the fastest of any EVF model we've ever used. But the camera is really capable of only one "decisive moment" at a time, since there's about a one-second delay between shots that makes the screen go blank. (Yes, we know only one moment can be decisive.) Of course, viewing through the Canon's optical finder is uninterrupted, except for the instant when the mirror is up.
In continuous mode, the Sony can shoot a three-frame burst in one second, but again, you can't see the action in progress. In contrast, the XT pops off frame after frame with precise timing and no hesitation between shots. Its JPEG burst rate -- about a dozen continuous frames at 3fps -- simply smoked the Sony's.
Yet the R1's AF system is the fastest we've seen in any non-SLR digicam to date, though the XT is faster still. The Sony has a decent AF tracking mode, too, limited only by the camera's hesitation between frames. Manual focus with the Sony is quite usable -- and actually makes the camera faster by eliminating AF lag.
So what about image quality? We made comparison shots at five different focal lengths from 28mm to 120mm (35mm equivalents). The Sony was slightly sharper than the Rebel XT overall, whether the latter was equipped with its inexpensive EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II kit lens or the better-corrected EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS. (The two Canon optics closely matched each other at f/11, but the 17-85mm performed better wide open.) The R1's built-in zoom has a wider maximum aperture (f/2.8-4.8) than either Canon lens. And although the 17-85mm's 35mm-equivalent focal-length range of 27-136mm is a closer match to the 24-120mm of the Sony's built-in zoom, it raises the price of the Rebel XT/lens combination to about $1,300, vs. $1,000 for the Sony.
Images from the Sony were just slightly grainier than those from the Canon at ISO 160 to 400, more visibly so at 800. The difference was most noticeable at ISO 1600. At ISO 3200 the R1 was very noisy, whereas the Canon images were still usable.
So does the new Cyber-shot really take the place of an entry-level digital SLR? Not exactly. It's neither as fast nor as flexible as a true D-SLR. But it does move the EVF bar way higher. -- jonathan barkey
Pros: Outstanding image quality for an EVF-style camera, with low noise and wide dynamic range; equivalent- speed settings up to ISO 3200; exceptional wide-angle capability, equivalent to 24mm with a 35mm camera; excellent ergonomics
Cons: Limited telephoto power compared to high-end EVF models; no video capability; costs as much as many entry-level digital SLRs
Bottom Line: The first digital camera to successfully bridge the gap between EVF and SLR categories, it represents an image-quality breakthrough
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 "grain" at ISO 1600 (100 percent)
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT "grain" at ISO 1600 (100 percent)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 sharpness at f/11 (100 percent)
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT sharpness at f/11 (with kit lens, 100 percent)