The best advice we've ever given our readers? Take a camera for a test spin before buying, even if that means dry-firing it at the counter. If you're ready to move up from a compact digital camera and pick up Sony's new 10.3MP Cyber-shot DSC-R1 ($1,000 street), there's a good chance you'll buy it and return to the store only for more memory cards. But if you're looking to upgrade from your trusty old 35mm SLR system, or even a two-year old 6MP DSLR, the Sony DSC-R1 might leave you cold.
One thing that should impress everyone is the R1's outstanding image quality. In our lab tests, it delivered the highest resolution out of any sub-$1,500 digital camera we've tested-including DSLRs. The R1 also maintained Low noise levels from ISO 160 through ISO 400, and even kept them to Moderate at ISO 1600. Color accuracy was Extremely High, and the contrast was a bit high when shooting JPEGs in bright sun.
But the DSC-R1 gives you a full range of image-quality adjustments, including an advanced gradation control system, advanced white-balance and color-space options, and a RAW + JPEG shooting mode. Sony includes a powerful RAW processing utility (for Mac and PC) that allows you to adjust your images to your heart's content. RAW shooters beware, however: Each SR2 RAW file requires 20MB to store (more than the 16.7MP Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II), and shooting RAW + JPEG slows the capture rate to a crawl.
Credit for its outstanding noise control and overall image quality can certainly be given to the DSC-R1's 10.3MP (effective) CMOS sensor. It's the largest on any EVF camera (21.5x14.4mm), and its 5.9-micron pixels and 2:3 aspect ratio are similar to those found on Nikon's 12.4MP D2x digital SLR. Unfortunately, the Sony's sensor doesn't do video or sound, a common feature on all other EVFs. The speaker grill located on the back of the camera is for "camera noises," according to the company.
If the DSC-R1 delivers such great image quality for a camera that costs only a grand, why wouldn't it appeal to former SLR owners? It all depends on how you look at it-or in this case, through it. As we pointed out in our "Hands On" report on a preproduction model (December 2005), the R1 doesn't have a DSLR's optical viewfinder. Instead, it uses an electronic viewfinder (EVF) to give a real-time representation of what is happening through the lens.
The EVF on the production model we ran through our lab and field tests was one of the best available, with relatively fine grain (approximately 235,000-pixel resolution), excellent color accuracy and contrast, and an eye-activation switch. But it shares a problem common to EVFs: low magnification. And even this relatively sharp EVF can't hold a candle to the clarity and instant response of a typical optical viewfinder. For example, the image gets a bit jumpy as you pan from side to side, and you can't track fleeting expressions as easily. To compensate, we resorted to the two-eyed approach to see both portrait subjects and anything moving in the scene.