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.
For many, the features of the R1's EVF will outweigh its shortcomings. EVFs can display additional exposure, focusing, and camera functions in the viewfinder (including a live histogram display and composition guides), and even darken or lighten the scene based on under- or overexposure settings. If you're satisfied with the DSC-R1's EVF, then your only concern might be the camera's lack of interchangeable lenses.
Then again, maybe not. The R1 packs a powerful punch with its high-quality Carl Zeiss 24-120mm equivalent f/2.8-4.8 5X zoom lens, and should really appeal to wide-angle shooters. Granted, a 24-120mm equivalent doesn't have the extreme reach found on some other EVFs, but a comparable wide-to-tele lens on a DSLR would cost more than the camera body alone. And for those who want a bit more reach, Sony has an optional 1.7X tele-adapter ($390 street).
In our field tests, we had mixed results from the autofocusing system. The R1 did well in bright light using the 5-zone Multipoint AF mode, although it's not as fast or accurate as most DSLRs in its price range. This mode is more easily fooled by detailed background elements, even when the subject is centered. But its other AF modes are harder to trick; they can be chosen by repeatedly pressing the multi-selector button with your thumb.
The Center AF mode shows a fixed AF box in the center that works like most other centrally located AF zones. We preferred the Flexible Spot AF mode that tightens the AF zone to approximately 5% of the viewfinder. When left in the center, it works like the Center AF mode with a tighter concentration-you can place it on an off-center subject, focus, and then recompose while holding down the shutter or AE-lock button.
Anyone who's done this with a camera on a tripod knows what a hassle it can be to readjust the camera back and forth, so the R1 lets you move the Flexible Spot AF zone to wherever you want it in the scene (actually, about 80% of the image area can be chosen, with 10% on the far right and left restricted). If you then switch to manual focus, the area around the spot AF zone fills the entire viewfinder while you tweak focus. Then it goes back to normal view in about 2 seconds. Granted, the manual-focus ring is actually a servo mechanism that responds a bit slower than a manual gear, but Sony also added a quick AF-assist button on the side of the lens to speed up the process.
In addition to the AF and manual-focus modes, the R1 features single, monitor, and continuous AF. The latter is useful for tracking a subject, since it continues to focus after you press down on the shutter, up to the moment of exposure. Yet we found the tracking capability of the R1 less sensitive than that of many DSLRs in its price range.
The DSC-R1's image quality is the best we've ever seen in a Sony camera and comparable to the best DSLRs in its class. If the R1 has an Achilles' heel, it's the electronic viewfinder, which might be a hard transition for those who are used to composing with a sharper, higher-magnification 35mm or digital SLR's optical viewfinder.
This camera can handle most situations, including product and nature shots, with ease. The wide-angle lens and accessory-dedicated flash also make it ideal for real estate, insurance, and other business uses. But portrait and sports shooters won't be satisfied with the resolution and response of the R1's EVF, the limited scope of its built-in lens, or the shortcomings of its external flash system.
This may be the first EVF camera without video and sound capture; those moving up from a digital compact may miss it. Maybe Sony simply wanted to underscore how serious the DSC-R1 is about still photos.
Certified Test Results:
Resolution: Excellent (2000Vx2000H x1850D lines). Color accuracy: Extremely High (Avg. Delta E: 9.77). Highlight/shadow detail: High. Contrast: Slightly High; adjustable in 3 steps via menus. Noise: Low at ISO 160 to ISO 400, Moderately Low at ISO 800, Moderate at ISO 1600. Image quality: Extremely High from ISO 160 to 800. AF speed: Fast in bright light, but slower in low light, especially when using the 5-zone Multipoint AF mode. Red AF-assist light speeds low-light focusing. Viewfinder: The fine-grained EVF shows nearly 100% of the picture area, an Excellent result, while its 0.58X magnification gets a Below Averge rating. Distortion: On DxO Analyzer 2.0 tests, the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* Lens (12 elements in 10 groups with 4 aspherical elements) showed Very Visible barrel distortion at 24mm equivalent and Visible pincushion distortion at 120mm. CIPA battery life: Approx. 550 shots with rechargeable NP-FM50 Info-Lithium battery. For info: www.sonystyle.com; 877-865-7669.
• First 10.3MP camera for under $1,000.
• High-quality 5X zoom starts at 24mm.
• 2-inch, swivel LCD monitor.
• EVF locks up in burst mode.
• No video and sound capture.
• AF slower than DSLRs in price range.