Sony DSC-T20 Overview
by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 9/17/07
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T20 -- a replacement for the DSC-T10 -- features an eight megapixel sensor which is coupled to a Zeiss-branded 3x optical zoom and a 2.5 inch LCD display. The DSC-T20's 38 to 114mm equivalent lens incorporates Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization to minimize blur caused by camera shake at slow shutter speeds. Other Sony T20 features include ISO sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 3,200, in-camera photo editing, a Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo card slot plus 31MB of built in memory, and power from a proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The Sony T20 also offers high definition component video output via an optional proprietary cable or cradle.
The Cyber-shot T20 includes Sony's new face detection technology, capable of detecting up to eight faces simultaneously. Sony's system is apparently linked not only to the Sony T20's autoexposure and autofocus systems as in most similar systems, but also to white balance and flash metering as well -- allowing the camera to ensure proper flash exposure and pleasing flesh tones. Also, the Sony T20 marks one of the first applications of Sony's Bionz image processor -- first seen in the company's Alpha dSLRs -- in their compact camera models. Sony says Bionz will offer improved image quality, faster response times, and better battery life in its compact cameras.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T20 shipped from April 2007 priced at $330, and is available in pink, white, black and silver.
by Mike Pasini
Intro. Take a Sony T10, toss in a few more pixels, bump the ISO up to 3,200, add Face Detection, and give it HD output via an optional dock and you've got the Sony T20. Paint the metal body pink, white, black, or leave it silver while you admire your work.
Inside the Sony T20, the change is more dramatic with Sony's Bionz image processor, descended from the Bionz in Sony's Alpha dSLR. It's responsible for a wider density range than normal, holding highlights while bringing out details in the shadows. It's also one reason the Sony T20 rates 380 shots per charge rather than the 250 of the T10.
And just to ice the Sony T20 cake (or paint the metal body), the list price is about $70 less than the T10.
Design. There's something definitely Matchbox-like about the painted metal Sony T20 that seems to defy the design sophistication of the T10 it replaces. It's more like a toy than a fashion statement. I can't imagine rushing this off to Radio City Music Hall for Fashion Rocks, but I can imagine a Hello Kitty sticker on the lens cover; at least on the white one we received for review.
The Sony T20 does do the T10 one better in the button department, though, with a full ring four-way navigator instead of tiny chrome buttons. Hurray!
The sliding lens cover that doubles as a Power button is retained in this design. It has the advantage -- a big one -- of never requiring you to find a tiny button to turn the camera on. You can feel the Sony T20's big cover and easily slide it down to turn the camera on without taking your eyes off the action.
The Playback button also turns the Sony T20 on, but not off. To perform that trick you have to press the actual Power button on the top deck. If you just press the Playback button again, the Sony T20 complains that the lens cover is up. That can be a little aggravating until you train yourself.
Although this little digital camera is light, it has enough heft to resist blurring the picture when you press the Shutter button. Gripping the Sony T20 is easy, though there are no special raised bumps or tactile clues where to hold the camera.
One aspect of the Sony T20's user interface that immediately got my attention -- and that of anyone near me -- was the audio. There's a silly little chime for every button press in the menu system that's actually quite annoying. Your only option is to turn it off. Shades of Hello Kitty again.
Display/Viewfinder. The 2.5-inch LCD isn't a 3.0-inch LCD but it has great resolution with 230,000 pixels. Outdoors it washes out in bright sun like many other LCDs but you can kick up the brightness a bit with the Display button.
It does a nice job displaying your images and movies. No matter which way I turned the Sony T20, I could see the picture. So sharing with a group of friends actually works. That may be when you're glad to have a 2.5 inch LCD instead of a 3.0 inch one, saving a little battery power.
More importantly, Sony includes both a live histogram when you're shooting and a display histogram. LCDs do not show 24-bit color. Big secret. They show just 16-bit color, so my shots of red peppers looked absolutely horrible on the Sony T20's LCD. But they were fine on my computer screen. The histogram really helps you evaluate what you've really captured.
Performance. Slip the lens cover down and the Sony T20 is ready to shoot. Slip it up and its off. Maybe it's mechanical, but it's also sensory. It's ready when it feels like it's ready and off when it feels like it's off. Brilliant.
Zoom is bit confining with just 3x optical, and Sony is conservative (but intelligent) with its digital zoom, limiting it to just 2x. So you're not going to get intimate shots across the soccer field with the Sony T20. The 15x Smart Zoom option delivers only 640 x 480 pixels, not really much detail.
Shot-to-shot performance is really a matter of menu options. The Sony T20's single shot mode is quick enough for normal use. Burst mode captures several images in rapid succession as long as you hold down the shutter button. So you have your choice.
You can also bracket in 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 EV steps. The sequence overexposes, shoots normally, and underexposes with one press of the Shutter button.
There's no mode dial on the Sony T20, so to get from Auto to Scene to Program Auto to Movie mode, you press the Home button. That's where the system functions can be found to adjust Playback options, Printing options, Memory management and Setup options.
None of the Sony T20's menus loop, which can be annoying. There's just no fast way to return to the first option when you're on the last one.
Scene modes include Beach, Fireworks, High Sensitivity, High Speed Shutter, Landscape, Snow, Soft Snap, Twilight, and Twilight Portrait.
With the same lens as the T10 (which inherited the same lens as the T30), there are no surprises in the optics. Dave characterized it as "an excellent lens overall, but pincushion distortion at telephoto focal lengths is higher than average."
What's new in the T20, though, is the Bionz image processor, which promises better image quality by holding highlights otherwise lost and showing detail in shadows that is usually submerged. See the gallery shots to draw your own conclusions.
The high ISO capability is a great feature to have, relegating the flash and its red-eye to the dust bin of history. But in high ISO photography there's always a trade-off between retaining color or holding onto detail.
My impression is that Sony is keen to retain color information at the expense of detail. And while a sharp-eyed reviewer may bemoan the loss of detail in Sony's high ISO images (especially when it comes to making big prints), I can't help but recall how people loved their Sony Mavicas, which could only save 1.3 megapixel images to a floppy disk. They certainly didn't have the detail of competing 3-megapixel models, but people loved the color.
High ISO shots are a different kind of photograph; different from the ISO-200-and-under shots on most digicams. But I'm glad to have them. Even with a Bionz processor, you can do a lot more noise reduction on your computer than in the camera. See my Noiseware review for proof.
In-camera image editing is another trick the Sony T20 picked up from the T100, its bigger sibling. It can automatically detect and remove red-eye, a real blessing if you're printing flash shots directly from the camera at a party, say.
The other editing tools are a lot of fun too. With the Partial Color option you can pinpoint an object in your scene to hold its color, and watch as the Sony T20 turns everything else into monochrome. Then you can use the Zoom lever to expand or contract the color effect, great for images of flowers.
You can also apply a fish-eye lens effect with nine levels of control, or blur the periphery with five levels. These aren't just fun, but they can minimize composition problems, too.
Transferring images from the camera card proved to be a little awkward for me, if quite fast. The T20 uses a Sony Memory Stick Duo, which is a bit thinner and narrower than an SD card. I usually pop memory cards into a PCMCIA card adapter for my laptop, but didn't have an adapter for the Duo. So I cabled the Sony T20 to my USB hub with the included octopus cable.
The camera end of the connector has two little levers on the thin sides to unlatch the plug for removal. That's a bit delicate. It's easy to think you have them pressed in far enough to release the plug only to find, when you pull, you don't. It's also awkward to set the cabled Sony T20 down, since the bottom on which it usually rests is now obstructed by the cable connection. We laid it on its painted face so we could read the screen.
Shooting. Like all T-series Sony digicams, the T20 is easy to take along, fitting comfortably in nothing more than a shirt pocket. With the sliding lens cover, it's also ready for action as soon as you are. And its shutter lag is so slight, you won't have to anticipate the action.
You don't have to do much thinking, either. With Sony's new face detection technology, you can avoid many of the pitfalls that led to poorly exposed faces. The Sony T20's face detection is quick, finding as many as eight human faces in the frame. It looks for a combination of eyes, nose, and mouth so only heads facing you are identifiable.
Available in Auto and Portrait modes, it controls more than focus, extending its reach to exposure control, white balance adjustment and flash control. That's more important than it may sound. Finding the faces to focus on is a pretty clear benefit, but controlling the flash so it illuminates them both at that distance and for that subject is a big help, as is the white balance adjustment. Even more so is adding that information to the exposure calculation. Think of all those brightly lit landscapes that don't expose the people close to the camera. Now your camera, detecting the faces, will set exposure for them rather than the blue, blue sky behind them.
HD Output. Sony touts the T20 as an HD camera, but that moniker really refers just to the 1080i output signal for stills. The T20 doesn't take HD resolution movies (1080 or 720) and it has a hard time playing VGA movies through the optional HD dock. In fact, Sony doesn't even supply a cable with the T20 to connect it to your HD television (although it does supply one with the T25).
Instead, the company provides three HD accessory options. You can buy a component cable that attaches to the T20's proprietary USB port. Or you can buy the $80 Cyber-shot Station CSS-HD1. Sony also sells a $149 printer/dock solution for the problem.
The Cyber-shot Station includes two cables: a composite video cable for HD output and a stereo audio cable that also has standard video (yellow) output. If you attach both video cables to your set, the composite cable takes precedence and the VGA signal is ignored. But the Sony T20 only outputs a VGA signal for video. So you see the station report: "Invalid operation. HD (1080i) output in progress." It can't send the VGA signal out the composite cable. You see the first frame of the movie on the TV but that's it. The error message is overlaid. The trick is to pull the composite connection out of the back of the Station so the VGA connection (assuming you've made it) is live. Then the movie plays.
You may wonder if it's worth the trouble to buy any of these accessories considering TV resolution -- even HD resolution -- is a lot less than the full resolution the Sony T20 can capture with its 8.1-megapixel sensor. But the Sony T20 does have a 16:9 aspect ratio mode (not recommended for portraits) and the included special effects and music that make up the automated slide show function really are quite well done, as our CSS-HD1 review demonstrates. That also plays well on a standard TV, but at a much reduced size.
Appraisal. If you want 5x zoom instead of the Sony T20's 3x and a 3.0 inch LCD instead of a 2.5 inch LCD and you have an extra $70 floating around with nothing to do, take a look at the Sony T100. If 3x works for you, with its 3x zoom and 2.5-inch LCD, the Sony T20 doesn't give up much, except that $70. Which you can put toward a Cyber-shot Station or, maybe, an Apple TV.
- 8.1 megapixel HAD CCD
- Carl Zeiss 38-114mm equivalent 3x optical zoom lens
- 15x Smart Zoom (VGA quality), 2x normal zoom
- f/3.5 to f/5.6 in wide angle and f/4.3 to f/10 in telephoto
- 2.5 inch LCD
- Nine point autofocus
- 380 shots on one charge of the lithium-ion battery
- Broadcast quality Movie mode with sound and slow zoom
- Shutter speed from 1/4 to 1/1,000 second in Auto and as long as one minute in Program Auto
- Self-timer with 2 and 10 second options
- Exposure bracketing
- White balance: Automatic, Cloudy, Daylight, Fluorescent 1, Fluorescent 2, Fluorescent 3, Incandescent, Flash
- Scene modes: Beach, Fireworks, High Sensitivity, High Speed Shutter, Landscape, Snow, Soft Snap, Twilight, Twilight Portrait
- Flash range: Auto: 11/16" to 7'-7/16" (W), ISO 3200: 11/16" to 15' (W)
- PictBridge compatible
- Available in four colors: black, silver, white, or pink
- Face Detection
- SteadyShot Image Stabilization
- High ISO sensitivity (to ISO 3,200) with Sony Clear RAW Noise Reduction
- HD output (1080i) for stills, with music
- D-Range Optimization
- In-camera Red-eye Reduction
- Live histogram in recording modes
- Burst mode of 100 shots at 2.1 fps
- 31MB internal memory
- Support for up to 8GB Memory Stick PRO Duo media
In the Box
The T20 ships with the following items in the box:
- Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T20 digital camera
- NP-BG1 rechargeable battery
- BC-CSG battery charger
- A/V and USB multi-connector cables
- Wrist strap
- Software CD-ROM with PDF manual
No Memory Stick media or adaptors are included.
- Large capacity Memory Stick PRO Duo. MemoryStick PRO versions can handle high-res movie data and give faster download times. They should be used for all current Sony cameras. These days, 1GB is a good trade-off between cost and capacity, but if you plan to capture many movie clips, 2GB should be a minimum.
- Cyber-shot Station CSS-HD1 to playback slide shows on HDTV
- HD Output Adapter cable
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
- MPK-THD Marine Pack for shooting at depths up to 132 feet
The Sony T20 is a stylish and inexpensive digital camera, featuring a powerful Bionz processor, smart face detection technology that goes beyond mere focus assistance to exposure control, both high ISO sensitivity (to 3200) and image stabilization with Super SteadyShot, and HD output for stills with built-in special effects and music (but you do have to buy an accessory to connect it to your HDTV). Like other Sony cameras, the T20 sacrifices detail for color, especially at higher ISO settings. But that isn't really an issue with 4x6 prints or even images displayed on your monitor. The T series is a popular one and this inexpensive T is a Dave's Pick.