Sony W170 Overview
by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 04/17/08
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W170 couples a 10.1-megapixel sensor to a Zeiss-branded 5x optical zoom and a generous 2.7" LCD display. The Sony W170 also has an optical viewfinder, an increasingly rare feature that's useful when the LCD is difficult to see, or when trying to conserve power.
The DSC-W170's 28 to 140mm equivalent lens is wider than most and incorporates Sony's Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization to minimize blur caused by camera shake at slow shutter speeds. Other Sony W170 features include ISO sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 3,200, a Memory Stick Duo/PRO Duo card slot, plus 15MB of built in memory. The Sony W170 derives its power from a proprietary Lithium-ion rechargeable battery, which is CIPA rated for about 370 shots on a charge. The Sony W170 also offers high definition component video output, via an optional proprietary cable or cradle.
The Cyber-shot W170 includes Sony's latest face detection technology, which can now distinguish between the faces of children and adults. "Child priority" or "Adult priority" modes are available and the camera will detect up to eight faces in a frame and optimize focus, exposure, white balance and flash.
The Cyber-shot W170 also features Sony's new intelligent scene recognition (iSCN) technology, which allows the camera to automatically select what it "thinks" is the optimal scene mode for a variety of shooting situations. In advanced iSCN mode, the camera will not only take a photo based on the user's settings, but will automatically take a second photo if it determines that another setting would yield better results. The user then has two images to choose from.
The Sony W170 offers a number of additional features, including: Sony's D-Range Optimizer to retrieve picture detail in photos with harsh highlights or dark shadows; semi-manual focus that allows you to select the focusing distance based on your subject's location; and in-camera editing functions such as "unsharp mask" to sharpen images.
The Sony Cybershot W170 is priced at US$300 and is available from April 2008. The W-series lineup features a wider range of color choices than previous models, including pink, blue, champagne gold, and red.
Sony W170 User Report
by Mike Pasini
Intro. Sony's W-series packs some of the company's most exciting technology into an affordable, compact package. While not as slim as the T series, the Sony W170 is still an attractive digicam. It's what's inside that you'll love.
The 10-megapixel sensor, Carl Zeiss 5x zoom, and 2.7-inch high resolution LCD are the most obvious attributes. You might not immediately appreciate that the lens starts at a real wide-angle 28mm equivalent rather than the more typical 35mm. And it has Super SteadyShot optical image stabilization, too. Not to mention automatic Macro mode, so you don't have to shift into Macro when you get close.
Face Detection may be last year's news, even coupling it beyond just focus to flash, exposure and white balance. But the Sony W170 adds a wrinkle this year with the ability to tell the difference between adults and children.
Adult/Child priority shows up in Smile Shutter mode, too, which may replace your typical use of Self-Timer mode. In Smile Shutter mode, you press the Sony W170's Shutter button but nothing happens until someone smiles. You can even change how big a smile it takes to trip the shutter. Sony describes the levels as laughs, smiles, or grins.
Scene shooting has gotten a bit more intelligent, if not quite as smart as Kodak's latest digicams. It's nice to see a little competition in this arena. Cameras could be smarter, and they should be. In this case, the Sony W170 can tell the difference between Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight using a Tripod. That's not a bad start.
There's still a Bionz image processor in the W-series, but it now lets you choose the degree of dynamic range optimization you want. There's a tradeoff in Continuous Shutter mode speed for choosing more processing, but it's worth it most of the time.
There's also still ISO 3,200 but it doesn't deliver the same image quality as the lower ISO settings. And that quality was once again a pleasure to view on the screen and even in large prints.
Look and Feel. I do like the look of the W-series, which has changed just a little from last year. There's no grip to speak of, but plenty of room on the right side front for your fingers. With your index finger perched on the Shutter button and your thumb on the Zoom lever, it's easy to operate the Sony W170 with one hand. But do attach the wrist strap and use it.
The Sony W170 ranks only average in weight for a camera in its class, but it's still easy to slip into your shirt pocket and won't make you look like you're carrying your inheritance there. It's a bit bulkier than the slimmest of the slim, but that glass has got to hide somewhere.
The Cyber-shot W170's buttons and dials are petite (and we don't use the word lightly), but elegant and nicely laid out. There's a lot on the Mode dial, which is smaller than any coin and the four-way navigator isn't one of those cheap button arrangements, but a real disk. All the small round buttons, including the OK button are the same size, too. And the Zoom lever really is a toggle switch, not two buttons.
I did have a little trouble finding the Shutter button by touch, but it's large enough and slightly raised so no one would blame you if you just thought I'm insensitive. The small Power button didn't bother me at all because I don't mind looking for it, and it has a nice, bright green LED light circling it. But when I'm composing a picture, I really don't want to have to look for the Shutter button.
The Sony W170's Clear Photo LCD is a very pleasant 2.7 inches with 230,000 pixels. The glossy coating was pretty fingerprint resistant and it was visible (but barely) in direct sun.
The Cyber-shot W170 does, however, include an optical viewfinder; although it isn't very accurate. While the LCD shows 102 percent of the captured image at wide angle and 98 at telephoto, the optical viewfinder manages just 73 percent at wide angle and 80 at telephoto. LEDs by the viewfinder indicate the status of the flash and focus.
The lens is some serious glass, not the compact lens you see on most compact digicams. It's large, for one thing, with an aperture range from f/3.3 to f/8.0. The 5x optical zoom ranges from 5 to 25mm (a wide 28 to 140mm equivalent on a 35mmm camera).
Minimum focus distance is just a bit less than four inches at wide angle and just under 20 inches at telephoto. But the nice thing about the Sony W170 is that it automatically shifts into Macro mode in standard autofocus. You can speed up focus if you manually switch to Macro mode using the navigator. Minimum macro area, however, is a rather large 3.92 x 2.94 inches.
Image stabilization is provided by Sony's admirable Super SteadyShot, which compensates for camera shake, minimizing blur with a built-in gyro sensor that detects movement and sends correcting signals to a stabilization lens. It's complemented by a shutter speed range of 1/4 to 1/1,600 second in Auto mode, and up to a minute in Program Auto.
Interface. The menu system is unnecessarily complicated. You have both a Menu button and a Home button. One option on the Menu button takes you to the Setup options. The Home button is all Setup options, but you'll go nuts trying to find the one you want. Canon and Nikon both do this a lot better.
I don't understand why the horizontal menus don't wrap, but they don't. If you're on the first item, you can't press the Left arrow to get to the last item. You have to press the Right arrow, going through the whole list of items until you get to the last item.
And what happens when you get there? The camera beeps like you ran into a brick wall. Ridiculous.
Something about the chimes and beeps on Sony digicams reminds me of tin cans tied to a bumper. It isn't a pleasant sound. Fortunately you can turn off the noise. I usually enjoy hearing the audio feedback on a camera, but I really dislike the Sony tunes.
One thing I do like about the Sony W170's interface is that you can just press the Playback mode button to turn the camera on and the lens will not protrude. Even better, you can then press the Power button to shut it down, avoiding Record mode all together. On some cameras that just isn't possible.
Modes. There's no Manual control on the Sony W170, but there are three automatic modes: Easy, Auto, and Program Auto.
Easy mode is a simplified camera environment designed for beginners, or anyone who wants to keep things simple. It provides easy-to-read on-screen instructions and limits the number of camera settings so you can't get into too much trouble. Image Size (just Large and Small) and Flash (Auto or Off) are the only two Menu options. The screen shows how many shots can be fit on the card in very large type.
Auto provides Image Size (which includes a 16:9 aspect ratio), Face Detection, Rec Mode (single or continuous shutter), Scene Recognition options, EV, Red-Eye Reduction, and Setup options.
Program Auto adds ISO, White Balance, Flash Level (but only plus or minus), DRO options (Dynamic Range Optimization of plus, standard or off), Color mode, and SteadyShot.
With its Intelligent Scene Recognition mode, the Sony W170 can recognize five scenes: Backlight, Backlight Portrait, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Twilight using a Tripod. There are two additional modes in Intelligent Scene mode: Advanced, which takes two shots of the scene, and Auto, which takes one.
Standard Scene modes include Beach, High Sensitivity, Landscape, Snow, Soft Snap, Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Fireworks, Smile Shutter, and Underwater. The Sony W170 Menu system gives you access to Twilight, Beach, Snow, Fireworks, and Underwater. The others are on the Mode dial.
Most of those modes are familiar, but this year Sony's portrait modes have evolved to distinguish between adults and children. Hit the Sony W170's Menu button and find the Face Detection option for your four choices: Off, Auto, Child Priority, or Adult Priority.
Face Detection has grown up a bit itself, now adjusting not just focus but exposure, white balance, and flash, so skin tones appear more natural and red-eye is reduced.
If you think that's funny, wait until you try Smile Shutter, a special Scene mode that won't actually trip the shutter until someone smiles. We can't get anyone around here to smile, so we couldn't test this in normal circumstances. But that didn't stop us. We slipped into Smile Shutter mode, pressed the Shutter button and walked around the house until we found a picture of someone smiling. That did it. The shutter flipped and the flash fired. It really works. If you don't have a beard, anyway.
High Sensitivity mode kicks ISO up to 3,200. See the Shirley Temple doll shot for what that accomplishes. Sony claims its Clear Raw Noise Reduction system suppresses color noise, but there's enough luminance noise to be disturbing. Detail is sacrificed for color.
All of this is "illuminated" by a Function Guide mode (which you can turn off) that explains functions and settings by displaying a helpful note in a balloon on the LCD.
Movie mode was big disappointment. Broadcast quality isn't news these days, having become a standard feature. LP versions that use less frames per second are a nice touch (you don't need broadcast quality for a quick clip) and small email formats are worth having, too, for bloggers especially.
But shouldn't an HD camera have 16:9 movies in 720 resolution? For some reason, Sony continues to avoid this feature. In fact, Sony doesn't even supply a cable with the W170 to connect it to your HD television. Which is too bad because its 1080i output for stills is worth watching on HDTV.
Even worse than standard TV resolution, though, is that you can't zoom in Movie mode. Not with the 5x optical zoom and not even with the 2x digital zoom. Most digicams these days let you use the digital zoom -- and 10x total zoom with Super SteadyShot would be fun on this camera. Bummer.
In-camera editing options include Trimming, Red Eye Correction, Soft Focus, Partial Color, Fisheye Lens, Cross Filter, Retro, Radial Blur, Unsharp Masking, and Happy Face.
And when it comes time to print, you'll be happy to know the W170 is PictBridge-compatible. Hook it up to a PictBridge printer and use it as a printing kiosk.
Storage and Battery. This is a Memory Stick Duo camera. You'll need an adapter (which is not included) to plug it into most devices (like printers, card readers, PCMCIA cards). I really missed all my neat SD cards (the one that folds into a USB plug, the Wi-Fi one) on this camera. To transfer images, I had to use the awkward octopus cable and free a USB port.
There's also built-in storage, but it's pretty meager considering this is a 10.1 megapixel camera. The 15MB memory can store about three full-resolution images.
I like the battery charger because it's compact and it has folding plugs. Why everybody doesn't do it this way, I have no idea, but it's a real blessing when you have to pack your bag for a trip.
The proprietary Stamina lithium-ion battery lasted longer than a shoot, so no complaints here. Sony says it will last "a long weekend or a whole vacation." It's a 3.6-volt, 960 mAh power pack that sells for $50.
Performance. Startup and shutdown times for the Sony W170 were both average for its class. I found it a little sluggish compared to its competitors, but you can blame that big glass for the delay. Still, it wasn't too bad. I had no trouble turning the camera off after a shot and waiting for the lens to protrude when I wanted to start shooting again.
Autofocus lag was above average (significantly) as was prefocus lag (where you half-press the Shutter button). Cycle time was above average, too, but we have to note that a lot depends on your DRO setting, which requires extra processing time, and can slow cycle time down accordingly.
Autofocus was generally quick and reliable with the nine-point autofocus system but both Dave and I experienced situations where the camera just couldn't focus. In Dave's case, it was the indoor Marti shots. The camera couldn't detect focus looking at her hair and forehead. In my case, it was a similar skin-colored composition of low contrast. That can be pretty maddening. There is a semi-manual focus option, which lets you set focus to half a meter, a meter, three meters, seven meters, or infinity.
USB download speed was very speedy, although flash cycle time was well below average. That usually indicates a powerful flash, but not in this case, where the flash range was achieved only by kicking up the ISO significantly and capturing a good deal of noise.
If you study our flash range table, you'll wonder what Sony was thinking. Our table is shot at ISO 100 and every image is too dark to be taken seriously. They don't even look as good as the High-ISO shooting mode.
But Sony is playing the flash game a little differently, relying on an ISO boost to make the weak flash more effective. Unfortunately, it's quite an ISO boost, shooting at ISO 800 for wide angle to reach out 13.8 feet, and at ISO 500 for telephoto to manage 8.9 feet. There's some real noise in the shadows at ISO 800. And worse yet, flash recycle time is 11.6 seconds, well below average.
Makes you kind of want to switch to High ISO and forget the flash all together. But the W170 suffers from noise beyond ISO 400.
Image Quality. My first impression from looking at thumbnails of the 10-megapixel images was not a good one. But it was only the thumbnails that were disappointing. The actual images were really quite strong. To prove it, I printed them full bleed on letter-sized photo paper and was impressed at the sharpness and color.
In our Still Life shot at ISO 80 there are a few challenges that the Sony W170 easily met. Note the excellent detail in the Hellas wine vinegar label. A lot of cameras can't capture the dark tile background behind the figure, but the Cyber-shot W170 has no such problem. While you're there, note that the Samuel Smith label does not bloom out into the dark glass of the bottle, another common issue. Slide over to the coffee cup and note the shadow of the handle in the shadows while the highlight detail in the cloth beneath it is still clear. That's remarkable.
In our Multi Target shot, visit the corners. While they're softer than the center of the image, there's no strong colored pixels indicating chromatic aberration. Then examine the center of the image where you'll see the horizontal and vertical resolution scales delivering nearly 1,700 lines of resolution before the target breaks up.
Our ISO shots reveal the only real problem with the W170: As early as ISO 200, the image starts to break up, losing resolution and mottling the color. Sony fans don't seem to mind the company's preference for color over detail, but if you're new to the brand, it's something to study.
How does that work in the real world? Switch to our Gallery shots. Most were taken in Program Auto so we could fiddle with more options. We also enabled DRO for them (although there's no EXIF field to prove it) and Super SteadyShot (Anti-Blur in the EXIF Makernotes).
Our usual hydrant shot is a good test of DRO in action. We often see the white highlights of the hydrant bleed into the dark green background. There is a little of that around the top, but it's pretty well contained. Texture (well, the cracked paint) is pretty well held throughout, as is the darker detail of the green hedge. I don't usually see this scene so well rendered.
My first print, which really impressed me with both its color and detail, was the Pontiac badge. This is an old car and you can see the rust on the chrome and the dust on the primer. When you look at the full resolution version, you can see a number of problems with the primer, but you may be looking too close. Make a print and you'll see what I really liked about it: it all comes together.
One shot that didn't render naturally is the tree detail (YDSC00573.JPG). I took the shot because, in the shade, I was hoping to capture some saturated color. Instead, the image looks overexposed, the ISO pushed to 200.
Another issue you can't miss is the Ligurian lemon cake the incredibly gifted Rachel whipped up for us one evening on spring break (flattery, I hope, will get a replay). That's white frosting not orange. The modern kitchen lighting fooled the Sony W170's auto white balance rather easily.
Our High ISO shot at 3,200 is Shirley Temple (well, the doll). It was taken in near darkness, so the color is almost fictional, but appreciated. Close inspection shows the detail is pretty impressionistic. But there are times you'll settle for that. No flash, too dark, switch to High ISO and go home with the capture.
Print quality is pretty good. The Sony W170's ISO 80 shots make a decent 13x19, if you can ignore the slight softening and chromatic aberration in the corners. ISO 400 shots are better at 8x10, and ISO 1,600 shots take you into 4x6 territory. ISO 3,200 shots are a bit soft, even for 4x6. Most notable is that the low contrast areas lose all detail, while high contrast items stay sharp, creating a surreal appearance. That happens with other cameras, but not to this extent. Sony's really turned up the anti-noise machine, perhaps a bit too much. Still, a camera that makes a decent 4x6 at ISO 1,600 will serve most people's needs just fine.
Appraisal. The Sony W170 maintains the W-series tradition of wrapping hot technology in a compact bargain. With its Bionz processor contributing sophisticated dynamic range optimization options and its clever Smile Shutter mode, it makes shooting easier than it has been. But it still includes Super SteadyShot, High ISO, in-camera editing and an HD output signal. You won't get tired of the Sony W170 very quickly.
Sony W170 Basic Features
- 10.1-megapixel sensor
- 5x optical zoom (28-140mm equivalent) with 2x digital zoom
- Optical and LCD viewfinders
- 2.7-inch LCD with 230K pixels
- ISO sensitivity from 80 to 3,200
- Shutter speeds from two to 1/1,600 second
- Max Aperture: f/3.3
- MS Duo/MS PRO Duo memory cards
- 15MB internal memory
- Custom lithium-ion battery
- PictBridge compatible
Sony W170 Special Features
- Automatic Macro shooting
- Smile Shutter technology
- Child/Adult face recognition
- Nine point autofocus
- Intelligent Scene recognition
- Super SteadyShot image stabilization
- Bionz image processor
- High ISO sensitivity (to ISO 3,200) with Sony Clear RAW Noise Reduction
- D-Range Optimization
- HD slide show with music
In the Box
The Sony W170 ships with the following items in the box:
- NP-BG1 rechargeable battery
- BC-CSG battery charger
- A/V and USB multi-connector cables
- Wrist strap
- Software CD-ROM
Note: No Memory Stick DUO 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, 2-4GB is about what you need for a decent number of photos and videos.
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection like the $39.99 Soft Leather Carrying Case LCS-TWB/P
Sony W170 Conclusion
The Sony W170 is a compact bargain, including the hottest technology Sony has introduced in its 2008 lineup. It has a Bionz processor, face detection technology that can tell a child from an adult (and even hold the shutter until they're smiling), High ISO, Super SteadyShot, in-camera editing and an HD output signal.
Like other Sony digicams, it does give away detail to hold onto color at higher ISO settings, but most users won't mind that tradeoff, particularly if 4x6 prints are the game you want to play.
HD output -- particularly when played as a slide show with the built-in special effects and music -- was stunning. But only for stills. This isn't an HD movie camera and to see any HD output from this camera, you'll have to buy an accessory cable, dock, or dock/printer.
But outright, prolonged, standing applause for the big Carl Zeiss lens that starts at a nice 28mm and cranks out to 140mm, more than usual on a digicam zoom. And stay standing for the automatic Macro detection, which means no more switching to Macro mode when you get close.
Despite all the fancy features and the attractive body, what makes the W170 a Dave's Pick is its image quality. Don't take a loupe to these 10.1-megapixel images, but print them and you'll see what we mean. Good color and detail at large print sizes. And that, after all, is what you buy a camera for.