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Sony HX400V Review -- First Impressions

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With SLR-like styling, the 20.4-megapixel Sony HX400V ultrazoom is aimed at photographers looking for a reasonably sophisticated feature set, but who don't want the bulk and complexity of interchangeable lenses or the cost and relatively more limited zoom range of the enthusiast-friendly RX10.

The HX400V has much the same dimensions as that camera, but forgoes its generously-sized 1-inch sensor in favor of a more typical 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS chip. It does, however, retain the RX10's speedy BIONZ X image processor, and manages to pack in a much more powerful -- if not so bright -- Zeiss-branded, 50x variable-aperture zoom lens. And importantly, it costs significantly less than half as much, putting it within reach of most consumer shooters.

At its heart, the Sony HX400V is based around an Exmor R-branded, 20.4-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch type CMOS image sensor. Sony's Exmor R badge indicates a backside-illuminated chip, one in which much of the circuitry has been moved to the rear of the chip so as to devote the maximum possible area of its front surface to gathering precious light. Sensitivity ranges to as high as ISO 12,800 equivalent, a fair bit higher than is typical of a small-sensor camera.

Output from the sensor is handled by the latest-generation BIONZ X image processor, the same type used in the RX10 enthusiast long-zoom camera, as well as both the A7 and A7R full-frame mirrorless cameras. It's a mighty powerful processor, capable of full-sensor, 60 frames per second readout in the RX10. We don't yet know if that's the case here too, as the sensor also has its part to play in terms of performance, but if it is then look for the HX400V to yield noticeably better movie quality than most ultrazoom cameras. And certainly, the full-res still image capture rate of 10 frames per second for a full second suggests that plenty of performance is being extracted from the pairing.

The lens, meanwhile, is a Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T*-branded, 50x zoom optic with a generous 24mm-equivalent wide angle and a 1,200mm-equivalent telephoto. Maximum aperture varies from a bright f/2.8 at wide angle to a not-so-bright f/6.3 at telephoto.

If that's not enough reach, Sony's Clear Image Zoom -- essentially a digital zoom with pattern-matching functionality -- will take you out to 100x and a 2,400mm-equivalent, but you're going to want a tripod, and like any digital zoom there's a limit to what interpolation can do to fill in the gaps with clever guesswork.

As you'd expect, Sony has included Optical SteadyShot image stabilization in the HX400V, and it features a new Intelligent Active mode that's said to stabilize movies even better than the Active mode of past models. (And we were already pretty impressed by the latter, which turned in usable results even when shooting while walking.)

The HX400V's contrast-detection autofocus system has a working range of 1 to 17 EV at ISO 100 equivalent, and offers up wide, center, and flexible spot modes with a choice of three AF point sizes. A lock-on AF function is included to keep tabs on moving subjects, and there's an AF illuminator to help get sharp shots of nearby subjects in low light.

As befits its SLR-like aesthetic, the Sony HX400V includes both an electronic viewfinder and LCD monitor. We don't yet have any detailed info on the viewfinder, but the monitor is based around a 3.0-inch XtraFine LCD panel with ~920,000 dot resolution. (That equates approximately to a VGA array of 640 x 480 pixels, with each pixel comprised of separate red, green, and blue dots.)

If you need to throw some light on your subject, the Sony HX400V includes both a built-in popup flash and a hot shoe for external strobes. With auto ISO sensitivity, the built-in flash has a working range of around 28 feet at wide angle or 11.5 feet at telephoto. The hot shoe, meanwhile, features Sony's proprietary Multi Interface Shoe design that integrates 21 data contacts. This allows it to provide compatibility not only with external strobes, but also with accessories such as an electronic viewfinder, clip-on LCD monitor, or external microphone adapter.

As befits a camera aimed at creative types, the Sony HX400V offers a full array of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual shooting modes, plus two Custom modes. For those who prefer some hand-holding, it also offers both single-shot Intelligent Auto and multi-shot Superior Auto modes, plus Intelligent Panorama and Scene modes, all accessed from a dedicated Mode dial on the top deck. Scene modes include High Sensitivity, Night Scene, Handheld Twilight, Night Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Soft Skin, Anti Motion Blur, Beach, Snow /Fireworks, Advanced Sports Shooting, Gourmet, and Pet Mode.

Exposures are determined with Multi-pattern, Center-weighted, or Spot metering, and +/-2.0EV of exposure compensation is provided in 1/3EV steps. Sony's Dynamic Range Optimizer function is also included, to help hold onto highlight and shadow detail in difficult lighting conditions.

To help get your photos onto your smartphone -- and from there, to social networks -- Sony has included Wi-Fi wireless networking in the HX400V. Both data transfer and remote control are possible via a free Android or iOS app, and the company also includes Near-Field Communications connectivity for quick connection setup on Android devices. (Simply hold your smartphone or tablet next to the NFC logo on the camera body briefly, and the connection is created automatically.)

The HX400V also features a built-in GPS receiver that will allow the location each image was captured to be stored in its EXIF header, so that compatible software can display the coordinates and/or a location name automatically, or show the pictures on a map for easy access. In some markets, a variant of the camera called the Sony HX400 will be offered, and this will lack the built-in GPS receiver.

And as already mentioned, the Sony HX400V supports not just still imaging, but also video capture. As well as the ability to shoot Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel; 1080p/i) video at 60 frames- or fields-per-second rates, it also now offers a more cinema-like 24p capture rate. Videos recorded by the HX400V include stereo audio.

You can also use Sony's downloadable, in-camera PlayMemories Camera Apps on the HX400V, adding features such as time-lapse shooting or portrait lighting effects functions. Some of these are free; others are an optional extra that you must pay to download. A total of 10 apps are currently available, with more promised this spring.

And there's a nifty new app with an unusual rendering gimmick, too -- "Motion Shot" video. Essentially, this allows the camera to freeze a moving subject in parts of the video, retaining an echo of it in the same position for subsequent frames. Imagine, for example, a golf swing -- instead of simply filming a video of the player's swing, you can now record a video that freezes the golf club at numerous points among its arc, creating something akin to a live-motion multiple exposure. It is, of course, something you could achieve in software after the fact, but by placing it in the camera, Sony has made it more accessible.

The Sony HX400V offers wired connectivity including USB 2.0 High Speed data, Micro HDMI high-definition video output, and the aforementioned Multi Interface Shoe. The HDMI output is capable of outputting 4K still images on compatible displays.

Images and movies are stored on Secure Digital cards, as well as on Sony's own proprietary Memory Stick Duo cards. Power comes courtesy of an NP-BX1 battery pack, rated as good for 300 shots on a charge.

Available from March 2014, the Sony HX400V ships only in a black-bodied version for about US$500.

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