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Sony DSC-F505VSony updates their popular DSC-F505V with a 3 megapixel sensor (2.6 million effective pixels) and all-new electronics!
Review First Posted: 06/01/2000
||2.6 million effective pixels for 1856 x 1392 uninterpolated image size|
||12 bit digitization for improved highlight detail|
||Greatly improved low-light performance|
||Improved aperture and shutter control|
||External flash option|
Sony has long been a dominant player in the digital camera field with their Mavica(tm) line of floppy-disk based cameras. At the high end of the market though, Sony has developed a compelling line of products, incorporating high-quality Zeiss optics and advanced features found on few competing camera models.
Late in 1999, Sony introduced a 2 megapixel design with an incredibly sharp 5x zoom lens by Carl Zeiss. The DSC-F505 was hugely popular, and Sony's problem seemed to be largely one of trying to satisfy the level of demand for the product. In early 2000, the 505 came into very short supply, with most dealers out of stock. This led to speculation that Sony was about to upgrade the unit. This was confirmed when Sony finally announced the F505V as the upgraded version.
The new model is somewhat unusual in its resolution specifications. The camera sports a 3.34 megapixel Sony CCD sensor chip (the same chip essentially everyone making 3 megapixel digicams is using at the moment), but only about 2.6 million of its pixels are actually being used. This reduced "effective pixel" count caused much speculation on the web as to what might account for it, but the answer in fact appears to be fairly simple: Rather than re-engineering the entire optomechanical system of the F505, Sony simply dropped the 3.34 MP sensor into the original body. As is commonly the case, the internal design of the camera was set up to mask the original 2.11 megapixel array slightly, to allow for dark-current calibration of the CCD. Some simple back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that the same size mask applied to the 3.34 megapixel sensor would yield about 2.7 million "effective" pixels. Allowing for errors in the calculations due to different sensor geometry and layout of the active elements, a final pixel count of 2.6 million seems very reasonable.
We expected a strong performance for the F505V, given the excellent sharpness the original F505 showed. We were surprised though, to find that the 505V's resolution in fact challenges some of the "true" 3 megapixel cameras on the market. For more on this, see our "First Look" article on the camera, or our test results page.
As noted, the DSC-F505V is an update to the original (and hugely successful) DSC-F505. For those readers already familiar with the original DSC-F505, here are a few quick notes about the camera itself: Physically, it is identical to the original F505, which should please many of those who were been waiting to buy one of the earlier units, but couldn't find them on store shelves as it neared the end of its product life cycle. Beyond the case and optics though, Sony has added several significant enhancements to the electronics relative to the original model. We covered some of these in our "First Look" article, but have expanded on the list somewhat since then. Here's a quick rundown:
Other than these changes, the new F505 functions virtually identically to the original. Other than specific performance issues, most of what follows will be a duplicate of our earlier DSC-F505 review.
The DSC-F505V continues to be quite the eye-catcher (as was the DSC-F505), and on the outside, the two cameras look like identical twins. There are a number of differences between the older and newer models though. The F505V provides the increased accuracy of 12 bit digitization, which improves subtle tonal and color rendering, particularly in strong highlight areas. It also offers improved aperture and shutter control with full 1/3 stops gives more precise adjustment. The DSC-F505V added an external flash connection, which supports the HVL-F1000 external flash unit. Other improvements include an optional uncompressed TIFF file format, improved manual focus operation, faster processing speed and an improved interpolation algorithm for better detail rendering and less noise.
The rotating lens definitely tops our list for flexibility and innovation with its nearly 180 degree rotation. The large lens dominates the design, and leads to a very different way of holding the camera, but we very quickly became used to this. The large lens barrel actually makes for very stable camera support, encouraging a two-handed grip, and providing good support around the unit's center of gravity. Because the tripod mount is actually located on the bottom of the lens, you can tilt the body of the camera up for easier reading of the LCD monitor (no more leaning over). What's more, the rotating lens gives you more shooting options as you can point the lens straight up or nearly straight down, while still viewing the LCD in a normal orientation. The magnesium alloy body remains relatively light weight at 15 ounces (435g) without battery and memory stick. The bulk of the weight lies in the lens. Dimension-wise, the DSC-F505V spans 4.25 x 2.5 x 5.4 inches (107.2 x 62.2 x 135.9 mm). Excluding the large lens, the body itself is very compact. Although the size of the lens prevents it from fitting into small pockets, its functionality well makes up for it. (We're a little confused by the reference to the all-metal magnesium alloy body: Our test unit had a plastic body, at least on the outside: Perhaps what Sony means is that the internal structural body is made of magnesium alloy, although the outer "shell" is plastic.)
The front of the camera basically features the shutter button (angled down from the top a bit) and the lens. On the lens are the pop-up flash, tripod mount, focus control and the macro, white balance and spot meter buttons.
The camera back holds the LCD monitor, a few controls and the external flash connector. There's also a small thumb grip attached to the battery and Memory Stick slot cover.
The side of the camera opposite of the lens holds the Memory Stick and battery compartment, both covered by a locking, sliding door.
The lens itself carries a number of controls on its side, readily accessible to your left hand, which will normally cradle the lens for support.
The remaining controls live on the top of the camera, and include a mode dial, power switch, zoom lever and microphone. The USB and A/V out jacks are also on top of the camera, beneath a sliding cover that flips up to open.
The bottom of the camera is pretty nondescript except for the sound playback speaker and two small rubber pads that cushion the camera slightly when set on a hard surface. As we mentioned earlier, the tripod mount is actually located on the underside of the lens barrel.
Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, we now routinely measure it using a special electronic test setup.
As we mentioned earlier, the F505V apparently features increased image-processing power, in that the camera electronics use a special Sony single-chip CPU design which eliminates the need for separate "scratchpad" or "buffer" memory. The result should be faster cycle times and lower power consumption. In our actual tests however, we found the F505V to be somewhat slower than the earlier model from shot to shot.
Switching from Play to Record mode took about 3.68 seconds. Going from Record to Play in the VGA resolution took about 1.2 seconds while doing the same in the maximum resolution setting took about 5.3 seconds. The camera took about 7.2 seconds to get ready for the first picture after being switched on and effectively 0.0 seconds to switch off (because there's no need to wait for the lens to retract or anything else).
Shutter lag with full autofocus operation on the F505V is quite variable, depending on the camera-subject distance: At greater shooting distances, the lag time is about 1.6 seconds. In macro shooting situations though, the shutter lag stretches to 2.3 seconds. When manual focus is used, the lag time drops to about 1.3 seconds, while prefocusing by half-pressing the shutter button before actually shooting the picture reduces lag time to about 0.4 seconds. (The slightly shorter time using prefocus is likely because the prefocus operation takes care of the automatic white balance function as well.) All of the F505V's shutter lag timings are somewhat slow relative to the rest of the 3MP field: This is an area we'd like to see improved in future versions of this product. Here's a table summarizing our results:
|Power On -> First shot||
No time required for lens retraction...
|Play to Record, first shot||
Time is delay until first shot captured.
|Record to play (max/min res)||
Slower for max res images
|Shutter lag, full autofocus||
|Shutter lag, macro-mode autofocus||
|Shutter lag, manual focus||
|Shutter lag, prefocus||
As noted above, cycle times on the F505V were actually somewhat slower than those on the original F505. We were a bit puzzled by this, since the 505V supposedly has a faster CPU inside it. It's of course having to deal with more data than did the 505's CPU, but we still expected to see some improvement. (One possibility is that the expanded 12-bit digitization accuracy and the increased processing associated with the more sophisticated tonal compression that this permits results in a significantly higher processor load.) In any event, cycle time at maximum resolution and quality was about 5.0 seconds in the best case and about 6.0 seconds on average. In minimum resolution, cycle times stayed around 5.0 seconds. Getting the minimum cycle time out of the camera was a bit frustrating though, because if you hit the shutter button and hold it down before the camera is ready to shoot again, the F505V completely ignores your actions. It won't take a picture in this situation unless you let up on the shutter button and then press it again, making it a bit of a gamble to figure out when to press the shutter button to get the fastest response. We'd really like to see a design that notes whether the shutter button is pressed as soon as it's done processing each shot, and immediately grabs the next image if it is. - This business of insisting that you must first let up on the shutter button is really nonsensical. (Not to unfairly single-out Sony for this, as we've seen the behavior on other cameras as well: It's only that we've just now decided to mount a campaign against this particular camera behavior, and Sony is the first manufacturer to be blessed with our attention in this area. ;-) Again, here is a table summarizing our cycle time measurements.
||(Sorry, we neglected to measure cycle time for TIFF images!)|
|High resolution, autofocus||
Cycle time was variable, from 5-6 seconds.
|High resolution, manual focus||
Again variable, only slightly faster.
|Minimum resolution, autofocus||
Consistent cycle time at low res.
The user interface on the DSC-F505V has a comfortable feel with clear operation, as did the previous DSC-F505. Buttons and controls are well marked and accessible, although people with large hands may feel as we did that the right-hand controls are a little cramped. You could conceivably operate the camera with just one hand, but the weight of the lens begs for two, and a two-handed grip provides excellent camera-platform stability. Also, while the user interface was very easy to understand, we found some of the menu navigation more laborious than we'd have liked, requiring multiple control actuations to navigate to the desired setting. Here's a look at the major buttons and controls:
Located on the top/front of the camera, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed and fires the shutter when fully pressed.
Located on top of the camera, this dial selects between the following modes:
Located on top of the camera, directly behind the microphone, this switch turns the camera on and off.
Pop-Up Flash Switch
Located on the side of the lens, directly beneath the pop-up flash, this sliding switch pops up the built-in flash.
Located on the side of the lens, this sliding switch puts the camera in either Auto or Manual focus mode. In manual focus mode, the lens is focused via the very standard-looking (and feeling) focusing ring on its front. Focus is indicated by a small >0< icon in the LCD viewfinder.
Located on the side of the lens, to the right of the Focus control, this button turns Macro mode on and off.
White Balance/One-Push Buttons
Located directly to the right of the Macro button on the side of the lens, this button selects the white balance mode:
Spot Metering Button
Located on the side of the lens, directly to the right of the White Balance button, this button turns the spot metering function on and off. When spot metering is enabled, a small "+" sign appears in the center of the viewfinder, centered in the active metering area.
Located on the top/back of the camera, marked with a 'W' and 'T', this sliding lever controls the optical and digital zoom (when turned on).
Located on the back panel of the camera, marked with the traditional flash symbol, this button controls the following flash modes:
Program AE Button
Located on the back panel of the camera, directly beneath the Flash button, this button accesses the following Program AE modes:
Menu / Rocker Toggle Button
Located beneath the Program AE button, this rocker toggle button has four arrows (up, down, left and right) and a center dot. In all modes, the arrows navigate through menus and the center dot acts as the OK for menu options. In Play mode, the left and right arrow buttons scroll through images. Pressing the down arrow dismisses both the play and record menus while the up arrow recalls them again.
Located beneath the rocker toggle button on the back panel of the camera, this button dismisses and recalls the information display on the LCD monitor.
LCD Buttons (- and +)
Located directly beneath the LCD monitor, these buttons no longer control the brightness of the LCD display as they did in the F505. In order to control brightness, you must now go to the Setup options under the individual menus (see more below.) In Shutter and Aperture Priority modes, these buttons control the shutter speed and aperture settings, in addtion to the sound volume while in the Play mode.
LCD Back Light Switch
Also located directly beneath the LCD monitor, this switch turns the LCD back light on and off to assist in power conservation (albeit only slightly), or to accommodate varying ambient light levels (a more significant effect).
Camera Modes and Menus
Accessed by turning the mode dial to the Play position, this mode allows you to play back captured images and movies along with their accompanying sounds. Pressing the Menu button brings up the Play menu with the following options:
Accessed by turning the mode dial to the Still position, this mode allows you to capture still images. Pressing the Menu button brings up the record menu with these options:
Accessed by turning the mode dial to the Movie position, this mode allows you to capture movies with sound. Pressing the Menu button in this mode brings up the following menu:
Image Storage and Interface
The DSC-F505V utilizes Sony's unique (and thus far largely proprietary) Memory Stick for its image storage. A (rather undersized) 8MB card came with our evaluation unit, although we don't know what size will ship in the box with the final production models: Additional units are available in 8MB, 16MB, 32MB and 64MB sizes. The Memory Stick has been the subject of some controversy within the digicam community, with many people (ourselves included) initially asking why on earth we needed yet another memory card format for digital cameras. It's bad enough (the argument goes) that we have to contend with the completely incompatible SmartMedia and CompactFlash standards, why must Sony introduce yet another format into the fray?
However, after all our testing, we actually found ourselves liking the Memory Stick the most. We're still not keen to see yet another memory format muddying the waters for consumers, but have to admit that there's a lot to like about the Memory Stick form factor. Relative to SmartMedia, it feels more rugged, and doesn't expose it's electrical contacts to the environment quite as much. Since insertion travel is much less, it should also be less subject to rubbing wear of the plating on the contacts, something we've observed with SmartMedia. Relative to CompactFlash, it's a fair bit more compact, and doesn't have the dozens of pins that CF requires. (We're firmly of the opinion that the fewer connections there are, the less chances there are for something to go wrong with one of them.)
We also like the way the Memory Stick cards can be write-protected by sliding a tiny switch on their back. (CF cards have no such physical write-protection available, and SmartMedia cards require the use of expendable conductive foil dots that are also subject to failure due to dirt or fingerprints.) While we don't expect the rest of the world to jump onboard the Memory Stick bandwagon anytime soon, we do feel that it's at least a viable and useful solution within the Sony product line.
The DSC-F505V gives you five resolution options (2240 x 1680 (interpolated), 1856 x 1392, 1856 (3:2), 1280 x 960 and 640 x 480), and standard image quality/compression at each image size. The uncompressed TIFF option is available for all but the 2240 x 1680 image size. An additional option of 320x240 pixels at high compression is available in the "email" mode, which we didn't evaluate in our testing. All options are accessible through the record menu. In video mode, image sizes of 320 x 240 and 160 x 112 are available (with an option for a 320 x 240 HQ mode).
Sony took some knocks on the internet shortly after their announcement of the F505V, for their use of interpolation to produce a large image size with more pixels in it than contained on the active CCD sensor area. Interpolation has become such anathema to digicam owners that any mention of its use on cameras brings immediate catcalls and derision. The fact that the F505V carries a "3.3 megapixel" label on the side of its lens barrel (referring to the total sensor size, even though only 2.6 megapixels are actually used) further inflamed the issue. Fortunately, Sony was overall very forthright about how the camera operates, how many pixels are actually in use, and has been very responsible in their labeling of the product packaging, right down to the "hang tag" that is attached to the unit in retail displays. The other saving grace is that the F505V produces such sharp images that it actually bests some of the "true" 3 megapixel cameras on the market! (See our "First Look" review for further details on this, including comparison pictures.) As for the largest image size, we did indeed see a slight improvement in visible detail relative to simply interpolating the 1:1 image size (the 1856 x 1392 pixel size) in Photoshop(tm) using bicubic spline interpolation: There thus does appear to be some merit (albeit slight) to Sony's much-touted interpolation method that works directly from the raw sensor data, rather than from the final processed file. For ourselves, we personally would probably be content to save memory space and just use the 1856 x 1392 pixel image size for most of our shots, rather than looking for the last iota of resolution the interpolated images deliver. At the bottom line though, even the uninterpolated images hold their own very well even against the current crop of 3 megapixel competitors.
Turning back to the storage medium again, you can protect individual images on the Memory Stick from accidental erasure (except from formatting) through the setup menu on the DSC-F505V. As noted above, the entire Memory Stick can be write protected by sliding the lock switch on the card into the lock position. Write protection also prevents the Memory Stick from being formatted. An 8MB Memory Stick accommodates up to 80 seconds of video in Presentation format (320 x 240 pixels) and up to about 320 seconds in Video Mail format (160 x 112 pixels). Here's a look at the average capacity of an 8MB card for still images:
|Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity||Uncompressed Quality||Normal Quality|
Note that the DSC-F505V differs from most digicams (but is similar to other Sony models) in that it doesn't tell you what the remaining image capacity is. Instead, it tells how many images have been taken and provides a graphic "thermometer bar" type image of the Memory Stick as the space fills up.
The DSC-F505V interfaces to a host computer via a USB interface. We timed the USB transfer of a movie file at 14.8 seconds for 5,359 KBytes. That translates to 362 KB/second, a very reasonable transfer rate for a 2.6 megapixel digicam.
US and Japanese models of the DSC-F505V come with an NTSC A/V cable for connecting the camera to a television set (European models come with PAL connectors). You can switch the camera between NTSC and PAL modes via the record menu. All of the playback options are available through the video port, so you can view a slide show of still images or watch your recorded movies with sound. You can also use the television set as an enlarged version of the LCD monitor when composing images, helpful when trying to manually focus macro shots, or in a studio environment where you may need to get out from behind the camera to work with the subject.
The battery power system is one of the real highlights of the DSC-F505V in our opinion: The DSC-F505V runs from an InfoLITHIUM battery pack (S series), which is rechargeable. The camera comes with one battery and a charger/AC adapter. Sony estimates that a fully charged battery pack provides about 80 minutes of recording and about 116 minutes of playback time. The accompanying AC adapter plugs directly into the battery compartment and is heavily recommended when playing back recorded images or downloading to a computer. So what's the big deal about the batteries? Two things: First, Lithium cells don't self-discharge the way NiMH batteries do. This means that you can charge up the battery, stick the camera in a drawer for a month, and find the battery still fully charged when you pick it up again. The second BIG plus has to do with the "Info" in InfoLITHIUM. - Each battery pack includes a tiny "gas gauge" chip in it, which tracks how much power is flowing in or out of the battery. The camera talks to this chip, and between the two of them, they figure out how long the battery's remaining charge will last at the current consumption rate. This is really great!
We've so often picked up one of our cameras and wondered how fresh the batteries are before setting out. Even starting with fresh batteries, we've more than once ended up with the batteries dying on us right in the middle of the best shooting conditions, at the peak of the action, etc. (A corollary of Murphy's Law is clearly that your digicam batteries will always die at the worst possible moment.) Being able to see how many minutes of life the battery has left in it makes it easy to prevent these sort of mishaps. (And we found the indicator to be pretty accurate overall.) We couldn't conduct as extensive power measurements on the DSC-F505V as we usually do with digicams we test, because the camera wouldn't stay running if it couldn't see the InfoLITHIUM chip. Nonetheless, we can report the following battery life numbers, based on the InfoLITHIUM battery's own power-remaining reporting with a full charge:
|Capture Mode, w/LCD||
The DSC-F505V comes with USB cables for connecting to a PC or Macintosh. A software CD packaged with the camera contains PictureGear 3.2 Lite, the means for transferring images from the camera to the computer. PictureGear is a basic program that allows you to download images, copy images, zoom display, print slides and play movies. PictureGear is compatible only with Microsoft Windows 95, 98 or NT4.0 only. Sony does include a USB driver CD compatible with Macintosh, so you can download images to a Mac without the PictureGear software. (This information is based on the original F505 model, we're assuming the F505V version will be the same.
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings: For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the DSC-F505V's "pictures" page.
As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed: Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the DSC-F505V performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.
Overall, the DSC-F505V produced really excellent pictures: Color was quite good, with appropriate saturation of strong primaries, but good handling of pastels as well. Overall color accuracy was very high, with only a slight weakness in the bright yellows. Tonal range was really excellent as well, with good shadow detail and unusually good handling of detail in strong highlights.
As noted previously in this review, the big story of the DSC-F505V is immediately evident when you first cast eyes on the camera: The lens! In shot after shot, we were consistently impressed with how sharp the Zeiss lens was, all the more impressive for its long 5x zoom ratio. A downside of the long-ratio zoom though, is the geometric distortion we found at extreme focal lengths: We measured barrel distortion of 0.74% in wide-angle mode, and pincushion distortion of 0.87% in telephoto mode. (These numbers were shifted slightly toward the pincushion side of the scale, relative to our earlier tests of the original DSC-F505. Total distortion is about the same overall though.) These are far from the worst distortion numbers we've seen in digicam lenses, but do stand out a little, relative to the lens' extraordinary sharpness. Chromatic aberration was good, at only abut 0.03%, but we found a little "coma" in the extreme corners of the image. We're perhaps being a little harsh in the extent to which we're calling attention to the distortions and aberrations of the F505V's lens, as we don't normally highlight lens distortions in this summary section to this degree. Our reason for doing so here is that we've been so completely over the top on the lens' sharpness that we wanted to avoid accusations of bias, or that we overlooked its (relatively minor) defects. Our overall judgment is that this is indeed an exceptional digicam lens, but people using the F505 for architectural work will probably want to investigate the new distortion-correcting features of the PhotoGenetics software we've previously reviewed.
In our resolution tests, the DSC-F505V performed significantly better than it's predecessor and other 2 megapixel cameras we've tested, better than some 3 megapixel cameras, but just a bit off the best of the 3 megapixel crowed. We "called" the visual resolution at 750-800 lines per picture height in the vertical direction, and 800-850 in the horizontal, a very good performance indeed.
Its no secret we missed the optical viewfinder on the DSC-F505V: It's LCD viewfinder is more accurate than most, showing just about 94% of the final image area, but we'd have appreciated 100% accuracy in it. Also, while the hybrid transmissive/reflecting LCD is more visible in direct sunlight than any purely transmissive designs we've seen, there's a range of intermediate brightness levels in which the LCD is rather difficult to see, whether the backlight is on or off. Given the camera's greatly improved low light capability, some sort of optical viewfinder is sorely needed for those situations where there just isn't enough light to produce a bright viewfinder display at the high refresh rate required by the LCD.
The DSC-F505V performs quite well in macro mode, with a minimum capture area of only 0.85 x 0.64 inches (21.54 x 16.15 mm). Closest focusing occurs in wide-angle mode, which also introduces a fair bit of barrel distortion. (Not measured, but our impression is that there's more distortion than we saw in the viewfinder test, shot at greater distances.) Of course, the macro capability can be easily extended by adding accessory lenses using the 52mm filter threads on the front of the lens...
Low light performance was perhaps the area showing the most dramatic improvement relative to the earlier DSC-F505. The new 505V model can capture images in light levels as low as 1/8 of a foot-candle (~1.3 lux), and produce genuinely usable ones at levels of only 1/4 of a foot-candle (~2.7 lux). This is an excellent performance, considering that city night scenes under typical street lighting correspond to a brightness level of about 1 foot-candle (11 lux).
Overall though, we were very impressed with the DSC-F505V: It takes razor-sharp pictures with excellent color, and the 5x zoom ratio on the lens is a very nice feature. The new CCD and improved digitization accuracy really show in the improved highlight detail it captures and the excellent low-light performance.
With the DSC-F505V's unique rotating lens and its movie recording capabilities, you get a fun camera that takes great pictures too. The sharpness of the Carl Zeiss optics show in the final images, and we really like the "real camera" manual-focus option (although we'd really like to see some sort of optical viewfinder, even if only a "gunsight" on the top of the lens barrel). The full 5x optical zoom is a big plus that we wish more manufacturers would adopt. While not going quite all the way to full manual exposure control (another feature we keep pushing for), the F505V provides a range of options, including both aperture and shutter-priority exposure programs, spot metering, and an optional preset white-balance setting. Plus, the new model has the added bonus of a larger CCD which delivers a larger (though interpolated) image size and significantly improved highlight detail and low light capability. Overall, a razor-sharp performer for the camera buff, but easy enough for beginners to use in full-auto mode. A very worthwhile upgrade to an already-excellent digicam! Highly recommended.
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