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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F717

Sony updates their already-impressive five megapixel F707, with improved user controls, better color, amazing white balance performance, and an external flash hot shoe!

Review First Posted: 9/2/2002



Must-have e-book for this camera -- $20, Click Here!

MSRP $708 US

 

*
5.0-megapixel CCD for resolution to 2,560 x 1,920 pixels
*
Faster autofocusing and accurate results with NightShot, NightFraming, and Hologram Autofocus technologies
*
Dramatically improved white balance performance, better color
*
Ultra-sharp 5x zoom lens (f/2.0-2.4 too!), now with manual zoom control via lens ring.
*
Excellent color (improved over F707), automatic noise reduction

 

Manufacturer Overview
Sony Electronics Inc. has long held a dominant position in the digicam marketplace, with a wide range of models enjoying enormous popularity with consumers. Currently, they're maintaining what's arguably the broadest line of digicams in the industry, with multiple models in a number of distinct product lines. Last year, they rocked the camera world by introducing the F707, a five megapixel model with a tack-sharp Carl Zeiss lens and a host of unprecedented features, all for under $1,000. The F707's infrared-based Night Shot and Night Framing modes and the completely unique Hologram Autofocus created a camera that could quite literally shoot (and focus) in total darkness.

This year, Sony's obviously listened hard to feedback from the F707 users (and reviewers! ;-) and came out with an impressive update in the form of the F717. While basic specs are still the same (the same lens and CCD), the new model incorporates numerous improvements across the board. The user interface has been revamped, so the lens ring can now control both focus and zoom. (A subtle change that makes a noticeable difference in the camera's usability.) Autofocus speed has been markedly improved, as have color rendering and white balance performance. (The F717 now holds the title of the fastest-focusing (across its full zoom range) consumer digicams I've tested so far, as of 8/29/2002) The F717's autofocus system is also considerably more sophisticated than that in the F707, incorporating the 5-zone AF system first seen on this year's Mavica CD-400. I don't know to what extent my own harping on the issue may have contributed (this was an issue I'd really climbed on my soap box over with all the high-end Sony cameras), but Sony has now included a generic hot shoe flash connector on the F717, allowing users to couple generic auto flash units and studio strobes to the camera.

The individual improvements in the F717 range from subtle to obvious, but taken collectively they result in a dramatic upgrade to the F707. Model upgrades of this sort are almost never enough to tempt owners of the previous model to trade in their cameras for the new version, but I think the F717 will be an exception to that rule. The overall improvement in camera performance (AF speed), capability (the hot shoe), ease of use (the combined zoom/focus ring), and image quality (color rendition and white balance) are enough that there's a compelling case to be made for current users to sell their 707's and upgrade to the new F717. If you liked the F707, I can guarantee you'll love the F717. If you were drawn to the F707, but couldn't get past limitations like the missing hot shoe, or its overzealous rendering of certain shades of red or green, the F717 may very well win you over.

Sony has always done very well in the "consumer" space, but has had difficulty making inroads with the true "enthusiast" market. The DSC-F717 could easily change all that: If advanced users give it an honest look, setting aside their "Sony isn't a camera company" prejudices, I'm confident a lot of them will end up buying the 717.

This review is still a "first look," as Sony told me they're still tweaking image parameters (color, tone, etc) as of the version of firmware in the model I have. - So final judgement will have to await my testing of a production model. I have to say though, that what I've seen in the prototype is very, very encouraging. The color has none of the oversaturation problems the F707 had with bright greens and reds, and the auto white balance processing is flat-out among the very best I've seen in any camera at any price. Stay tuned for test images from a production model at some point in the (hopefully near) future, but in the meantime, start saving your pennies - You're going to want one of these!



High Points



Comparing the Sony DSC-F717 to the previous DSC-F707

For those readers already familiar with Sony's DSC-F707 (or perhaps owning one and contemplating an upgrade to the DSC-F717), here's a concise list of differences between the two models. (I'm not positive this list is exhaustive, as I don't have a comparison of this sort from Sony, but I think I've managed to hit all the major points.) Some of the information below is from the camera's specification chart and manual, other data is based on my own performance tests.

Feature
DSC-F717 DSC-F707
 
Observations from my own testing
Color rendering Much more neutral Tended to oversaturate strong greens and reds. (Effect was strongest on colors that were already highly saturated.)
Auto White Balance Performance Exceptional - Handles an enormous range of color temperature very well, including mixed sources. Not bad, in fact a bit better than average relative to other cameras I've tested. Not on the same level as that of the F717 though.
Shutter Lag
  • Autofocus: 0.63-0.65
  • Manual Focus: 0.136
  • Prefocus: 0.120
  • Autofocus: 1.06-1.11
  • Manual Focus: 0.60
  • Prefocus: 0.18
Startup Time 1.8 seconds 2.6 seconds
Battery Life
  • Capture/LCD: 233 min. (!)
  • Playback: 522 min. (!!)
  • Capture/LCD: 180 min.
  • Playback: 286 min.
Macro area, resolution (no change)  
Specs from the datasheet, manual, and fiddling with the camera
User Interface Elements
  • Lens collar controls zoom and focus
  • Repositioned controls on left-hand side of lens
  • Added Full Auto position on mode dial
  • Lens collar controls focus only
Autofocus
  • Wide central-area focus
  • 5-point selectable "spot" AF
  • Wide central-area focus
Exposure Modes
  • Full Auto
  • Program AE
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Full Manual
  • Scene
  • Program AE
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Full Manual
  • Scene
Scene Modes
  • Twilight (long shutter times, w/o flash)
  • Twilight portrait (long shutter times, w/flash)
  • Landscape
  • Portrait
  • Twilight (long shutter times, w/o flash)
  • Landscape
  • Portrait
ISO Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800 Auto, 100, 200, 400
White Balance
  • Auto
  • Daylight
  • Cloudy
  • Fluorescent
  • Incandescent
  • 1-push (custom/manual)
  • Auto
  • Daylight
  • Incandescent
  • 1-push (custom/manual)
Shutter Speed
  • 30-1000, 46 steps
    (Manual, Shutter Priority)
  • 30-1/2000, 49 steps
    (Program AE, Full Auto, Aperture Priority, for apertures f/5.0 and smaller)
  • 30-1/1000, 46 steps
    (All modes)
External Flash
  • Sony proprietary "ACC" connector for auto flash connection
  • Standard "Hot" shoe for generic flash units & studio strobes
  • "Cold" shoe and Sony proprietary "ACC" connector only.
Noise Reduction
  • Dark frame subtraction
  • "Clear Color"
  • "Luminance NR"

(This seems to bethe source of some confusion among reviewers, as the 717 spec says NR is applied at shutter speeds of 1/25 and slower. For the record, this applies to the "Clear Color" and "Luminance" NR, not the dark frame subtraction, which applies to exposures longer than 2 seconds, as always. I'm quite certain that Clear Color NR always applied to shorter exposures with the 707, Sony just didn't call it out in their specs. Luminance NR is new on the 717 though, and as I understand it actually begins to take effect at longer shutter times than those at which the Clear Color algorithm cuts in.)

  • Dark frame subtraction
  • "Clear Color"
Movie Modes
  • MPEG Movie
  • Clip Motion
  • Multi Burst
    (Sixteen 320x240 shots, stored as single 1280x960 image file, played back as slow-motion movie on camera's LCD)
  • MPEG Movie
  • Clip Motion
Movie clip length All quality/size options for MPEG movies are limited only by available memory card space. HQ mode limited to 15 seconds in a single clip. Normal quality 320x240 and 160x120 limted only by available memory card space.
Supplied Memory 32 MB 16 MB
JPEG format EXIF 2.2 (ExifPrint) EXIF 1.1
USB Connectivity USB 2.0 USB 1.1
Memory Stick options
  • Folder creation/selection
  • Memory Stick - Memory Stick copy
Onscreen Info Display
  • Optional "live" histogram in record and playback modes.
  • In playback mode, optional exposure info overlay, (with histogram)
  • No histogram in record or playback modes
  • No exposure info overlay in playback mode.
Playback scrolling Some confusion between reviewers, or differing firmware versions? My unit doesn't scroll between images in delete/protect/DPOF operations (as reported on DP Review) but rather between folders. No scrolling in delete/protect/DPOF modes (But it makes sense you couldn't scroll between folders, since the 707 didn't support multiple recording folders, as does the 717.)
Weight 23.2 oz, 664 g
(with battery & card)
23.8 oz, 682 g
(with battery and card)



 

 

Executive Overview
It's no secret that I was pretty excited by the original DSC-F707 when I first reviewed it last year. It was a true breakthrough product in a number of areas, and at the time was also by far the least expensive 5-megapixel camera on the market. It had a few minor shortcomings, including overzealous rendering of bright greens and reds, and no provision for attaching a generic flash unit to it, but the overall package represented a remarkable advance for "prosumer" digital photography.

Now, just a bit more than a year later, the F717 has raised the bar yet another (big) notch, with improvements across the board in camera operation and image quality. Everything I liked about the F707 is still present in the F717 model, but added features include a higher ISO setting, greatly improved autofocus performance, and a much more accurate white balance system. In addition to its super-size, 5.0-megapixel CCD (5.2-million effective pixels), the F717 offers the same innovative (and completely unique in the digicam industry) NightShot, NightFraming, and Hologram AF technologies that made their debut on the F707. Happily, the F717 also uses the same (excellent) 5x zoom Carl Zeiss lens, which is not only tack sharp but quite fast as well, with a maximum aperture that ranges from f/2.0 to f/2.4 depending on the zoom position.

Subtle changes in the camera's control layout improve the user interface and make it more intuitive to operate, especially the dual-function Focus / Zoom ring around the front of the lens barrel. A five-area autofocus system provides more accurate focusing, and you can either select the AF area manually or place it under automatic control. NightShot technology lets you see and capture images in total darkness: Taking advantage of the CCD's inherent sensitivity to infrared light, the F717's NightShot mode removes the IR filter from the front of the CCD and projects IR beams from two small LEDs on the front of the camera. The resulting image is monochromatic, similar to the view through night vision goggles, but the camera can literally "see in the dark." NightFraming mode uses the same technique, allowing you to frame dark subjects using the IR beams, but once focus is determined, the camera replaces the IR filter and makes the exposure with normal flash.

The Hologram AF feature is another Sony innovation that works very well on the F717, using a laser diode and a holographic diffraction grating to produce a crosshatched pattern of bright red lines on the subject. This projected pattern stays more or less "in focus" almost irrespective of subject distance, so there's always a sharp pattern for the camera to focus on. Hologram AF isn't just for low light, as you'll sometimes see the camera using it in fairly normal lighting if there's not enough contrast in the subject to focus effectively with the contrast-detection AF system. I had great focus results in my low-light testing and was duly impressed with this focusing mechanism: I can say that Hologram AF is noticeably more effective than any conventional AF-assist illuminator I've seen to date. Through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering provides more accurate light readings when using the flash than the conventional on-camera sensor used by many digicams (especially in low-light and no-light settings, and when the lens is zoomed all the way to the telephoto end of its range).

The F717 features the same rotating lens action I liked on the F505, F505V, and F707 models, providing approximately 135 degrees of rotation, for some very versatile shooting configurations. The camera's overall dimensions are 6.31 x 4.88 x 2.63 inches (162 x 124 x 68mm), but these measurements are somewhat misleading since the camera body itself is only about 2.75 inches deep, and the lens extends nearly four inches beyond the body's front panel. Because the lens is so long, the F717 is much too bulky to fit into even a large coat pocket; however, it's reasonably lightweight for its size (22.39 ounces / 635 grams) and therefore easily transportable using the supplied neck strap. Sony also offers a very nice soft case to protect the camera when you're carrying it.

The camera offers two options for precision framing: a large 1.8-inch color LCD monitor on the back panel, and a smaller LCD in the form of an electronic viewfinder (EVF) at the eye level position. The EVF is designed much like a conventional viewfinder, with a diopter adjustment dial on top to accommodate eyeglass wearers. The same information display is shown on both monitors, reporting battery power, Memory Stick capacity, flash status, and the number of images taken, plus various exposure settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, image size, and quality. A small switch directly above the monitor allows you to switch between the large LCD and small EVF monitors. I'm generally not a fan of EVFs, but the one on the F717 seems to provide much more resolution than is normally the case. With the optional viewfinder magnification during manual focusing, the EVF is even marginally useful for setting focus. Of course, the Night Shot and Night Framing features eliminate my usual concerns about EVF usability in low light conditions, putting the 717's EVF much more on a par with true optical viewfinders. New to the F707's LCD display is a histogram, viewable in all record modes as well as in Playback mode.

Carl Zeiss lenses are renowned for their quality and sharpness. The F717 is equipped with the same 5x, 9.7-48.5mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens (equivalent to a 38-190mm lens on a 35mm camera) as found on the F707 before it. Picking a single "best" camera lens is tough, given all the variables involved, but there's no question that the lens on the F717 is one of the best I've seen, out of all the hundreds of consumer-level cameras I've tested. The aperture can be manually or automatically adjusted from f/2.0-2.4 to f/8, and shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to 30 seconds. (Note that this is a noticeably faster lens that the f/2.8 design used on the earlier F505V, and faster than most digicam lenses out there.) Focus also can be automatically or manually controlled across a range of 2 cm at wide angle (90 cm at telephoto) to infinity, with a single readout on the LCD screen that shows the distance in metric units. An optional Enhanced Focus function that temporarily doubles the size of the image in the viewfinder as you're turning the focusing ring can be enabled via the Setup menu for more accurate manual focusing. Autofocus performance on the F717 has been dramatically improved over that of the F707, with the result that the F717 is now one of the fastest-focusing consumer cameras I've tested to date. Sony's 2x Precision Digital Zoom function is also activated through the Setup menu, increasing the F717's zoom capabilities to 10x (although as always there is a direct decrease in resolution and image quality resulting from digital magnification). Macro performance is very good, with macro focus distances ranging from 0.8 to 19.7 inches (2 to 50 centimeters) at the lens' wide angle setting. (Minimum focus is 90 cm at full telephoto.)

In addition to a full Manual exposure mode, the F717 also provides Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program AE, Full Auto, and Scene exposure modes. Aperture Priority lets select the lens aperture, from f/2 to f/8, while the camera chooses the best shutter speed. Shutter Priority lets you select the shutter speed, from 1/1,000 to 30 seconds, while the camera determines the appropriate aperture. Program AE places the camera in control of both aperture and shutter speed, while you control the remaining exposure parameters, and Full Auto mode places the camera in charge of everything (except for resolution, flash, zoom, and record mode). The Scene exposure mode provides four preset shooting modes–Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, and Portrait–designed to obtain the best exposure for specific shooting situations.

Multi-Pattern, Center-Weighted, and Spot Metering options are available in all shooting modes, selectable via the Spot Metering button on the camera's lens barrel. (A crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD monitor in Spot metering mode). The expanded White Balance options include: One Push (manual setting, using a white card), Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, and Auto. Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure values (EV) in one-third-step increments, and the camera's ISO value can be set to Auto or 100, 200, 400, or 800 equivalents, increasing performance in low-light shooting situations. The F717's built-in flash features Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, and Suppressed operating modes, with a variable flash intensity adjustment. As an added bonus, the F717 offers an external flash connection and hot shoe mount, which let you connect a more powerful flash to the camera.

The F717 also provides a Movie mode with sound recording, which stores files in the MPEG HQX format. (MPEG HQX enables continuous MPEG movie recording directly to the memory card, regardless of quality setting, for as long as the memory card has space.) An HQX setting captures higher-quality movie files. A Clip Motion option, available through the Setup menu, works like an animation sequence, allowing you to capture a series of up to 10 still images, which the camera records as a GIF file for sequential frame playback. Multi Burst mode captures 16 images in rapid sequence and saves them as a movie file, which plays back as a slow-motion sequence. A Picture Effects menu captures images in Solarized, Sepia, and Negative Art tones and a Sharpness setting allows you to control image sharpness.

The Record menu offers a list of Record mode options, including a TIFF mode for saving uncompressed images; a Voice mode for adding sound clips up to 40 seconds long to accompany captured images (great for "labeling" or annotating shots you've taken); and an E-Mail mode that saves a separate 320 x 240-pixel file small enough for easy email transmission, in addition to your normal-sized image. An Exposure Bracketing mode captures three images at three different exposures, so you can choose the best overall exposure after the fact, while the Burst 3 mode captures three images in rapid succession with one press of the Shutter button (shot-to-shot frame rates vary with the pixel resolution size and the amount of image information being recorded). Finally, there is a Normal setting for standard JPEG compressed images.

Images are stored as uncompressed TIFFs, JPEGs, MPEGs, or GIFs (depending on the Record mode) on a 16MB Memory Stick included with the camera (higher capacity cards are available, currently up to a limit of 128MB). The F717's expanded Memory Stick capabilities let you create and manage individual image folders on one card. A video cable is also provided with the camera for connecting to a television set. (You can choose between NTSC or PAL video standards via the Setup menu), and a USB cable provides high-speed connection to PC or Macintosh computers in USB 1.0 and 2.0 protocols. Software supplied with the F717 presumably will include the same applications as were shipped with the F707: MGI's PhotoSuite SE (Mac and Windows) and VideoWave SE (Windows only) for image downloading, image-correction capabilities, and a variety of creative templates for making greeting cards and calendars, as well as basic video editing utilities. (I'll check what comes with the production model, when I receive one, and update this section of the review.)

The F717 uses an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series) and comes with an AC adapter that doubles as a battery charger. I like the InfoLITHIUM batteries because they communicate with the camera, which in turn tells you how much operating time remains, via a small readout on the LCD screen. This is really valuable in avoiding lost shots when your batteries die unexpectedly. Battery life also has been substantially improved relative to the F707, and is really quite remarkable: Fully four hours in capture mode, and over nine hours in playback!

I continue to be impressed by Sony's innovations and the quality level of each new product they bring out. What's most encouraging about the F717 though, is not "merely" the level of technical excellence it embodies, but rather the extent to which Sony listened to users (and reviewers ;-) of the F707 when it came time to design its successor. As before, the still-unique NightShot technology and Hologram AF focusing systems take digital photography into territory that's simply unattainable in the conventional film-based world. The host of improvements in AF response, color management, white balance, and general usability are so dramatic that the end result is almost a whole new product. If the point of having a camera is to bring back great pictures, the F717 will let you do so under a wider variety of conditions than almost any other camera currently on the market, regardless of price.


Design
As the much-anticipated update to the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-F707, the DSC-F717 looks almost identical to the earlier model, with the same rotating lens barrel and compact body, but a range of improvements hidden inside. Externally, superficial differences in the F717 are a silver-colored body, and an improved control layout. (The latter really amounting to fairly substantial difference in how the camera feels to operate.) The F717 incorporates all the features that made the F707 such a dramatic entry on the digicam scene, but adds a more versatile and much faster autofocus system, expanded movie recording, and greatly improved color rendering and white balance performance.



The rotating lens barrel that makes up a large portion of the F717's bulk continues to be one of my favorite design features. You can rotate the lens approximately 135 degrees -- from straight up to about a 45 degree downward angle. Since the tripod mount is on the bottom of the lens barrel, you can easily tilt the camera body upwards to view the LCD monitor more clearly when the camera is mounted on a tripod, something I really appreciate when working in the studio. As I've noted on previous digicams of this design, the rather large lens requires a different grip than most people are accustomed to, but it's fairly intuitive once you get a feel for it. On the F717, the addition of zoom control to the focus/zoom ring on the front of the lens has had a significant impact on the camera's general "feel," and how comfortable it is to use. Being able to control the lens zoom via the zoom/focus collar makes for much more intutive operation than was possible with the F707's toggle-only zoom control. The large lens is heavy though, contributing to the camera's hefty 23 ounce (658 gram) weight, and therefore requires that you use your left hand to support the lens. The body itself is relatively compact (smaller than the lens, in fact), but with overall dimensions of 6.31 x 4.88 x 2.63 inches (162 x 124 x 68mm), the F717 certainly doesn't qualify as a pocket camera. It's best used with the accompanying neck strap, and I suggest investing in a small camera bag or soft cover to protect the LCD monitor and optics. A tethered, spring-loaded lens cover accompanies the camera.

As seen in the shot above, aside from the long lens barrel that dominates the front of the camera, the Shutter button, Exposure Compensation button, and Command dial reside on a sloping ledge off the camera's top panel. Surrounding the edge of the lens barrel is a ridged control collar, repurposed on the F717 to operate both focus and zoom, depending on the Focus mode selected. The collar works much like a focus ring on a conventional 35mm camera lens, but you can program it to adjust clockwise or counterclockwise through the Setup menu. (Note that this is still a "fly by wire" control, which simply tells the camera which way to adjust the settings, as opposed to coupling to the optics directly.) On the face of the lens are two high-output infrared LEDs which extend the camera's low-light capabilities through the Hologram AF and Night Shot/Night Framing features (more on these later). A rather substantial hand grip is built into the camera's right side, which helps counterbalance the weight of the lens when holding the camera. (The handgrip is also large enough to be comfortable for large, American-sized hands.)



On the right side panel is a neck strap attachment eyelet, positioned just above the battery and Memory Stick compartment. The compartment door features a locking catch that must be released before sliding the door open. Also visible in this view is the "ACC" Sony accessory connection jack on the top of the lens barrel, which connects Sony accessories, such as the HVL-F1000 flash unit. The small hatch built into the side of the lens barrel itself hides the USB connector.



The left side of the camera holds no fewer than six control buttons, arranged along the side of the lens barrel. From left to right, they include the Focus switch, Zoom rocker button, AE Lock button, Spot Metering control, and White Balance (WB) adjustments (One-Push button for manually adjusting white balance and main White Balance button for choosing a preset). All of these controls are within easy reach of your left hand when holding the camera two-handed, and the position of the auto/manual focus switch makes it easy to switch back and forth between focus and zoom operation via the front control ring. Also on the left side of the camera is the second neck strap attachment eyelet.



The camera's top panel holds several key camera controls, including the Shutter and Exposure Compensation buttons (mentioned earlier), a Command dial (located in front of the these two buttons), the Mode dial, NightFraming / NightShot switch, and the Power switch, all clustered on the right-hand side. The camera's microphone and speaker grilles appear just above and to the left of the Night framing/shot switch.

Atop the lens barrel is the pop-up flash compartment, with a standard hot shoe flash mount just behind it. (This is a welcome improvement over the F707, which featured only a "cold" shoe mount, greatly limiting external flash options.)



The remaining camera controls are located on the F717's rear panel, along with the LCD monitor and electronic viewfinder (EVF) eyepiece. Just above the viewfinder eyepiece, a dioptric adjustment dial corrects the viewfinder for near- or farsighted users. Across the top of the rear panel are the Display, Index, and Menu buttons, to the left of the Four Way Arrow pad. A sliding switch above the LCD monitor determines which viewfinder display you use, selecting either the LCD monitor and EVF. The eyepiece itself is surrounded by a soft rubber eye cup that does a good job of blocking extraneous light. In the bottom left corner of the rear panel are the DC In and A/V Out connection jacks, protected by a spring-loaded hinged plastic door. A large thumb rest near the top right side of the rear panel protrudes slightly from the battery compartment door, contributing greatly to the secure purchase provided by the F717's hand grip design. The rear panel also features a very tiny LED lamp, located above the center of the LCD monitor, that shows when the flash is charging.



The bottom panel of the F717 is flat and featureless, with the exception of the all-metal tripod mount on the bottom of the lens barrel. The USB compartment is also located on the underside of the lens barrel, covered by a lightweight plastic door. Kudos to Sony for keeping the memory card and battery compartments away from the screw mount, making it easy to change batteries while the camera is mounted on a tripod. (I always take note of this, given the amount of studio work I do, and I find it particularly important with feature-laden cameras like this one.) I don't know if the tripod socket is exactly under the optical center of the lens, but it's certainly on the lens centerline at least, making alignment for panorama shots much easier. I don't think I called attention to it on the F707, but one thing I like about the tripod mount here is that it includes a socket for the second "lock" pin found on some professional tripods. - This provides for a much more secure mount between camera and tripod, without having to crank down so tightly on the tripod mounting screw.


Viewfinder
The F717 offers both a 1.8-inch, 123,000-pixel, rear panel LCD monitor and a smaller electronic viewfinder (EVF) in place of a true "optical" viewfinder. The EVF actually uses a tiny (and slightly lower-power) LCD screen to show the same view you'll see in the camera's monitor display. What makes the EVF so useful is the information display, identical to that shown on the LCD monitor (complete with navigable menus). As I on earlier Sony digicams using EVFs, the idea of being able to see the exposure settings in the eye level viewfinder is a good one, but navigating the menus through this small viewfinder is pretty tricky. I found it much easier to simply switch on the LCD monitor when I needed to change menu options. The EVF does feature a diopter adjustment dial on top of the eyepiece, and the viewfinder optics have a remarkably high eyepoint, leaving plenty of room for even the thickest eyeglass lenses. - This is an unusually "eyeglass-friendly" digicam, although the soft rubber eyecup can leave smudges on your glasses. A sliding switch on the rear panel controls where the view is displayed, either on the larger LCD monitor or in the smaller eyepiece.

As I've noted in the past, I'm generally no fan of EVFs, finding them a poor substitute for true optical viewfinders. On the F717 though, the EVF seems to have more resolution than I'm accustomed to seeing (as did the F707), which helps a great deal. Plus, the NightShot and NightFraming modes eliminate one of my biggest objections to EVFs -- that they're generally useless in low light conditions. Overall, even the F717's EVF doesn't take me entirely out of the anti-EVF camp, but it goes a long ways in the right direction.

The Display button on the back panel controls the information display, with a choice of full or partial readings in Record mode. The basic information display reports Flash mode, exposure settings (aperture and shutter speed), and Focus mode. The detailed display also shows the remaining battery power and image quality and resolution. A new feature on the F717 is the histogram display, which appears in response to a third press of the Display button. The histogram graphs the tonal distribution of the image, useful in determining under- or overexposure before snapping the shot. (Very nice, but I'd really like to see a "blink highlights" feature as found on some Nikon models.) Both the EVF eyepiece and rear panel LCD monitor have adjustable brightness functions. The LCD Brightness adjustment is the first option in the camera's "Setup 1" menu, with Dark, Normal, and Bright settings. When the camera is running on battery power, the second and third menu item are for LCD and EVF Backlight adjustment respectively. The backlight settings have Normal and Bright options, the latter of which is particularly helpful when shooting in bright, sunlit conditions. When the camera is plugged into the AC adapter, the LCD Backlight option disappears, because the backlight automatically switches to the "high" illumination setting.

In Playback mode, the Display button also controls the information display, but in this case, turns it completely on or off. The histogram is also available in Playback mode. An Index Display mode shows as many as nine thumbnail images at a time on the LCD monitor with the first press of the Index button. Pressing the Index button a second time displays exposure information about the selected thumbnail, including aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, metering mode, flash, and white balance (in two screens). The Zoom control on the side of the lens barrel controls the playback zoom, enlarging captured images as much as 5x. (Note though, that the lens ring doesn't control playback zoom, even if the lens switch is set to the AF/zoom position.)

One advantage of an eye-level viewfinder, as provided by the F717's EVF, is that it promotes a more secure camera grip (arms clamped to your sides, camera body braced against your face), which helps with long telephoto and low-light shots. It also provides a more natural "look-and-shoot" operation than when you're forced to rely on a rear-panel LCD display. On previous Sony digicams, I found the smaller EVF eyepieces difficult to work with in low-light situations, as the electronic viewfinder system typically requires more light to operate. Sony has answered this challenge with the NightFraming and NightShot modes, which are very effective in making the EVF usable at low light levels. (The NightShot technology was first pioneered by Sony in its consumer camcorder lines, and made its debut in digital camera form on the F707._

NightShot and NightFraming take advantage of the CCD's sensitivity to infrared light, which is normally filtered out, because it tends to skew the camera's color rendering in bright sunlit scenes. Sony's NightShot technology uses a movable IR filter that lets the camera take advantage of this IR sensitivity in low-light situations and block it at other times.

In NightShot mode, the camera flips the IR filter out of the way for both the framing and exposure. Any natural IR light in the scene is augmented by two infrared LEDs on the front of the lens, which project IR beams onto the subject. These lamps don't completely cover the field of view at wide angle, but they do a pretty good job from about halfway up the zoom range toward telephoto. The built-in illuminator lamps let you shoot in total darkness, but the pictures you capture will be monochromatic, with the majority of light areas of the subject showing a green cast (as is typical with Night Vision goggles). Some colors will render as different shades of gray than they would in a normal black-and-white photo. This is because the reflectance of objects is often different in IR than in visible light, so a "dark" color in daylight may actually appear quite bright in IR. (Note that when shooting reflective surfaces close-up, you'll be able to see the glow of the camera's IR lamps in the center of the image.)

In NightFraming mode, the camera also flips the IR filter out of the way and turns on the illuminator lamps, but only while you're framing your shots. As soon as you half-press the Shutter button, the IR filter flips back down, and the camera takes a normal visible-light photo, using the built-in flash. This is particularly handy for nighttime flash shooting, when you wouldn't be able to see (or focus on) the subject otherwise.

I'd (still) really like to see the NightFraming made available for other exposure modes besides Auto, and to be able to choose whether or not to fire the flash. I enjoy taking night shots from a tripod, and the NightFraming feature would be a nice way to take advantage of the F717's 30-second maximum exposure time and excellent noise reduction. Of course, if you're shooting from a tripod, you can still use the NightFraming like this, it just takes two steps: Turn on the NightFraming and switch the camera to Auto mode, compose your picture, then turn it off again, switch back to the mode you want to shoot in, and take your shot. This isn't a huge inconvenience, but I'd still like to see NightFraming work independently of the shooting mode, and also not mandate use of the flash. (This is one of the few remaining "improvement requests" from my review of the F707 that Sony hasn't addressed.)

Overall, NightShot and NightFraming are tremendous extensions to digital photography, clearly taking it into realms that film-based cameras just can't touch. Sure, you can shoot with IR film in a conventional camera, but the no-light viewfinder capability of NightFraming simply isn't available in the film world. Combined with the Hologram AF feature, it makes in-the-dark digital photography more practical than it's ever been. Big kudos to Sony for bringing these innovations to digital photography!

Trimming
This isn't strictly a "Viewfinder" function, but I didn't know where else to mention it. Since it at least uses the LCD display, I figured I'd go ahead and talk about it here.

One of the best things most amateur photographers could do to improve their photos would be to simply crop them a little, cutting out distracting objects, and filling more of the frame with their primary subject. It turns out that virtually all Sony digicams let you do this right on the camera! (I have to admit I just learned about this myself.) Zoom in on an image in playback mode, and use the Four Way Arrow pad to adjust the framing to your preference. Then hit the Menu button, and you'll see options labeled Return and Trimming. Select Trimming, and you'll see further options to select an image size. (Keep in mind that enlarging the image back up to full size after cropping it down only softens the detail, since no new information is added to the image file - The reduced number of pixels in the cropped image are simply enlarged to fill the full-size pixel array.) Select a size option, and the camera will save the image the way you've zoomed and cropped it on the LCD display into a separate file on the Memory Stick. Very slick! The screen shot at right shows the steps in this process.


Optics
The F717 is equipped with a super-sharp 9.7-48.5mm Carl Zeiss lens (equivalent to a 38-190mm lens on a 35mm camera), and an impressive 5x optical zoom. The aperture can be adjusted automatically or manually, and ranges from f/2-2.4 to f/8 depending on the zoom setting. An additional 2x digital zoom function (10x total zoom) can be turned on and off via the Record menu, but remember that quality is always an issue with digital enlargement. That said, the F717 employs Sony's Precision Digital Zoom, which seems to cause less quality degradation than the normal digital zoom used by some other digicams. (One difference seems to be that the required interpolation is done with raw CCD data, before the JPEG compression is applied.) The F717's zoom control is nice and smooth, with a two-step rocker switch that lets you zoom slowly or quickly. As noted earlier, you can also control digital and optical zoom via the Focus / Zoom ring surrounding the end of the lens barrel, more like a traditional 35mm zoom lens. This made it easy to make small adjustments to the zoom without going too far in either direction, a nice feature for critical framing. A zoom bar appears on the LCD screen, reporting the zoom position, along with an indicator to show when the digital zoom kicks in (if Digital Zoom is activated through the Setup menu).

Combining zoom and focus control together with the F717's lens ring sounds like it should be a fairly minor change in the camera's user interface. In practice though, it makes a very substantial difference in the 717's ease of use and general ergonomics. - I found I could switch back and forth between zoom and focus operation with a quick flick of the MF/AF switch with my thumb, while I turned the ring with my index finger, positioned underneath it. This required a slightly unnatural hand position on the lens, leading me to use the camera in a head-down position, rather than the traditional heads-up position of a conventional 35mm camera. Regardless of the ability to switch back and forth between focus and zoom, having the zoom function avaiable on the lens collar amounted to a great improvement in the fluidity of the user interface.

The rotating lens barrel of the F717 continues to be one of my favorite designs, although the bulky lens takes some getting used to. (Actually, I'm a little conflicted over the design. I love the flexibility it gives, but find it a little awkward to hold in some situations. This is balanced by its making certain shots very easy that would be either awkward or impossible otherwise.) The lens pivots up and down approximately 135 degrees, greatly multiplying your shooting options. It's especially handy for grabbing ground-level macro shots or when holding the camera above your head to shoot over a crowd. The tripod mount on the bottom of the lens barrel provides even greater flexibility when working with a tripod or monopod, allowing you to tilt the camera's back panel for easier viewing. Sony offers both wide-angle and telephoto converters as accessories for the F717, which mount in front of the lens via the 58mm filter threads that line the inside lip of the lens barrel. Having the tripod mount on the lens centerline also makes it easier to align sequences of shots intended for later assembly into panoramas.

*********Focus on the F717 ranges from 19.7 inches (50cm) to infinity in normal mode, and from 0.8 to 19.7 inches (2 to 50cm) in Macro mode. (That's with the lens set to its wide angle position. - At full telephoto, the minimum focusing distance is a substantial 90cm). The Macro function is controlled via the Right arrow button on the Four Way Arrow pad, and is only available when the focus is set to Auto mode (Manual focusing includes the macro range). A Focus switch on the side of the lens selects either Auto or Manual Focus control. (The Focus / Zoom ring controls the zoom function when the lens is set to autofocus operation.). The F717's Autofocus mode uses a five-point contrast-detection system. (The five-point system is a significant advance over the single-point system used in the F707.) Manual focus is set by turning the focus ring at the end of the lens barrel, just as you would a standard 35mm camera lens. When using the Manual focus, a small indicator appears on the LCD screen that shows the current focusing distance in meters as you turn the ring. Also, an Expanded Focus option (activated in the Setup menu) automatically magnifies the image by 2x whenever you rotate the focus ring, providing just enough resolution to accurately set the focus based on what you see onscreen.

I really like the feel of a digicam with a manual focus that works more or less like that on a standard 35mm camera lens. If you're making the transition from a film camera though, the F717's focus ring may take a little getting used to. It isn't directly coupled to the lens elements, but rather just instructs the camera's CPU which way to move the focusing elements. This leads to a sense of disconnection between movements of the focus ring and corresponding focus changes that takes some getting used to. Also, the proportionality between focus-ring movement and focus adjustment seems to be a pretty strong function of the speed with which the ring is turned. If you move the ring slowly, it can take many turns of it to traverse the full focal range, while a quick twist will switch you from infinity focus down to a couple of meters with only a partial rotation. This variable proportionality is doubtless an attempt to deal with the slow slew rate of most "fly by wire" digicam focusing systems. It definitely improves the focus response relative to other cameras I've worked with, but I still find manual focusing on the F717 to be a slightly disconcerting experience.

Similar to the CD400 high-end Mavica model, the F717 features an adjustable AF area, with five selection points available (one at dead center and the other four surrounding the center point). In straight autofocus mode, the focus area selected highlights in the LCD display once focus is locked. You can also opt for a broader center AF selection, rather than the smaller spot area, or manually select the desired AF point, to force the camera to focus on a particular subject and not be led astray by other objects in the field of view.

In any capture mode, the AF point can be controlled via the command dial. A small icon in the upper right-hand corner of the viewfinder display shows the current AF area selection, as do a set of four corner bracket marks in the main viewing area itself. With the control cursor pointing to the AF area icon in the upper corner of the screen, rotating the command dial steps through the five area options plus the auto-area option (the one with the wider set of brackets shown) in sequence. - See the screen shot above right for a view of what this looks like.

I was pleased by the return of Sony's Hologram AF system for low-light focusing, which uses a laser diode and a tiny holographic diffraction grating to project a crosshatched pattern of bright red lines on the subject. The nifty thing about the hologram is that the projected pattern stays more or less "in focus" almost irrespective of subject distance, so there's always a sharp pattern for the camera to focus on. Hologram AF isn't only for low light, as you'll see the camera resort to it in fairly normal lighting as well, if there's not enough contrast in the subject to use the normal contrast-detect AF system. Try pointing the camera at a blank wall in normal home / office lighting, and you'll see the pattern. The screen shot at right shows a camera's-eye view of the Hologram AF pattern, as the lens zooms from wide to telephoto. (This shot was copied from my F707 review - Astute readers will note minor differences in the onscreen information display, but the Hologram AF function works identically.)

In actual use, I found the Hologram AF system made low-light and low-contrast focusing practically foolproof. In fact, it literally was hard to get an out-of-focus photo with the F717, in almost any situation. - This is a significant innovation in AF-assist lighting.

Confused by Apertures and Depth of Field? - Do you know how to use "Front Focus" or "Back Focus" to get *all* your subject in focus? Visit our free Photo Lessons area and click on the lessons "Focusing Up Close" and "Selective Focusing Outside!"


Exposure
Confused by White Balance? Visit our free Photo Lessons area and click on the lessons "White Balance Indoors" and "White Balance Outdoors!"
The F717 offers a full range of exposure controls, with options for Full Auto, Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes, as well as a Scene mode position with Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, and Portrait scene options. All exposure modes are accessed via the Mode dial on top of the camera, and the Scene presets are accessed through the Record menu in Scene mode. In Full Auto mode, the camera controls everything, with the exception of resolution, flash, zoom, and capture mode. (This is a new addition since the F707, basically a way to quickly get back to the camera's default settings, without disturbing all the options you may have set in its various menus.) Program AE mode lets you control everything except the aperture and shutter speed. Aperture and Shutter Priority modes provide user control over either aperture or shutter speed (depending on the mode), while the camera selects the best value of the other exposure parameter. Manual mode provides complete control over the exposure, with the user selecting both shutter speed (1/1,000 to 30 seconds) and aperture (f/2 to f/8).

In the Scene exposure mode, you have the option of shooting in Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, or Portrait preset modes. Twilight mode sets up the camera for shooting night scenes, using a slower shutter speed to capture more ambient light. (Sony's philosophy is to not offer shutter speeds slower than those that can be handheld reasonably well (1/30 second or faster) in normal exposure modes, so users don't end up with blurry photos because they didn't realize the camera was using a slower shutter speed.) Use Twilight mode in any situation where the lighting is too dim to give a good exposure in normal exposure mode, but be aware that the camera will be using slower shutter speeds. - Mount it on a tripod or otherwise provide stable support. Twilight Portrait operates under the same guidelines, but automatically uses the Slow Sync flash setting, so foreground subjects (people, for instance) are properly illuminated. Landscape mode simply uses a smaller lens aperture to increase the depth of field, keeping the foreground and background in focus. Landscape mode typically uses slower shutter speeds, so a tripod is recommended in all but bright lighting. Portrait mode works in the opposite manner, using a larger aperture to decrease the depth of field. This produces a sharply focused subject in front of a slightly blurred background.

I've quibbled with Sony about their Twilight-mode philosophy, personally preferring a camera that offers a full range of exposure times in its normal exposure mode, but that simply warns me (jiggling hand symbol, etc) when the shutter speeds get slower than some given level. I understand the reasoning behind Sony's normal/twilight dichotomy though, and have to admit that it makes sense. What I really haven't agreed with though, is Sony's recent tendency to automatically add about a -2EV (negative) exposure compensation to twilight mode exposures with most of their line of consumer cameras. The reason for this was most likely to preserve color in brightly-lit objects in night scenes, preventing them from blowing out to pure white. That's well and good, but since you had to use Twilight mode for any dimly lit subject, I found myself very frequently having to dial in as much positive exposure compensation as the camera would allow. I'm very happy to report that the F717 doesn't seem to exhibit this behavior at all. Shots I took in twilight mode came out properly exposed without any heroic exposure compensation on my part.

The F717 employs a Multi-Pattern metering system as its default, dividing the scene into several small sections and taking exposure readings for each section. The readings are then evaluated (not necessarily averaged) to determine the best overall exposure. Center-Weighted and Spot metering options are also available, accessed by pressing the Metering button on the lens barrel. You can increase or decrease the exposure with the F717's Exposure Compensation adjustment, which ranges from -2 to +2 exposure values (EV) in one-third-step increments and which is adjusted by pressing the Exposure Compensation button on the top panel and turning the Command dial. Final determination will have to await my testing of a production model, but the F717's exposure metering system seemed to be quite accurate.

In addition to the F717's NightShot and NightFraming low-light features (discussed in detail in the Viewfinder section earlier), the camera also offers an impressive Noise Reduction system. Activated automatically with shutter speeds of 2.5 seconds and longer, Noise Reduction does an outstanding job of reducing the image noise associated with long exposure times. Judging by the camera's operation, it looks like the F717 is shooting a "dark" frame after each exposure when the noise reduction mode is active, and then subtracting the noise in that dark frame from the captured image. It's obvious that the camera is doing something like this, because it takes roughly twice as long for it to complete a long exposure than the exposure time of the shot itself. The F717 seems to go beyond basic dark-frame subtraction though, in that I saw none of the "dead" pixels you'd normally find in a camera's images using this technique. - With dark frame subtraction, any hot pixel that saturated and went all the way to white ends up black in the final image, since it was pure white in both the actual photo and the dark frame itself. (By way of explanation, "white" means a value of 255. If the hot pixel was white in both the image and dark-noise reference frame, when the subtraction is done, 255-255=0, or black.) The F707 was a superlative low-light performer, and the F717 looks to be every bit as good. This camera can turn out beautiful, full-color images in conditions that will have you reaching for a flashlight to find your way around. (I mean that literally - The test model of the F717 turned out bright, colorful photos under conditions so dark I literally had a hard time seeing well enough to walk around.) Even at ISO 800, low light shots showed surprisingly little noise. (Quite a bit of noise at ISO 800, mind you, but a lot less than I was expecting.) I'll test this capability in greater depth once I receive a production model of the camera.

One suggestion for the Sony engineers, for the next generation of this camera: The 717 is so phenomenally "clean" on very long exposures, why not push the envelope even more, and give us 60 or even 120 second exposure times? (A "bulb" mode would be nice, but that would also require a remote trigger of some sort, to avoid camera shake from holding down the shutter button. - How about a remote trigger option for the F717's successor as well?)

An AE Lock button on the side of the lens lets you lock the exposure reading without also locking the focus. (As happens when you half-press the shutter button.) AE Lock works well with Spot and Center-Weighted metering, as you can base the exposure on a particular area of the subject without also having to lock the focus on that area as well. Simply aim the center of the viewfinder at the portion of the subject you want properly exposed and press the AE Lock button. The exposure will be locked until the Shutter button is fully depressed or until the AE Lock button is pressed again.

ISO can be adjusted to 100, 200, 400, or 800 sensitivity equivalents, or set on Auto. The F717's White Balance adjustment offers six settings: One-Push (manual), Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, and Incandescent. The One-Push reading is set by placing a white card in front of the lens and pushing the One-Push button on the side of the lens barrel. (This is another advance over the F707, which only offered Auto, Daylight, Incandescent, or One-Push white balance options.)

As I mentioned earlier, the F717's automatic white balance performance is really quite remarkable. The camera didn't seem to care too much whether a room was lit by daylight, fluorescent, incandescent, or a combination of all three light sources. I could just point the camera, snap the shutter, and the 717 gave me back nice looking photos with just enough of the original color cast to remind me what the subject actually looked like. Poor handling of the incandescent lighting that's almost universal in US homes has been a major bugaboo of digicams until now. (Although some individual cameras did fairly well with it in the past, and the entire Kodak EasyShare line deserves favorable mention in this regard.) The F717 seems to set a new standard in this area, a very welcome occurrence. - Hopefully the other digicam manufacturers will take a page from Sony's book, and come up with similar white balance systems for their cameras in the near future.

The 10-second Self-Timer mode is activated by pressing the Down arrow button on the Four Way Arrow pad. Once in Self-Timer mode, a full press of the Shutter button kicks off the timer, which counts down 10 seconds before firing the shutter. The camera beeps and flashes an LED (on the top of the camera, between the microphone and speaker grilles) to mark the countdown interval. (Here's another suggestion for the Sony engineers: How about an option for the self-timer that would permit shorter delays? I've often found it handy to have a 2 or 3-second self-timer delay available when I'm using a digicam on a tripod when snapping a low light shot or a tricky macro setup. - The brief delay between pressing the shutter button and the shutter actually firing helps insure that the jiggle from pressing the shutter button doesn't cause any blurring of the final image.)

The F717 also offers a versatile Picture Effects menu, a standard feature on Sony digicams. The menu offers three creative options: Negative Art, Sepia, and Solarize. Negative Art reverses the color and brightness of the image. Sepia changes the image into brown, monochromatic tones. The Solarize option is really more of a level-slicing function, dividing the image into areas of fairly "flat" color. (Not really a "solarization" effect as old-line film types would understand the term.) These effects are "live" in Record mode, so you get a preview of the effect on the LCD monitor before you record the image. The F717 also offers a Sharpness function, which adjusts the overall image sharpness from -2 to +2 in arbitrary units.

After recording an image, the Quick Review function provides instant playback of the picture. Pressing the Left arrow button also activates the Quick Review mode, giving you the option of deleting the most recently recorded image.


Flash
The pop-up flash on the F717 features true TTL (Through The Lens) metering, for more accurate flash exposures. (This is surprisingly rare in the current digicam market. Many cameras from "camera" companies that you would think surely would have TTL metering do not.) The flash operates in Auto (no icon), Forced, and Suppressed modes, with a Red-Eye Reduction mode that can be enabled through the Setup menu. Auto mode lets the camera decide when to fire the flash, based on existing lighting conditions. Forced means that the flash always fires, regardless of light, and Suppressed simply means that the flash never fires. Red-Eye Reduction mode tells the camera to fire a small pre-flash before firing the full flash to reduce the effect of red-eye. Once enabled through the Setup menu, the Red-Eye Reduction flash fires with both Auto and Forced modes. Flash intensity can be manually controlled via the Record menu with choices of High, Normal, and Low. There is no flash release mechanism, as the camera pops open the flash on its own, once the Shutter button is halfway pressed (in all flash modes except Suppressed).

Sony estimates the F717's internal flash to be effective from 1.6 to 16.4 feet (0.5 to 5 meters) in the normal intensity mode. This agrees well with my own testing, which was limited by the 14 foot depth of our studio. -- I couldn't test to the full 16.4 foot distance, but can safely say that I saw no decrease in flash intensity out to 14 feet. As a marked improvement over the previous F707 model, the F717 features a true hot-shoe external flash connection on top of the camera. This greatly increases the options for connecting an external flash. The F717 also has the ACC Sony accessory flash input socket on the side of the lens. (Note though, that the ACC connection is proprietary to the Sony HVL-F1000 external flash unit.)


Special Recording Modes
Like many Sony digicams, the F717 offers a number of special recording modes, including TIFF, Voice, E-Mail, Exposure Bracketing, and Burst 3. The TIFF option saves a 2,560 x 1.920-pixel uncompressed TIFF version of each image, in addition to the standard JPEG version, at whatever image size you've selected. Voice mode lets you record a five-second sound clip to accompany a still image, with the audio recording starting immediately after the image capture. The E-Mail option records a still image at the 320 x 240-pixel JPEG size for easy e-mail transmission, again in addition to a full-resolution file, at whatever image size you've selected in the menu system. This lets you capture full-resolution images for storage and printing, while at the same time recording smaller versions that you can just drop into an e-mail to share with others. Exposure Bracketing captures three images with one press of the Shutter button (one at the normal exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed). The amount of variation between exposures is adjustable through the Setup menu, with options of 0.3, 0.7, and 1.0 EV steps. "Burst 3" mode captures a rapid series of three images, at approximately two frames per second. (The actual frame rate and the number of images in the series may be limited by available Memory Stick space, depending on the resolution and quality settings, though.)

Movie Mode
The Movie mode is accessed via the Mode dial on top of the camera, by selecting the film frame icon. You can record moving images with sound at either High Quality (HQX) 320 pixels, or standard quality 320 x 240 and 160 x 112 pixels. MPEG HQX means that you can record for as long as the Memory Stick has space. (The amount of available space varies with the quality setting and resolution.) This is an advance over the F707, which could only record to the limits of card space at its low-quality settings. With the HQX setting, available recording time is reduced somewhat because of the larger file size (just under 6 minutes, even on a 128 MB Memory Stick), but the image quality, frame rate, and audio sampling rate are all significantly increased. Recording begins with a single press of the Shutter button, and ends with a second press. A timer appears in the LCD monitor to let you know how long you've been recording and approximately how much recording time is available.

At the 320 x 240- and 160 x 112-pixel settings, the F717 records in the MPEG EX format, capturing eight frames per second, with audio sampling at 4 KHz. The 320 HQX setting captures 16 frames per second, uses less image compression, and increases the audio sampling rate to 10 KHz. Additionally, movies captured in the 320 HQX setting play back full screen in Playback mode, as opposed to the smaller image displayed for MPEG EX files.

The F717 also provides limited movie editing capabilities. While most digicam users won't be looking for full A/B roll video editing from their cameras, I've often found that I wanted to trim off material from the beginning or end of a video I've recorded, or to extract an interesting bit of action from the middle of a much longer clip. The F717 provides for this via an option on the Playback menu called Divide. As its name suggests, Divide works by dividing movies into two segments. Do this once to trim away spurious material at the front of the clip you're interested in, and do it a second time to remove unwanted footage at the end. Once you've split the movie into parts like this, throw away the segments you don't need, or keep them around to show your viewers how lucky they are that you're only showing them the "interesting" parts. ;-)

After enabling the Divide function through the Playback menu, the F717 starts to play back the movie. You simply press the center of the Four Way Arrow pad to stop the playback where you'd like to make an edit. From there, you can scroll backward or forward frame-by-frame until you find the point where you'd like to divide the movie. You can then either delete the unwanted portion of the movie or keep it on the Memory Stick. As noted, the Divide function is great for "editing" out the best part of a movie file, given that you can make an unlimited number of divides. You just can't put the pieces back together again in the camera. For that, you'll have to use the included MGI VideoWave III SE software, which only runs on Windows computers.


Clip Motion
Through the Setup menu, you can set the movie recording format to "Clip Motion," which turns the F717 into an animation camera, recording up to 10 frames of still images to be played back in succession as an animated GIF. Frames can be captured at any interval, with successive presses of the Shutter button. When you've captured as many photos as you need, you just press the center of the Four Way Arrow pad to tell the camera to finish the sequence. Available image sizes are Normal (160 x 120) and Mobile (120 x 108 - another change from the F707, which recorded Mobile size at 80 x 72), and the number of actual captured frames may vary with image size and available Memory Stick space. (You have a maximum of 10, but could be constrained to fewer if your memory is nearly full.) Files are saved in the GIF format, and are played back with approximately 0.5 second intervals between frames. Unlike Movie mode, the flash is available with Clip Motion. (The shot at right was captured using the Clip Motion feature on Sony's earlier DSC-P1 camera. The function works the same way on the F717.)


Multi Burst
Also accessed through the Movie option under the Setup menu, the F717 features a Multi Burst mode, which captures a rapid burst of 16 images. Once captured, the images are played back as a movie file. Because image capture is so fast, the effect is of a slow-motion sequence. Three frame interval rates are available through the Record menu, 1/7.5, 1/15, and 1/30. You can also set image quality (Fine or Standard), Picture Effects, and Sharpness.



Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a digital camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms to do their work and can amount to a significant delay in some situations. Since this number is rarely reported by manufacturers or reviewers, and can significantly affect the picture-taking experience, Imaging Resource now measures shutter lag and cycle times using a proprietary electronic test setup.

Sony DSC-F717 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot 1.84
Time from power-up to first shot. Quite fast.
Shutdown 1.7/67
Time to finish writing average large/fine file to the Memory Stick. Quite fast for JPEG files. (67 second time is worst-case time for TIFF file to finish writing.)
Play to Record, first shot .82
Time until first shot is captured. Pretty fast.
Record to play
4.15/0.79
First time is for immediate switch after pressing shutter, second is time to display image from quiescent state in capture mode. NOTE though, that the camera shows a preview of the image right after the exposure anyway, so the first time may not be relevant in normal usage.
Shutter lag, full autofocus 0.63/0.65 Shorter time is for wide angle, longer time is for telephoto. Very fast, compared to the rest of the prosumer field. (Average is about 0.8 seconds for high-end prosumer digicams.)
Shutter lag, manual focus 0.136 Very fast. (Average is 0.5 seconds.)
Shutter lag, prefocus 0.120 Very fast. (Average is 0.2-0.3 seconds.)
Cycle Time, max/min resolution 1.47-3.2
1.8
54-67
First row is for large/fine files, first number for first 9 shots, writing to buffer memory, second is average for shots 9+. Second row is for small/normal files. (Didn't find end of buffer.) Last time is range for full res TIFF files.
Cycle time, continuous mode
("Burst 3" mode)
0.47/12.34
0.47/4.35
Captures three images, then needs to wait 4.35 (low res) or 12.3 (high res) seconds for buffer to clear before capturing the next burst of 3 shots.

 

Overall, the DSC-F717 is a very fast camera, beginning with a great startup time thanks to not having to telescope its lens before it can shoot. Autofocus speed is exceptional - This is one of the very fastest "prosumer" cameras I've tested to date, as of late August, 2002! (The Fuji S602 Zoom is slightly faster at wide angle, but a good bit slower at telephoto.) Shutter lag in manual focus mode is the best I've seen on a prosumer camera model, and prefocus lag time is excellent as well. No matter how short, I'd always like to see shutter lag be lower still: Even the 0.63-0.65 seconds of the F717 is still longer than I'd like to see. That said, Sony deserves high praise for raising the bar on the other camera manufacturers in this regard. Big kudos to the engineers!

Cycle times are very good as well, at 1.47 seconds between shots in large/fine mode, and (oddly), 1.8 seconds in small/normal mode. The 717 has a roomy buffer memory too, as it can snap up to 9 shots in large/fine mode before slowing to wait for data to flush to the Memory Stick. - And even when the buffer is full, cycle time is still a very respectable 3.1 seconds for maximum resolution files. In burst three mode, the F717 captures frames at intervals of 0.47 seconds, a rae of 2.37 frames/second. And in Ultra HS mode, the frame rate is nearly 30 fps.

About the only thing the F717 doesn't do very quickly is write full-sized TIFF images to the card. Times I measured here varied a fair bit, but the average was around 60 seconds per file. (!)

Another huge improvement relative to the F707 is that the F717 doesn't "penalize" you for pressing the shutter button too quickly after the previous shot. With the F707 (and a lot of other cameras as well), if you press the shutter button immediately after the previous exposure, the camera won't fire the shutter until you release the shutter and then press it again. In this situation, the F717 exhibits the (greatly) preferred response of simply firing the shutter as soon as it's able to do so.

After the somewhat leisurely AF response of the F707, the speed of the F717 was welcome surprise and a great accomplishment on the part of Sony's engineering team. Combined with its long, sharp 5x zoom lens, the F717's speed makes it about the best "sports" camera I've seen yet for under $1,000.


Operation and User Interface
The F717 packs a lot of camera controls into a relatively small space, making good use of the left side of the lens barrel to spread the controls out a bit. The panoply of external controls may seem a bit much at first, but I always appreciate having as much external control as possible, as it saves having to scroll through menu items for common settings. Given my prior experience with the F707 model, I quickly adapted to the F717's control layout, which has only subtle differences. Even novice users should be able to quickly adapt to the F717's control setup though, as it's very logically laid out. The Mode dial on top of the camera controls the main exposure mode, while things like Flash mode, Macro mode, White Balance, Exposure Compensation, etc. are all controlled via small buttons, either on the rear panel or along the left side of the lens barrel. The Command dial, located in front of the Shutter button, lets you quickly adjust aperture and / or shutter speed without accessing a menu system, a nice touch. I also liked the precise control offered by the zoom toggle, with its slow or fast zoom operation, as well the dual-purpose use of the Focus / Zoom ring. Overall camera operation is smooth and efficient, with an easy-to-navigate LCD menu system and a user interface that doesn't require a long learning curve. You may spend a few minutes reading through the manual, but once you get the hang of things, the user interface is quite intuitive.


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Located on the right side of the top panel, on an angled ridge that slopes down toward the front of the camera, this button sets focus and exposure when pressed halfway. Fully depressing the button fires the shutter. When the Self-timer is enabled, fully depressing the Shutter button begins a 10-second countdown before the shutter fires.


Exposure Compensation Button: Adjacent to the Shutter button, this button highlights the exposure compensation adjustment on the LCD screen. Once highlighted, the exposure compensation is adjusted by turning the Command dial (below). A second press of the button removes the highlight.


Command Dial: Directly in front of the Shutter and Exposure Compensation buttons, this black, notched dial controls various exposure settings in any Record mode. In Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes, it controls exposure compensation, aperture, and / or shutter speed settings. Turning the dial scrolls through the available settings, while a quick press of the dial selects the setting for adjustment (highlighting it in yellow on the LCD screen). Once the setting is selected, it can be adjusted by turning the dial forward or backward.


Manual Focus / Zoom Adjustment Ring: Surrounding the end of the lens barrel, this notched collar adjusts the focus when the camera is in Manual focus mode. When the camera is set to Auto focus mode, this ring controls the optical and digital zoom settings. Through the Setup menu, the ring can be programmed such that either clockwise or counterclockwise motion moves the lens toward the telephoto end of its range. (Regardless of the direction of the zoom setting, clockwise rotation of the ring (as seen from the rear of the camera) always reduces the focal distance.)


Open Battery Compartment Switch: Located on the right side of the camera (as viewed from behind), this sliding catch unlocks the compartment door, revealing the battery and Memory Stick compartments.


Mode Dial: Sitting atop the Power switch, this notched dial controls the camera's operating mode. Choices are Full Auto (green camera icon), Program AE (black camera icon), Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Scene, Setup, Movie, and Playback modes.

Power Switch: Located underneath the Mode dial on top of the camera, pushing this switch forward turns the camera on or off.


NightShot / NightFraming Switch: To the left of the Mode dial, this switch activates either the NightShot or NightFraming modes, for low-light and no-light shooting and framing. The center position returns the camera to normal operation.


Four Way Arrow Pad: Located in the top right corner of the camera's rear panel, this rocker pad has four arrows, one pointing in each direction (up, down, left, right). In any record mode (except Movie), the Up arrow controls the Flash mode, cycling between Auto, Forced, and Suppressed. The Left arrow controls the Quick Review function, which provides a quick playback of the most recently captured image. The Right arrow activates the Macro shooting mode, and the Down arrow activates the Self-Timer mode.

In Playback mode, the Right and Left arrows scroll through captured images. The Up and Down arrows control the playback volume. When an image has been digitally enlarged, pressing the center of this button returns to the normal view.

In all camera modes, the arrow keys navigate through settings menus, highlighting menu options. Pressing the center of the pad confirms menu selections.


Menu Button: To the left of the Four Way Arrow pad is the Menu button, which activates and deactivates the settings menus in all camera modes (except for Setup mode, which automatically displays the menu upon entering the mode).


Index Button: Adjacent to the Menu button on the left, this button calls up a nine-image index display in Playback mode. Pressing the button a second time activates an information display for the thumbnail image selected, reporting the main exposure information for the currently selected image. A third press returns to the normal, single-image display.


Display Button: Located to the right of the viewfinder eyepiece, this button controls the on-screen information display in all camera modes (except Setup mode). It also enables the histogram display. Repeated presses cycle through no/limited information, detailed information, and detailed information with histogram display.


Finder / LCD Switch: Just above the top left corner of the LCD monitor, this switch directs the viewfinder display to either the viewfinder eyepiece (EVF) or the LCD monitor.


Diopter Adjustment Dial: Positioned directly above the viewfinder eyepiece, this dial adjusts the viewfinder to accommodate far- or nearsighted users.


White Balance Button: Located on the left side of the lens barrel (as viewed from behind), this button cycles through the available White Balance settings: Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, and One-Push (manual setting).


One-Push Button: Just to the left of the White Balance button, this button sets the One-Push white balance, based on a reading from a white card held in front of the lens.


Metering Button: Directly above the White Balance button, this button cycles through the Multi-Pattern, Center-Weighted, and Spot metering options.


AE Lock: Above the Metering button, this button locks the exposure reading until it's pressed again, or until the Shutter button is pressed.


Zoom Rocker Button: Slightly protruding from the middle of the lens barrel, this rocker button controls the optical and digital zoom in any Record mode. In Playback mode, this button controls the digital enlargement of captured images, as much as 5x.


Focus Switch: To the left of the Zoom rocker button, this sliding switch alternates between Auto and Manual focus modes. In the Auto position, it also enables the Focus / Zoom ring to control optical and digital zoom.


Camera Modes and Menus


Full Auto
Indicated on the Mode dial by a green camera icon, this mode places the camera in charge of everything apart from flash, zoom, resolution, and record mode. (Think of this as a quick way to get back to the camera's default settings, without disturbing all the settings you've made in various menus.)

Program AE: Marked on the Mode dial with the black camera symbol, this mode puts the camera in control of aperture and shutter speed, while you control all remaining exposure decisions.

Shutter Priority (S): Shutter Priority mode lets you control the shutter speed, from 1/1,000 to 30 seconds, while the camera selects the best corresponding aperture setting. You retain control over all other exposure variables.

Aperture Priority (A): As the opposite of Shutter Priority mode, Aperture Priority mode lets you the aperture setting, from f/2 to f/8, while the camera chooses the best shutter speed. All other exposure controls are under your control.

Manual Exposure Mode (M): This mode provides total control over the exposure, as you're able to select both aperture and shutter speed independently of each other, as well as control all other exposure variables.

Scene (SCN): Scene mode offers four preset shooting modes to choose from -- Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, and Portrait -- which set the camera's exposure controls for photographing each specific subject. The available exposure settings depend on the scene selected. Twilight and twilight portrait both enable camera-determined exposure times longer than 1/30 second. Twilight mode disables the flash, while Twilight Portrait enables it. Landscape mode sets the exposure system to prefer smaller apertures, for greater depth of field. Portrait mode is the opposite, setting a bias toward larger apertures, for less depth of field.

Movie Mode: Marked on the Mode dial with a film strip icon, this mode allows the user to capture moving images with sound.

Record Menu: In each of the above recording modes, pressing the Menu button calls up the following menu selections. Some options are not available in all modes, and the options in the various Movie modes are sufficiently different that I've listed those menus separately, below.


Movie Mode Menu - MPEG Movie Option: MPEG Movie mode has only two options on its record menu:



Movie Mode Menu - Clip Motion Option: The Clip Motion movie-mode option records up to 10 images and then combines them into a single animated GIF file. (A basic stop-frame animation capability.) Here are the options available on the record menu for Clip Motion recording:



Movie Mode Menu - Multi Burst Option: Multi Burst mode records 16 small images in very rapid sequence. Here are the menu options available for this mode:



Playback Mode: Indicated on the Mode dial with the traditional green arrow Playback symbol, this mode allows the user to scroll through captured images on the Memory Stick. Images can be deleted, protected, copied, resized, rotated, or set up for printing on DPOF devices. Movie files and Clip Motion animations can also be played back. Pressing the Menu button displays the following options:



Setup Mode: This mode lets you change a variety of camera settings. The Setup menu is displays immediately upon entering the mode. Five separate screens of options are available, selected via a tabbed interface running down the lefthand side of the screen. (Another change from the F707, which had only three screens on the setup menu. The F717's options are grouped more logically by function, and there are a couple of new ones.)



Image Storage and Interface
The F717 uses the proprietary Sony Memory Stick format for image storage. A 16MB Memory Stick is supplied with the camera and cards are currently available up to 128MB. (Rumors are that sizes as large as 1 GB will be available by the end of 2002.) Individual images can be write-protected from accidental erasure (except through card formatting) via the Protect option under the Playback settings menu. Individual write-protection also prevents the image from being rotated, but does permit resizing and trimming, since those operations don't disturb the original image, but rather make a new copy. The entire Memory Stick can be write-protected by sliding the lock switch on the stick into the locked position, which also guards against the stick being reformatted.

A new feature with the F717 is the ability to set up individual folders on the Memory Stick. You can thus manage images by folder and choose where images will be recorded. This could be handy if you wanted to organize your photos by events, date, etc. (This will likely become a larger issue as memory stick capacity increases in the future.)

The F717's LCD monitor reports storage information in the detailed information display, including the current number of images captured, how many additional images can be stored (based on current image resolution and quality settings), while a small graphic shows you approximately how much space is left on the Memory Stick. (In Movie mode, the camera reports the available recording time remaining.) Through the Playback settings menu, you can designate whether the camera numbers each image sequentially (from one Memory Stick to the next), or restarts file numbering with each new Memory Stick inserted. The Playback menu also offers a Resize option, as well as a Rotate tool. The camera's Digital Print Option Format (DPOF) compatibility allows you to mark specific images for printing on a DPOF-compatible printer. Through the Setup menu, you can decide whether or not to print the date and / or time on the image as well.

Image Size options include 2,560 x 1,920; 2,560 (3:2); 2,048 x 1,536; 1,280 x 960; 640 x 480; and 320 x 240 pixels (E-Mail recording option). Movie file sizes are 320 (HQ), 320 x 240, and 160 x 112 pixels for MPEG Movies, or 160 x 120 and 80 x 72pixels for Clip Motion files. In addition to the uncompressed TIFF file format, the F717 offers both Fine and Standard JPEG compression levels, and a GIF option for the Clip Motion recording mode.

The table below shows the approximate still image capacities and compression ratios for a 16MB Memory Stick (main resolution sizes):

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
Fine
Standard
Uncompressed TIFF
Highest Resolution
2560 x 1920
Images
(Size)
6
2.6 MB
11
1.3 MB
0
Approx.
Compression
6:1
10:1
1:1
14.7 MB
High
Resolution
2048 x 1536
Images
(Size)
10
1.6 MB
18
865 KB
-
Approx.
Compression
6:1
11:1
-
Standard Resolution
1280 x 960
Images
(Size)
25
634 KB
46
342 KB
-
Approx.
Compression
6:1
11:1
-
Low
Resolution
640 x 480
Images
(Size)
98
162 KB
246
65 KB
-
Approx.
Compression
6:1
14:1
-

 


(Some perceptive readers may wonder why the F717 can only fit one TIFF image on a 32MB card, given that the TIFF file is only14.7 MB, and therefore less than half the size of the card's capacity. The reason is that Sony's TIFF modes always save a standard large/fine JPEG file along with the TIFF, which in the case of the F717 takes up about another 2.6 MB. The combination of the two files amounts to about 17.3 MB, and so only one will fit on the included 32 MB card.)

As mentioned earlier, the F717's movie recording is limited only by the available memory space on the card. Here's a brief table, showing the amount of recording time available in each of it's MPEG movie modes, with a 32 MB card (as included with the camera) and with the 128 MB size that is the largest currently available (early September, 2002).

Maximum Movie
Recording Time
32 MB
128 MB
320 HQX 1m 28s
5m 52s
320 x 240
5m 54s
23m 36s
160 x 120
22m 50s
91m 20s

 

The F717 is also accompanied by a USB cable for quick connection to a PC or Macintosh computer, as well as a software CD containing interface software and USB drivers. The USB connection supports both USB 1.0 and 2.0. Data transfer is very fast: I clocked a download of a 7,353 KB file at 11.3 seconds, a transfer rate of 651 KB/second. This is about as fast as I've measured on any USB-connected camera, but in fact the transfer rate was most likely limited by my 500 MHz PowerMac's USB 1.0 connection, more so than by the camera itself.

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...

 




Video Out

The F717 comes equipped with an Audio / Video cable for connection to a television set. (Through the Setup menu, users can select NTSC signal format for U.S. and Japanese systems and PAL for European systems.) Once connected to the TV, you can review images and movies or record them to videotape. US cameras ship with an NTSC-compatible cable in the box. - Presumably European models would include cables with PAL-compatible connectors.


Power

The F717 is powered by an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series) and comes with an AC adapter which doubles as an in-camera battery charger. InfoLITHIUM battery packs contain a chip that exchanges information with the camera, allowing the camera to report approximately how many minutes of battery life are left at the current drain level. This information is displayed on the LCD monitor and the electronic viewfinder with a small battery graphic. The AC adapter plugs into a small socket on the camera's back panel (lower left corner). It can run the camera without a battery inserted, or charge the battery when the camera isn't in use.

The Li-Ion battery packs used in Sony cameras prevent us from making our usual direct power measurements, but the good news is that the InfoLITHIUM system reports projected camera runtime while the battery is being used in the camera. Despite the F717's excellent battery life and the excellent feedback provided by the InfoLITHIUM system, I still recommend users purchase and pack along a second battery, though. (Another advantage of the Li-Ion technology used in the InfoLITHIUM batteries is that they don't "self-discharge" like conventional NiMH rechargeable cells do, and so can hold their charge for months on the shelf or in your camera bag.)

Operating Mode
Battery Life
Capture Mode, w/LCD
233 minutes
Capture Mode, w/EVF
236 minutes
Image Playback, w/LCD
522 minutes (!)
Image Playback, w/EVF
544 minutes(!)


The F717's run times from the "M" series InfoLITHIUM battery are really exceptional. (This is another area of major improvement relative to the F707 - That camera did very well, but the 717 easily surpasses it. Nearly four hours (about 3 hours and 53 minutes) in capture mode with the LCD on is practically unheard of in prosumer digicams. -- And well over 8 hours in playback mode is almost unbelievable. I still strongly recommend purchasing a spare battery (Murphy's Law, you know), but it 's much less a necessity with the F717 than with most digicams.

Even better news for pros and avid amateurs is that there's finally an external battery pack available to fit Sony digicams with the style power connector used by the F717 - See my review of the Digipower DPS-9000. The DPS-9000 is a very high capacity pack, so it should fuel the power-thrifty F717 for a long time!


Included Software

The software they didn't include...
(But that you should)
Few people realize just how *much* you can improve your digicam images through clever processing in Photoshop. Greatly (!) increased sharpness, reduced noise, and even ultra-wide dynamic range (light-to-dark range) by combining multiple exposures. Fred Miranda and uber-Photoshop expert Fred Miranda has packaged some of his Photoshop magic in a collection of powerful and affordably priced "actions." Check out his site, the results are pretty amazing!
Camera manuals are (sometimes) fine for knowing which button does what, but where do you go to learn how and when to use the various features? Dennis Curtin's "Shortcourses" books and CDs are the answer. (Cheap for what you get, too.) Order the Shortcourses manual for the camera reviewed in this article.

The evaluation unit of the F717 didn't come with any software, but I assume the production model will ship with a package similar to that of the F707 (MGI PhotoSuite SE and MGI VideoWave III SE for both Windows and Macintosh platforms). MGI PhotoSuite SE retrieves images from the camera in a very organized manner, allowing you to view them with a slide show or in album format, and then set them up for printing. In addition to traditional photo editing and manipulation tools, PhotoSuite offers a variety of templates to help you turn your images into mock magazine covers, sports cards, greeting cards, and calendars. Combined with the camera's Picture Effects menu options, MGI PhotoSuite SE allows you to be very creative with your images. MGI's VideoWave III SE provides minor video editing and enhancement tools, allowing you to cut out frames, add music, and apply creative effects.


In the Box

Included with the DSC-F717 are the following items:



Test Results
(Late-breaking note: I've now shot and uploaded a full set of test images, from a production-level F717. The results are pretty impressive. There's still a bit of oversaturation in strong reds, but it handles greens much better than did the F707. Check out the F717's sample pictures page for all the test shots and my detailed analysis of them. I'll come back and update the Test Results digest below and other notes throughout this review in a day or two, once I can get a couple of other pressing items cleared and out of the way with. The info below is just a digest anyway though, see the samples page, for all the details.)
The test sample this review is based on was an early prototype of the F717, so Sony didn't want me to post any photos from it yet. What I saw was very impressive though, so I've included a few informal comments below. Overall, it seems that Sony addressed some of the areas where the 707 was weak, really listening to users and reviewers to build on the strengths of what was already an excellent camera. As I said earlier, I think the DSC-F717 will go a long way toward convincing people (at least those open-minded enough to be convinced) that Sony can build "enthusiast" cameras to match anyone's. I'll update this section as soon as a production sample arrives, and I have a complete set of test images, but meanwhile, here are my impressions thus far:
Desiderata
Naturally, no camera is perfect, so it's no surprise there's still room for improvement in the F717. After reading the initial version of this review, several readers wrote to ask what I thought of criticisms that had been leveled against the F717 by other reviewers, and what I'd add/change on the camera if I could. Here are a few of my thoughts in this area:

Conclusion
I was very impressed with the DSC-F707 when it first appeared, but am much more so with the F717. Sony listened to users and critics alike, and made a number of significant improvements in the F717. Shutter lag has been dramatically improved, color rendering seems to be much more even, and white balance performance and flexibility are exceptional. Sharpness and image noise seem to have been maintained at the previous (high and low, respectively) levels. Toss in a generic hot shoe for external flash usage (whether on-camera or studio-based) and a handful of user interface improvements, and you've got an "enthusiast" camera that stacks up against anything on the market. Sony innovations like NightShot and NightFraming are just further icing on the cake. Despite its sophistication though, the F717 manages to remain a very user-friendly and approachable camera - There's no reason for a novice to pass it by in favor of a lesser model, as its full-auto mode is as easy to use to use as anything out there. Final judgement will await the arrival and testing of a full production model, but the F717 should be a huge winner for Sony. (I'll go so far as to say that it's good enough that a lot of current F707 owners will be enticed into upgrading to the new model.)

<<F717 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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