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Sony DSC-P1

Sony packs a 3 megapixel CCD and a full 3x optical zoom lens into an exceptionally compact digicam!

Review First Posted: 9/12/2000





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MSRP $799 US

 

 

*
Ultra-compact form factor for maximum portability
*
High-quality 3 megapixel CCD for 2048x1536 images
*
Full 3x optical zoom lens plus 2x Precision Digital Zoom
*
12-bit digitization for excellent tonal range
* Optional Marine Pack for underwater use to 100 ft (30m)!


Manufacturer Overview
There seems to be a hot trend afoot in the digicam market, toward very small, portable cameras. A number of factors are driving this, including market demand from style-conscious consumers, ever-advancing technology, and the truism that cameras sitting in drawers and closets don't take many pictures. Canon arguably kicked off this trend with their small 2 megapixel Digital ELPH, and Kodak has recently announced their compact if not exactly feature-laden DC3800. Now, Sony has joined the fray with a highly-featured 3 megapixel ultra-compact digicam, the DSC-P1.

We think the new DSC-P1 hits a real "sweet spot" in the digicam market, combining a very pocket-friendly size and shape with topnotch image quality and an impressive list of features. In working with the camera, we were left very much with an impression of a "no compromises" design mandate, from the super-sharp 3x zoom lens to the 3 high-performance 3 megapixel sensor itself. While it lacks the complex exposure modes of the Sony's flagship DSC-S70, the image quality and flexibility need no excuses: This is a top-tier 3 megapixel camera that just happens to be packaged in a very compact body! Throw in an optional "marine" case that's waterproof to a full 100 feet (30 meters), and you have a digicam that truly deserves the label "go anywhere!"

Highlights

Executive Overview
Following in the trend of some of Sony's smaller digicams (such as the S70 and S50), the DSC-P1 is smooth and compact. Its very pocket-friendly size of 4.43 x 2.12 x 1.75 inches (113 x 53.9 x 43.8 mm), and its light weight (8.8 ounces or 250 grams with battery and media) make this camera a very portable option for photographers on the go. In fact, our test model arrived with the MPK-P1 Marine Pack, an underwater housing for the camera that lets you take it as deep as 100 feet (30 m). The DSC-P1's CCD features 3.34 megapixels of what Sony calls their highest performance CCD ever. Officially named the Super HAD CCD, the DSC-P1 claims to produce more professional-looking results by reducing the noise in the imager and thereby improve the signal-to-signal noise ratio. To our knowledge, this is the same CCD used in their flagship DSC-S70 model, and the test results we obtained from the DSC-P1 seem to support that conclusion: This is a very high-performance camera in a very small package!

The DSC-P1 features one of the sharpest LCD viewscreens we've yet seen, measuring only 1.5 inches, but packing 123,000 pixels, a pixel count that would be impressive even in a much larger screen. Besides the sharpness, the brightness and contrast of the P1's LCD were also impressive: This is probably the best LCD we've yet seen for use outdoors: We could always see what was on the screen, even in direct sunlight. There's also a real-image optical viewfinder for composing shots without having to rely on the rear-panel LCD (thereby saving power). The LCD provides a fairly comprehensive information display, reporting the battery power, Memory Stick information and some exposure information. The camera's menu system (essentially identical to that on most other Sony digicams) appears at the bottom of the screen, in the form of subject tabs, and is easily dismissed as well.

A 3x, 8 to 24 mm lens (equivalent to a 39 to 117 mm lens on a 35 mm camera) telescopes in and out of the camera body, when the camera is powered on and off, and has a nice automatic protective shutter that closes when the lens is retracted. Aperture is automatically controlled, ranging from f/2.8 to f/5.3 at wide angle lens settings, and from f/5.6 to f/9.6 in telephoto mode. The DSC-P1 uses a High-Speed Scan TTL autofocus system, with a focal range from 19.75 inches (50 cm) to infinity in normal shooting mode. The macro focal distance ranges from 4.0 to 19.75 inches (10 to 50 cm). In our tests, autofocus seemed to work well down to about 0.5 foot-candles (5.5 lux). Two Program AE modes control focus: Landscape and Panfocus. Landscape mode sets focus to infinity, for distant subjects, and Panfocus allows the camera to quickly change focus from close-up to far away. The DSC-P1 features what Sony calls a 6x Precision Digital Zoom, which attempts to produce better quality images from digital enlargement. The digital zoom utilizes interpolation technology to improve the image quality when using digital zoom, which should result in a better looking final image, although frankly, we still have a hard time with the term "digital zoom", because the results are so much softer than those from a true optical zoom lens.

Exposure control on the DSC-P1 is reasonably good, although the camera mainly operates under automatic control. Still, even though you don't get to select the aperture or shutter speed, you do have access to a few exposure options and a handful of preset Program AE modes. The Twilight and Twilight Plus modes utilize a slower shutter speed to capture more ambient light in dark shooting situations, with the Twilight Plus mode also increasing the effective light sensitivity of the CCD sensor. Landscape and Panfocus modes we mentioned earlier, both altering the camera's focus for infinity or quick focus shooting. The final Program AE mode is Spot Metering, which changes the camera's averaging metering system to one basing the exposure on only the center of the image. While shooting in Still photography mode, you have control over exposure compensation (from -2 to +2 in 1/3 EV increments), white balance (Auto, Outdoor, Indoor and Hold), flash mode (Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced and Off) and image sharpness. The Picture Effects menu offers several creative image effects, including Solarize, Black and White, Sepia and Negative Art options.

A Movie capture mode allows you to create up to 60 second movies with sound, with all of the above exposure controls available to you. (With the obvious exception of the flash modes.) In the Voice recording mode, you can record up to 40 second sound clips to accompany captured still images. The Text record mode captures images in a black and white GIF file, perfect for snapping pictures of white boards, meeting notes, etc. There's also an E-mail record mode that captures a smaller, 320 x 240 image size, which is easier on e-mail transmission (this mode actually records two images: one in the 320 x 240 format and another at whatever normal image size you've selected). The unusual and innovative Clip Motion mode lets you record a series of still images at varying intervals, to be played back as a frame-by-frame animation. (A very slick feature for us 'web types.)

Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF, JPEGs, MPEGs or GIFs depending on the record mode and are stored on the included eight megabyte MemoryStick (higher capacity cards are available). An NTSC video cable is included with the camera (European models come equipped for PAL), as is a USB cable for high speed connection to a PC or Mac. MGI's PhotoSuite SE software is also included, providing organized image downloading, correction capabilities and a variety of creative templates for making greeting cards, calendars, etc. MGI's Video Wave software is also included for playing back movie files.

The DSC-P1 utilizes an NP-FS11 InfoLithium battery pack, and comes with an AC adapter and battery charger. We like the InfoLithium batteries because they communicate with the camera to tell you how much running time is left on the battery pack in the current operating mode. Because the DSC-P1 is pretty dependent on its LCD display (with the attendant higher power consumption), we recommend keeping a second battery pack charged and ready to go, especially when the AC adapter isn't close at hand. The NP-FS11 battery pack does provide pretty decent run times though, roughly 77 minutes in record mode with the LCD enabled, and 104 minutes in playback mode.

Overall, the DSC-P1 provides excellent image quality and a reasonable amount of exposure control in an exceptionally compact body with a full 3 megapixel CCD and full 3x optical zoom lens. We think the combination will be a compelling one for people wanting the maximum in portability without compromising their images. (And if you're a scuba or skin diver, this is literally the best solution we've yet seen.)

Design
Sony's DSC-P1 is compact, sleek, and feature-rich. Measuring only 4.43 x 2.12 x 1.75 inches (113 x 53.9 x 43.8 mm), and weighing in at 8.8 ounces (250 g) including battery and media, the DSC-P1 will fit easily into most shirt pockets. The 3x zoom lens telescopes into the body to help make the camera more portable, and a small metal leaf shutter that automatically closes over the lens when the camera is shut off made us more comfortable just slipping it into a pocket to carry it around.

Given its diminutive size, we expect some reviewers will complain that it's "too small." We have on occasion encountered digicams in the past that were difficult to operate due to their small size, or a too-compact arrangement of controls, but the DSC-P1 isn't one of them: Despite the very small form factor, we personally found it quite comfortable to grip, and had no difficulty accessing the controls. While it is very small, the slightly elongated shape makes for a very convenient grip, letting our fingers extend comfortably across the front and top of the camera. Overall, a great job of making a very small package ergonomic as well.


The front of the camera basically features the telescoping lens, optical viewfinder window, built-in flash, flash photocell window and the self-timer/recording LED. When the camera is powered on, the lens automatically extends outward from the body, and likewise retracts when the camera is shut down. There's also a raised finger grip on the camera front, that helps ensure a tight hold on the camera. The small LED on the right side of the optical viewfinder window blinks when the self-timer is in use and during movie recording.


The curve of the lens barrel defines the contours on this side of the camera, adding to the camera's sleek shape.

The side of the camera opposite to the lens features the battery and Memory Sticks compartment, the A/V Out jack, and the eyelet for the wrist strap. Sony has efficiently used the space on this side of the camera by combining the battery and Memory Sticks compartments into one. A hinged plastic door slides outward and then opens to expose the compartment. We're pleased not only with this space-saving idea, but with the fact that both the battery and memory card are fully accessible while mounted to a tripod (many digicams put one or both compartments on the bottom of the camera, usually too close to the tripod mount).


An information display panel, microphone, power switch, shutter button and mode dial are all located on the camera's top panel. We're always glad to see the inclusion of the small information display, as it enables you to shoot without the LCD monitor to save power. The information display reports various camera and exposure settings, providing a quick reference.


The camera's back panel features the majority of the camera controls and function buttons. The 1.5 inch LCD monitor is lined on two sides with various function buttons. The optical viewfinder features three LEDs to the left of the window, which report the camera's current status (i.e., whether focus is set, flash is charged, etc.). The optical zoom control, a rocker toggle button and the speaker can also be found on the back panel. Beneath a flexible plastic flap on the lower right corner are the USB and DC In jacks.


Finally, the DSC-P1's flat bottom holds simply the tripod mount.

Say, did we mention the "Marine Pack"? ;-) We have to say this impressed the socks off us, with very high-quality construction evident throughout, including stainless-steel buttons and o-ring seals throughout. In a shot later on in our review, the P1 is also showing off it's innovative "Clip Mode", which makes animated GIFs out of series of up to 10 individual images.

The "Marine Pack"
One of the most interesting aspects of the Sony DSC-P1 is the availability of the optional "Marine Pack" underwater housing for it. Although not cheap at a list price of $249, this is by far the most robust housing we've yet seen for a digital camera. While other underwater solutions are only certified to be waterproof to 10 feet or so, Sony's Marine Pack is rated for a full 100 feet - a lot deeper than all but the most advanced scuba divers are likely to go. For casual snorkeling or scuba to moderate depths, there's literally nothing like the combination of the DSC-P1 and Marine Pack on the market.

The photo above shows the DSC-D1 safely ensconced in the Marine Pack. The Pack is made of a transparent, very tough plastic (lucite?), with an O-ring seal running all around the case seal, and individual O-ring seals on all the buttons and controls. All the control buttons are solidly spring-loaded, so they'll respond well even under high water pressure, The sole exception to the plastic-and-metal construction is the front lens window, which appears to be made of heavy-duty optical glass.

This shot shows the DSC-P1 resting in the Marine Pack before the hatch is closed. Note the blue o-ring completely surrounding the seal area on the rear of the case.

We were surprised at the degree to which we could control the camera from outside the case: Buttons are provided for essentially all the camera's controls, with the exception of the Program AE, Volume, LCD on/off, and Display buttons. We could very easily turn the camera on and off, navigate all the menus, operate the zoom lens and shutter buttons, and even switch between playback, still, or movie recording.

The shot above shows a side view of the slanted button controlling the power switch. In this view, you can see some of the features that so impressed us with the quality of the unit, including the stainless-steel button material, the hefty spring-loading that will insure proper operation at depth, and the individual O-ring seals that guarantee water-tightness under high pressures.

In this shot, the DSC-P1 is showing off its "Clip Mode" animation capability, having stitched together 7 separate photos of the Marine Pack into an animated GIF image.


We have to admit we don't have any standardized method of testing underwater housings (somehow, taking it into the bathtub seemed a little ridiculous, not to mention potentially embarrassing), but we were tremendously impressed with the very evident quality and thought that went into the design of the Marine Pack. It says a lot that we'd feel entirely comfortable slapping a few hundred dollars of delicate electronics into it and jumping off a boat with the assemblage. Very impressive: If you have any inkling that you might want to do some enough "prosumer" underwater photography to justify the relatively modest investment, the DSC-P1 and Marine Pack combination are absolutely the best thing we've seen to date! (See the note immediately below though, for information on truly professional underwater housings.)

Important added note on the Sony Marine Pack underwater case
After reading our somewhat hyperbolic description of the Sony Marine Pack case, reader Allen Wicks took us rather severely to task. He pointed out that there are a number of very high-quality third-party underwater housings on the market, made for a wide variety of cameras. He singled out the housings made by Ikelite as being particularly noteworthy, offering excellent quality, at the lower end of the price range for professional underwater housings. Of course, the Ikelite cases start at anywhere from 3 to 4 times the price of the Sony Marine Pack.

Allen was quite right in chiding us for our admittedly over-the-top coverage of the Marine Pack: We called it "robust" without having had the benefit of taking it on even one dive, let alone the "scores" he felt were needed to truly assess the quality of underwater accessories. It's also quite true that there are other very high-quality underwater cases on the market, including onest that undoubtedly surpass the modest specifications of the Marine Pack. We thus felt it would be in order to somewhat clarify our position on the Marine Pack:

We've seen a number of underwater housings for digicams, provided by both manufacturers and third parties, all retailing for somewhere around the cost of Sony's entry. (List price of US$250.) It's within this limited playing field that our comments were meant to apply. Most of the cases we've seen have had either significant depth limitations, or what looked to us to be generally poor build quality. (Too much plastic in the operating parts, weak or no spring-loading on the controls, obvious parting marks from the molding process, etc.) The Sony Marine Pack struck us as an all-around excellent piece of engineering, although we admittedly were comparing it to other products intended for the amateur market. If you have the money, we'd not be at all surprised if a $750-950 Ikelite case would prove to be better constructed, more versatile, easier to use, etc. For the money though, we think the Sony Marine Pack is an exceptional deal.

Another note from Allen about underwater photography with digicams
Allen also pointed out a signficant limitation of essentially all digicams relative to underwater photography: The change in refractive index as light travels from the watery surroundings through the air gap in the housing and thence to the digicam lens introduces a "multiplier effect" (our term, not his) on the focal length of the lens. This makes it very difficult to take wide-angle underwater pictures with any reasonably normal zoom lens. Allen gave as a rule of thumb the fact that, on 35mm equipment, a 20mm lens has about the same angular coverage underwater as a 35mm lens on land. Thus, the P1 in its Marine Pack housing will apparently only be capable of relatively telephoto shots. This is fine for macros and single-fish pictures, but not conducive to capturing sweeping underwater panoramas.

Another limitation is external flash. Given the vagaries of lighting underwater, some form of fairly powerful strobe unit is often required. There's no provision for such with the DSC-P1/Marine Pack combination.

These may well be issues of greater concern to professional underwater photographers (like Allen) than the rest of us "splash & shoot" snappers, but we felt they clearly deserved mention while we were once talking about underwater photography.

Thanks, Allen for lending the voice of experience!

Viewfinder
The DSC-P1 features both a real-image optical viewfinder and an LCD monitor for composing images. On the left side of the optical viewfinder eyepiece, three LEDs report the camera's status. The top, red LED lights when the camera is recording. The second, green LED lights when focus and exposure are locked, and the bottom, orange LED reports when the flash is ready.

The 1.5 inch, color, Pixel Precision LCD monitor features 123,000 pixels, a pixel count usually found in much larger LCD screens. The increased pixel density enables the LCD monitor to provide more detailed, sharper images. The result is a display with such fine detail that we found ourselves needing to squint sometimes to see all the detail (we're entering that uncertain age where small objects up close are harder to see), but the LCD was overall one of the most impressive we've seen to date. Unlike most LCDs we've tested, we found that on the DCS-P1 genuinely usable in bright lighting, even in direct sunlight. Don't get us wrong, it's still easier to use the optical viewfinder if the sun's at your back, but the LCD was surprisingly visible in sunlight compared to most others we've seen. A Display button to the right of the LCD monitor cancels and recalls the information display, which reports camera settings, the number of available images and battery power. A separate LCD On/Off button resides at the lower left corner of the monitor, enabling you to shut off the LCD monitor to conserve battery power. You can adjust the LCD's brightness through the camera's Setup menu. In Playback mode, the LCD monitor allows you to view six thumbnail images at a time in the index display, as well as enlarge a captured image to check the details. In both Record and Playback modes, the settings menu is available at the bottom of the LCD display and can be dismissed by pressing the down arrow button on the jog control. Pressing the up arrow button brings it back, or enters the menu system to change camera settings.

Optics
The DSC-P1's lens is some of the biggest news about its design, as it packs a full 3x zoom ratio into a very small form factor, yet still manages to cover the 3 megapixel sensor quite well. With a 8 to 24 mm focal length range (equivalent to a 39 to 117 mm lens on a 35 mm camera), we found the P1's lens to be of quite high quality, in terms of its sharpness and freedom from chromatic aberration. We did notice a fair amount of barrel distortion (0.9 percent) at the wide angle setting, as well as some visible "coma" in the corners of the image at that setting as well. Overall though, we felt that Sony did an excellent job of lens design, given the extremely tight dimensions they managed to pack it into.

When the camera is powered on, the lens automatically extends into its operating position. It retracts again when the camera is shut down, and an automatic protective shutter closes over it when it is in the retracted position. Apertures are automatically controlled by the camera, which appears to switch between two fixed aperture settings depending on light level. These fixed apertures correspond to values of f/2.8 and f/5.3 at the wide angle end of the lens' range, or f/5.6 and f/9.6 at the telephoto end. Sony claims a High-Speed Scan TTL autofocus system for the P1, but we confess we don't know what this means, given that shutter lag was actually a bit slower than average in autofocus mode. We did find that the autofocus system worked well down to light levels of 1 foot-candle (11 lux), and reasonably well to 1/2 foot-candle (5.5 lux). The lens' working range runs from 19.75 inches (50 cm) to infinity in normal mode. In macro mode, the focal distance ranges from 4.0 to 19.75 inches (10 to 50 cm). A Panfocus capture mode (one of the Program AE selections) allows for swift focus changes between infinity and shorter focal distances. Another Program AE mode, Landscape, fixes the focus at infinity, for capturing far away subjects.

The DSC-P1 features what Sony calls a 6x Precision Digital Zoom, which they claim allows you to get better quality images from digital enlargement than would normally be the case. Digital zoom basically crops-out and enlarges the center of the CCD image, thereby decreasing resolution and increasing image noise and pixelation. Sony's Precision Digital Zoom utilizes an advanced interpolation technology to improve the image quality when using digital zoom, which they claim results in a better looking final image. We believe this to be the same interpolation technology first introduced on the DSC-F505V digicam, which we had the privilege of introducing to the world in early June of 2000. At that time, we studied the Precision Digital Zoom technology in some detail, and found that it did indeed perform better than post-exposure interpolation in Photoshop(tm), although the difference was slight. Overall, digital zoom is still digital zoom, trading resolution for apparent magnification. Sony's technique appears to offer some advantages over conventional approaches, but the end result can't remotely be compared to the effect of a true optical zoom lens. The P1's digital zoom feature is only available on still images.

Exposure
Exposure is automatically controlled on the DSC-P1, with the camera in charge of both shutter speed and aperture settings. Sony doesn't report the shutter speed range available on the DSC-P1, and the camera doesn't report either exposure setting during shooting (this is information that we generally prefer to see, but we're also aware that many consumers are simply not interested in these details). Although the basic exposure is controlled by the camera, the user can adjust white balance, exposure compensation (EV), flash mode and digital telephoto. In our own tests, we found the shutter speed to range between 2 seconds and 1/2000 of a second. The upper end of this range is quite good, but we would have liked to see a longer maximum shutter time to help the low light performance a bit. (Which we do have to admit wasn't bad.)

Exposure compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 EV in 1/3 EV increments, through the Still record mode settings menu. White balance is adjustable in the same manner, with options of Auto, Outdoor, Indoor and Hold. The Auto, Outdoor and Indoor settings are relatively self-explanatory, matching the various light sources. The Hold option is an unusual Sony-only mode, that simply guarantees that successive images will be captured with the same white balance setting. We frankly don't find this nearly as useful as a "manual" setting, in which the white balance can be set based on a white card. It is useful though, to let you approximately set the white balance based on a grey card, before shooting a strongly-colored subject (which would otherwise fool the white balance system). A 10 second self-timer can also be activated through the settings menu, with the countdown actually triggered by fully pressing the shutter button. As the camera counts down, a small LED on the front of the camera blinks. There's also an adjustable sharpness feature, with values ranging from -2 to +2.

In addition to the standard automatic exposure modes, the DSC-P1 offers five Program AE modes. Pressing the Program AE button repeatedly cycles through these modes. Twilight mode biases the exposure system to somewhat underexpose based on the averaged exposure reading, thereby preserving color and detail in brighter objects (a sunset or neon sign, for instance). Twilight Plus allows longer exposure times, and also increases the effective sensitivity of the camera, to improve low-light shooting capability. Landscape mode sets the focus to infinity for recording distant subjects and landscapes. Panfocus mode changes the focus quickly from short focal distances to infinity, good for capturing fast moving subjects. Spot Metering mode bases the exposure metering on the very center of the image (the normal metering system averages readings from throughout the image).

Flash
The DSC-P1's built-in flash features four operating modes: Auto, Auto Redeye Reduction, Forced and Off. Sony boasts the DSC-P1's flash as an Intelligent Flash, that automatically assesses the shooting situation to provide the best amount of flash for optimum color accuracy and brightness. The operating modes are pretty self-explanatory and are accessible by pressing the Flash button on the back panel. The Auto mode fires the flash based on the exposure and existing light levels. Auto Redeye Reduction works similarly, but fires a pre-flash to reduce reflection from the subject's pupils, known as the Redeye Effect. The Forced flash mode simply fires the flash with each exposure, regardless of the light level, and the Off setting disables the flash completely. Sony rates the DSC-P1's flash as effective from 1.6 to 7.5 feet (0.5 to 2.3 m), in the normal intensity setting. Flash intensity can be adjusted through the settings menu, with options of High, Normal and Low.

Movie and Sound Recording

The DSC-P1 has both Still and Movie multimedia recording modes. In Still mode, you can record small sound clips to accompany images via the Record menu (by selecting the Voice record mode). You can record up to 40 seconds of sound for each image.

In Movie mode (accessed by turning the mode dial to the Movie position), you can record up to 60 seconds of moving images and sound, depending on the quality setting. Resolution and quality choices are 320 (HQ), 320 x 240 or 160 x 112. If the image size is set to 320 HQ, the maximum recording time is reduced to 15 seconds. Three standard menu options let you select preprogrammed recording times of five, 10, or 15 seconds. In these modes, a single press of the shutter button will automatically record a movie segment of the chosen length. A timer appears in the LCD monitor to let you know how long you have been recording, so you'll have some idea of how much time you have left to go. On the other hand, if you hold down the shutter button longer than the selected time, the camera will continue recording for up to 60 seconds if you're using the lower-resolution movie mode, or 15 seconds at the higher-resolution setting.

Picture Effects

The DSC-P1 offers a handful of creative picture effects, accessible through the Effect menu. Solarize makes the image look more like an illustration by significantly lightening the contrast. The Black and White records the image in black and white monotones. Sepia also records in monotones, but with a warm, sepia tint. Finally, Negative Art reverses the color and brightness of the image, making it appear more like a negative.

Clip Motion

This is a pretty cool feature we haven't seen before on a digicam, but that we imagine will be picked up by other manufacturers in the future. The Clip Motion capture mode works like an animation, recording up to 10 frames of still images to be played back in succession. Frames can be captured at any interval, with successive presses of the shutter button. When you've captured as many photos as you need (the animated photo above has 7 frames in it), you just press the rocker control button to tell the camera to finish the sequence. Available image sizes are 160 x 120 and 80 x 72 and the number of actual captured frames may vary with image size and available Memory Sticks space. (You have a maximum of 10, but could be constrained to fewer if your memory was very full.) Files are saved in the GIF format, and are played back with approximate 0.5 second intervals between frames. Very cool!

Special Capture Modes

The DSC-P1 gives you a few other options for the format of recorded images in Still mode. Through the Record menu, you can select TIFF for uncompressed image storage (available only for the 2048 x 1536 image size), Voice (mentioned above), E-mail and Text modes. E-mail record mode simply records a smaller (320 x 240) image size that's more e-mail friendly. Text record mode actually records a black and white GIF file and is perfect for taking pictures of white boards, flip charts or notes from a meeting, or for quickly copying a text document. (Text mode does require considerably more time to record and display the images though, due to the greatly increased processing the camera is doing to format the file.) All of the special modes record a standard JPEG file in addition to whatever special file is needed for the mode selected. (Thus, email mode records a full-sized JPEG in addition to the small 320x240 image.)

Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, we now routinely measure it using a special electronic test setup.

DSC-P1 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
4.0 
Time from power on to first image captured.
Shutdown
2.41
Time until lens retracted (no pending image processing).
Play to Record, first shot
3.35
Time until first image captured.
Record to play (max/min res)
4.4/1.3
Time for full-resolution display, at maximum/minimum resolution
Shutter lag, full autofocus
1.49
Delay between shutter press and image capture. (Somewhat slower than average.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.36
Same as above, but with shutter half-pressed prior to exposure.
Cycle time, full resolution
4.0
Minimum time from shot to shot, high resolution JPEG.
Cycle time, minimum resolution
3.1
Same as above, but time for minimum resolution JPEG.

 

In our tests, the DSC-P1 was fairly fast from startup to first picture, particularly for a camera with a telescoping lens. Likewise, it was quite fast to shut down and be ready to be stowed. Shot to shot cycle times are about average for a 3 megapixel digicam, noticeably slower than the fastest cameras in the category, but likewise not the slowest. The biggest speed limitation we found was the 1.49 second shutter lag in full autofocus mode, which is rather slow by current standards. Thus, we wouldn't recommend the DSC-P1 for people interested in a camera for sports photography or other fast-paced action.

Operation and User Interface
The DSC-P1 features a very similar user interface to many Sony cameras, with an extensive LCD based menu system. Although some exposure features can be controlled via function buttons on the back panel, the majority of the settings must be changed through the LCD menu. The menu tabs live at the bottom of the LCD display, and can be canceled by pressing the Display button, or by hitting the down-arrow side of the rocker toggle control. The status display panel on top of the camera provides a detailed report of the camera settings and other information, including image size and battery power, which makes working without the LCD monitor a little easier. Overall, though, the LCD menu system is simple to navigate and very straightforward. The controls are also well laid out and quick to grasp.

Control Enumeration

Power Switch: Located on top of the camera, this sliding switch turns the camera on and off.

Shutter Button: Residing on the camera's top panel, in front of the power switch, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed, in any record mode. When fully pressed, it fires the shutter. If the self-timer mode has been activated, fully pressing the shutter button triggers the 10 second countdown.

Mode Dial: Located on the very top right side of the camera, this dial controls the camera's operating mode:

Flash Button: Situated on the top left of the back panel, closest to the optical viewfinder eyepiece, this button controls the flash mode:

Macro Button: Positioned directly to the left of the Flash button, this button places the camera in Macro mode, setting the focal range to 4.0 to 19.75 inches (10 to 50 cm).

Program AE Button: This button is located at the top left corner of the LCD monitor and cycles through the Program AE modes:

Volume + / - Buttons: These buttons are located directly beneath the Program AE button, and adjust the camera's playback volume.

LCD On/Off Button: Situated directly below the Volume +/- buttons, this button turns the LCD image display on and off to save battery power.

Display Button: Located near the top right corner of the LCD monitor, this button cancels and recalls the information display on the LCD monitor.

Rocker Toggle Button: Directly below the Display button is the rocker toggle button, which features four arrows (one in each cardinal direction). The center of the button functions as the Enter button, which confirms menu selections in all operating modes. Also in all operating modes, the arrow buttons navigate through the settings menus and adjust menu options. In Playback mode, the left and right arrow buttons scroll through captured images. When playback zoom is enabled, all four arrow buttons scroll around within the enlarged image.

Zoom W/T Rocker Button: Positioned in the top right corner of the back panel, this button controls the optical and digital telephoto in Record mode. (Optical tele only if Digital Zoom is disabled. If digital tele is enabled, holding down the "T" side of this button after the lens reaches its maximum telephoto setting will engage the Digital Zoom.) In Playback mode, the button controls the digital enlargement of the captured image.

Camera Modes and Menus
(Screen shots for this section will be available soon.)

Still Record Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the Still position, this mode allows the user to capture still images. Exposure is automatically controlled, with the exception of white balance, exposure compensation, flash mode and digital telephoto. Sharpness and a variety of picture effects are also selectable, as are five Program AE modes (Twilight, Twilight Plus, Landscape, Panfocus and Spot Metering). The menu system at the bottom of the LCD screen offers the following menus and submenus:

Movie Mode: Turning the mode dial to the Movie position lets the camera record up to 60 seconds of moving images with sound (depending on image size and quality, and Memory Stick space). The following menu options are available on the LCD menu screen:

Play Mode: The final operating mode, Play is entered when the mode dial is set to the Play position. Users can scroll through captured images, and delete, protect, rotate or enlarge them. Images can also be viewed in an index display format. The menu at the bottom of the LCD monitor offers the following options:

Image Storage and Interface
The DSC-P1 utilizes the Sony Memory Sticks for image storage. An eight megabyte card is included with the camera and additional Memory Sticks are available up to 64 megabytes as of this writing (September, 2000). Individual images can be write protected from accidental erasure (except through card reformatting) via the Protect option under the Playback settings menu. The entire Memory Stick can be write protected by sliding the lock switch on the card into the locked position. This prevents the entire stick from being formatted.

The DSC-P1's LCD monitor reports the current number of images captured and shows a small graphic to let you know approximately how much space is left on the Memory Stick. This is a great feature for keeping track of your exposures, although we personally prefer to know more precisely (in numbers) how many images are left at the current resolution. Through the Playback settings menu, you can designate whether the camera sequentially numbers each image (even if the Memory Stick is changed) or restarts file numbering with each new Memory Sticks.

The DSC-P1 is somewhat unusual in that some of its special image modes dictate image resolution, or may save images of two different resolutions: For instance, the TIFF (uncompressed file format) always saves the TIFF image at maximum resolution, while simultaneously saving a JPEG image of whatever size has been selected via the Record menu.

Below are the average image capacities and compression ratios for still images on an eight megabyte card:

 

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
Uncompressed
TIFF
Normal Quality
Highest Resolution Images 0 5
Approx.
Compression
0:1 6:1
High Resolution Images N/A 8
Approx.
Compression
N/A 6:1
Standar Resolution Images N/A 12
Approx.
Compression
N/A 6:1
Low Resolution Images N/A 118
Approx.
Compression
N/A 13:1

 

The DSC-P1 offers a USB connection to a host computer, providing rapid downloads of image files. We clocked our test unit at a transfer rate of 381 KBytes/second, about average for USB-equipped cameras we've tested.

 

Video Out
US and Japanese models of the DSC-P1 come with an NTSC video cable for connection to a television set (because there is a PAL setting on the camera, we assume that European models are shipped with a PAL cable). Once connected to the TV, you can review images and movies or record them to video tape.

Power
The DSC-P1 is powered by an NP-FS11 InfoLITHIUM battery pack and comes with an AC adapter and battery charger. The InfoLITHIUM battery packs actually exchange information with the camera, reporting approximately how many minutes of battery life are left, which is an exceptionally handy feature. This information is displayed on the LCD monitor and the smaller information display window with a small battery graphic. Because so many of the DSC-P1's features, menus, and settings are dependent on the large LCD monitor, we highly recommend keeping a second battery pack freshly charged for times when the AC adapter isn't convenient. According to Sony, the DSC-P1 will record approximately one hour (or 1100) shots on a freshly charged battery pack, without using the flash.

Because of the communication between the InfoLITHIUM battery and the camera, we weren't able to conduct our usual tests of power consumption on the DSC-P1. We did note though, the minutes-remaining reported by the camera with a fully charged battery in both record and playback modes, and report them below.

Included Software
A USB cabled is packaged with the DSC-P1, for quick connection to a PC or Macintosh. Also included is a software CD loaded with MGI PhotoSuite 8.1 (with English, Italian, Japanese, French, Spanish and German versions), MGI Video Wave SE, and USB drivers, compatible with Windows 3.1x, 95, 98 and NT as well as Mac OS 7.5 and higher. MGI PhotoSuite retrieves images from the camera in a very organized manner, allowing you to view them through a slide show or an album and then set them up for printing. In addition to the traditional 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 own internal picture effects menu, MGI PhotoSuite SE allows quite a bit of creativity with your images. MGI Video Wave allows you to play back your captured movie files and perform simple editing on them.

Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Sony DSC-P1's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the Sony DSC-P1 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the DSC-P1 performed very well, with good color balance in the majority of our testing. The camera's white balance system had a little trouble with the indoor portrait shots, but did a good job in most other shooting situations (the camera handled the difficult Outdoor portrait very well). We shot with the automatic white balance setting during most of our testing, since it produced the most accurate results. (We did notice that the automatic setting produced slightly warm results on the Musicians poster, which is more than likely the digicam's reaction to the large amount of blue in the image, and a fairly typical reaction among digicams we've tested.) The DSC-P1 accurately reproduced the large color blocks in the Davebox test target, with only the slightest weakness in the cyan patch. Tonal handling was also really excellent, as the subtle tonal variations of the Q60 target were visible up to the "B" range and the large vertical grayscale chart showed detail far into the darker tones. In the outdoor portrait shot, color was again excellent, and the P1's 12-bit digitization showed its value in the excellent detail it maintained in the strong highlights of the model's shirt. Overall, the DSC-P1 did a great job with color balance, and showed exceptional tonal range.

The DSC-P1 turned in a really excellent performance on the resolution test. In fact, it actually almost exactly equaled the performance of the earlier DSC-S70, a notably sharp, high-resolution camera. The image is a noticeably softer overall, but the detail resolved (in terms of lines per picture height) is virtually identical. (A nice illustration of the difference between resolution and sharpness.) We "called" the P1's resolution at 900-950 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and 850-900 in the vertical, with detail visible vertically well beyond 900 lines, and horizontally to well beyond 1000. As with S70 seems to show resolution beyond what should be theoretically possible, according to the Nyquist theorem and the CCD's pixel count. We attributed this to the camera's excellent suppression of artifacts, both in chrominance (color) and luminance (brightness) domains. There is in fact some aliasing visible beginning around 750 lines vertically (where theory says the limit should be), but it's so well controlled as to be almost invisible. Really a topnotch performance on this test!

The DSC-P1 offers a fair amount of exposure control, although it operates in full Automatic exposure mode at all times. The camera does offer a handful of preset Program AE modes (Twilight, Twilight Plus, Landscape, Panfocus and Spot Metering) that expand its shooting repertoire. The user can also control sharpness, flash mode, exposure compensation and white balance. The DSC-P1 didn't do quite as well in the low light category as the very best of the current crop of 3 megapixel digicams, as we were only able to obtain useable images at light levels as low as 1/2 of a foot-candle (5.5 lux). Overall, we'd rate the camera as performing at full spec at 2 foot-candles (22 lux), adequately at 1 foot-candle (11 lux), and marginally at 1/2 foot-candle (5.5 lux). Noise is quite low throughout the range. (For reference, a typical city night scene under average street lighting corresponds to a light level of about 1 foot-candle.) Prior to the P1, we haven't been recording the minimum light level that cameras' autofocus systems could work at, but will now do so on a regular basis. In the case of the P1, we found that it focused well to 1 foot-candle, was a little spotty at 1/2 foot-candle, and below that really needed to be operated in a fixed-focus (landscape or panfocus) mode.

The single biggest disappointment of the P1 was its flash range, which is very limited, even according to Sony's own ratings. (We must at least give Sony credit for not trying to inflate the flash performance in their specs, something we've seen in the past from other manufacturers, here to remain nameless. With a maximum rated flash range of less than four feet in telephoto mode, the DSC-P1 wouldn't be your first choice for unassisted nighttime flash photography of larger groups or settings. We also observed that the shutter delay due to the autofocus mechanism is somewhat longer than average, which could be problematic for action photography.

We found the DSC-P1's optical viewfinder to be somewhat tight, showing about 84 percent of the final image area at wide angle and 83 percent at telephoto (at both 2048 x 1536 and 640 x 480 image sizes). (Note that we've changed our nomenclature on this to better reflect what you see looking into the viewfinder: We previously would have referred to the DSC-P1's viewfinder as "loose"...) The LCD monitor was more accurate, though still a little tight, showing 90 percent of the final image area at both wide angle and telephoto (also at both 2048 x 1536 and 640 x 480 image sizes). Since we generally like to see LCD monitors as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the DSC-P1's LCD misses the mark slightly in this area. We also noticed that images framed with the optical viewfinder were weighted toward the top left of the image area, with more space on the right and bottom sides. These images also showed a slight slant towards the lower right corner.

The DSC-P1 turned in about an average performance in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of 4.21 x 3.16 inches (106.89 x 80.17 mm). The resolution, color and detail all look good, although the brooch appears just slightly soft (possibly due to a limited depth of field). The DSC-P1's flash does a reasonably good job of throttling down for macro images, although the shiny coin proves to be a bit tricky (as is the case with many digicams). Overall, a nice if not exceptional job.

Though the DSC-P1 may be somewhat limited in its amount of exposure control, the camera produces nice images with good color balance and quality. Noise levels were extremely low in most of our test shots, always something we look for in a digital camera. The Twilight and Twilight Plus modes give the user more flexibility in low light situations, as does the ability to control white balance, exposure compensation and sharpness. Overall, we were very pleased with the DSC-P1's performance.

Conclusion
Overall, the DSC-P1 offers a nice selection of features for the average digicam user in an exceptionally compact package. As we said at the outset, we see the DSC-P1 as being a "no excuses" compact digicam. It offers an unusually compact form factor, yet provides excellent image quality, good flexibility, a 3 megapixel CCD and a full 3x zoom lens, and surprisingly comfortable ergonomics. Though the exposure is automatically controlled, the creative options of the Picture Effects menu and the wide array of special exposure modes make this camera flexible enough for most shooting scenarios. The camera was described to us by a Sony manager as "A Sony digicam experience in a compact package," and that's exactly what it delivers: We think this is going to be a very popular digicam. (And if you're interested in underwater photography, run don't walk to your nearest Sony dealer to get one of these with the optional "Marine Pack" underwater housing - It's that good!) Highly recommended!

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