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Sony CyberShot DSC-P30

Sony develops an affordable, full-featured 1.3-megapixel compact digicam with great picture quality!

Review First Posted: 4/9/2001



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MSRP $399 US

 

*
1.3-megapixel CCD delivering 1,280 x 960-pixel images
*
12-bit Analog/Digital Conversion for excellent tonal range and detail
*
3x optical zoom lens
*
MPEG-EX (video-only) movie recording eliminates record-time limitations
* Low-power circuitry and power management system for longer battery life.


Manufacturer Overview
Sony has long held a dominant position in the digicam marketplace, with a wide range of models enjoying enormous popularity with consumers. Last spring (February, 2000), Sony stunned the digicam world by announcing no fewer than six new models. This year (2001), the company repeated this hat trick at Spring PMA in Orlando, once again announcing six new units -- affecting both the Mavica and Cyber-shot lines.

Sony's digital cameras have always enjoyed huge popularity in the consumer market, despite generally higher prices than many competing models. (In the Mavica line, the floppy disk drive undoubtedly added to the manufacturing cost, but also contributed enormously to the cameras' appeal.) With these latest announcements, however, Sony served notice that it intends to compete head-to-head on price, without sacrificing one iota in features or performance. The three new Cyber-shot models -- the P30, P50, and S75 -- are evidence of this resolve. While they are not the cheapest cameras in their respective megapixel ranges, they provide rich features and excellent performance, making them an excellent value for the quality conscious consumer.


High Points



Executive Overview
The DSC-P30 is a compact, lightweight digicam that can easily be tucked into a shirt pocket or small purse. Its streamlined body, which measures only 4.87 x 2 x 2.25 inches and weighs just 9 ounces with the InfoLITHIUM battery pack installed, is similar in style to Sony's earlier Cyber-shot DSC-P1 model, with a brushed silver exterior and pale blue accents. The matching blue wrist strap makes it the perfect travel companion for family outings.

The Cyber-shot P30's 1.3-megapixel CCD sensor offers image resolutions as high as 1,280 x 960 pixels, and a simple user interface that makes camera operation a snap. The 1.5-inch color LCD monitor provides bright, clear playback of captured images, and a quick refresh rate when used for image composition. The comprehensive information display reports available battery power (in minutes when used with the InfoLITHIUM pack), remaining Memory Stick space, ISO setting, resolution setting, and shutter speed and aperture readings when the shutter button is halfway depressed.

When activated, the camera's menu system appears at the bottom of the LCD screen in the form of subject tabs, similar to past Sony digicams, but with more menu selections. This reduces the menus to one-level deep navigation and makes them much faster and easier to navigate. Most of the camera's exposure options are controlled through the LCD menu, as there are very few control buttons on the camera's exterior. While this minimizes the button clutter on the surface, it also increases reliance on the LCD monitor -- thereby raising battery power consumption. The four-way arrow rocker pad doubles as a five-function controller, with flash, macro, self-timer, and quick review functions assigned to the different arrows, plus an OK/select button in the center. Like its higher-end sibling, the DSC-S75, the LCD monitor display provides unusually high readability in direct sunlight, thanks to an LCD brightness function in the Setup menu (more contrast control than brightness) and a backlight brightness control. Overall, the P30 LCD isn't quite as readable as that of the S75, but it is still more usable than most in bright sunlight.

The 3x, 6.4-19.2mm zoom lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.8, and a set of 37mm filter threads around the inside lip of the lens barrel to accommodate Sony's accessory lens kits, which extend the camera's macro and wide angle capabilities. Since the lens doesn't need to telescope out, you can use any conventional 37mm lens accessories on the camera without an adapter. Focus is automatically controlled, though a handful of preset focus distances are available on the settings menu (five settings from 0.5m to infinity). A bright autofocus assist light on the front of the camera is designed to help it focus in low-light situations, and can be enabled or disabled via the Setup menu. The camera features Sony's 6x Precision Digital Zoom (actually a 2x digital enlargement at the maximum telephoto setting), which the company claims will produce better quality images than conventional digital enlargement. Sony's digital zoom technology works directly with raw CCD data, rather than the post-processed JPEG information. The result is somewhat cleaner than we've seen with other digital zooms, but the fact remains that it is still cropping away three-quarters of the CCD pixels, so the resolution will always decrease proportionately. (Bottom line: Sony's digital zoom does better than most, but can't overcome the inherent loss of resolution.)

Exposure on the P30 is limited to program-automatic control (that is, no options such as aperture or shutter priority), but you do have control over things like ISO, white balance, metering, etc. Through the capture menu, a Spot Metering option changes the camera's default, averaged metering system to one that bases the exposure on only the center of the image. Exposure compensation allows you to adjust metered exposures from -2 to +2 exposure values (EV) in one-third-step increments, and a variable ISO option offers Auto, 100, 200, and 400 equivalent settings. White balance options on the P30 include Auto, Outdoor, Indoor, and Hold (a quasi-manual setting). The built-in flash features three main operating modes (Auto, Forced, and Off), with an available Red-Eye Reduction setting that works in both Auto and Forced modes. Flash power is also adjustable to Low, Normal, or High intensities. Also included in the record settings menu is an image sharpness adjustment and Sony's popular Picture Effects menu, which offers several creative image effects, including Solarize, Black and White, Sepia, and Negative Art. A Twilight exposure mode automatically uses a slower shutter speed to capture more ambient light in dark shooting situations.

In addition to the standard still photography mode, the P30 also offers a few special capture modes. Movie mode allows you to create unlimited length movies (w/o audio) in the MPEG EX format, with all of the above exposure controls available to you, except flash and sharpness. The motion-recording format can also be set to Clip Motion, which records a series of still images at varying intervals, to be played back as a frame-by-frame animation, saved as a GIF file. (This mode is a lot of fun. It was introduced on the DSC-P1, and appears to now be a standard Cyber-shot feature.) The Text recording mode captures images in a black-and-white GIF file, perfect for snapping pictures of white boards, meeting notes, etc. (Text mode recording takes a while though, as the camera has to convert the full-color image to a black-and-white GIF format. This takes a fair bit of processing power, but the results are worth it if you're trying to capture pages of textual information.) There's also an E-mail record mode that captures a smaller, 320 x 240-pixel image size, which is easier on e-mail transmission (this mode actually records two images: one in the 320 x 240-pixel format and another at whatever normal image size you've selected). Finally, an uncompressed TIFF option records one image in the 1,600 x 1,200-pixel TIFF format, in addition to another image at the menu-set resolution and JPEG compression levels. Uncompressed TIFF is an unusual option for inexpensive digicams, and may help interest more advanced photographers in these "value priced" cameras.

Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF, JPEG, MPEG (EX), or GIF formats, depending on the record mode, and are stored on the included 4MB Memory Stick (higher capacity cards are available). An NTSC video cable is included with the camera (European models come equipped for PAL, and a video out setting adjusts for either format), 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 VideoWave software provides movie playback and minor editing capabilities.

The P30 ships with AA batteries, but may be used with an optional NP-FS11 InfoLITHIUM battery pack, which includes an AC adapter that doubles as a 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. Two AA batteries fit into the same slot as the NP-FS11 battery pack. This is the first time we've seen a Sony camera that can operate on either conventional AA cells or the special InfoLITHIUM rechargeable packs. While the AA cells will have much shorter life (!) than the Sony battery packs, they'll do in a pinch if your battery pack runs out of juice. For routine use, we suggest investing in the Sony battery pack and keeping a set of AA's available as emergency backup.

With its compact, portable size, the P30 is clearly meant for consumers on the go. The fully automatic exposure system is perfect for point-and-shoot users, but the options for exposure compensation, white balance, variable ISO, and spot metering combine to provide enough exposure flexibility to get good looking photos even in challenging conditions. Movie recording, Text mode capture, Clip Motion, and uncompressed TIFF options provide additional flexibility. Overall, the P30 looks like an excellent choice for consumers who want an easy-to-use camera at an affordable price, but who also aren't willing to sacrifice picture quality or give up important features like a zoom lens or high-capacity rechargeable batteries. Time will tell in the marketplace, but to our eye, Sony has come up with a winner here, that will appeal to a wide range of buyers.


Design
At first glance, the P30 looks a lot like its higher end predecessor, the DSC-P1. The P30 features the same shape and styling, but is quite a bit bigger. (About 4x the overall volume, with individual length, width, and height dimensions being anywhere from 40 to 100 percent larger.) Weight is about the same, and despite the greater bulk, the new camera should have little trouble sliding in and out of shirt pockets. Its accompanying wrist strap makes it easy to tote along on any outing. The overall design is clean and uncluttered. From the outset, you'll notice that the camera sports very few external controls, meaning that most of the camera's functions are menu driven. The case is plastic and the front and back panels feel a little lightweight, but the heavier plastic of the sides and bottom helps contribute to a sense of solidity. Let's take a quick look around the camera.



The front of the P30 features the lens, optical viewfinder window, self-timer LED, AF illuminator, and flash. A thin, sculpted finger grip protrudes from the left of the camera front, providing a nice tight hold as your fingers curve around the side. Unlike the P1, the P30's lens is stationary and does not telescope from the camera body when powered on. A set of 37mm filter threads inside the lip of the lens barrel accommodates Sony's variety of accessory lens kits. A spring-loaded, snap-on plastic lens cap protects the lens, and features a small tether to attach it to the camera and prevent it from being lost.



On the right side of the camera, when looking from the rear, are the battery compartment, Memory Stick slot, and wrist strap attachment eyelet. The battery compartment slides outward before opening, and features a small button that unlocks the compartment door. The battery compartment hosts either two AA batteries, which ship with the camera, or an optional NP-FS11 InfoLITHIUM battery pack that comes with an AC adapter/recharger. A hinged, plastic door covers the Memory Stick slot and opens downward. We highly approve of the location of both compartments, as the side access allows you to change batteries or Memory Sticks while mounted to a tripod.



The opposite side of the camera is fairly plain, featuring only the USB and Video Out jacks. Both jacks are covered by a flexible rubber flap that opens upward and remains attached to the camera body.



The shutter button, mode dial, and power button are all located on the top panel. A small speaker plays back camera operating sounds. Next to the power button, a small LED light glows solid green when the camera is powered on, and orange when the battery is charging. The mode dial controls the camera's operating mode, with options of Twilight, Record, Playback, Movie, and Setup.



The remaining exposure controls are located on the back panel, as well as the LCD monitor, optical viewfinder eyepiece, and DC In jack. The optical viewfinder eyepiece is a bit smaller than average, and does not include a diopter control for those with less than 20-20 vision; but it does have a high enough eyepoint that it should pose no challenge to eyeglass wearers. Three LEDs next to the eyepiece report the camera's status. The bottom LED glows orange when the flash is charged, and flashes while it is charging. The center, green LED lights solid when focus is set, and flashes when the autofocus system is having trouble focusing (meaning you should switch to macro or move back from the target). The top LED glows red when the camera is accessing the Memory Stick, and blinks during the self-timer countdown. Camera controls on the back panel include the optical zoom toggle button, Display button, Menu button, and a four-way rocker pad that doubles as the external controls for Flash, Quick Review, Macro, Self-Timer, and OK/Select buttons. A DC In jack in the bottom left corner is covered by a flexible rubber flap that remains attached to the camera when opened.



The P30 features a relatively flat bottom, holding the tripod mount and a tiny Reset switch. The tripod mount has sturdy metal threads, and is slightly off center, but not too far from the camera's center of gravity. The recessed Reset switch resets all the camera's settings to their factory defaults.


Viewfinder
The P30 offers both a real image optical viewfinder and a 1.5-inch LCD monitor for composing images. The real image optical viewfinder zooms along with the 3x lens, but does not show digital telephoto (which requires the LCD monitor to be active). There is no diopter adjustment, however, the optical viewfinder eyepiece has a reasonably high eyepoint, and should accommodate most eyeglass wearers. (We were able to still see the view at a fair distance from the eyepiece, though the actual viewfinder window is relatively small.) Built into the eyepiece are three LED lamps which report the camera's current status. The bottom LED light glows orange when the flash is charged, and flashes when it is charging. The center, green LED glows solid when focus is set, and flashes when the autofocus system is having trouble focusing (meaning you should switch to Macro mode or move back from the target). The top LED lights red when the camera is accessing the Memory Stick, and blinks during the self-timer countdown.



The 1.5-inch, color LCD monitor features 123,000 pixels. The Display button just above the LCD panel controls the image and information displays, showing both with the first press. A second press eliminates the information display, and the third press shuts the LCD monitor off. The comprehensive information display reports available battery power (in minutes when used with the InfoLITHIUM pack), remaining Memory Stick space, ISO setting, resolution setting, and shutter speed and aperture readings when the shutter button is halfway depressed. An LCD brightness adjustment in the Setup menu changes the contrast of the LCD display, effectively lightening or darkening the display. For shooting in bright sunlight, the LCD backlight can be turned on, which brightens the display dramatically.



In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers a playback zoom function, which digitally enlarges the captured image up to 5x for closer inspection of fine details. There's also an index display mode, which shows up to nine thumbnail images on the screen at one time.


Optics
A 3x, 6.4-19.2mm optical zoom lens is built into the P30, the equivalent of a 41-123mm lens on a 35mm camera. In normal shooting mode, focus ranges from 20.4 inches (50cm) to infinity. The Macro mode focuses from 1.2 to 20.4 inches (3-50cm). The P30 offers both automatic and manual focus control, with "manual" focus referring to a series of fixed focal distances accessible through the Record settings menu. Available distances are 0.5m, 1.0m, 3.0m, 7.0m, and infinity. We were especially pleased with the inclusion of an AF assist light, which can be turned off through the Setup menu. The AF assist light is extremely valuable in low-light shooting situations where the camera may normally have trouble focusing. We found it to be very effective in our testing. A set of 37mm filter threads line the inside lip of the lens barrel, accommodating Sony's line of accessory lenses, which can extend the camera's wide angle, telephoto, and macro capabilities even further. Aperture is automatically controlled, with an available range from f/3.8 to f/11.

In addition to the 3x optical zoom, the P30 offers a 2x digital zoom, increasing the P30's zoom capabilities to 6x. The P30 takes advantage of Sony's Precision Digital Zoom technology, which does a nice job of digitally enlarging the image without affecting the quality too much. Regardless, we always like to point out that digital zoom in no way takes the place of true optical zoom, as digital telephoto simply enlarges the center portion of the CCD. This often compromises image quality in the form of softer resolution or higher noise. The P30's digital zoom is turned on (or off) through the Setup menu, and is accessed by zooming past the normal zoom range.


Exposure
Given its small, portable size, and point-and-shoot appeal, the P30 offers very limited exposure control. Aperture and shutter speed are automatically controlled at all times, though the settings are reported on the LCD monitor when the Shutter button is halfway depressed. We always find this report useful, as we're quite interested to know the camera's exposure settings in different situations. Two basic exposure modes are accessible by turning the Mode dial on top of the camera: Automatic and Twilight. Automatic exposure mode works exactly as it indicates, by placing the camera in charge of the aperture and shutter speed. The user, however, maintains control over ISO, exposure compensation, and all other available settings. Twilight mode adjusts the exposure to capture a bright subject in dark surroundings (neon lights or fireworks, for example), without washing out the color. Because Twilight mode uses a slower shutter speed, a tripod is recommended to prevent blurring from camera movement. Available shutter speeds range from 1/800 to two seconds, with the slowest available shutter speed in Automatic mode being 1/15 second. For slower speeds, switch to Twilight exposure mode.

Despite the automatic exposure control, the P30 offers a fair amount of exposure options. Exposure compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 in exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. The P30 normally employs an "averaged" metering system, which averages exposure readings throughout the image to determine the best overall exposure. Through the settings menu, a spot metering option is available for taking more accurate exposure readings in high-contrast shooting situations, and is effective for locking the exposure for a particular part of the subject. Though the P30 doesn't have an AE Lock button, you can manually lock the exposure in the same manner as locking focus, by framing a portion of the subject in the center of the view, halfway depressing the Shutter button, and then recomposing the shot while keeping the Shutter button halfway depressed. This locks the exposure and focus until the Shutter button is fully depressed or released. The P30 features an adjustable ISO setting, offering Auto, 100, 200, and 400 sensitivity equivalents. The white balance setting offers Auto, Indoor, Outdoor, and Hold operating modes, matching a variety of light sources. The Hold white balance mode works like a manual white balance adjustment, allowing you to adjust the white value to the light source by placing a white card in front of the lens.

For more creative shooting options, the P30 features a Picture Effects menu, which has proven a popular addition to Sony digicams. Effects like Solarize, Black and White, Sepia, and Negative Art produce unique images. The effects are live on the LCD screen when selected, giving you a preview of each setting. A sharpness setting controls the effects of the in-camera sharpening, and is adjustable from -2 to +2 in arbitrary increments (zero is the normal sharpness level, with -2 being very soft and +2 being very sharp). A self-timer counts down from 10 seconds once the Shutter button has been fully pressed in Self-timer mode (accessed by pressing the top arrow of the Arrow rocker pad). You can cancel the countdown by pressing the Self-timer button a second time or simply by turning the camera off.

Once an image has been saved to the Memory Stick, the left arrow key on the Arrow rocker pad (back panel) activates a quick review of the previously captured image, and offers a delete option for removing the image. Pressing the arrow key a second time returns you to the normal image display screen, as does pressing the Shutter button halfway.


Flash
The P30 features a built-in flash with three main operating modes: Auto, Forced, and Suppressed. Flash mode is changed by pressing the up arrow on the Arrow rocker button, which cycles through each mode. An icon display on the LCD monitor identifies each mode, except for Auto, which has no icon. Auto puts the camera in charge of whether or not the flash fires, based on existing light levels. Forced Flash means that the flash always fires, regardless of light level, and Suppressed Flash prevents the flash from firing, regardless of light levels. A Red-Eye Reduction mode is activated through the Setup menu, and works with both Auto and Forced flash modes. Red-Eye Reduction fires a small pre-flash to reduce the occurrence of red-eye effect in people shots.

You can adjust the flash intensity to High, Normal, or Low, through the settings menu. This option makes the flash more accommodating to varying light levels or different subjects. We liked the fact that we could adjust exposure for the flash and ambient lighting separately, a feature that makes it easier to achieve more balanced exposures.

Movie Recording
The Movie mode is accessed on the Mode dial on top of the camera by selecting the film frame icon. You can record moving images (without sound) at either 320 x 240 and 160 x 112-pixel resolution. Movies are recorded in the MPEG EX format, meaning that you can record for as long as the Memory Stick has space. Recording starts 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. The P30 capture speed is eight frames per second.

The P30 also offers a rudimentary editing tool that we initially saw, and enjoyed, on the DSC-S75 model. Though most digicam users don't necessarily want to engage in full A/B roll video editing on their cameras, many do want to trim off excess material from the beginning or end of a recorded video, or extract an interesting bit of action from the middle of a much longer clip of footage. The Divide function 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, do it a second time to remove the unwanted footage at the end. Once you've split the movie into parts like this, you can throw away the segments you don't need, or keep them around for reference.



After enabling the Divide function through the Playback menu, the P30 starts to play back the movie. You simply press the center of the rocker pad button to stop the playback where you'd like to make an edit. From there, you can scroll backwards or forwards 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, as 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 software.

Clip Motion
Clip Motion is a fun feature that we've enjoyed on several other Sony digicams, including the DSC-P1, where it debuted. (That's a shot of the P1's underwater housing above, NOT one for the P30.) The Clip Motion capture mode turns the P30 into an animation camera, recording up to 10 frames of still images to be combined into a single GIF file for animated playback. 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 Arrow rocker pad to tell the camera to finish the sequence. Available image sizes are Normal (160 x 120 pixels) and Mobile (80 x 72 pixels), 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 very full.) Files are saved in GIF format, and are played back with (approximate) 0.5-second intervals between frames. Unlike Movie mode, the flash is available with Clip Motion.

Special Record Modes
A feature that we've become accustomed to on Sony digicams is the Record Mode menu option, which offers several recording format options for still images. Through the Record menu, you can select TIFF for uncompressed images, Text, E-mail, or Normal modes. In TIFF mode, the P30 records one uncompressed image at the 1,280 x 960 resolution size, in addition to another image at the size and quality settings already established in the Record menu. E-mail mode records a smaller (320 x 240-pixel) image size that's small enough to be easily sent to friends and family by e-mail. Like the TIFF option, the e-mail image is recorded in addition to the image size already selected through the Record menu. The Text mode records a black-and-white GIF file that is perfect for taking pictures of white boards, flip charts, or meeting notes.


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 is to allow 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.

Sony DSC-P30 Zoom Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
4.6
About average.
Shutdown
1.13
Pretty fast. (Effectively instant, since there's no need to retract lens.)
Play to Record, first shot
Instant!
VERY fast, no delay beyond shutter lag.
Record to play (max/min res)
1.7/1.2
Pretty fast.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
0.75
Fairly fast.
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.35
Also a bit faster than average.
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.20
A little better than average
Cycle Time, max/min resolution
2.5/2.5
Faster than average, no difference between high/low resolution settings.


Overall, the DSC-P30 was a surprisingly fast camera, a welcome feature. (Just because you don't feel the need for a 3-megapixel camera, it shouldn't mean that you're penalized on features and performance!) Essentially all timing parameters were noticeably faster than average, when compared to competing models we've tested. Shot-to-shot speed is also pretty quick, although perhaps a bit slower than what you'd want for shooting fast-paced action, like team sports. Still, the very quick 0.2-second shutter delay -- when the camera is prefocused by half-pressing and holding the shutter button -- is very nice!


Operation and User Interface
The P30's user interface is very straightforward, with an uncomplicated menu system and very few control buttons to decipher. Given the P30's carefree, point-and-shoot nature, the camera operates mainly under automatic control, with a handful of exposure options to twiddle with. The LCD menu system is short and sweet, in the form of subject tabs at the bottom of the LCD screen. The menu options display as you scroll over the tabs, making it quick to jump in and change a couple of settings. We liked that you can still see a large part of the view with the menu displayed, so you can see the effects of your menu selections when you change them. The multi-functionality of the Arrow rocker button is a nice bonus too, giving you a fair amount of external control without too many buttons.


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Located on the very right side of the camera's top panel, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway depressed. When fully depressed, the Shutter button signals the camera's shutter to open and close. In Self-timer mode, a full press of the Shutter button initiates the 10-second countdown.


Mode Dial: Also on top of the camera, diagonally to the left of the Shutter button, the Mode dial controls the camera's operating mode. The following options are available:



Power Button: Directly to the left of the Mode dial is the Power switch, which controls the camera's power. A green LED next to the button indicates when the camera is on.


Display Button: Situated to the right of the optical viewfinder eyepiece, this button controls the LCD display, cycling between an image and information display, the image display only, and no display at all.


Zoom Toggle: Positioned in the top right corner of the back panel, this toggle button controls the optical and digital zoom (when enabled). In Playback mode, the telephoto side digitally enlarges the displayed image up to 5x, while the wide angle side returns the view to the normal 1x display. When playback zoom is not enabled, pressing the wide angle side of the button activates the index display mode. Pressing it twice activates a single-image index display, which shows exposure information for the selected image (aperture, shutter speed, and exposure compensation value).


Menu Button: Located near the top left corner of the LCD monitor, this button pulls up the LCD menu system in all camera modes (except for Setup, which automatically displays the Setup menu upon entering the mode). Pressing the button a second time eliminates the menu screen. If the LCD monitor has been disabled, pressing the Menu button also controls the LCD display (turning it off when you exit the menu).


Arrow Rocker Button (Flash, Quick Review, Self-timer, and Macro Buttons): Just below the Menu button, this button performs a variety of functions. Marked with four arrows, one pointing in each direction, this button allows you to navigate through menu settings and captured images. Pressing the center of the button confirms menu selections, acting as the "OK" button. In Record mode, this button has a variety of functions assigned to the directional arrows. The up arrow button controls the flash mode, cycling between Auto, Forced, and Suppressed modes. The left button controls the Quick Review, which displays the previously captured image on the LCD monitor while in Record mode. The down arrow activates and deactivates the Self-timer mode, which offers a 10-second countdown before the shutter fires. Finally, the right arrow places the camera into Macro mode, changing the focus range for close-up subjects (the button also cancels the mode).


Open Battery Button: Located in the center of the battery compartment door, this sliding button unlocks the door, allowing it to be slid outward and then opened.


Camera Modes and Menus

Twilight Mode: Optimizes the camera for shooting in low-light situations such as city night scenes or dusk (moon symbol). Twilight mode extends the available shutter speeds to include up to two-second exposures. Aperture and shutter speed are automatically controlled, but the user has control over all other exposure variables, with the exception of ISO.

Automatic Record Mode: The green camera symbol on the Mode dial indicates the Automatic exposure mode. Here, the camera controls aperture and shutter speed settings while the user controls the remaining exposure features. The slowest shutter speed available is 1/15 second.

Playback Mode: Marked on the Mode dial with the traditional playback symbol, Playback mode allows users to review captured images and movies on the Memory Stick. Images can be deleted, write-protected, resized, rotated, viewed in a slide show, or Setup for DPOF printing. Video files can be edited with the Divide function.

Movie Mode: Designated on the Mode dial by a film frame, Movie mode sets up the camera for recording moving images without sound, or clip motion files.

Setup Mode: Immediately displays the following Setup menu screens:


Capture Menu: The main capture menu is accessible in all capture modes by pressing the Menu button. Not all menu options are available in all capture modes.


Playback Menu: As with the capture menu, the Playback menu is accessed by pressing the Menu button when in Playback mode. The following options are available:



Image Storage and Interface
The P30 uses the proprietary Sony Memory Stick technology for image storage. A 4MB Memory Stick is supplied with the camera and additional media are available up to 64MB. Individual images can be write-protected from accidental erasure (except through card reformatting) via the Protect option under the Playback settings menu. Individual write-protection also prevents the image from being changed in any way, such as rotating or resizing. 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 entire stick being formatted.

The P30'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. The camera also tells you approximately how many images are available, depending on the resolution size and quality settings. (In Movie mode, the camera reports the available recording time.) Through the Playback settings menu, you can designate whether the camera sequentially numbers each image (regardless of changing the Memory Stick) or restarts file numbering with each new Memory Stick. The Playback menu also offers a resizing option, as well as a rotate tool. The camera's DPOF compatibility allows you to mark specific images for printing. Through the Setup menu, you can decide whether or not to print the date and/or time on the image as well.

Available still image sizes include 1,280 x 960, 1,280 x 960 (3:2 ratio), 1,024 x 768, 640 x 480, and 320 x 240 pixels (E-Mail recording option). Movie file sizes are 320 x 240 and 160 x 112, or 160 x 120 and 80 x 72 pixels for Clip Motion files. In addition to the uncompressed TIFF file format, the P30 offers both Fine and Standard JPEG compression levels, and a GIF option (in the form of Text and Clip Motion recording modes).

Below are the approximate still image capacities and compression ratios for a 4MB card (for the main resolution sizes):



Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
4MB Stick of Memory
TIFF
Fine
Standard
Highest Resolution 1280x960 Images 0 ?
?
Approx.
Compression
N/A ?:1
?:1
High Resolution 1024x768 Images
N/A
10
23
Approx.
Compression
N/A
6:1
5:1
Standard Resolution 640x480
Images
N/A
23
58
Approx.
Compression
N/A
5:1
13:1



The P30 is also accompanied by a USB cable for quick connection to a PC or Macintosh, as well as a software CD containing interface software and USB drivers. Data transfer to the host computer is about average among USB-connected cameras we've tested, with a data transfer rate of 288 KB/second.


Video Out
Both US and Japanese models of the P30 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 come with a PAL cable). Once connected to the TV, you can review images and movies or record them to video tape.


Power
The P30 is powered by two AA batteries, or an optional NP-FS11 InfoLITHIUM battery pack with an AC adapter that doubles as an in-camera battery charger. (We strongly advise buying a battery pack since it will provide longer operation than AA batteries, and will quickly pay for itself by eliminating the cost of battery replacements.) The InfoLITHIUM battery packs actually exchange information with the camera, reporting approximately how many minutes of battery life are left. This information is displayed on the LCD monitor 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. According to Sony, its newly developed low-power circuitry and power management system enables the DSC-P30 to operate up to 60 minutes on two AA cells (1,100 shots), or 120 minutes on the optional InfoLITHIUM S battery (2,200 shots). Due to the construction of the P30's power system, we weren't able to perform our usual power-consumption tests. We did however have a sample of the (highly recommended) InfoLITHIUM battery pack for the camera, and used it to determine runtimes.

The following runtimes were reported by the P30 with a freshly charged InfoLITHIUM battery, in Capture and Playback modes. (Note that the runtime with the LCD turned off will doubtless be longer than what is indicated on the LCD monitor, but we can't tell what that time is, since the time-remaining readout is only shown on the LCD screen.) The smaller "S" series InfoLITHIUM battery used in the P30 doesn't have the power capacity of its larger siblings, and the smaller size of the P30 doesn't translate directly to lower power consumption. Thus, the battery life is pretty good, but not nearly as long as the Sony cameras that use the larger InfoLITHIUM cells. We'd strongly advise buying and carrying a second battery, or at least carrying a couple backup AA batteries at all times. (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
78 minutes
Image Playback
89 minutes


Included Software
The P30 comes with a USB cable for quick connection to a PC or Macintosh. Also included is a software CD loaded with MGI PhotoSuite SE and MGI VideoWave III SE. Two versions of MGI PhotoSuite are included on the CD. The first, Version 8.1, is compatible with Windows 95/98/98Se/Me/2000/NT4.0. The second, Version 1.1, is compatible with Macintosh OS 7.6.1 to 9.0. Unfortunately for Mac users, VideoWave III SE is compatible with Windows systems only (the same versions as PhotoSuite). MGI PhotoSuite SE 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 you to really get 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 in the box are the following:



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 DSC-P30'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 P30 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the P30's white balance system did a good job of interpreting most light sources. The P30 had some trouble with the household incandescent lighting of our Indoor Portrait, producing sepia casts in both automatic and incandescent white balance modes. We also noticed a tendency for the white balance to change with the exposure compensation setting in this shot, as a +1.7 EV adjustment produced a very reddish/orange image and no exposure adjustment reduced the color cast, but also resulting in a much darker image. Switching over to Twilight mode gave us longer exposures and better overall color. During the majority of our testing, we noticed either slightly cool or slightly magenta results, and we typically found the automatic white balance setting to be the most accurate. Despite the minor color casts, overall color looked pretty good in most of our test shots, with pretty good accuracy. We noticed that bright red values, such as the red flower in the Outdoor Portrait and the large, red color block of the Davebox target, were slightly oversaturated, although the other large color blocks of the Davebox test target looked pretty good and nearly accurate (though the cyan block is a little weak). The P30 just barely picks up the subtle difference between the red and magenta color blocks on the middle, horizontal color chart (which is a common problem area for many digicams), oversaturating them slightly. The P30 also captures the subtle tonal variations of the Q60 chart all the way up to the "B" range, though they are very faint (another common problem area for digicams). Overall, though, the P30 produced nice color.

The DSC-P30 did very well in our laboratory resolution test, cleanly resolving to 500-550 lines per picture height in both vertical and horizontal directions, and showing excellent detail all the way out to 600 lines. This is a very good performance for a 1.3 megapixel camera.

Optical distortion on the P30 is fairly low at the wide angle end, where we measured an approximate 0.42 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared slightly better, as we measured an approximate 0.34 percent pincushion distortion. Chromatic aberration is very low, showing about a half a pixel of coloration on each side of the black target lines. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) Overall, it looks like the DSC-P30 has a very good lens system.

We found the P30's optical viewfinder to be very tight, showing approximately 69.6 percent of the final image area at wide angle, and about 74.7 percent at telephoto, at all three image sizes. We also noticed that the final image is shifted towards the lower left corner, with a great deal of extra space on the right side of the image. Images framed with the optical viewfinder are also slanted toward the lower left corner. (Overall, the optical viewfinder is one of the most glaring weaknesses of the P30's design.) The LCD monitor fared much better, showing approximately 99.6 percent accuracy at wide angle. Unfortunately, the telephoto images framed with the LCD monitor are slanted toward the lower left corner, placing our standard measurement lines just out of the frame. We assume that the LCD accuracy at telephoto is also very close to 100 percent, however. We generally like to see LCD monitors as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, so the P30 does well in this respect, though the telephoto images are somewhat slanted.

The P30 performs well in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of just 2.32 x 1.74 inches (58.96 x 44.22mm). Detail and resolution both looked great, with good sharpness. We did notice quite a bit more corner softness in the macro shot however. (Not uncommon in cameras we've tested.) The gray background showed a moderately low noise level. Color balance was good throughout the image, though just the slightest magenta tints were visible in the lighter areas of the dollar bill. The P30's built-in flash had some trouble throttling down for the macro area, creating a hot spot in the top right corner, and a darker shadow area in the lower left corner.

Our first reaction to the P30 was that it didn't do well at all in the low-light category, as we were shooting only in the normal exposure mode, using ISO settings of 100-400. (Low-light limits were about 8 foot-candles at ISO100, 4 foot-candles at ISO 200, and 2 foot-candles at ISO 400, but even those figures were pushing matters somewhat: Light levels of almost 2x that would be a more conservative rating.) We then switched to the camera's "Twilight" mode, which allows longer exposure times, and obtained much more favorable results, achieving a good, bright exposure at a light level of 1 foot-candle (11 lux), and a usable one at 1/2 foot-candle (5.5 lux). To put the P30's low-light performance into perspective, an average city night scene under modern street lighting corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, so the P30 should do fine for most outdoor/city shooting in its Twilight mode. The table below shows the best exposure we were able to obtain for each of a range of illumination levels. Images in this table (like all of our sample photos) are untouched, exactly as they came from the camera.

Overall, the P30 did a nice job for its 1.3 megapixel class, producing good color and resolution throughout our testing. The P30 captures a very small macro area, and its white balance system can handle most light sources reasonably well. Operating in "Twilight" mode, the P30 should be well up to the challenge of most city night scenes. The availability of a 3x zoom lens, sharpness adjustments, and user-controlled ISO makes the P30 a versatile camera for average consumers, and it takes nice pictures too.


Conclusion
The Sony DSC-P30 should appeal to users looking for a full-featured digicam with very good picture quality at a reasonable price. The P30 isn't a bargain-basement, de-featured model, but rather a serious attempt to provide a quality camera with a full feature set at an affordable price. In our view, Sony has met most of the needs of typical consumer photographers, while holding prices in line. With this model, Sony has revised its user interface substantially, and in our opinion, in all ways for the better. If you're looking for a compact, high-quality digicam at a reasonable price, the DSC-P30 clearly deserves a serious look!


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