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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1

Sony "breaks the mold" with a unique SLR/all-in-one hybrid design.

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Page 2:User Report

Review First Posted: 09/20/2005, Updated: 11/18/2005

Sony DSC-R1 User Report
By Shawn Barnett

Sony is not timid. When they commit to a product concept, especially one that will charge in a new direction, their engineers take it all the way. That truth is as clear as the thud their new DSC-R1 makes when you set it on the table. I've spent some time with it, and I have to say, I'm now more impressed than I was initially. At its original intended price of $1,200, it was hard to imagine how the R1 would succeed in a market dominated by lower-priced digital SLRs. But since Sony dropped the price to $999 at announcement, it's clear: The R1 is going to be very popular among Sony aficionados, and will have a place in many a photography hobbyists bag. It is a powerful tool with an excellent lens, and it has most of what the camera enthusiast is looking for.

 

The concept

The Sony DSC-R1 is unique in many ways, but one of its chief benefits is that it offers a sensor that is as large as today's affordable SLRs, but with a live LCD preview. No current digital SLR offers full-time color LCD preview, something modern digicam owners have grown to like, so Sony saw an opportunity. They've created a digicam whose sensor is just slightly smaller than APS C--the size used on most modern digital SLRs--but in a package that gives the market live-preview capability. The benefit of a larger sensor over other digicams with smaller sensors, like Sony's own F828, is that a larger sensor has bigger pixels. Bigger pixels can gather more light. More light means the camera's processor can make better decisions about what color and intensity to make each pixel, and that information makes for the cleanest, truest possible image. That is the single most significant argument in favor of digital SLRs, one made weaker with the introduction of the Sony R1.

Now, Sony's not exactly anti-digital SLR, as they've already announced their intention to work with Konica Minolta on a new generation of digital SLR; but the DSC-R1 may be a sign of what's to come from the relationship whose first fruits are slated to appear in 2006.

Along with the benefit of larger pixels, Sony DSC-R1 users will have a lens whose quality and focal length range cannot be found in any comparable camera for the same amount of money. Ranging from 24-120, the R1's f/2.8, 5x Carl Zeiss lens is big, bright, and sharp. Unlike an SLR, this lens is not interchangeable, but Sony claims its extremely short back focus significantly reduces chromatic aberration and coma (blurring in the corners), something our tests have borne out in dramatic fashion. Sony has pointed out that they can achieve this because they don't have the impediment of an SLR's reflex mirror in the mix. As a result, when Sony says "Very Short Back Focus," they're indicating that the rear lens element is 2.1mm from the sensor plane, whereas most SLR lens designs end around 25mm from the sensor plane.

Though I don't think anyone should throw away their digital SLR, it's an interesting point. But the more important benefit from a photographer's standpoint is getting a 24mm equivalent lens on a one-piece digicam, one whose quality may rival what would be a very expensive digital SLR lens. And while there are cheaper all-in-one digicams, none of them has a lens that quite matches this 24-120mm equivalent lens for quality.

Another point of interest is the sensor's pixel density. It's one statistic that we aren't necessarily swayed by ourselves, because the difference between an 8 megapixel and a 10.3 megapixel sensor is almost negligible. The illustration above shows the difference in the number of pixels between the Sony R1 and the Canon Digital Rebel XT. What's interesting is that this is the first time Sony has used a CMOS sensor in one of their cameras, and it's the first sensor that can deliver a live image without overheating. The basic sensor design used in the R1 has already appeared in another impressive digital SLR. Sony was sly about not telling us that it was the Nikon D2X, but we're pretty sure that's what they're referring to. In addition to a slightly lower resolution than the D2X, the sensor in the R1 enters a very low power mode that makes it able to draw a live image without overheating the sensor.

Experience

Dave discusses the finer details of the Sony DSC-R1 later in the review, but I'm really here to talk about the shooting experience. Overall, I enjoy shooting with the R1. With a little time, I think anyone could get used to its interface and set about making some pretty impressive images. There are a few idiosyncrasies to deal with along the way, however. In their drive to make the R1 unique, they made it somewhat difficult to use compared to other digital cameras. Sometimes it's downright frustrating. Some of my frustration might be due to my familiarity with other camera designs, but much of it will be a problem for anyone. We'll get to that soon.

Size

When you first see a picture of the Sony DSC-R1 by itself, it seems only a little bigger than the average long zoom digicam. It is quite a bit bigger than that, however, with only a Canon 20D or Nikon D70 slightly eclipsing its profile; the Rebel XT and Pentax *istD are miniature by comparison. Measuring 5.5 x 3.87 x 6.25 inches (139 x 97 x 156mm) and weighing 2.3 pounds (36.9oz or 1.04kg), the R1 is firmly established in the 20D/D70 weight class. I don't consider that a flaw, by the way, it's just important to know if you're looking for something light and small.


Size comparison: Canon Digital Rebel XT, Sony DSC-R1, and Nikon D70

Though it has size and weight in common with semi-pro SLRs, it is designed more like a long zoom digicam, with its predominant features being a large lens barrel, a big grip, and a large protrusion across the top that houses the LCD and flash. This latter protrusion is shaped like those big aerodynamic HVAC units commonly seen on the top of motorhomes. Extending over an inch from the back panel, jutting out from beneath the big protrusion, is the rather pronounced eyelevel viewfinder, or EVF (Electronic Viewfinder).

As if to further define this niche Sony has identified between the digital SLR and digicam, though the R1 looks like a digicam, it is built more like the aforementioned 20D or D70: very solid, with very little body flex. It's a big step up from most long zoom EVF-based digicams in terms of quality, both inside and out.

Grip

When I first held the Sony DSC-R1, I didn't like the grip much. It's a bit on the big side, which can be as annoying as a grip that's too small. Right away, a joint in my thumb began to hurt like it did after only a short time with the formidable Nikon D2X. Once I learned how to palm the grip properly, though, I was fine with it. Those with longer fingers will rejoice, because there's plenty of room to wrap long digits all the way around the grip. I'd prefer a slightly deeper recess for my thumb, but this works well as is. The camera is heavy enough that you'll need to use your left hand to support it when shooting. Because it has a manual zoom ring on the lens rather than a thumb-driven rocker, you'll need that left hand anyway.

I eschew camera straps and hold the camera in my right hand most of the time, and this grip's depth offers lots of surface area to make that a more secure option. When I shift it to my left hand, which I do frequently with heavier cameras, I find I have to be more cautious. The zoom ring on the lens is nice and stiff, but the focus ring behind it spins more freely. I could see myself forgetting this and dropping the camera, so be advised: use four fingers around the lens and cradle it in your left hand rather than squeezing the lens barrel for better security.

Interface

Digital cameras these days are much like sedans: it's difficult to distinguish one from the other in most cases. They all have Five-way navigation systems, a thumbwheel, a big LCD, and most of the controls are on the camera's top or back. But every once in awhile, someone decides to be different. Sometimes it's great, sometimes things might have been better left alone. The R1 is like that.

First there are the buttons on the Sony DSC-R1. They're all over the place, and a few are oddly placed. I think my favorite odd placement is the ISO button. It's the only button besides the shutter that's on the camera's top surface. It's nestled just to the right rear of the shutter button, in fact, and the skin of your index finger will touch it every time you reach for the shutter. I kept forgetting that it was there and instead looked for the ISO control where you usually find it on a Sony: in the Menu. Instead, you have to press the button, find the active display, and turn the Main command dial to adjust the ISO.

The display menu is located more than an inch away from either of the displays that it will control, on the back of the grip, just below the upper thumbwheel. I have no problem with the flash and white balance button being on the left side by the lens, nor the focus controls, since they are relevant to the lens. Anyone can get used to that, and the big button is necessary for the "Push Auto" focus control when in Manual Focus mode, so it belongs on the left side. But why the Playback button is perched on a cliff right of the EVF with a barely visible small blue icon to indicate its purpose, I don't know.

Dials, wheels, and joysticks are next. Other manufacturers have used as many as are used here. The Canon 20D as an example has two command dials and a joystick, but they're used differently. With the R1, it's tough to remember which one you need to use for a given function. To move through the menus, you have to use the five-way toggle mounted in the center of the big Sub-command dial. To change selections among Flash settings, you have to press the Flash button and remember to use the thumb dial on the grip, which they call the Main Command Dial. EV and Zoom in playback mode are controlled by the bigger, Sub-command dial surrounding the Multi-selector joystick. Admittedly, much of my confusion with this aspect of the interface is due to my familiarity with other interfaces, including Sony's own. But still more is owing to the unusual LCD/EVF arrangement. Most of the rest can be learned in short order, but using almost all of these controls requires you to see either the LCD or EVF; without them, you're blind to what settings you're changing and how.

Finding the viewfinders

I was intrigued when I first heard about the top-mounted LCD. I thought it made sense, and I wondered why no one had yet done it. Turns out there are a few reasons. My initial hope was that it would be easy and fun to shoot from the hip, a vantage that has always offered a unique angle, not to mention nostalgia for the days of folks posing the family while looking down into their twin-reflex cameras ("Okay, just one more step back, Johnny. Johnny?!"). You can shoot from the hip now with most swing-out displays, but if nothing else this seemed novel.

The problem is complex to explain. I'll start by saying that there's a three-position switch under the huge EVF protrusion that's labeled "Finder, Auto, LCD." To select either the EVF or LCD, you set it far left or far right. If you really want to make good use of the camera, you set it to Auto. In the Auto position, the camera defaults to the LCD until you put the camera to your eye. Then an infrared sensor detects an object nearby and turns the LCD off so you can see an image through the viewfinder. Perfect, right? Wrong.

At least the way I use the camera, which is with the LCD facing up and locked down flush, this auto mode just frustrates. We've taken to calling Auto the "Belly Detection mode," because when you want to take that classic from-the-waist shot, you hold the R1 near your stomach. Get it to within an inch of your belly, and the LCD turns off. The same goes for when you want to play your images back and relax with the camera near your body. Hey, when the LCD is on top of the camera, you're going to want to hold it this way. But unless you make the effort to hold it out away from your body, that LCD is going to turn off. Naturally, it also happens while you're trying to adjust settings.

Why not flip up the LCD and tilt the camera down? I suppose that is the sane thing to do. But compared to other LCD solutions, that does leave the little 2 inch screen vulnerable to impact. It also just seems odd to have a pop-up screen on such a big camera. The combination blocks your view of the scene, and I instinctively kept closing the screen as I moved from place to place to avoid damaging it, which left it in the down position when I next needed to frame a shot or change a setting. With other solutions we've seen, the LCD is always right there next to most of the control buttons so you can see what you're doing. Here you have to remember to either flip up the screen or bring the EVF to your face to adjust or check anything.

The LCD, very nice in its own right, collects fingerprints like a crime scene investigator. Worse, the oily smudges have a tendency to obscure the LCD in bright light (I should also mention that without fingerprints, the transflective TFT performs very well in direct sunlight).

The good

So those are my main gripes. For its part, though the big rubbery EVF protrusion complicates holding the R1 as much as the flip-up LCD does, it also offers a nice relief for the nose. My biggish nose just barely touches the Mode dial. It's also a high-eyepoint viewfinder, very easy to see corner to corner, even with glasses. Speaking of optical correction, the diopter correction is adjusted with a big lever right under the EVF protrusion, and adjustment is easy because of the significant room under there.

The flip-up LCD tilts downward just enough for over-crowd shots, though a little more wouldn't have hurt. It turns left 90 degrees and right 180 degrees. It also snaps closed facing down to protect the LCD in transit.

The big power switch surrounds the R1's shutter release and turns on with that signature Sony quality. Of all recent power switches, this one makes the most sense to me, and it has a better feel than similar Nikon and Pentax designs.

A stiff door covers the CompactFlash and Memory Stick slots on the right of the R1's grip. I particularly like how the door reaches a point in its smooth swing and then locks open. Most just swing to and fro until you shut them.

Right next to the R1's pop-up flash is Sony's now nearly ubiquitous amber AF Assist lamp. It's just as bright as the lamp on other Sony cameras; perhaps the only disappointment is that it wasn't the amazing laser AF assist found on the F828 and V3. The other big surprise is the flash mount perched right atop the R1's grip. Unusual placement, but very logical given the already significant weight out by the camera's lens. I think adding a flash would go a long way toward balancing the camera. Yep, I just tossed another manufacturer's flash on there, and the balance is far better; looks cool too. It just needs a battery grip to complete the picture, though there are no signs that there will ever be one because the battery door is not removable.

Another aspect worth praise is Sony's use of the standard menu system on the R1, with elements common among Sony digicams. Though it's completely different from anyone else's, it works very well, looks contemporary, and is familiar to Sony fans.

Shooting

Out in the field is where the fun begins. The Sony DSC-R1 is one of those cameras that makes each shutter click feel like the best shot you've ever taken. Cameras like the Nikon D2X, Canon 20D and 1D Mark II among others have this feel. It's both a blessing and a curse, and you'll do well to have a computer nearby for a reality check if the shoot is important. The good news is that the sense of fun when shooting with the R1 very often does turn into good and interesting pictures. I suppose the 24mm lens contributes as well. A 24mm lens is sufficiently close to the average human's field of general attentiveness, so you're able to include more of your world in your pictures. As such, any digital camera or digital SLR/lens combination that includes this focal length should be on the photography hobbyist's top ten list.

I love the zoom ring on this camera. When you pay this much for a camera/lens combination, you don't want a sloppy fly-by-wire pseudo-mechanical zoom, you want the fine control and speed that a real mechanical zoom ring delivers. Crazy enough, despite the R1's size and weight, it was the live LCD display and overall design that kept me searching for the zoom toggle on the back of the camera from time to time. There are so few digicams with a zoom ring that it took some getting used to.

Despite all the interface problems I experienced with the Sony R1, I still found myself inspired to get creative. I wished for some event with lots of people to really put the camera through its paces, but I think the camera is more suited to art photography. Artists are wont to spend more time on an image, and it seems this camera is tuned to cater to that kind of user. I think that's true of cameras like the Canon G6 as well.

I also ran the camera though the toddler test, since I have one at my home testing lab. After about 20 shots, I got one I liked. It was in sharp focus and was framed well (my ISO-standard son is a gadget freak like his father, so it's tough to get shots of him doing anything but trying to get close so he can grab my latest review camera). I got far more good shots of my ISO-standard 7-year-old, who was more likely to sit still, at least while doing her homework.

The camera focuses quickly, about on par with SLRs in its class (although it's noticeably slower at telephoto focal lengths), so in theory, it should be fine for kid pictures and other action shots. Because I was shooting in Auto mode, I suspect I may have had trouble with depth of field, since I could usually detect a band of focus somewhere in the shot, but it wasn't always on the critical part of the child. Much of this is due to unfamiliarity with the camera's sweet spots, but of all the shots I took, few were crystal sharp. The ones that were did impress indeed. A particular shot of my son's face yields an amazingly sharp view of his eye when zoomed in to 100 percent on a computer monitor.

Out in the field, sharpness was a mixed bag, but in the Imaging Resource Lab, the images were very sharp. Chromatic aberration is indeed quite low as Sony claimed, and sharpness is pretty consistent from center to corner.

Getting back to action performance, the other impediment to calling this an action camera is the slow shutter lag numbers we got, combined with the low burst depth of three frames. Now, you do get all of those frames in one second if the shutter's set fast enough, but you really have to time your usage of the burst mode, because it's a full 3 to 4 second wait until you can fire your next burst.

Video

One thing Sony engineers weren't able to do with the new sensor design in the R1 was include that old digicam staple: Video. It seems that though they were able to clock the sensor fast enough to draw sufficient pixels for a live preview, there wasn't enough of something to process and store video without heating up the sensor to the point that it produced a lot of noise. That might put off a few prospective buyers, and there are plenty of other cameras to buy if that's important to you. For the user considering a digital SLR, this is something they're already going to have to give up for the sake of greater image quality and ISO performance.

Market

As I mentioned at the outset, the Sony DSC-R1 was destined to a mediocre performance in the market if it came out priced at $1,200. That's true even though it does have quite a bit of merit as a quality digicam. The downward price pressure is high, and when $200 can buy you a whole 3x digicam, it amounts to a lot when customers have SLRs tempting them for less money. The $999 price point is just about right for a 5x zoom camera with a relatively bright f/2.8 lens that reaches back to 24mm, and a 10.3 megapixel sensor slightly smaller than APS-C sized, and that exceeds the pixel count of the SLRs they're looking at. It's enough to make the spec-savvy buyer feel like they're getting a bargain.

It would be hard to get the features offered in the Sony R1 from a digital SLR without paying quite a bit more. To reach that 24mm point, you'd need to buy two lenses, one at the wide end and another at the medium, because most lenses made for these cameras start at about 27mm; reaching 24mm equivalent requires something in the range of a 10mm or 12mm to 24mm lens. In general, these two lenses will cost in the range of $500 to $900 apiece. Having two lenses means you'll have to change them periodically, which will expose your digital SLR to the danger of getting dust on the sensor. That's not as likely with the Sony R1, because the lens never comes off. That's not to suggest that digital SLRs have no advantages, of course. But these are advantages to the Sony R1 worth considering.

Though it has its quirks, the Sony R1 will be tough to send back at the end of the review period. I think it will be very popular among Sony aficionados. They will scoff at my critique and learn to love every foible and difficulty they encounter as part of the wonderful personality of the Sony R1. And as long as they're happily capturing the fine images this camera is able to produce, they'll be right.

 

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