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Sony DSC-S50Sony makes a compact 2.1 megapixel digicam with full movie/sound capability!
Review First Posted: 4/12/2000
||2.1 megapixel CCD, up to 1600x1200 images|
||3x optical , 2x digital zoom|
||Records movies with sound|
||JPEG, GIF, TIFF, and MPEG file formats|
||High-speed USB computer connection|
Sony's new DSC-S50 is an very compact little camera, especially when compared to the floppy-based Sony digicams like the FD-88 and FD-91. But its small frame packs a host of features, including the very nice LCD monitor which we'll get into a little more later. The all plastic body keeps the S50 very lightweight at 13 ounces (370 g) excluding the battery pack. Measuring 4.5 x 2.75 x 2.76 inches (113 x 68 x 69mm), the S50 should fit into most coat pockets and purses. With its accompanying wrist strap, we're pretty sure you won't leave this one behind.
The front of the S50 sports a slightly protruding lens barrel, the lens of which is protected by a removable lens cap. The rest of the camera front is very cleanly designed, with a large finger grip on the side and the built-in flash also present.
The entire right side of the camera (as viewed from the rear) is taken up by the battery compartment/MemoryStick slot. We heartily approve of these two living side by side, as it makes card and battery changes a snap when mounted to a tripod. Both are easy to get to and the sliding, protective door works very smoothly.
The opposite side of the camera mainly features the Video In and USB jacks, beneath a small rubber flap that snaps into place. Otherwise, the lens barrel defines the contour of most of this side.
The shutter release button, mode dial, speaker and microphone all live on the top side of the camera, which has a very smooth surface other than the minor protrusion of the mode control.
All of the camera controls, except those previously mentioned, are on the back panel with the LCD. Let us first mention the extremely flexible LCD monitor which actually lifts up off of the back panel and flips upward 180 degrees. The LCD also has a swivel top that lets you turn it back around to face the camera operator: Pretty nifty, especially for self portraits. It also can be turned to face into the back of the camera and latched in place for safe transport. Aside from the LCD monitor, the zoom control, power switch, DC input, menu controls, flash button, etc. can be found on the back panel. We liked the fact that the LCD monitor has its own backlight adjustment on the back panel (bright/normal), although you do have to go through the settings menu for finer-grained brightness adjustment. There's also a rocker switch for volume control, more convenient when playing back movies than rummaging through the settings menu.
The S50's bottom is very flat and relatively featureless with the exception of the metal tripod mount, set as close to the lens as was possible. The proximity between the lens and tripod mount is good for panorama shooting, but having the socket positioned so far forward on the camera bottom makes for a less stable mount on some tripod heads. We appreciate Sony's use of a rugged metal investment casting for the tripod socket, which we view as being far superior to the structural plastic sockets used on many digicams. As we mentioned earlier, we also applaud the design of the S50's battery compartment and card slot, allowing us to easily change out both while using a tripod. Many digicam manufacturers place these slots on the bottom of the camera, which can be very inconvenient.
Instead of an optical viewfinder, the S50 features a two inch, 123,000 pixel TFT color LCD monitor for composing images. As we noted earlier, we really liked the rotating design of the LCD that lets it actually lift up off of the back panel and flip up 180 degrees. From there it can swivel around to face the camera operator, rotating through a range of about 270 degrees. This is a really nice feature, especially when you want to photograph yourself using the self-timer. (It could also be handy for candid shots, by rotating it so you can face directly away from your subject yet still compose the shot. - A little tricky getting the hang of pointing the camera this way, a bit like trying to write while looking in a mirror, but lots of fun.) The LCD panel has a backlight feature, controlled by a small switch on the left side, which lets you switch the LCD to a special high-brightness mode for bright sunny days when viewing an LCD panel can be tough. There's also a finer-grained adjustment for normal LCD brightness available via the menu system. In normal operation, the LCD panel continuously displays information about various camera settings, such as remaining battery power, image size and quality and how many images have been captured. This information display can be canceled and recalled via the Display button on the lower left side of the LCD. 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.
The viewfinder offers you an "instant review" capability, by which you can immediately see the last photo you shot, without having to switch to Play mode first: Just dismiss the record-mode menu bar at the bottom of the screen (if it's displayed), by hitting the down-arrow key once or twice. Then hit the left arrow button to call up the last image you shot. You then have an option to either delete it or leave it and return to record mode. Playback zoom (see below) isn't available in this mode, but its very handy for a quick check on whether or not you got the shot you wanted.
In Playback mode, the LCD offers a six image index display for viewing several images at once. You can also zoom into captured images up to 5x with the zoom control and scroll around the enlarged image with the arrow keys. (A number of cameras now offer this "zoomed playback" option, but most are restricted to 2x or 3x magnification. The 5x magnification offered by the S50 really helps you see fine details.) As in Record mode, an information display controlled by the Display button reports information about the battery power, filename, etc.
The S50 is equipped with a 3x, 6.1 to 18.3mm lens (equivalent to a 39 to 117mm lens on a 35mm camera). As we mentioned earlier, the lens is protected by a removable lens cap (which unfortunately means you have to keep track of it). Aperture is manually adjustable in Aperture Priority mode from F/2.8 to F/11 in nine steps. Focus is controlled either automatically or manually with a range from 1.75 feet (0.5m) to infinity. Pressing the Focus button cycles through a number of manual and autofocus options: Auto, Macro, 1.75 feet (0.5m), 3.25 feet (1.0m), 9.75 feet (3.0m), 23 feet (7.0m), infinity and back to autofocus. The explicit distance settings are particularly helpful in very dark situations where it's hard to determine proper focus otherwise: We'd really like to see more manufacturers provide distance readouts like this. Under the Auto Macro setting, you can capture subjects as close as 1.18 inches (3cm) to the lens with the lens set at the furthest wide angle setting. Additionally, the Panfocus exposure mode sets up the camera so that the focus will change quickly between far away and close-up subjects. The Landscape exposure mode sets the focus at infinity, for recording distant subjects. One advantage of the non-telescoping lens design is that it supports standard 37mm filter threads, useful for attaching a variety of adapter lenses and other accessory optics.
A 2x digital zoom function can be turned off and on through the Record menu and effectively takes the S50's zoom capabilities to 6x. As always, since the digital zoom simply crops into the CCD array, it directly trades off resolution for the increase in apparent magnification. Digital zoom can be useful if you're working at smaller image sizes for use on the web, but in our opinion is of little use when shooting high resolution photos.
The S50's lens appears to be of fairly high quality, with rather low chromatic aberration (we called it at about a pixel o color at the edges of objects in the corners of the frame). It does have moderate geometric distortion though, showing 0.9%barrel distortion at wide angle, changing to 0.5% pincushion in telephoto mode. (Barrel distortion refers to a tendency for straight lines near the edges of the frame to bow outwards in their centers. Pincushion distortion is the opposite effect, with lines bowing inward from the edges.)
The S50 does very well in Macro mode, capturing a very small area only 0.93 x 1.25 inches (23.7 x 31.6 mm) on a side. This is a good deal smaller area than most digicams we test can handle.
We felt the S50 offered very good exposure control, although most of the exposure settings rely on the LCD based menu system. (We prefer to see common exposure options such as exposure compensation available more directly via separate control buttons.) In addition to the Automatic exposure mode, the S50 offers several special or advanced modes through the Program AE setting in the Record menu. Aperture Priority allows you to set the lens aperture anywhere from F/2.8 to F/11 in approximately 1/2 stop increments, while the camera sets the appropriate shutter speed. Shutter Priority does the exact opposite and lets you set the shutter speed from eight to 1/725 seconds for still images and from 1/8 to 1/725 seconds for movies. Twilight mode helps you to capture a bright subject in dark surroundings by suppressing the tendency to "wash out" the subject's color. Twilight Plus does the same but takes it a little further. Both modes are very useful for night scenes. Landscape and Panfocus modes we mentioned earlier, with Landscape fixing focus at infinity and Panfocus allowing for more rapid focus changes from infinity to shorter subject distances. Finally, the Spot Metering mode tells the camera to take the exposure reading from the very center of the frame, displaying target crosshairs on the LCD to assist your composition.
Exposure compensation can be manually adjusted in any mode from -2 to +2 in 1/3 EV increments. White balance can also be controlled in all modes with settings for Auto, Indoors, Outdoors and Hold (the manual setting). We enjoyed playing with the Picture Effects menu, which allows you to get a little creative with your images through settings like Solarize, Black & White, Sepia and Negative Art. You can also adjust the image sharpness through the Record menu across a range of arbitrary values from -2 to +2. (Minus 2 seems to correspond to no sharpening at all, a good choice for images you'll be manipulating further in an image editing program, applying sharpening only at the end of the process.) Finally, a 10 second self-timer can be activated through the Record menu and a small LED on the front of the camera counts down the seconds once the shutter button has been fully pressed.
The built-in flash on the S50 has four settings: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced and Suppressed. Auto lets the camera judge whether or not the flash is needed by reading the existing light levels. Red-Eye Reduction fires a small pre-flash to reduce the occurrence of the dreaded red-eye effect. Forced means that the flash always fires, regardless of light level and Suppressed simply means that the flash never fires. All modes are selected by pressing the Flash button sequentially to cycle through the options. Flash power in the normal setting extends from 11.8 inches to 8.25 feet (0.3 to 2.5 m). You can adjust the flash intensity through the Record menu to High, Normal or Low, which helps the flash adapt to varying light levels or subject tonal balance.
Movie and Sound Recording
The S50 has both Still and Movie multimedia recording modes. In Still mode, you can record small sound bytes to accompany images through the Record menu (by selecting the Voice record mode). You can record up to 40 seconds of sound for each image.
Under the Movie mode, you can record up to 60 seconds of moving images and sound. Movie resolution can be either 160x112 or 320x240 pixels. Three standard menu options let you select pre-programmed recording times of 5, 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 just 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. We noticed that while recording movies, you can adjust the focus without interrupting recording, a nice feature missing in some other movie-capable digicams. All of the other exposure settings are available here as well with the exception of the flash. One minor complaint about Movie recording on the S50: The good news is that the microphone is very sensitive, able to pick up surprisingly faint sounds in the recording environment. The bad news is that its so sensitive it picks up the very faint noises made by the autofocus motor, when recording in very quiet surroundings. - Playing back a sample movie, we heard a faint sound a bit like an old-time film-based movie projector that we hadn't been aware of in the room when we recorded the segment in question. Sure enough, holding the camera to our ear while recording revealed a faint whisper from the autofocus motor! This probably won't be an issue for most users, in typical environments. You might notice it when recording something like a church service, or intermittent conversation in a quiet room though...
A handy feature of the S50 is its position sensor, which can be enabled or disabled via a menu option. This option tells the camera when it's being used in a vertical ("portrait") orientation, and automatically rotates the image as its stored to the memory card. This saves you having to rotate all those shots on the computer after the fact. Since strong vibration could confuse the sensor, randomly rotating images that should be, you can turn it off via an option on the File menu. (We think this is a very useful feature, and would like to see it incorporated on other digicams - Other manufacturers take note.)
Special Record Modes
The S50 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 mode (available only for the 1600 x 1200 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 in addition to the main image at the size selected through the Record menu. 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.)
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 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.
We found the S50 to be quite responsive, with a shutter lag time of about 0.75 seconds in full autofocus mode, 0.5 seconds in manual focus mode, and only 0.22 seconds when the lens was prefocused by half-pressing the shutter button before the exposure itself. These numbers are a bit faster than average among cameras we've tested. From shot to shot, the S50 was very quick, with a cycle time of only 2.5 seconds between successive full-resolution images, or 2.1 seconds between VGA-resolution ones. (These numbers were measured using the camera in manual focus mode: Cycle times with full autofocus would likely be about 0.25 seconds longer, allowing for the time required by the autofocus system.) These cycle times are quite fast, near the top of the field among two megapixel cameras we've tested to date. (Early April, 2000)
The S50 is also quite fast on startup, shutdown, and when changing modes: Startup time from power on to first picture is only 3.6 seconds, shutdown is effectively instantaneous (you don't have to wait for the lens to retract or anything else before stowing it). It also switches from Record to Play mode in less than a second, and can capture the first picture only 1.4 seconds after switching from Play to Record. These are all very fast numbers.
We found the user interface on the S50 very friendly, with most settings adjusted through the LCD menu system. While we generally prefer less reliance on the LCD, the absence of an optical viewfinder and small status display panel makes the point moot here. Although you can't operate the camera 100 percent one handed, you can get by most of the time as the zoom control and shutter button are both on the right side of the camera. The LCD menu system is very straightforward and navigable via the rocker toggle button on the left side of the LCD. We did find the location of the rocker toggle (aka "jog control") on the left side of the camera took a little getting used to, since most digicams place this control on the right. Ignoring the bias of familiarity though, it probably makes more sense to locate most of the mode controls on the left, leaving the right hand free to operate the shutter and zoom controls.
Shutter Release Button: Located on the top right of the camera, this button triggers the autofocus and exposure with a half press and fires the shutter when fully pressed.
Mode Switch: Also located on the top right of the camera, this rotating switch selects between the Play, Still and Movie operating modes.
Zoom Control: Located on the top right of the camera's rear panel, this rocker button controls the optical zoom from wide angle to telephoto (and the digital telephoto when enabled). In Playback mode, this button controls the image enlargement up to 5x.
Power Switch: Located on the right side of the back panel, about midway top to bottom, this switch turns the camera on and off. It incorporates a built-in latch (the small green dot in the picture above), which prevents it from being actuated accidentally when the camera is riding in your pocket or purse: You have to press in the green latch button and simultaneously slide the control down to turn the power on or off.
Focus Button: Located on the top left of the rear panel, this button cycles between auto focus, macro and a range of manual focus settings.
Flash Button: Located just beneath the Focus button, this button cycles through the four flash modes: Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced and Suppressed.
Rocker Toggle Button ("Control Button"): Located just beneath the Flash button, this button features four arrows, pointing up, down, left, and right. In both Record and Playback modes, this button calls up the settings menu (by pressing the up arrow) and navigates through various menu options. In Playback mode, the arrows scroll through captured images and around an enlarged image. Pressing the button in its center confirms the current menu selection, or selects the current picture in playback/index mode.
Display Button: Located just beneath the rocker toggle button, this button turns the LCD information overlay display on and off in both Record and Playback modes.
Program AE: Located just beneath the Display button, this button cycles through the following exposure modes: Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Twilight, Twilight Plus, Landscape, Panfocus and Spot Metering.
LCD Bright Adjustment Switch: Located on the far left side of the rear panel, this switch adjusts the LCD monitor for bright or normal daylight situations.
Volume Control: Located just below the LCD Bright switch, this dual sided rocker button controls the camera's speaker volume.
Camera Modes and Menus
(NOTE: In most of the screen shots below, the menus normally appear overlaid on the current live viewfinder image. For clarity, we've captured the screen images with the camera lens blocked, producing a black background, making the icons and menus much easier to see. In practice though, you'd normally see the live image appearing on-screen along with the menu displays.)
Playback: This mode is accessed via the mode dial on top of the camera. Playback mode lets the user review images, delete and protect individual images and movies. Following is a description of the Playback menu, which is accessible by pressing the up arrow on the rocker toggle button whenever the camera is in Play mode:
Still Capture Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the Still
position, this mode lets the user capture still images with the following
exposure mode options, all accessed through the Program AE button. As you cycle
through the various modes, small icons in the upper left-hand corner of the
screen show you which mode you've selected:
Mode: Accessed by turning the mode dial to the Movie position, this mode
allows the user to record up to 60 second movies with sound. All the same
exposure options are available as in Still capture mode, with the exception that
flash operation is disabled. Standard movie durations of 5, 10, or 15 seconds
can be selected, or movies up to 60 seconds long may be recorded in
low-resolution mode by holding down the shutter button continuously. When recording a movie segment of a preprogrammed length, the
row of dots in the upper right-hand corner of the screen act as a progress
indicator, showing how much of the allotted time has passed. Note that virtually
all exposure options are available in Movie mode: In the screen shot shown,
we've selected incandescent white balance, +1.0EV of exposure compensation, and
the macro focusing option. (Pretty neat, many cameras greatly restrict your
options during movie recording.)
Record Settings Menu: This menu is accessible in all record modes and is accessed by pressing the up arrow of the rocker toggle button if the menu bar isn't already visible at the bottom of the screen. Following are the five submenus:
Self-Timer: activates the 10 second self-timer which is triggered by the shutter button.
Storage and Interface
The S50 utilizes the Sony MemoryStick for image storage. A 4MB card comes with the camera and additional MemorySticks are available in 8, 16, 32, and 64MB sizes. Individual images can be write protected from accidental erasure (except through card re-formatting) via the Protect option under the Playback settings menu. The entire MemoryStick can be write protected by sliding the lock switch on the card into the locked position. This prevents the stick from being formatted.
The S50'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 MemoryStick. This is a great feature for keeping track of your exposures, but we really prefer the numeric estimate of pictures remaining provided by most other digicams. Granted, such estimates can be off by a few exposures, depending on how well your subject matter compresses, but we find the more quantitative feedback reassuring. Through the Playback settings menu, you can designate whether the camera sequentially numbers each image (across multiple MemorySticks) or restarts file numbering with each new MemoryStick.
Below are the average still image capacity and compression ratios for a 4MB card (note that the uncompressed TIFF setting can only be used with the 1600 x 1200 file size):
|Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity||
The DSC-S50 has a fast USB interface for connecting to a computer. (USB connections are much faster than the older but still common serial ports. With a USB interface between your camera and computer, you really don't need an external card reader for faster file transfers.) We clocked the S50's file-transfer rate at 9.4 seconds for 3.6 megabytes of data, or a net rate of 384 Kbytes/second. This is just slightly slower than average among USB cameras we've tested, but the difference is rather academic: Ten seconds or so to dump four megabytes of photos is quick enough that it shouldn't represent any impediment to your picture-taking!
US and Japanese models of the S50 come with NTSC video cables 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 view images and movies or record them to video tape. The TV display will also carry the live viewfinder imagery, so you can use a TV as a remote viewfinder.
The S50 is powered by an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series) 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 is left. This information is displayed on the LCD monitor with a small battery graphic. Because the S50 uses the (power hungry) LCD monitor continuously, we highly recommend keeping a second battery pack freshly charged for times when the AC adapter isn't convenient. We normally measure camera power consumption, but the "intelligent" communication between the S50 and InfoLITHIUM battery meant that we couldn't intercept the power feed without the camera complaining and shutting down. The best we can do in the case of the S50 then, is to report the number of minutes of operation the camera/battery predicts with a fully-charged battery. These numbers are in the (brief) table below.
|Capture Mode, w/LCD||
The S50 comes with a USB cable for quick connection to a PC or Mac. Also included is a software CD loaded with MGI PhotoSuite SE (with English, Italian, Japanese, French, Spanish and German versions). The application is compatible with Windows 3.1x, 95, 98 and NT as well as Mac OS 7.5 and higher. 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 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. As noted earlier, the S50's USB interface provides very fast photo download times.
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