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Sony DSC-S85

Sony extends its S-series Cybershot line with the S85, sporting a 4-megapixel CCD, Exposure Bracketing, and Burst 3 sequential capture.

Review First Posted: 6/7/2001



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MSRP $700 US

 

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4.1-megapixel CCD delivering 2,272 x 1,704-pixel images
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14-bit digitization for exceptional tonal range and detail
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3x Carl Zeiss lens for clear, crisp images
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MPEG-EX movie recording eliminates record-time limitations


Manufacturer Overview
Sony Electronics 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), they stunned the digicam world by announcing no fewer than six new models. This year (2001), they repeated this hat trick at Spring PMA in Orlando, FL, once again announcing six new units, with some additional releases following in their wake. As they did last year, this year's new models included additions to both the Mavica and Cyber-shot lines.

Introduced five months after the DSC-P30, P50, and S75 were announced in Orlando, the Cyber-shot DSC-S85 broadens Sony's "S-series" Cyber-shot offerings from a single product into a two-model lineup, with the new unit boasting the highest resolution CCD to date (June 2001) for the popular line of Sony consumer digicams. The 4.1-megapixel CCD features 14-bit digitizing for superb highlight detail and low image noise -- further enhanced by the ultra-sharp Carl Zeiss lens with 3x zoom capability first seen in the DSC-S70. In addition to improvements introduced with Sony's 3.3-megapixel S75, this model includes an expanded Burst 3 capture mode and a new Exposure Bracketing option. Read the full review below for the details, but we'll say right at the outset that we think Sony has done just about everything right with this new model. Its combination of great features, price, and image quality make it one of the standout bargains at the upper end of the prosumer digicam world.

This review is based on a late-model prototype unit. The user interface characteristics should be in final form, but it's possible that some aspects of image quality may change. (In our experience, image noise levels usually improve between prototype and production, and color is often tweaked somewhat in production models. The S85 we tested had excellent color, but image noise was a bit higher than we're accustomed to seeing in Cyber-shot cameras.)


Highlights



Executive Overview
The DSC-S85 offers the highest pixel resolution to date for the popular line of Sony Cyber-shot consumer digital cameras (June 2001). Its 4.1-megapixel CCD delivers images in five file sizes, from 640 x 480 to 2,272 x 1,704-pixels, with a choice of Fine or Standard Quality compression modes. Advanced features include 14-bit analog-to-digital (A/D) conversion, fully manual control options, high-quality Carl Zeiss 3x zoom lens, and a variety of creative recording options such as Sony's High Quality (HQ) and Extended (EX) MPEG movie formats, Voice recording, Clip Motion, and Burst 3 modes.

Packed with all these great features, the compact black body measures only about 4.6 x 2.5 x 3 inches (11.7 x 6.4 x 7.6 cm) with the lens retracted, so it should fit neatly into a large coat pocket, purse, or small camera bag. The camera's functional design incorporates an improved LCD menu system (introduced with the earlier 2001 Cyber-shot models) and more external camera controls, including a Mode dial and Jog Dial navigator for adjusting manual focus, shutter speeds, and apertures.

The S85 offers two options for image composition: a real-image optical viewfinder and 1.8-inch color LCD monitor. The optical viewfinder accommodates eyeglass wearers reasonably well, with a diopter adjustment dial to compensate for variations in vision. The eye point is just a hair low (about average for cameras we've tested), so you will end up pressing your glasses against the viewfinder eyepiece. The optical viewfinder and small status display panel on the camera's back panel will help conserve battery power by not relying completely on the LCD monitor to adjust settings (although you'll still need to activate the LCD screen to change menu options). When the LCD monitor is active, an information display reports the remaining battery power, Memory Stick capacity, flash status, and the number of images remaining, plus various exposure settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, image size, and quality.

The S85 is equipped with a 3x, 7- 21mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens (equivalent to a 34-102mm lens on a 35mm camera). Zeiss optics are noted for their sharpness, and the lens is a significant feature of the camera. Our assessment is that it performs better than the lenses on most digicams we've tested. Apertures, shutter speeds and focus can be manually or automatically controlled, with a distance readout display provided on the LCD monitor in Manual focus mode. A 2x Digital Zoom function is activated through the Setup menu, increasing the S85's zoom capabilities to 6x (although with the usual decrease in resolution and quality that results from digital magnification). Macro performance is good, with macro focusing distances ranging from 1.62 inches (4 cm) to 8.0 inches (20 cm).

In addition to its fully Manual exposure mode, the S85 provides Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program AE, and Scene exposure modes. Aperture Priority allows you to select the working aperture -- from f/2.1 to f/8.0 -- while the camera chooses the best corresponding shutter speed. Shutter Priority allows you to select the shutter speed -- from 1/1,000 to eight seconds -- while the camera selects the appropriate aperture. Program AE places the camera in control of both aperture and shutter speed, while you control the remaining exposure parameters. The Scene exposure mode provides three preset shooting modes: Twilight, Landscape, and Portrait, which are designed to obtain the best exposure for specific shooting situations.

A Spot Metering option switches the exposure metering system to take readings from the very center of the image (a crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD monitor). White Balance options include Auto, Indoor, Outdoor, or One Push (the manual setting). Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. The camera's ISO setting offers Auto, 100, 200, or 400 equivalents, increasing performance in low-light shooting situations. The built-in flash features Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, and Suppressed operating modes, with a variable flash intensity setting. As an added bonus, the S85 offers an external flash socket and mounting shoe, which allow you to connect a more powerful flash to the camera. A Picture Effects menu captures images in Solarized, Sepia, Black & White, and Negative Art tones and a Sharpness setting allows you to control the sharpness and softness of the image.

The S85 features Sony's new "MPEG EX" movie format, which provides for continuous MPEG movie recording directly to the memory card. This eliminates arbitrary movie length limitations imposed by internal buffer memory, so you can record as long a movie as you have memory card space available. The MPEG Movie mode includes sound capabilities, plus all of the above exposure controls except flash and ISO. A Clip Motion option, available through the Setup menu, works like an animation sequence, allowing you to capture a series of up to 10 still images to be played back sequentially. Menu options for the Clip Menu mode include White Balance, Image Size, Flash Level, Picture Effects, and Sharpness adjustment. As noted, a significant improvement in the standard MPEG movie mode is the ability to record 320 x 240- and 160 x 112-pixel resolution movies for as long as the memory card will allow, without having to hold down the shutter button (you simply press the shutter button a second time to end the movie). The Movie mode's highest quality option, 320 HQ, is still limited to a maximum recording time of 15 seconds, but provides a higher-quality image, as well as a higher audio sampling rate.

The Record menu offers a list of Record mode options, including a TIFF mode for saving uncompressed images; a Text mode that captures images as black-and-white GIF files, perfect for snapping pictures of white boards and meeting notes; and a Voice recording mode, in which you can record sound clips up to 40-seconds long to accompany captured images (great for "labeling" or annotating shots you've taken). There's also an E-mail record mode that captures a smaller, 320 x 240-pixel image size that's easier for e-mail transmission, in addition to the primary image size you've selected through the Record menu. An Exposure Bracketing option takes the same image at three different exposures: one normal, one overexposed, and one underexposed by +/- 1.0, 0.7, or 0.3 EV (selected through the Setup menu). A Burst 3 mode captures three images in rapid succession with one press of the shutter button (actual frame rates vary with the pixel resolution size and the amount of image information to be recorded), plus a Normal setting.

Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF, JPEGs, MPEGs, or GIFs depending on the Record mode, and are stored on the 8MB Memory Stick included with the camera (higher capacity cards up to 128MB are available). An NTSC video cable is also provided with the camera for connecting to a television set. (European models come equipped for PAL, but the camera itself can switch between the two standards via a Setup menu option). A USB cable provides high-speed connection to PC or Macintosh computers. Software supplied with the DSC-S85 includes MGI's PhotoSuite SE (Mac and Windows) and VideoWave SE (Windows only) for image downloading, image-correction capabilities, and a variety of creative templates for making greeting cards and calendars, as well as basic video editing utilities.

The S85 uses an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series), and comes with an AC adapter that doubles as a battery charger. We really like the InfoLITHIUM batteries because they communicate with the camera -- showing exactly how much battery power has been consumed, and reporting remaining battery capacity via a small readout on the LCD screen. This is really valuable in avoiding lost shots when your batteries die unexpectedly. Battery life is also excellent, among the best we've found. Despite the excellent battery life, our standard recommendation of keeping a second battery pack charged and ready to go still stands, especially when the AC adapter isn't convenient.

Like the earlier Cyber-shot models, the S85 is an enjoyable camera to use, and its user interface and function set have something for everyone: The full-featured exposure control options will satisfy the most advanced user, while its auto-everything "Program" exposure mode will meet the needs of the least-experienced novice. We particularly applaud Sony's new user interface design, and the inclusion of a full-manual exposure mode. All in all, the S85 is a nice compact package, representing one of the best values on the digicam market today. (Spring, 2001)


Design
Maintaining the same compact design and similar overall styling as the DSC-S85, the Sony DSC-S85 is the first 4.1-megapixel offering in the Cyber-shot lineup. The S85 is reasonably trim, but definitely not a shirt-pocket camera. You may feel comfortable carrying it in a large coat pocket or purse, but we would recommend using a small camera bag, or the supplied neck strap to keep it out-of-the-way, yet portable. Its metal and hard plastic body convey a very rugged, solid feel, and the overall build quality is excellent.

While its outward appearance may be similar to the 2000 Cyber-shot models, the S85 has a new user interface and LCD menu that make it much easier (in our opinion) to navigate through the camera's many options. The addition of a Mode dial and Jog Dial navigator (or Command wheel) greatly simplifies the task of setting such variables as shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation. A fully Manual exposure mode gives you more control over camera settings than ever before.



The telescoping Carl Zeiss lens has shifted more toward the center of the camera, sharing the front panel with a flash window to the left, an optical viewfinder window above the lens, an autofocus assist light for low-light shooting, and self-timer LED to count down delayed exposures. A rubber finger grip on the right front of the camera is well shaped to provide a comfortable hold with the right hand, which should wrap comfortably around the curve of the understated right hand grip. The 7-21mm 3x zoom lens extends an additional 3/4 inch beyond the fixed lens barrel, when the camera is powered on and the lens is zoomed out to telephoto range. When the camera powers off, or the Mode dial is set on the Playback or Setup positions for more than a few seconds, the lens retracts into the fixed 3/8-inch lens barrel. A set of filter threads just inside the lip of the lens barrel accommodates Sony's line of accessory lens adapter kits.



The hand grip (right) side of the camera has only a neck strap attachment eyelet, and the Jog Dial navigator nearby, for adjusting exposure settings on the camera's LCD monitor and LED panel. The left side of the camera has the second neck strap eyelet, with the camera's speaker, external flash connection jack, and connector compartment below. A small, hinged, plastic door protects the connector compartment, which houses the USB and A/V Out connection jacks. The external flash connection jack, labeled "ACC," hosts Sony's FL-1000 flash unit, as well as a handful of Sony flash-related accessories.



The S85's top panel is more feature laden than its predecessors, with an external flash "cold shoe" (no electrical contacts on the shoe, for mounting only), the camera's microphone, Shutter button, Mode dial, and power switch. There's also a small, green LED lamp next to the power switch that glows steadily whenever the camera is powered on. The addition of a Mode dial is very welcome, as it greatly simplifies camera operation and makes switching between Recording and Playback modes much faster and more intuitive.



The remaining features and controls are on the S85's back panel. These include the 1.8-inch color LCD monitor, real-image optical viewfinder, small black-and-white status display panel, and a DC In jack in the lower right corner. The optical viewfinder features a diopter adjustment dial and three LEDs that report when the camera is in focus or the flash is charged. A solid green LED indicates that the image is in focus and the camera is ready to fire the shutter, while a flashing green LED means that the autofocus system is having trouble focusing. A solid orange LED shows that the flash is ready to fire, while a flashing orange LED indicates that the flash is still charging. The top LED blinks red when the self-timer is counting down.

A new feature that we instantly enjoyed working with is the Jog Dial navigator wheel on the right side of the back panel. This tiny wheel allows you to quickly change camera settings such as shutter speed and aperture, either via the LCD menu system, or in conjunction with the monochrome status display readout. You simply turn the wheel until its on-screen pointer arrow is alongside the appropriate setting, press in on the wheel to activate it, and turn it to change settings. We also liked the small status display panel above the LCD monitor, which reports many of the camera's settings. Properly used, data readouts like this greatly reduce your dependence on the LCD, speeding camera operation, and conserving battery life. In addition to serving as a navigational tool in the LCD menu system, the four-way Arrow Rocker Pad controls several camera functions through its four arrow keys, including Flash mode, Macro, Self-timer, and Quick Preview. We applaud Sony's decision to bring more feature controls to the back panel. Six dedicated buttons control such features as Menu, Display, Exposure Compensation, Spot Metering, Focus mode, and AE lock. Having external control over these camera features greatly simplifies camera operation and saves battery power by allowing you to work without the LCD monitor.



Finally, the S85 features a nice, flat bottom panel, comprised of the battery / memory compartment door and tripod mount. We were pleased to note that the distance between the compartment door and metal tripod mount is great enough to allow for quick battery and Memory Stick changes while working with a tripod. A sliding, plastic door protects the battery and memory slots, which are side-by-side in the relatively small compartment. A small button locks the battery into place and releases it when you're ready to recharge or replace the battery cell. The Memory Stick features a push lock instead of a release button, which means that you have to give it a gentle push to release it from the slot. Also in the compartment is a tiny Reset button, which resets all the camera's settings to their factory defaults.


Viewfinder
For composing images, the S85 features a real image optical viewfinder and a color LCD monitor. The optical viewfinder zooms along with the lens, but does not show the 2x digital zoom, which can only be enabled when the LCD monitor is activated. A central autofocus crosshair in the viewfinder assists with focus and exposure lock. Eyeglass wearers will be pleased to note the diopter adjustment dial on the left side of the eyepiece, which adjusts the view for near- and farsighted vision. We also found that the S85's viewfinder eyepiece had a fairly high eyepoint, meaning there is adequate space for an eyeglass lens to fit between the photographer's eye and the viewfinder image, without affecting vision. (We did find it necessary to press our glasses against the viewfinder eyepiece somewhat, although that didn't interfere with our use of the camera too much. Still, we'd like just another millimeter or so of eye relief on the eyepiece design.)


The 1.8-inch color LCD monitor on the back panel is activated by pressing the Display button, which also controls the information display. Pressing the button once activates the LCD monitor (if it was previously turned off) with the information display turned on. A second press cancels the information display, and the third press shuts the image display off completely. In Record mode, the LCD monitor's information display reports a plethora of information, including image resolution, JPEG compression level, number of remaining images (plus available Memory Stick space), exposure compensation, f/stop, shutter speed, flash mode, and an excellent feature unique to Sony cameras -- the number of minutes remaining on the battery! In Automatic and Scene modes, a half press of the shutter button is necessary to display the current shutter speed and aperture settings, and in some capture modes, only applicable readings will be displayed.


We liked the Manual Focus display, which eschews the usual focus bar. Instead, the current distance setting is shown in a single, numeric reading, which you can change by turning the Jog Dial (when the focus distance is highlighted on the LCD screen). Being able to set the lens focus to a specific (numeric) distance can be invaluable when setting up for shots in low-light conditions. (Although, the S85's focus-assist light also works exceptionally well, providing well-focused pictures even in total darkness.) We also noticed that when you manually adjust the focus, the LCD monitor snaps into focus dramatically as soon as you select the right distance. We're not sure how Sony managed to make focus changes so dramatically obvious on the LCD, but whatever they did seems to work well, and makes the manual focus option much more useful than those we've seen on many other cameras.

Our one significant complaint about the S85's viewfinder system is that we found the optical viewfinder to be rather "tight," showing only about 83.6 percent of the final image area at wide angle, and about 83.2 percent at telephoto (for all four image resolutions). Most point & shoot cameras show about 85 percent of the final image area in the optical viewfinder, and we personally prefer to see something closer to 90 percent coverage. The S85's LCD monitor produced much more accurate results, showing almost exactly 100% of the image area, at all zoom settings and image sizes. Since we generally like to see LCD monitors as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the S85 performed very well in this respect.

In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers an Index display mode as well as a 1.1 to 5x Playback Zoom, which enlarges captured images for closer inspection. Once enlarged, the Arrow buttons enable you to scroll around inside the image. The Display button controls the information and image display in Playback mode, cycling through three modes: No display, image with information, and image without information. The Playback image information includes the file type (movie or still), image size, where the image falls in the Playback index, remaining card capacity, file name, date and time the image was taken, and the remaining battery power.

We also liked the control the S85 provides over the LCD display itself. Most digicams we've tested offer a "brightness" adjustment that really only changes the LCD contrast setting. Like the S75, the S85 provides that control, but also lets you adjust the actual brightness of the LCD's backlight as well. Very handy for sunny shooting conditions, albeit at the cost of a roughly 20 percent increase in power consumption. Between the contrast and backlight adjustment options, the S85's LCD screen is one of the best we've seen for use in full sunlight. (Surprisingly, it actually is usable even in full sun, pretty remarkable, given how miserably most cameras perform in this respect.)


Optics
The S85 is equipped with the same 3x, 7-21mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens (equivalent to a 34-102mm lens on a 35mm camera) that we so admired on the S70 and S75 models. This lens produces unusually sharp images from corner to corner, noticeably crisper than what we've seen from many other digicams. The lens is protected by a removable, spring-lock lens cap, which comes with an easy-to-thread lens strap opening and a small tether strap to keep it from getting lost.

In Aperture Priority and Manual modes, the aperture is manually adjustable from f/2.1 to f/8.0, in nine steps. Shutter speed is adjustable from 1/1,000 to eight seconds, with more than 40 steps in between. Macro mode is engaged by pressing the right Arrow button, which changes the focus range to 1.62 inches (4 cm) to 8 inches (20 cm), when the lens is set at its widest angle focal length.

Focus can be controlled either automatically or manually with a focal range from 9.87 inches (25 cm) to infinity. Pressing the Focus button in the lower left corner of the camera's back panel cycles between Manual and Auto Focus control. When Manual control is selected, you make adjustments by turning the Jog Dial navigator wheel. As you turn the wheel, the focus distance is displayed on the LCD monitor next to the Jog Dial arrow, which is a great help when shooting in low-light conditions. (Remember that you have to press down on the Jog Dial navigator when the arrow is positioned next to the Manual focus readout to engage the appropriate wheel adjustment) Also helpful in low-light settings is the AF assist light, selected via the Setup menu, which helps the camera make adjustments in Auto Focus mode. We were very impressed with the results from the AF assist light, as it focused flawlessly under the darkest shooting situations.

Optical distortion on the S85 is moderate at the wide-angle end, where we measured approximately 0.73 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared quite a bit better, as we saw only about two pixels worth of pincushion distortion, a negligible amount. (This is a bit better than average for digicams we've tested with 3x zoom lenses: Most 3x zooms show about 0.8 percent barrel distortion at their wide angle setting, and about 0.3 percent at telephoto.) Chromatic aberration is also relatively low, showing about one or two pixels of coloration on each side of the black target lines. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects on the resolution target, at the edges of the field of view.) Finally, the S85's lens is very sharp across the full frame, even in the corners. Some corner softening is evident, but a good bit less than we're accustomed to seeing in digicam lenses.

Overall, the S85's lens does a great job. It also features filter threads to accommodate a variety of Sony lens conversion kits. These kits rely on a barrel adapter that screws onto the camera's body threads, providing a set of fixed filter threads ahead of the furthest extension of the telescoping lens assembly. The adapter by itself can also be used to attach non-Sony accessory lenses, such as macro adapters, etc. When working with a Sony lens conversion kit, you need to inform the camera (via the Record menu) that the lens is attached, so the camera's autofocus can allow for the additional optical element.

The 2x Digital Zoom function is enabled through the camera's Setup menu, effectively increasing the S85's zoom capabilities to 6x. When engaged, Digital Zoom takes over once you've zoomed past the normal telephoto range (the LCD display must be on). You can see the change from optical to digital zoom by observing the marker in the Zoom Range indicator on the LCD panel. As always, we warn readers that digital telephoto is not the same as optical zoom, and that it causes noticeable deterioration in image quality by adding excess noise and often softening the image.

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

Exposure
Confused by White Balance? Visit our free Photo Lessons area and click on the lessons "White Balance Indoors" and "White Balance Outdoors!"
Exposure control is much improved in the S85's user interface. The strong reliance on the LCD menu system seen in the earlier Cyber-shot models has been significantly reduced by the addition of more external controls. A Mode dial on the top of the camera lets you quickly select major camera operating modes, including full Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes. Additional control buttons on the back panel let you change basic exposure settings, such as metering options, exposure compensation, and AE Lock with a single button-push. Finally, a small Jog Dial navigator wheel (on the right side of the camera back) simplifies exposure adjustment even more, by allowing you to change exposure compensation, manual focus, aperture, and shutter speed, simply by turning it. With the rear panel color LCD screen disabled, many exposure functions can still be controlled via the small data readout, also on the camera's back. We found the user interface slightly tricky for using the Jog Dial wheel without the large LCD screen, but once we realized that its operation was the same as when the LCD was illuminated, things became much clearer.

Four main exposure modes offer varying levels of control: Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual. In Program mode, the camera controls the basic exposure, but allows you to determine all other variables, such as ISO, White Balance, and Flash. Shutter Priority enables you to set the shutter speed from 1/1,000 to eight seconds while the camera controls the lens aperture. Alternately, Aperture Priority mode allows you to set the lens aperture from f/2.1 to f/8.0 while the camera sets the appropriate shutter speed. In both Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, the shutter and aperture values will flash in the LCD panel (when the shutter button is pressed halfway) if the camera disagrees with the chosen settings. This gives you an opportunity to adjust the exposure without wasting a shot.

We were glad to see the inclusion of a Manual exposure mode, which wasn't available with the earlier Cyber-shot models. Manual exposure mode provides complete control over exposure, including aperture settings, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and metering. In all three adjustable modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual), the Jog Dial wheel adjusts the aperture or shutter speed settings.

Some additional comment on Sony's Jog Dial wheel implementation is perhaps in order here, since we suspect others may find it confusing at the outset, as we did. A yellow arrow on the LCD screen points to one adjustable setting, such as aperture, shutter, or exposure compensation, and pressing in on the wheel highlights that setting in yellow, allowing you to make adjustments by simply turning the wheel. Pressing on the wheel a second time removes the yellow highlight, so that you can move the yellow arrow to a new adjustable setting. Where we got into trouble was apparently in pressing it too quickly in some modes, which resulted in it ignoring the actuation, and made it seem like nothing was happening. It may be that there's a "debounce" delay on the pressure switch for the wheel, producing a "dead" interval after each actuation. Whatever the case, once we calmed down a little and operated the control in a more deliberate manner, we had no further trouble. In Automatic exposure mode, the only adjustable setting you can access via the wheel is exposure compensation

As noted earlier, we applaud Sony's inclusion of the small data readout LCD to facilitate camera operation without resorting to the large color LCD display. Here again though, the Jog Dial's operation proved a little confusing, with the controls at first seeming to operate in a random fashion. After a little thought, we realized that the camera was operating exactly as it would have with the LCD screen on, but that the data readout LCD lacked any highlighting mechanism to indicate which exposure variable was selected. (Note to the Sony engineers: Blinking numbers would work very well as a "selected" indicator.) Once we figured out what was going on though, we fairly quickly became adept at switching between the various controls and making setting changes. Overall, a slightly confusing implementation, but one that we applaud nonetheless. In our view, over-dependence on LCD menu systems is one of the biggest user interface problems in current digicam designs. Sony's implementation of the Jog Dial isn't perfect, but it does go a long way toward improving the efficiency of the camera's user interface.

In addition to the four main exposure modes, there are three preset Scene modes that adjust the camera for shooting in specific situations: Twilight, Landscape, and Portrait. Twilight mode adjusts the exposure to capture a bright subject in dark surroundings (neon lights would be a good example), without washing out the color. Because Twilight mode usually employs a slower shutter speed, a tripod is recommended to prevent blurring from camera movement. Landscape mode uses a smaller aperture setting to keep both the background and foreground in sharp focus, allowing you to capture broad vistas of scenery. Portrait mode uses a larger lens aperture setting to decrease the depth of field, keeping the subject in sharp focus, with the background slightly blurred.

For normal exposures, the S85 uses an "averaged" metering system, meaning that the camera averages exposure readings throughout the image to determine the best overall exposure. For high-contrast subjects, a Spot Metering option (controlled by a button on the back panel) takes the exposure reading from the very center of the frame. A center crosshair target appears on the LCD monitor (inside the focus brackets), to show the location of the spot exposure reading. For metering off-center subjects, you can take your reading of the subject you want metered, then use the AE Lock button on the back panel to lock the exposure reading. Once exposure is locked, you can recompose the image and release the shutter.

Exposure compensation can be manually adjusted from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments, in all exposure modes except Manual. As noted above, you can access the exposure compensation adjustment when the LCD is disabled, solely through the Jog Dial, but this can be a little confusing. The easiest thing to do is to simply press the +/- button on the back of the camera, which immediately enables exposure adjustment in any camera mode in which it's permitted. The S85 also offers a new Exposure Bracketing feature that takes the same image at three different exposures: one normal, one overexposed, and one underexposed (by +/- 1.0, 0.7, or 0.3 exposure equivalents, selected through the Setup menu). The Exposure Bracketing mode does not work with flash, and it restricts itself to only "acceptable" exposure settings when used in Program mode. (For example, when we photographed a subject in low light, the camera gave us two images at f/2.3 for 1/30 second and one at 1/60 second. It did not provide a 1/15 second exposure, because that shutter speed falls below the normally accepted handheld exposure range.)

The camera's light sensitivity can be set through the Record menu to Auto, or 100, 200, or 400 ISO equivalents, increasing the camera's low-light shooting capabilities with higher ISO settings. White Balance (WB) can also be controlled in all exposure modes, with available settings of Auto, Indoors, Outdoors, and One-Push (manual setting). The "One-Push" white balance mode is the same as "manual" white balance options found on many higher-end digicams. One-Push allows you to set the camera's white balance by pointing it at a white card and telling it to use that color as a reference. In our testing, this worked very well, and the S85's manual white balance option seems to be one of the best we've seen to date. As with many other Sony cameras, the S85 offers a Picture Effects menu, providing a little in-camera creativity. Settings like Solarize, Black & White, Sepia, and Negative Art can add interest to your images by altering color or reversing the highlights and shadows.

The S85 also offers a menu selection for adjusting image sharpening in-camera, providing a range of sharpness values ranging from -2 to +2 in arbitrary units. The default value of zero is fine for most uses, but you might want to boost the sharpness a bit if your shots will be printed on a low-quality inkjet printer. On the other hand, the lowest sharpness setting may be useful for images that you plan to manipulate in Photoshop or other image editing application. In these programs, you typically want to apply sharpening at the end of the manipulation process. While we like to see fine gradations of sharpness control in digicams, we felt that the control in the S85 was perhaps a little too subtle. We'd prefer a little more range in this control. (But we have to admit that if the choice is between too much sharpening adjustment and too little, we'll opt for the more understated approach every time.) Finally, a 10-second self-timer can be activated by pressing the down Arrow button on the back panel. Once the shutter button has been fully depressed, a small LED lamp on the front of the camera counts down the seconds until the shutter is released.

When you have images stored on the Memory Stick, the left arrow key on the Arrow rocker button (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 S85's built-in flash has three settings activated by pressing the Flash button on the Arrow rocker pad: Auto, Forced, and Suppressed. 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 pictures.

You can adjust the flash intensity to High, Normal, or Low, through the Record 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. In Normal mode, flash range extends from 12 inches to 9.75 feet (0.3 to 3.0 meters). In our testing, we found the flash reasonably effective all the way to 15 feet. Flash exposures were a little bright between eight and 10 feet from the target, but maintained a good intensity level out to 13 feet. Intensity declined slightly at the 14- and 15-foot distances, but we felt the flash was still usable even at that distance. We felt that the Low flash intensity was best for close-range portrait shots, as the Normal and High settings tended to wash out the color and overexposed highlight areas.

Flash distribution appeared relatively even at the telephoto setting of our viewfinder test shot, except for a small hot spot in the center of the target. At the wide-angle setting, flash distribution was also good, with only a very small amount of falloff at the corners and a tiny hot spot in the center of the target.

An external flash sync socket is located on the left side of the camera, directly above the digital and video jack compartment. A "cold" shoe mount on top of the camera eliminates the need for a flash bracket. The only complaint we have here is that the external flash connection is only compatible with Sony's FL-1000 accessory flash, instead of the normal range of standard external flash units. This would be fine if an adapter were available to connect conventional flash units to the camera, but as far as we know, no such adapter exists, nor does Sony have plans to market one. While it's true that a third-party "dumb" flash unit would lose all the exposure-control benefits offered by Sony's own units, we suspect that many purchasers of the S85 will already own an external flash unit as part of their film-based kit, and would like the option of using it with the S85, even with restricted functionality.

Movie and Sound Recording
In any of the S85's still capture modes, you can record short sound clips to accompany images. This option is available through the Record menu by selecting the Voice record mode. You can record up to 40 seconds of sound for each image by holding down the shutter button. By pressing and releasing the shutter button quickly, you can record for only five seconds.

One of Sony's enhancements to the S85 is in its "MPEG EX" technology, which permits continuous recording of MPEG movies directly to the memory card in "standard" quality mode. This enables you to record movies as long as you have Memory Stick space, eliminating the 15-second maximum-length restriction that the S70 had.

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 with sound at either High Quality (HQ) 320 pixels, or standard quality 320 x 240 and 160 x 112 pixels. As noted, MPEG EX means that you can record standard-quality movies for as long as the Memory Stick has space. At the HQ setting,, recording time is again restricted to 15 seconds, but the image quality, frame rate, and audio sampling rate are all significantly increased. 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. At the 320 x 240- and 160 x 112-pixel settings, the S85 records in the MPEG EX format, capturing eight frames per second, with audio sampling at 4 KHz. The 320 HQ setting captures16 frames per second, uses less image compression, and increases the audio sampling rate to 10 KHz. Additionally, movies captured in the 320 HQ setting play back full screen in Playback mode, as opposed to the smaller display shown with the MPEG EX settings.

The S85 also addresses what was previously a significant missing feature in the "movie" capabilities of digital still cameras: Editing! We don't think digicam users will want to engage in full A/B roll video editing on their cameras, but we've often found that we wanted to trim off material from the beginning or end of a video we've recorded, or to extract an interesting bit of action from the middle of a much longer clip with (how to put it politely?) less than stellar footage. The S85 provides for this via an option on the Playback menu called Divide. As its name suggests, Divide works by dividing movies into two segments. Do this once to trim away spurious material at the front of the clip you're interested in, do it a second time to remove the unwanted footage at the end. Once you've split the movie into parts like this, throw away the segments you don't need, or keep them around to show your viewers how lucky they are that you're only showing them the "interesting" parts. ;-)

After enabling the Divide function through the Playback menu, the S85 starts to play back the movie. You simply press the center of the Arrow rocker button to stop the playback where you'd like to make an edit. From there, you can scroll backward or forward frame-by-frame until you find the point where you'd like to divide the movie. You can then either delete the unwanted portion of the movie or keep it on the Memory Stick. As noted, the Divide function is great for "editing" out the best part of a movie file, 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. The screen shot at right shows the LCD display with a Divide operation in progress.

Clip Motion
This is a slick little feature that we really enjoyed on the Sony DSC-P1, where it first appeared. The Clip Motion capture mode turns the S85 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. We used the DSC-P1's Clip Motion feature to make the animation of the P1's underwater housing shown above right - This feature works the same way on the S85.

Special Record Modes
The S85 gives you several recording format options for still images, with some enhancements to the S75 model. Through the Record menu, you can select TIFF for uncompressed images, Text, Voice (mentioned above), E-mail, Exposure Bracketing (a new feature), Burst 3 (compared to Burst 2 on the S75), or Normal modes. 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. The e-mail image is recorded simultaneously with an image size selected through the Record menu's Image Size option. The Text mode records a black-and-white GIF file that is perfect for taking pictures of white boards, flip charts, or meeting notes. Exposure Bracketing takes the same image at three different exposures: one normal, one overexposed, and one underexposed (by +/- 1.0, 0.7, or 0.3 exposure equivalents, selected through the Setup menu). Burst 3 mode allows you to take a maximum of three frames in rapid succession. Actual frame rates will vary with the image resolution and amount of information to be recorded.


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 using a proprietary Imaging Resource test apparatus.

NOTE! The times shown below are based on measurements performed on a prototype unit. We expect that final production models will be faster, both in shutter lag and cycle time specs, based on comments by Sony staff. We decided to present the figures below anyway though, since the numbers for startup/shutdown times will be valid, and since the other numbers at least set an upper bound on cycle time performance.

Sony DSC-S85 Zoom Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
6.58
About average for telescoping-lens designs.
Shutdown
6.15
Also about average
Play to Record, first shot
1.25
Time until first shot is captured, from "instant review" mode. Quite fast.
Record to play (max/min res)
10.51/6.36/1.09
Images appear quickly as a low res version, then "fill-in" within a few seconds. Faster than average to first view, a bit slower than average to full res version. Longest time shown is for high res JPEG, immediate switch to playback mode after shutter is pressed.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
1.25
Somewhat slower than average. (0.9)
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.84
Slower than average. (0.5)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.19
Faster than average. (0.3)
Cycle Time, max/min resolution
4.18/4.04
About average, not bad for 4.1 megapixels. (No buffer, as far as we can tell, all shots at the same speed.)
Cycle time, continuous mode
0.71/1.41 fps
Moderately fast, burst of three frames. (Max/min res are the same.)


Oddly, the S85 showed longer shutter lag times than the S75, possibly a consequence of the prototype status of the camera we tested for this early review. Its performance is thus somewhat below that of other high end cameras it competes with. (We consider 0.8 second lag time to be the average among top-end prosumer cameras.) Lag time in manual focus also slower than average, but prefocus lag is somewhat better than average (0.19 seconds, vs 0.3 for the average in its class). Cycle time from shot-to-shot is pretty good at 4.1 seconds. The camera doesn't appear to use an internal memory buffer to speed capture for the first few shots. The downside is that cycle time is only a little faster than average, but from a more positive perspective, that cycle time is never slower than 4.1 seconds. Continuous mode provides a shot-to-shot interval of only 0.71 seconds, for the first three images captured. (There's obviously a buffer memory here, so we can't understand why it isn't used in normal single-frame shooting.)


Operation and User Interface
As we discussed in the Design section of this review, we heartily approve of the DSC- S85's new and improved user interface. Additional external camera controls reduce the reliance on the LCD menu system and greatly simplify overall camera operation. The ready access to exposure controls and other camera functions, and the less complicated LCD menu system mean that you spend less time scrolling through LCD menu screens and options. Though the LCD display is still required for some settings, overall camera operation is much faster and easier. The newly added Jog Dial and accompanying monochrome LCD data readout also allow you to adjust the exposure compensation, aperture, and shutter speed settings with the main LCD disabled. This saves power and allows faster camera operation. We were also glad to see the addition of a Mode dial for selecting Record and Playback modes, and the manner in which functions were assigned to the four-way Arrow key pad (very clearly marked we might add), for even less reliance on the LCD menus. The revamped control system struck us as being very well thought out, and very conducive to fluid use of the camera as a photographic tool.


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Located on the right side of the top panel, this button sets focus and exposure when pressed halfway. Fully depressing the button fires the shutter. When the Quick Review (the shot just taken) is displayed on the screen, a half press of the shutter button returns the LCD to the normal image display. When the Self-timer is enabled, fully depressing the shutter button kicks off the 10-second countdown.


Power Switch: Just behind the shutter button and underneath the Mode dial, this switch turns the camera on and off.


Mode Dial: Stacked on top of the Power Switch, this dial controls the camera's operating modes. Options include Program (camera symbol), Shutter Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A), Manual (M), Scene (SCN), Setup, Movie and Clip (film frame), and Playback modes.


Jog Dial Navigator (Command Wheel): Located on the top right side of the camera's back panel, this wheel controls aperture and shutter speed settings in Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes. You simply turn the wheel until its on-screen pointer is alongside the appropriate setting, press in on the wheel to activate it, and turn the wheel to change settings. When Manual Focus is enabled, turning the wheel adjusts focus and displays the focus distance on the LCD monitor. When the Exposure Compensation adjustment is activated, turning the wheel adjusts the exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. (As noted in the earlier Exposure section of this review, we felt that some aspects of the Jog Dial's operation could have been better designed. On the whole though, we appreciate its inclusion in the S85's design.)


Zoom Button: To the left of the Jog Dial, the Zoom button controls the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any Record mode. In Playback mode, the wide-angle side of the button activates the Index Display mode, while the telephoto side controls the Playback Zoom up to 5x. Once in Index Display mode, pressing the wide-angle side again displays the image information for the highlighted thumbnail, including exposure information.


Diopter Adjustment Dial: Located on the left side of the optical viewfinder eyepiece, this notched dial adjusts the viewfinder to accommodate near- or farsighted users.


Four-Way Arrow Rocker Pad (also: Flash, Quick Review, Macro, and Self-Timer Buttons): Situated just below the viewfinder eyepiece, this button serves a variety of functions. On its surface, the pad features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. When any settings menu is engaged, these arrows navigate through the menu options. Once an option is selected, you confirm the selection by pressing on the center of the button. (You will hear a dual tone when you press the center, as opposed to the single tone you hear when you press an arrow.) In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images, while the up and down arrows control the playback volume. If a movie file is displayed, pressing the center of the button triggers the movie playback.

In addition to menu scroll functions, the Arrow Pad also controls certain exposure and camera settings. The Up Arrow button is marked with a flash symbol, and cycles between the Auto, Forced, and Suppressed Flash modes (in all capture modes except Movie). The Right Arrow button, marked with the macro flower symbol, enables and disables the camera's Macro mode. The Down Arrow controls the Self-timer mode, cycling between Normal and Self-timer capture modes. Finally, the Left Arrow activates and deactivates the Quick Review function, which displays the most recently captured image on the LCD screen.


Menu Button: Located directly below the Arrow Rocker Pad, on the left side, this button activates and deactivates the settings menus in any camera mode except Setup (which automatically displays the menu upon entering the mode). If the LCD monitor is switched off, pressing the Menu button turns on the display. In these cases, deactivating the menu also turns off the LCD display.


Display Button: To the right of the Menu button, the Display button controls the LCD display in all camera modes except Setup. Pressing the Display button sequentially cycles through three modes: No display; image and information display; and image display only.


Exposure Compensation Button: Directly below the Menu button, the Exposure Compensation button (+/-) activates the exposure compensation adjustment, which is changed by turning the Jog Dial.


Spot Metering Button: To the right of the Exposure Compensation button, the Spot Metering button ( [•] ) switches between Spot and Normal (averaged) metering modes. When Spot Metering is enabled, a crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD screen.


Focus Button: Located below the Exposure Compensation button, the Focus button cycles between Automatic and Manual focus modes.


AE Lock Button: To the right of the Focus button, the AE Lock button locks an exposure reading until the shutter button is fully depressed.


Camera Modes and Menus

Program AE: Noted on the Mode dial with the green camera symbol, Program mode places the camera in control of both the aperture and shutter speed settings, allowing you to set the remaining exposure variables (White Balance, ISO, Exposure Compensation, Image Size, Picture Quality, Flash, and Normal or Spot Metering).

Shutter Priority: In Shutter Priority mode, you set the shutter speed (from 1/1,000 to eight seconds), while the camera selects the best corresponding aperture. All other exposure variables can also be adjusted.

Aperture Priority: In Aperture Priority mode, you set the desired lens aperture (from f/2.1 to f/8.0) while the camera selects the best corresponding shutter speed. All other exposure variables can also be adjusted.

Manual: Manual exposure mode offers full user control over exposure, including aperture and shutter speed settings. All exposure variables except for exposure compensation are available in this mode.

Scene: Scene mode provides access to three preset shooting modes: Twilight, Landscape, and Portrait. The actual scenes are changed through the Setup menu (in Setup mode). Twilight mode uses a slow shutter speed to accommodate darker shooting situations. If used with a flash, this becomes a slow sync mode, capturing the illuminated subjects in the foreground with the flash, and using the longer shutter speed to record ambient light from the background. Landscape mode uses a small aperture opening to keep both the foreground and background in focus. The Portrait mode uses a large aperture opening to decrease the depth of field, thereby keeping the subject in sharp focus and slightly blurring the background. Most exposure variables, except for aperture and shutter speed settings, are available in the Scene modes.

Setup: Setup mode lets you change basic camera settings.

Movie: Movie mode, marked on the Mode dial with a film strip symbol, captures MPEG movies up to 60 seconds with sound. Most exposure variables are available, except for flash and ISO. If the Clip Motion option is selected from the Setup menu, Movie mode will capture up to 10 frames of still GIF images at a time, to be played back in succession to create an animated effect.

Playback: Captured images and movies can be reviewed and played back in this mode. Images can also be erased, write-protected, copied, resized, set up for printing on a DPOF device, or played back in a slide show. A rudimentary editing function (Divide) allows you to chop up movie files into smaller segments.

Record Menu: The Record menu is accessible in all capture modes by pressing the Menu button, however, not all menu options are available in all capture modes.



Setup Menu: The three-panel setup menu is automatically displayed on the LCD monitor upon entering Setup mode:



Playback Menu: As with the Record 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 DSC-S85 uses the proprietary Sony Memory Stick technology for image storage. An 8MB Memory Stick is supplied with the camera and additional media are available up to 128MB. Individual images can be write-protected from accidental erasure (except through card formatting) via the Protect option under the Playback settings menu. Individual write-protection also prevents the image from being 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 S85's LCD monitor reports the number of images remaining on the Memory Stick (based on current image resolution and quality settings), and displays a small graphic to let you know approximately how much space is available. (In Movie mode, the camera reports the available recording time.) Through the Playback settings menu, you can designate whether the camera numbers each image sequentially (from one Memory Stick to the next), or restarts file numbering with each new Memory Stick. The Playback menu also offers a Resize option, as well as Copy and Rotate tools. The camera's Digital Print Option Format (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.

Image Size options include 2,272 x 1,704, 2,272 x 1,567 (3:2), 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, or 640 x 480 pixels. The E-mail mode records a smaller (320 x 240-pixel) image size along with a file at the set resolution. Movie file sizes are 320 (HQ), 320 x 240, and 160 x 112 pixels for MPEG EX Movies, or 160 x 120 and 80 x 72 pixels for Clip Motion files. In addition to the uncompressed TIFF file format, the S85 offers both Fine and Standard JPEG compression levels, and a GIF option for Text and Clip Motion recording modes.

The table below shows the approximate still image capacities and compression ratios for an 8MB Memory Stick (main resolution sizes):

Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity
Uncompressed TIFF
Fine Quality
Standard Quality
2,272 x 1,704
Images
1
8
15
Approx. Compression
N/A
6:1
11:1
1600 x 1200
Images
N/A
16
30
Approx. Compression
N/A
6:1
11:1
1280 x 960
Images
N/A
25
46
Approx. Compression
N/A
6:1
11:1
640 x
480
Images
N/A
98
245
Approx. Compression
N/A
6:1
14:1


The DSC-S85 is also accompanied by a USB cable for quick connection to a PC or Macintosh computer, as well as a software CD containing interface software and USB drivers. We clocked the S85 at 28.1 seconds for a 11,620KB file transfer, at a rate of 414 KBytes/second. This is a faster than average for USB-connected cameras we've tested.

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




Video Out

Both US and Japanese models of the DSC-S85 come equipped with an NTSC video cable for connection to a television set. (We assume that European models come with a PAL cable, since there is a PAL setting on the camera.) Once connected to the TV, you can review images and movies or record them to video tape.


Power

The DSC-S85 is powered by an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series) and comes with an AC adapter which doubles as an in-camera battery charger. The InfoLITHIUM battery packs actually exchange information with the camera, reporting approximately how many minutes of battery life are left (when the camera is running strictly on battery power). This information is displayed in the upper left corner of the LCD monitor along with a small battery graphic. The battery graphic is displayed by itself in the upper left corner of the smaller information display window above the monitor. The AC adapter plugs into a small socket on the camera's back panel (lower right corner). It can run the camera without a battery inserted, or charge the battery when the camera isn't in use. When left unattended, the S85 will go into sleep mode when running on battery power, and revert to Demo mode when used with the AC adapter.

The Li-Ion battery packs used in Sony cameras prevent us from making our usual power measurements, but the good news is that the InfoLITHIUM system reports projected camera runtime while the battery is being used in the camera. The following runtimes were reported by the S85 with a freshly charged 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.) While these are some of the best runtime numbers we've seen among digicams we've tested, we still always recommend users purchase and pack along a second battery. (Another advantage of the Li-Ion technology 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
180 minutes
Capture Mode, w/LCD
216 minutes
Image Playback
286 minutes

Included Software

The software they didn't include...
(But that you should)
Few people realize just how *much* you can improve your digicam images through clever processing in Photoshop. Greatly (!) increased sharpness, reduced noise, and even ultra-wide dynamic range (light-to-dark range) by combining multiple exposures. Fred Miranda and uber-Photoshop expert Fred Miranda has packaged some of his Photoshop magic in a collection of powerful and affordably priced "actions." Check out his site, the results are pretty amazing!

The S85 comes with a software CD loaded with the same software bundle as was sold with the S75: MGI PhotoSuite SE and MGI VideoWave III SE. Two versions of MGI PhotoSuite are included on the CD. Version 8.1 is compatible with Windows 95/98/98Se/Me/2000/NT4.0; 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 with a slide show or in album format, and then set them up for printing. In addition to traditional photo editing and manipulation tools, PhotoSuite offers a variety of templates to help turn your images into mock magazine covers, sports cards, greeting cards, and calendars. Combined with the camera's Picture Effects menu options, MGI PhotoSuite SE allows you to be really 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.


Included Hardware

Included in the box with the DSC-S85 are the following items:



Test Results
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In keeping with our standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only our key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the DSC-S85's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the DSC- S85 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

Overall, the S85 produced really excellent images. Color was quite good, with appropriately saturated primary colors, as well as good handling of pastels. Overall color accuracy was very high, and color saturation in the difficult subtractive primaries (cyan, magenta, yellow) appeared slightly better than on the earlier S75. Tonal range was also excellent, particularly in the shadow details. At the other end of the scale, the S85 managed to preserve highlight detail in many shooting situations where lesser cameras produced blown-out, pure white images. The S85's white balance system did a good job with most of our light sources, and the manual white balance option seemed slightly more accurate than that of the previous S75. Perhaps most interesting on the white balance front was how well the S85's automatic white balance setting did with our difficult indoor portrait shot, taken under household incandescent lighting. The S85's auto white balance option produced a very nicely balanced image here, with just about the right amount of warmth left in the final image to suggest the mood of the incandescent lighting. Very few cameras can handle the strong yellow cast of household incandescent bulbs, so it's a big plus that the S85 can do so without having to abandon its automatic setting. (Interestingly, the automatic setting did better than the incandescent one.)

The S85 continues the Sony tradition of using high-quality Carl Zeiss lenses, a name long associated with exceptionally sharp images. We're happy to report that the S85 maintained the same level of sharpness we admired so much with the S70 and S75, producing consistently sharp images with each of our test shots. We did find some geometric distortion (very common among zoom-equipped digicams we've tested), with a barrel distortion of 0.73 percent in wide-angle mode, but virtually no pincushion distortion in telephoto mode. These distortion figures are actually a bit better than average, particularly at the telephoto end of the lens range. (The barrel distortion at wide angle is just slightly worse than we measured for the S75, but the pincushion distortion is somewhat less. - We're a little puzzled by these results, as this is the same lens design as used on the S75.) Chromatic aberration is present but very low, we caught only one or two pixels of coloration on each side of the corner elements in our resolution target, when photographed at the wide-angle setting. (This distortion is visible as a very slight color fringe around objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) At the telephoto end of the lens range, the chromatic aberration is much less apparent.

Given the S85's 4.1 megapixel sensor and sharp "Carl Zeiss" lens, it's perhaps no surprise that it does very well on our laboratory resolution target test. We observed the first (very faint) hints of artifacts appearing at around 900 lines per picture height, in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Strong detail was clearly visible to 1100 lines though, and "extinction" didn't occur until somewhere around 1500 lines. The image is also razor-sharp all the way out to the corners. Overall an excellent performance!

The photo above shows how the S85's resolution compares to that of the S75 introduced just a few months ago. The S75 is about the sharpest 3.3 megapixel camera we've tested, but the S85 easily bests it in the resolution department. Very impressive!

The S85 follows the current standard in its provision of both optical and LCD viewfinders. The S85's optical viewfinder is a little tight, showing approximately 83.6 percent frame accuracy at wide angle, and about 83.2 percent at telephoto. By contrast, the LCD monitor showed almost exactly 100% of the final image area. We couldn't measure the frame coverage exactly, as our shots placed the standard lines of measurement outside of the final frame at both wide angle and telephoto settings. A little time with the pixel-counting tools in Photoshop(tm) though, convinced us that it was actually just minor framing errors on our part that prevented us from seeing the lines: The S85's viewfinder shows exactly 100% of the final image area.

The S85 also performed very well in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of just 2.46 x 1.84 inches (62.47 x 46.85 millimeters). Resolution was high, with good detail visible throughout the image. Details were also fairly sharp, though the brooch was a little soft, probably due to the limited depth of field when working that close. Corner softness was more noticeable in this shot, at all four corners of the image, and we also noticed some barrel distortion from the lens' wide angle setting. The S85's built-in flash had some trouble throttling down for the macro area, overexposing the subject and washing out color. The lens blocks the flash as well, causing a dark shadow in the bottom right corner of the image.

The S85 performed very well in the low-light category, capturing bright, usable images at light levels as low as 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) at the 200 and 400 ISO settings. At the 100 ISO setting, the target was still fairly bright at the 1/16 foot-candle light level, though we felt the camera captured a more usable image at the 1/8 foot-candle (1.3 lux) light level. We also noticed a change in color cast from the 1/4 foot-candle (2.7 lux) light level to the 1/8 foot-candle (1.3 lux) light level, going from a warm cast to a cooler one. Noise was moderately high at the 100 ISO setting, and increased with the 200 and 400 ISO settings. (We direct readers to Mike Chaney's excellent Qimage Pro program, for a tool with an amazing ability to remove image noise without significantly affecting detail.) Overall noise in the low light tests was quite a bit higher than we saw in the 3.1 megapixel S75, but at this point, it's hard to say whether this was due to smaller pixels in the CCD, or simply to prototype-level electronics. - We'll have to wait for the production model to draw any firm conclusions in this area.) To put the S85's low-light performance in perspective, an average city night scene under modern street lighting corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, so the camera should easily handle much darker situations without the flash. The table below shows the best exposure we were able to obtain for each of a range of illumination levels, at all three ISO settings. Images in this table (like all of our sample photos) are untouched, exactly as they came from the camera.

Overall, we were very impressed with the S85's performance. Building on the already good performance of the S70 and S75, the DSC-S85 increased its low-light capabilities, handled difficult lighting well, and recorded exceptionally sharp pictures with excellent color. These results, along with the camera's extensive exposure controls, make the S85 well-suited for just about any shooting scenario, although slightly longer than average shutter lag in full autofocus and manual focus modes might be a concern when shooting sports or other fast-paced action.


Conclusion
Overall, we found the Sony DSC-S85 to be a very pleasing upgrade to the already excellent S75 model. The fully manual and automatic exposure modes -- along with adjustable ISO settings, Scene Preset modes, advanced Movie features, and automatic E-mail option -- make the camera features perfect for pros and amateurs alike. New camera electronics and higher image resolution have further improved the S85's excellent image quality and speeded some aspects of camera operation. As we've said before, we really like Sony's new user interface, which employs a less involved LCD menu than earlier models, and provides far more external controls, dramatically decreasing the reliance on the LCD monitor. Maintaining the compact size and easy portability of its predecessors, the S85 is a welcome addition to Sony's Cyber-shot digicam line, with a wide range of features that should please almost any consumer. Our only (minor) complaint was the lack of provision for nonproprietary external flash units. In every other way though, we found the S85 to be of excellent design, and a real value leader with Sony's aggressive pricing at introduction. Highly recommended.

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