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Quick Review

Sony DSC-S90 Digital Camera

Camera QuickLook
Review Date
06/08/2005
User Level Novice - Intermediate
Product Uses Home / Travel
digital camera Design Point and Shoot, some manual control
Picture Quality Good, 4.1-megapixel CCD
Print Sizes 11x14s, or 8x10s with some cropping
Availability  May 2005
Suggested Retail Price
(At introduction)
$299.99



Introduction

Sony DSC-S90 Review Links
Overview
Specifications
Design
Recommended Accessories
Operation
Test Images
Conclusion
Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-S90 is one of the latest in the long (and incredibly broad) line of digital cameras that reflects Sony's commanding position in the digital camera marketplace. Like members of the slightly more upscale "W" series, the Sony S90 has a more rangefinder-style than other Cyber-shots, with a compact size for easy travel. In addition to the range of preset scene shooting modes, 3x zoom lens, and a Manual exposure mode, the camera also offers a generous 2.5-inch color LCD monitor. A 4.1-megapixel CCD captures high-resolution images, and 32 megabytes of internal memory lets you capture a handful of images without a memory card. Small-but-not-tiny, full-featured digital cameras seem to be a particularly popular category with Imaging Resource readers, and the Sony DSC-S90 fits squarely in that "sweet spot" of the market. Small and solidly built, the Sony S90 stops short of being too small for people with larger hands and fingers. All in all, a nice little package of photo capability, in a just-right-sized case. Read on for all the details!

 

Sony DSC-S90 Overview

Small, compact, and easy on the eyes with its matte-silver plastic body, the new Sony DSC-S90 digital camera continues the more traditional digital camera styling that differentiated the W-series models from the Cyber-shot pack. The Sony S90 offers a 4.1-megapixel CCD, 3x optical zoom lens, and 32 megabytes of internal memory, as well as a large, bright 2.5-inch color LCD monitor. A range of preset Scene exposure modes is useful for common but tricky situations, and a full manual exposure mode should pique the interest of more experienced consumers looking for a fun, more portable digital camera.

Though the LCD monitor is quite large and dominates the rear panel, Sony managed to keep all the functions necessary close at hand and easy to operate. Grab the camera in your right hand and your middle and third finger naturally grab the angled ridge on the front of the camera. Your thumb finds its home over the six raised bumps nestled between the monitor and menu buttons on the left and the soft ridge on the right. Above is the zoom control and below the Five-way navigator; all within easy reach, but the buttons are firm enough that they're not easily activated by accident. It is not impossible, though, so one should be careful, especially when shooting vertically, because your thumb can move and press a button unintentionally.

Pressing the Power button on top of the camera activates the LCD, the camera chimes, and the lens assembly extends forward. When it comes to actually taking a picture, the experience quickly becomes all about that wonderful 2.5-inch LCD display. More like a frame in a gallery than an LCD viewfinder, you'll be able to acquire subjects quickly and frame your shots better than with most other digital cameras. Though not a transflective LCD, it's surprisingly usable in very bright lighting, even direct sunlight. This is often a severe limitation of rear-panel LCD digital camera displays, one that the Sony DSC-S90 avoids almost entirely. Reviewing images is also easier with the larger display, making the camera's 5x Playback zoom that much more meaningful.

A half-press on the shutter begins the focus operation. In low light, a very bright orange LED illuminates the scene when necessary, reaching impressively far. The fast Multi-point AF, when enabled, determines the closest object and focuses quickly, showing brackets around the areas that will be in focus. Everything about the camera feels quality and performs competently. The only possible exception to this is the battery and memory compartment door, which has a small recessed button that you have to press while simultaneously pushing the door open. I found it just a little difficult to push the tiny button and slide the door open, mainly because the way you have to hold the camera to perform this operation is awkward, and provides little traction for your fingers. Included with the camera are two Sony NiMH AA Stamina batteries, delivering 2100 mAh at 1.2V. They'll last about 210 minutes of on-time (with the LCD), capturing up to 420 full-resolution images. (Sony's official ratings, not mine.) With alkaline batteries, that number drops sharply to 40 minutes of battery life and around 80 images, but at least you can use them in a pinch. Sony includes a charger and two batteries. I suggest you buy at least two more, even though the battery life on this camera is pretty good. Read my NiMH battery shootout page to see which batteries currently on the market are the best. (Do see my note under battery life in the Test Results section, about the S90's finicky tastes in NiMH batteries, though.)

The Sony DSC-S90 is an impressive offering, and very similar (except for maximum resolution and a couple of exposure options) to the recently released W7 model. It is handsomely constructed, with a feel of quality. It also has reasonable heft for better handholding of shots. It captures high quality images with a sharp lens, and is convenient for travel. Read on for more details.

 

Basic Features

  • 4.1-megapixel CCD.
  • 3x zoom lens (equivalent to a 39-117mm lens on a 35mm camera).
  • Max 10x digital Smart Zoom (@ VGA res), plus 6x Precision Digital zoom.
  • Real-image optical viewfinder.
  • 2.5-inch color LCD monitor.
  • Mostly automatic exposure control, but Manual mode is available.
  • Built-in flash with four modes and an intensity adjustment.
  • 32MB internal memory.
  • Sony Memory Stick storage (no card included), compatible with original Memory Stick as well as the Memory Stick Pro format.
  • USB 2.0 computer connection.
  • 2 AA NiMH rechargeable batteries and charger included.
  • Software for Mac and PC.

 

Special Features

  • Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Candle, Snow, Beach, Landscape, and Soft Snap modes.
  • Movie recording mode (with sound).
  • Multi-Burst mode and Burst continuous shooting mode.
  • Email (VGA) modes.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/1,000 to 1/8 sec in auto mode; 1/1,000 to two seconds in twilight mode; and 1/1,000 to 30 seconds in manual mode (with automatic Noise Reduction below 1/6 second).
  • Aperture range from f/2.8 to f/10.
  • Creative Picture Effects menu (black and white and sepia).
  • Image Sharpness, Saturation, and Contrast adjustments.
  • Self-timer for delayed shutter release.
  • Macro (close-up) lens adjustment.
  • Spot and Multi-Metering modes.
  • Adjustable AF area and two AF modes.
  • Auto ISO setting or 80, 100, 200, and 400 ISO equivalents.
  • White balance (color) adjustment with five options.
  • DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) and PictBridge printing compatibility.

 

User Recommendation
Beginning through intermediate users will be right at home with the Sony DSC-S90, and advanced users will enjoy its excellent portability and manual exposure control option. The Sony S90 has a lot of creative options and enough image adjustments to handle a wide variety of shooting situations. So, while it's designed to relieve you from complicated exposure decisions with its preset shooting modes, advanced amateurs and business users will appreciate it for its quality, portability, and varied shooting options. Accessory lenses make it more versatile for wide or telephoto use.

 

Design

The Sony DSC-S90 is compact, stylish, and ready to go anywhere, with a boxy body style similar to other rangefinder digital cameras on the market (and similar to but a bit more curvy than the seven-megapixel W7 model). Its silvery plastic body is just a little wider than a typical business card, and just a little taller, top to bottom. Measuring just 3.87 x 2.62 x 1.62 inches (96 x 64 x 40 millimeters) and weighing 9.3 ounces (264 grams) with the batteries installed, the Sony S90 fits easily into small pockets or purses. When not in use, the telescoping zoom lens retracts neatly inside the body, and a small plastic leaf shutter automatically closes over the lens to protect it. Outfitted with the accompanying wrist strap, it's quick on the draw and easy to hold.

Despite its small size, the Sony S90 has just enough room for a good grip up front and one small spot for your thumb on the back. The 3x, 6.0-18.0mm zoom lens (equivalent to a 39-117mm zoom on a 35mm camera) is left of center (when viewed from the back), with a small and very bright orange lamp on the upper right of it, to help with focusing in low-light conditions. (This lamp also blinks less brightly when the self-timer is in use, flashing faster to let you know when the camera is about to snap the picture.) The flash and window for the optical viewfinder are both above the lens.

The right side of the camera (as viewed from the rear) has a soft plastic door that opens to reveal a small opening into the battery compartment, which accommodates the AC adapter cord. Also on this side is the eyelet for attaching the wrist strap.

The left side is smooth and featureless.

The camera's top panel includes the Shutter button surrounded by the Mode dial. To the left is the small Power button and seven tiny holes for the microphone.

The Sony S90's rear panel holds the remaining camera controls and function buttons, along with a big 2.5-inch color LCD monitor for previewing and playing back images, and the optical viewfinder window. As noted earlier, the S90's LCD is amazingly readable in bright light, even direct sunlight, due to a special anti-glare coating. The LCD display reports a variety of camera and exposure settings, including the aperture and shutter speed settings (a nice bonus for those interested in how the camera will expose the image) and a three-stage battery gauge. The optical viewfinder is located above the LCD monitor, and has two LED lamps along the right edge of the window, each of which reports the current status of various camera functions. The optical viewfinder has no dioptric adjustment, but eyeglass wearers will be pleased with the high "eyepoint," allowing plenty of room for an eyeglass lens between the camera body and your eye. On the left of the viewfinder are two small holes for the camera's speaker. The camera's Zoom control is in the upper right corner, conveniently located right above six raised bumps for better thumb traction when holding the camera. Lower right of the LCD is a Five-way Arrow pad, with small arrows pointing in four directions (Up, Down, Left, and Right) and a set button in the middle. Each serves multiple functions, navigating onscreen menus scrolling between captured images in playback mode, or activating different camera functions (Flash, Self-Timer, Quick Review, and Macro).

Upper left of the Arrow pad is the LCD Display On / Off button; beneath that is the Menu button; and further down is the Image Resolution / Erase button.

Finally, the S90's flat bottom holds the threaded (metal) tripod screw mount, the shared Memory Stick / battery compartment, and the multi-connector. While most users of the S90 probably won't care, it is impossible to change the batteries while the camera is mounted on a tripod. The multi-connector works with both the USB and AV cables.

 

Camera Operation

Operating the Sony DSC-S90 in any of its automatic modes is very straightforward, with only two additional controls when you enter Manual mode. The Mode dial on top of the camera controls the main operating modes, with options for Auto, Program, Manual, Twilight, Twilight portrait, Candle, Snow, Beach, Landscape, Soft snap, Setup, Movie, and Playback modes. In all image capture modes, the DSC-S90 provides an onscreen LCD menu (activated by the Menu button), with a variety of options for adjusting image quality or adding special effects. The four arrows of the Five-way arrow pad are used to scroll through menu options, while the button in the center of the pad functions as the OK button to confirm selections. In Manual mode, pressing the OK (center) button on the Five-way arrow pad switches the arrows from adjusting flash, macro, and self-timer, and quick review modes to adjusting aperture (left and right) and shutter speeds (up and down). When in Manual mode, information on the LCD to the right of these values tells you by how many EV units it thinks your exposure is off, up to plus or minus 2EV.

The four arrow buttons also serve as external controls when the camera's menus are turned off, or they can be used to scroll through captured images in Playback mode. Starting with the Up arrow and going clockwise, the functions they control include Flash, Macro, Self-Timer, and Quick Review modes. An Image Resolution button calls up the available resolution settings, removing this item from the main menu system, thereby making it much quicker to access when needed. The Zoom control in the top right corner of the back panel adjusts both optical and digital zoom (when the latter is activated through the Setup menu). Overall, I was impressed by Sony's judicious use of space, especially with the large number of external controls provided, the extremely large LCD, and the relatively short learning curve the S90's user interface entails. Along with Sony's other recent cameras, the S90 has one of the cleanest user interfaces I've seen, and will present few challenges to even the most novice user.

Record-Mode Display
In record mode, the LCD monitor displays the subject with a fair amount of overlaid information, indicating approximate battery life remaining (graphically), flash mode, focus mode (macro or normal), autofocus mode setting, any currently-selected exposure compensation setting, ISO setting, the current size/quality setting, and number of images that can be stored on the remaining Memory Stick space at the current size/quality. Half-pressing the Shutter button causes the camera to display the shutter speed and aperture setting it has chosen for the current lighting conditions. Pressing the Display button beside the LCD once adds a small "live" histogram display to the information, pressing it again removes the information overlay, and pressing it a third time turns the LCD off entirely. Pressing it a fourth time restores the default display. In Manual exposure mode, pressing the center button of the 5-way controller switches the four arrow keys to controlling the shutter speed and aperture settings, highlighting those settings in yellow on the LCD display, and placing small arrows above them. Pressing the center button again reverts the arrow keys to their normal functions.


Playback-Mode Display
In playback mode, the default image display shows the most recently captured image, with a modest information overlay present. Pressing the display button once adds the exposure information and a small histogram to the overlay, pressing it again removes the information overlay entirely, and pressing it a third time turns the LCD off altogether. Pressing the wide-angle side of the zoom lever takes you to a display showing images on the Memory Stick or internal memory in groups of nine small thumbnails, while a second press pulls up a 16-image index. (You can navigate a yellow outline cursor over these thumbnails by using the four arrow keys. Pressing the OK button will bring the currently-selected image up full-screen.) Pressing the telephoto side of the zoom lever when viewing an image full-size on the LCD screen will zoom in on the image, in 17 variable-sized increments up to a maximum magnification of 5x.

 

 

External Controls


Power Button
: Located just left of the Shutter button on the camera's top panel, this button turns the camera on and off.


Mode Dial
: Surrounding the Shutter button, this ribbed dial sets the camera's operating mode, offering Auto, Program, Manual, Twilight, Twilight portrait, Candle, Snow, Beach, Landscape, Soft snap, Setup, Movie, and Playback modes. (See menus and descriptions below.)

Shutter Button (see image above): Surrounded by the Mode dial, this button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed, and fires the shutter when fully pressed.


Zoom Control
: Positioned in the top right corner of the rear panel, this two-way rocker button controls optical zoom and, when enabled via the Setup menu, Sony's "Smart Zoom" or Precision Zoom options.

In Playback mode, this button controls the digital enlargement of a captured image, which can go as high as 5x. (Very handy for checking focus or the expressions on people's faces in group shots.) Also in Playback mode, the wide-angle end of the button activates the Index Display mode, which displays either nine or 16 thumbnail images on the screen at one time. (Pressing the "W" end once calls up the nine-image display, and a second press calls up the 16-image display.)


Five-Way Arrow Pad
: Located just to the right of center on the rear panel, this control pad features four arrows, each pointing in a different direction (up, down, left, and right), and a Set or OK button in the middle (Sony describes it by its shape: a dot). In all settings menus, these arrow keys navigate through menu options. Pressing the center button confirms selections.

In any record mode, the Up button controls the Flash mode, cycling through Auto, Forced, Suppressed, and Slow-Sync modes. The Right arrow turns the Macro (close-up) mode on and off, and the Left arrow accesses the Quick Review mode, which displays the most recently captured image on the screen. The Down arrow accesses the Self-Timer mode.

In Manual record mode, pressing the center button switches the arrow keys back and forth between controlling their normal functions, and controlling shutter speed (up/down) and aperture (left/right).

In Playback mode, the Right and Left arrows scroll through captured images, while the Up and Down arrows adjust playback volume. When Playback zoom is enabled, all four arrows scroll around within the enlarged view, while pressing the center button returns to the normal, 1x display.


Menu Button
: Upper left of the Five-Way Arrow pad, this button activates the settings menu in any camera mode. The Menu button also turns off the menu display.


Image Resolution / Erase Button
: Lower left of the Five-way Arrow pad, this button displays the available resolutions in any record mode. Choices are 4M (2,304 x 1,728), 3:2 ratio (2,304 x 1,536), 3M (2,048 x 1,536), 1M (1,280 x 960), and VGA (640 x 480). Movie resolutions are 640 x 480, and 160 x 112-pixels.

In Playback mode, this button lets you erase the currently displayed image.


Display / LCD On/Off Button
: Off the upper right corner of the LCD, this button controls the LCD display, cycling through the image with information display, the image with information and live histogram display, the image with limited information display, and no image display at all (in all Record modes). In Playback mode, it cycles through the same series.

 

Camera Modes and Menus

Scene Modes: Marked on the Mode dial with a black line, these modes are for capturing images in specific situations. Seven "scenes" are available, including Twilight, Twilight portrait, Candle, Snow, Beach, Landscape, and Soft Snap. Both Twilight modes capture images in low light, although the Twilight Portrait mode automatically enables the Red-Eye Reduction flash mode, combining it with a slower shutter speed to let ambient lighting brighten the background as well. Because the camera employs a slower shutter speed in both Twilight modes, a tripod is highly recommended to prevent blurring from camera movement. Candle mode is just for candlelit scenes, great for birthdays or services. A tripod is recommended. Snow and Beach modes optimize the camera for bright situations and prevent color loss from overexposure. Landscape mode sets the focus at infinity and uses a smaller lens aperture to capture sharp details both near and far away. Soft snap mode enhances skin colors while keeping a soft focus for a pleasing glow.

Manual Mode: This mode provides total control over the exposure, as you're able to select both aperture and shutter speed independently of each other. Apertures range from 2.8 to 10 (depending on the zoom position), and the camera is capable of shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/1000.

Program Mode: This mode is marked on the Mode dial with a "P." In this mode, the camera selects shutter speed and aperture, while you control all other exposure variables.

Automatic Mode: Indicated on the Mode dial with a green camera icon, this mode puts the camera in control over the exposure and everything except Macro, Image Size and Quality, Zoom, Flash, and the Self-Timer.

Playback Mode: Playback mode is noted on the Mode dial with the traditional Playback symbol (a triangle enclosed within a black rectangle outline). In this mode, you can scroll through captured images, delete them, write-protect them, and set them up for printing on PictBridge-compatible printers. You can also copy, resize, and rotate images.

Movie Mode: A filmstrip icon marks this mode on the Mode dial. In Movie mode, you can record moving images and sound, for as long as the Memory Stick or internal memory has space. Resolution and quality choices are 640 x 480-, or 160 x 112-pixels. While recording, a timer appears in the LCD monitor to let you know how many minutes and / or seconds are remaining on the Memory Stick, and how long you've been recording, so you'll have some idea of how much time you have left. Recording in 640 x 480 Fine mode is only available with a Memory Stick Pro card.

The S90 offers a Multi Burst mode separate from the movie mode and selected in the menu in Auto, Program, Manual, and Scene modes, which captures an extremely rapid 16-frame burst of images, at a selectable rate of 7.5, 15, or 30 frames per second. Multi Burst shots are played back as a slow-motion animation on the camera, but appear as a single large file with 16 sub-images in it when viewed on a computer. (This would be a fun way to catch someone crossing a finish line during a race, or to analyze golf and tennis swings.) A Burst mode is also available, and captures a rapid series of images for as long as the Shutter button is held down. Frame rates and the maximum number of images depends on the image quality and resolution settings, as well as the amount of available memory space.

Record Menu: Available in all three Record modes by pressing the Menu button, the Record menu offers the following options (some options are not available in all modes):

  • EV (Exposure Compensation): Increases or decreases the overall exposure from -2 to +2 exposure values (EV) in one-third-step increments. 
  • Focus: Sets focus control to Multi AF or Center AF, or one of five preset focus distances (0.5, 1.0, 3.0, and 7.0 meters, and Infinity).
  • Metering Mode: Chooses between Multi-Metering and Spot modes. Spot metering reads the exposure from the very center of the frame (identified by a cross hair target on the monitor). Spot metering is handy for backlit subjects, or any time the subject and background exhibit very high contrast. Multi-Metering mode reads the entire frame to determine exposure.
  • White Balance: Adjusts the overall color balance of the image, to suit the light source. Options are Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, and Incandescent.
  • ISO: Adjusts the camera's light sensitivity. Options are Auto, or 80, 100, 200, and 400 ISO equivalents.
  • P.Quality: Sets compression between Standard and Fine.

  • Mode: Sets capture mode, Normal (single), Burst, and Multi-burst.
  • Interval: When in Multi-burst mode, sets the capture interval between 1/7.5, 1/15, and 1/30.
  • Flash level: Sets flash power to Plus, Normal, or Minus.
  • Picture Effects: Offers two creative shooting modes:
    • Black and White: Takes photos in monochrome.
    • Sepia: Records an image in monochrome sepia tone.
  • Saturation: Adjusts the overall color saturation with Plus, Normal, or Minus settings.
  • Contrast: Alters the level of contrast in images with Plus, Normal, or Minus settings.
  • Sharpness: Controls the overall image sharpness and softness with plus, normal and minus settings.

Playback Menu:

  • Folder: Selects the folder for playing back images.
  • Protect: Write-protects the current image (or removes protection), preventing it from being deleted or manipulated in any way except with card formatting.
  • DPOF: Marks the current image for printing on a DPOF device. Also removes the print mark.
  • Print: Prints the current image.
  • Slide: Plays back images in an automatic slide show. You can set the time interval and whether or not the sequence of images repeats.
  • Resize: Resizes the image to 2,304 x 1,728; 2,048 x 1,536; 1,280 x 960; or 640 x 480 pixels. (When an image is resized, the original image is left in place, and a new copy is made at the selected size.)
  • Rotate: Rotates the image 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise.
  • Divide: Allows you to trim material from the beginning or end of a recorded movie, or to extract an interesting bit of action from the middle of a longer clip.
  • Trimming: Lets you crop an image and save it as a separate file from the original.

Setup Mode: This mode allows you to change a variety of camera settings, and is accessible through each of the camera menus.

  • Camera 1:
    • AF Mode: Sets the focus mode to Single, or Monitor.
    • Digital Zoom: Switches between the Smart Zoom and Precision zoom, or turns digital enlargement off.
    • Date / Time: Determines whether the date and / or time is overlaid on captured images.
    • Red Eye Reduction: Enables or disables the Red Eye Reduction flash mode, affecting both Auto and Forced flash modes.
    • AF Illuminator: Turns the AF Assist light on or off. If on, the light automatically illuminates in dark shooting conditions.
    • Auto Review: Immediately plays captured image onscreen for two seconds.

  • Camera 2:
    • Enlarged Icon: If set to On, this option temporarily enlarges icons on the LCD display when flash mode, the self-timer, or macro options are set.

  • Internal Memory Tool (no screenshot):
    • Format: Formats the internal memory, erasing all files (even protected ones).

  • Memory Stick Tool:
    • Format: Formats the Memory Stick, erasing all files (even protected ones).
    • Create REC Folder: Creates a new folder for recording images.
    • Change REC Folder: Changes the folder that images are recorded to.
    • Copy: Copies images from the internal memory to a Memory Stick.


  • Setup 1:
    • LCD Backlight: Controls the level of the LCD's backlight, with options of Bright, Normal, and Dark.
    • Beep: Controls the camera's beep sounds, turning them on or off. A Shutter option enables only the shutter beep noise.
    • Language: Selects among Italian, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, or English for the menu language.
    • Initialize: Resets the camera to its default settings.

  • Setup 2:
    • File Number: Chooses between Series (continuing the shot number infinitely) or Reset, which resets the frame number by folder.
    • USB Connect: Sets the USB connection type to PictBridge, PTP, or Normal.
    • Video Out: Sets the timing of the video output signal to either NTSC or PAL.
    • Clock Set: Sets the camera's internal clock and calendar.

 

In the Box

Included with the Sony DSC-S90 digital camera are the following items:

  • Wrist strap..
  • Two NiMH AA batteries, battery case, and charger..
  • USB cable.
  • AV cable.
  • Software CD containing Picture Package (ver.1.6), Pixela ImageMixer VCD2, a tutorial, and USB drivers.
  • Quick-guide manuals and registration information.

 

Recommended Accessories


Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot 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 digital camera 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...

 

Specifications

See the specifications sheet here.

 

Picky Details

Cycle times, shutter lag, battery life, etc. can be found here.

 

Test Images

See my test images and detailed analysis here. The thumbnails below show a subset of my test images. Click on a thumbnail to see the full-size photo.

"Sunlit"
Indoor Flash
Indoor
 

 

 

House
Musicians
Macro
 

 

 

Davebox
Resolution
Viewfinder Accuracy

 

 

"Gallery" Photos

(Sorry, no gallery photos just yet)

 

Test Results

Following are my usual condensed notes about the Sony S90's performance: See the S90's sample pictures page for a full analysis.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Sony DSC-S90 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

  • Color: A tendency toward a warmer color balance, but quite accurate color overall. Moderate performance under incandescent lighting. Overall, the Sony DSC-S90 produced very good color (hue accuracy was better than most digital cameras I test), though often with a slight warm cast. The S90 had a little trouble with household incandescent lighting, producing very warm-hued images in Auto white balance mode, but acceptable ones with the Incandescent white balance setting. Color accuracy with the Sony S90 was better than average, with correct saturation for most colors, and only slight oversaturation on strong reds and greens.

  • Exposure: About average exposure accuracy, but rather high contrast. Odd desaturation effects with the low contrast setting. The Sony DSC-S90 required about average exposure compensation adjustment under difficult lighting conditions such as the "Sunlit" and Indoor portraits. Like many consumer digital cameras, its default tone curve is somewhat contrasty, causing it to lose detail in strong highlights under harsh lighting. Its contrast adjustment option helps quite bit in this regard, but on my "Sunlit" portrait test, the low contrast setting produced very odd saturation breaks in Marti's skin tones, parts of her face turning almost gray. Issues of contrast adjustment and lost highlight detail aside though, detail was pretty good in the shadows, with only moderate image noise levels.

  • Resolution/Sharpness: Good resolution, 1,200 lines of "strong detail." The Sony S90 performed well on the "laboratory" resolution test chart, about average for its 4.1-megapixel class. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 1,000 lines per picture height vertically and horizontally. I found "strong detail" out to about 1,200 lines. "Extinction" of the target patterns didn't occur until 1,500 lines.

  • Image Noise: Low to moderate image noise levels, but significant tradeoff of subtle subject detail at higher ISO settings. Noise levels on the Sony DSC-S90 were typically low to moderate, but it selectively reduced subtle subject detail to hold the noise in check Thus, shots at ISO 100 were fairly sharp, with good amounts of fine/subtle detail, but the images became progressively softer as the ISO was raised. Even with the reduced subject detail though, shots at ISO 400 showed a fair number of colored pixels. When printed, ISO 200 shots were a little rough looking at 8x10 inches, but fine at 5x7, while ISO 400 shots were rough at 5x7, probably OK at 4x6.

  • Closeups: An average macro area with good detail. Flash throttles down a little too much, is uneven up close. The Sony DSC-S90 turned in about an average performance in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of 3.29 x 2.47 inches (84 x 63 millimeters). Resolution was high, showing a lot of fine detail in the dollar bill, coins, and brooch, though details were a little soft overall. All four corners of the frame were fairly soft, an unfortunate limitation of most digital camera lenses in macro mode. The Sony S90's flash throttled down a bit too much for the macro area, and had uneven illumination up close, leaving shadows in the corners of the frame. (Plan on using external lighting for your closest macro shots.)

  • Night Shots: Great low-light performance with good color, exposure, and focusing at the darkest light levels. Good low-light autofocus ability. The Sony DSC-S90 produced clear, bright, usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle (0.67 lux) limit of my test, with good (but slightly warm) color at all four ISO settings. Noise levels were generally pretty low, but increased at the lower light levels and higher sensitivity settings. The camera's autofocus system worked down to about 1/4 foot-candle (about a quarter as bright as typical city street lighting at night) with the AF-assist light turned off, and in total darkness on nearby objects with the AF light enabled.

  • Viewfinder Accuracy: A tight optical viewfinder, but nearly accurate LCD monitor. The S90's optical viewfinder was a little tight, showing about 83 percent frame accuracy at both wide angle and telephoto. Perhaps worse than this though, it tended to aim rather low, so the final images included much more area at the top of the frame than we thought we were getting. The LCD monitor proved more accurate, showing about 99.9 percent frame accuracy. Given that I like LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the S90's LCD monitor is pretty good in this regard, but I'd like to see a bit more accurate optical viewfinder.

  • Optical Distortion: High barrel distortion, Moderately low chromatic aberration, some blurring in the corners. Optical distortion on the S90 was higher than average at the wide-angle end, where I found about 1.0 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end did a little better, showing 0.4 percent barrel distortion, which is also a bit higher than average. Chromatic aberration was low at both wide angle and telephoto. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) Some (but not all) of my shots showed soft lower-left corners, but apart from that, sharpness in the corners of the images was generally better than average for a camera of this class.

  • Shutter Lag and Cycle Time: Surprising speed. The Sony DSC-S90 is only slightly faster than average starting up, and slower than average shutting down, but when it was running, it was a surprisingly zippy little camera. Full-autofocus shutter lag was dramatically faster than average, at only 0.31 - 0.41 second. When the camera was "prefocused" by half-pressing and holding down the shutter button before the shot itself, shutter lag dropped to an astonishing 0.01 second. Shot to shot cycle time was also very fast, at only 1.07 second for large/fine JPEG images. In continuous mode, the camera could capture up to 4 large/fine images at a time, one every 0.63 second. (1.58 frames/second.) Bottom line, the Sony DSC-S90 should be a great camera for keeping up with an active family or capturing shots of sporting events.


  • Battery Life: Very good battery life, but a finicky taste in NiMH batteries. The Sony DSC-S90 uses a two AA batteries for power, and two Sony-branded 2100 mAh NiMH batteries are included with the camera. Unfortunately, the camera uses a "dummy battery" AC adapter (rather than a standard external power connector), so I couldn't conduct my usual direct measurements of power consumption. For what it's worth though, Sony claims that the S90 will run for as much as 210 minutes in capture mode with the LCD display turned on, capturing up to 420 full-resolution images. If true (and I have no reason to disbelieve it), the DSC-S90's battery life is very good, particularly for a camera powered by only two AA cells. IMPORTANT NOTE: While it showed excellent battery life with the included Sony NiMH batteries, we found that the DSC-S90 was very finicky about the quality of the cells used with it. A number of well-rated NiMH cells we had here in the studio just wouldn't power it at all, or produced very short run times. Sony's cells appear to be manufactured by Sanyo, so I imagine that other Sanyo-sourced NiMH cells (here in the US, that would be Kodak and Energizer brands) would also work well. The safest bet though, would be to use Sony-branded NiMH batteries with the S90.

  • Print Quality: OK prints at 11x14 inches, sharp at 8x10. High-ISO shots only look good at smaller print sizes. Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5000 here in the office. (See our Canon i9900 review for details on that model.) Prints from the Sony DSC-S90 looked good as large as 11x14 inches, although they were a tad on the soft side at that size. They looked great at 8x10 inches though. The tougher test was with high ISO images, and here the S90 struggled a bit. Shots captured at ISO 200 looked good only as large as 5x7 inches, and those shot at ISO 400 were really only acceptable at 4x6: ISO 400 shots printed at even 5x7 looked pretty rough, with soft details and distracting noise patterns.

Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Very fast, excellent shutter response, very good shot to shot speed
  • Better than average color accuracy
  • Very capable movie mode
  • Very fast multi-burst mode, great for analyzing golf/tennis swings
  • Large 2.5" LCD display
  • LCD is usable in very bright light
  • Excellent low-light shooting capabilities
  • Unusually bright AF-assist light
  • Design is compact but usable, fits the hand well
  • Good battery life
  • So-so handling of household incandescent lighting
  • Autofocus tended to focus on objects in front of the main subject more often than I'd like/expect
  • Rather contrasty default tone curve
  • Image noise is higher than average
  • Anti-noise processing trades away some subtle subject detail
  • Finicky about batteries, doesn't run well on many non-Sony brands of NiMH cells

 

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The Cyber-shot DSC-S90 is an easy-to-use but very capable offering from Sony, with a 4.1-megapixel CCD, 32 megabytes of internal memory, and a nice range of exposure options. The S90 provides more manual exposure control than most compact entry-level models permit, yet is easy to use in full-auto mode, and its seven preprogrammed scene modes help with tricky subjects. The large 2.5-inch color LCD monitor is excellent for framing and reviewing shots, and the overall design and layout of the S90 is user-friendly and hassle-free. It's biggest strength though, is its very fast shutter response and good shot to shot speed: The DSC-S90 would be an excellent choice for shots of active children or sports action. All in all, if you're looking for a great "take anywhere" camera with great versatility and excellent color and tonality, the Sony DSC-S90 deserves strong consideration.

 

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