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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F717

Sony updates their already-impressive five megapixel F707, with improved user controls, better color, amazing white balance performance, and an external flash hot shoe!

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 9/2/2002

Executive Overview
It's no secret that I was pretty excited by the original DSC-F707 when I first reviewed it last year. It was a true breakthrough product in a number of areas, and at the time was also by far the least expensive 5-megapixel camera on the market. It had a few minor shortcomings, including overzealous rendering of bright greens and reds, and no provision for attaching a generic flash unit to it, but the overall package represented a remarkable advance for "prosumer" digital photography.

Now, just a bit more than a year later, the F717 has raised the bar yet another (big) notch, with improvements across the board in camera operation and image quality. Everything I liked about the F707 is still present in the F717 model, but added features include a higher ISO setting, greatly improved autofocus performance, and a much more accurate white balance system. In addition to its super-size, 5.0-megapixel CCD (5.2-million effective pixels), the F717 offers the same innovative (and completely unique in the digicam industry) NightShot, NightFraming, and Hologram AF technologies that made their debut on the F707. Happily, the F717 also uses the same (excellent) 5x zoom Carl Zeiss lens, which is not only tack sharp but quite fast as well, with a maximum aperture that ranges from f/2.0 to f/2.4 depending on the zoom position.

Subtle changes in the camera's control layout improve the user interface and make it more intuitive to operate, especially the dual-function Focus / Zoom ring around the front of the lens barrel. A five-area autofocus system provides more accurate focusing, and you can either select the AF area manually or place it under automatic control. NightShot technology lets you see and capture images in total darkness: Taking advantage of the CCD's inherent sensitivity to infrared light, the F717's NightShot mode removes the IR filter from the front of the CCD and projects IR beams from two small LEDs on the front of the camera. The resulting image is monochromatic, similar to the view through night vision goggles, but the camera can literally "see in the dark." NightFraming mode uses the same technique, allowing you to frame dark subjects using the IR beams, but once focus is determined, the camera replaces the IR filter and makes the exposure with normal flash.

The Hologram AF feature is another Sony innovation that works very well on the F717, using a laser diode and a holographic diffraction grating to produce a crosshatched pattern of bright red lines on the subject. This projected pattern stays more or less "in focus" almost irrespective of subject distance, so there's always a sharp pattern for the camera to focus on. Hologram AF isn't just for low light, as you'll sometimes see the camera using it in fairly normal lighting if there's not enough contrast in the subject to focus effectively with the contrast-detection AF system. I had great focus results in my low-light testing and was duly impressed with this focusing mechanism: I can say that Hologram AF is noticeably more effective than any conventional AF-assist illuminator I've seen to date. Through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering provides more accurate light readings when using the flash than the conventional on-camera sensor used by many digicams (especially in low-light and no-light settings, and when the lens is zoomed all the way to the telephoto end of its range).

The F717 features the same rotating lens action I liked on the F505, F505V, and F707 models, providing approximately 135 degrees of rotation, for some very versatile shooting configurations. The camera's overall dimensions are 6.31 x 4.88 x 2.63 inches (162 x 124 x 68mm), but these measurements are somewhat misleading since the camera body itself is only about 2.75 inches deep, and the lens extends nearly four inches beyond the body's front panel. Because the lens is so long, the F717 is much too bulky to fit into even a large coat pocket; however, it's reasonably lightweight for its size (22.39 ounces / 635 grams) and therefore easily transportable using the supplied neck strap. Sony also offers a very nice soft case to protect the camera when you're carrying it.

The camera offers two options for precision framing: a large 1.8-inch color LCD monitor on the back panel, and a smaller LCD in the form of an electronic viewfinder (EVF) at the eye level position. The EVF is designed much like a conventional viewfinder, with a diopter adjustment dial on top to accommodate eyeglass wearers. The same information display is shown on both monitors, reporting battery power, Memory Stick capacity, flash status, and the number of images taken, plus various exposure settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, image size, and quality. A small switch directly above the monitor allows you to switch between the large LCD and small EVF monitors. I'm generally not a fan of EVFs, but the one on the F717 seems to provide much more resolution than is normally the case. With the optional viewfinder magnification during manual focusing, the EVF is even marginally useful for setting focus. Of course, the Night Shot and Night Framing features eliminate my usual concerns about EVF usability in low light conditions, putting the 717's EVF much more on a par with true optical viewfinders. New to the F707's LCD display is a histogram, viewable in all record modes as well as in Playback mode.

Carl Zeiss lenses are renowned for their quality and sharpness. The F717 is equipped with the same 5x, 9.7-48.5mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens (equivalent to a 38-190mm lens on a 35mm camera) as found on the F707 before it. Picking a single "best" camera lens is tough, given all the variables involved, but there's no question that the lens on the F717 is one of the best I've seen, out of all the hundreds of consumer-level cameras I've tested. The aperture can be manually or automatically adjusted from f/2.0-2.4 to f/8, and shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to 30 seconds. (Note that this is a noticeably faster lens that the f/2.8 design used on the earlier F505V, and faster than most digicam lenses out there.) Focus also can be automatically or manually controlled across a range of 2 cm at wide angle (90 cm at telephoto) to infinity, with a single readout on the LCD screen that shows the distance in metric units. An optional Enhanced Focus function that temporarily doubles the size of the image in the viewfinder as you're turning the focusing ring can be enabled via the Setup menu for more accurate manual focusing. Autofocus performance on the F717 has been dramatically improved over that of the F707, with the result that the F717 is now one of the fastest-focusing consumer cameras I've tested to date. Sony's 2x Precision Digital Zoom function is also activated through the Setup menu, increasing the F717's zoom capabilities to 10x (although as always there is a direct decrease in resolution and image quality resulting from digital magnification). Macro performance is very good, with macro focus distances ranging from 0.8 to 19.7 inches (2 to 50 centimeters) at the lens' wide angle setting. (Minimum focus is 90 cm at full telephoto.)

In addition to a full Manual exposure mode, the F717 also provides Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program AE, Full Auto, and Scene exposure modes. Aperture Priority lets select the lens aperture, from f/2 to f/8, while the camera chooses the best shutter speed. Shutter Priority lets you select the shutter speed, from 1/1,000 to 30 seconds, while the camera determines the appropriate aperture. Program AE places the camera in control of both aperture and shutter speed, while you control the remaining exposure parameters, and Full Auto mode places the camera in charge of everything (except for resolution, flash, zoom, and record mode). The Scene exposure mode provides four preset shooting modes–Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, and Portrait–designed to obtain the best exposure for specific shooting situations.

Multi-Pattern, Center-Weighted, and Spot Metering options are available in all shooting modes, selectable via the Spot Metering button on the camera's lens barrel. (A crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD monitor in Spot metering mode). The expanded White Balance options include: One Push (manual setting, using a white card), Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, and Auto. Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure values (EV) in one-third-step increments, and the camera's ISO value can be set to Auto or 100, 200, 400, or 800 equivalents, increasing performance in low-light shooting situations. The F717's built-in flash features Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, and Suppressed operating modes, with a variable flash intensity adjustment. As an added bonus, the F717 offers an external flash connection and hot shoe mount, which let you connect a more powerful flash to the camera.

The F717 also provides a Movie mode with sound recording, which stores files in the MPEG HQX format. (MPEG HQX enables continuous MPEG movie recording directly to the memory card, regardless of quality setting, for as long as the memory card has space.) An HQX setting captures higher-quality movie files. 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, which the camera records as a GIF file for sequential frame playback. Multi Burst mode captures 16 images in rapid sequence and saves them as a movie file, which plays back as a slow-motion sequence. A Picture Effects menu captures images in Solarized, Sepia, and Negative Art tones and a Sharpness setting allows you to control image sharpness.

The Record menu offers a list of Record mode options, including a TIFF mode for saving uncompressed images; a Voice mode for adding sound clips up to 40 seconds long to accompany captured images (great for "labeling" or annotating shots you've taken); and an E-Mail mode that saves a separate 320 x 240-pixel file small enough for easy email transmission, in addition to your normal-sized image. An Exposure Bracketing mode captures three images at three different exposures, so you can choose the best overall exposure after the fact, while the Burst 3 mode captures three images in rapid succession with one press of the Shutter button (shot-to-shot frame rates vary with the pixel resolution size and the amount of image information being recorded). Finally, there is a Normal setting for standard JPEG compressed images.

Images are stored as uncompressed TIFFs, JPEGs, MPEGs, or GIFs (depending on the Record mode) on a 16MB Memory Stick included with the camera (higher capacity cards are available, currently up to a limit of 128MB). The F717's expanded Memory Stick capabilities let you create and manage individual image folders on one card. A video cable is also provided with the camera for connecting to a television set. (You can choose between NTSC or PAL video standards via the Setup menu), and a USB cable provides high-speed connection to PC or Macintosh computers in USB 1.0 and 2.0 protocols. Software supplied with the F717 presumably will include the same applications as were shipped with the F707: 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. (I'll check what comes with the production model, when I receive one, and update this section of the review.)

The F717 uses an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series) and comes with an AC adapter that doubles as a battery charger. I like the InfoLITHIUM batteries because they communicate with the camera, which in turn tells you how much operating time remains, via a small readout on the LCD screen. This is really valuable in avoiding lost shots when your batteries die unexpectedly. Battery life also has been substantially improved relative to the F707, and is really quite remarkable: Fully four hours in capture mode, and over nine hours in playback!

I continue to be impressed by Sony's innovations and the quality level of each new product they bring out. What's most encouraging about the F717 though, is not "merely" the level of technical excellence it embodies, but rather the extent to which Sony listened to users (and reviewers ;-) of the F707 when it came time to design its successor. As before, the still-unique NightShot technology and Hologram AF focusing systems take digital photography into territory that's simply unattainable in the conventional film-based world. The host of improvements in AF response, color management, white balance, and general usability are so dramatic that the end result is almost a whole new product. If the point of having a camera is to bring back great pictures, the F717 will let you do so under a wider variety of conditions than almost any other camera currently on the market, regardless of price.

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