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Sony DSC-P1

Sony packs a 3 megapixel CCD and a full 3x optical zoom lens into an exceptionally compact digicam!

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Page 3:Design

Review First Posted: 9/12/2000

Sony's DSC-P1 is compact, sleek, and feature-rich. Measuring only 4.43 x 2.12 x 1.75 inches (113 x 53.9 x 43.8 mm), and weighing in at 8.8 ounces (250 g) including battery and media, the DSC-P1 will fit easily into most shirt pockets. The 3x zoom lens telescopes into the body to help make the camera more portable, and a small metal leaf shutter that automatically closes over the lens when the camera is shut off made us more comfortable just slipping it into a pocket to carry it around.

Given its diminutive size, we expect some reviewers will complain that it's "too small." We have on occasion encountered digicams in the past that were difficult to operate due to their small size, or a too-compact arrangement of controls, but the DSC-P1 isn't one of them: Despite the very small form factor, we personally found it quite comfortable to grip, and had no difficulty accessing the controls. While it is very small, the slightly elongated shape makes for a very convenient grip, letting our fingers extend comfortably across the front and top of the camera. Overall, a great job of making a very small package ergonomic as well.

The front of the camera basically features the telescoping lens, optical viewfinder window, built-in flash, flash photocell window and the self-timer/recording LED. When the camera is powered on, the lens automatically extends outward from the body, and likewise retracts when the camera is shut down. There's also a raised finger grip on the camera front, that helps ensure a tight hold on the camera. The small LED on the right side of the optical viewfinder window blinks when the self-timer is in use and during movie recording.

The curve of the lens barrel defines the contours on this side of the camera, adding to the camera's sleek shape.

The side of the camera opposite to the lens features the battery and Memory Sticks compartment, the A/V Out jack, and the eyelet for the wrist strap. Sony has efficiently used the space on this side of the camera by combining the battery and Memory Sticks compartments into one. A hinged plastic door slides outward and then opens to expose the compartment. We're pleased not only with this space-saving idea, but with the fact that both the battery and memory card are fully accessible while mounted to a tripod (many digicams put one or both compartments on the bottom of the camera, usually too close to the tripod mount).

An information display panel, microphone, power switch, shutter button and mode dial are all located on the camera's top panel. We're always glad to see the inclusion of the small information display, as it enables you to shoot without the LCD monitor to save power. The information display reports various camera and exposure settings, providing a quick reference.

The camera's back panel features the majority of the camera controls and function buttons. The 1.5 inch LCD monitor is lined on two sides with various function buttons. The optical viewfinder features three LEDs to the left of the window, which report the camera's current status (i.e., whether focus is set, flash is charged, etc.). The optical zoom control, a rocker toggle button and the speaker can also be found on the back panel. Beneath a flexible plastic flap on the lower right corner are the USB and DC In jacks.

Finally, the DSC-P1's flat bottom holds simply the tripod mount.

Say, did we mention the "Marine Pack"? ;-) We have to say this impressed the socks off us, with very high-quality construction evident throughout, including stainless-steel buttons and o-ring seals throughout. In a shot later on in our review, the P1 is also showing off it's innovative "Clip Mode", which makes animated GIFs out of series of up to 10 individual images.

The "Marine Pack"
One of the most interesting aspects of the Sony DSC-P1 is the availability of the optional "Marine Pack" underwater housing for it. Although not cheap at a list price of $249, this is by far the most robust housing we've yet seen for a digital camera. While other underwater solutions are only certified to be waterproof to 10 feet or so, Sony's Marine Pack is rated for a full 100 feet - a lot deeper than all but the most advanced scuba divers are likely to go. For casual snorkeling or scuba to moderate depths, there's literally nothing like the combination of the DSC-P1 and Marine Pack on the market.

The photo above shows the DSC-D1 safely ensconced in the Marine Pack. The Pack is made of a transparent, very tough plastic (lucite?), with an O-ring seal running all around the case seal, and individual O-ring seals on all the buttons and controls. All the control buttons are solidly spring-loaded, so they'll respond well even under high water pressure, The sole exception to the plastic-and-metal construction is the front lens window, which appears to be made of heavy-duty optical glass.

This shot shows the DSC-P1 resting in the Marine Pack before the hatch is closed. Note the blue o-ring completely surrounding the seal area on the rear of the case.

We were surprised at the degree to which we could control the camera from outside the case: Buttons are provided for essentially all the camera's controls, with the exception of the Program AE, Volume, LCD on/off, and Display buttons. We could very easily turn the camera on and off, navigate all the menus, operate the zoom lens and shutter buttons, and even switch between playback, still, or movie recording.

The shot above shows a side view of the slanted button controlling the power switch. In this view, you can see some of the features that so impressed us with the quality of the unit, including the stainless-steel button material, the hefty spring-loading that will insure proper operation at depth, and the individual O-ring seals that guarantee water-tightness under high pressures.

In this shot, the DSC-P1 is showing off its "Clip Mode" animation capability, having stitched together 7 separate photos of the Marine Pack into an animated GIF image.

We have to admit we don't have any standardized method of testing underwater housings (somehow, taking it into the bathtub seemed a little ridiculous, not to mention potentially embarrassing), but we were tremendously impressed with the very evident quality and thought that went into the design of the Marine Pack. It says a lot that we'd feel entirely comfortable slapping a few hundred dollars of delicate electronics into it and jumping off a boat with the assemblage. Very impressive: If you have any inkling that you might want to do some enough "prosumer" underwater photography to justify the relatively modest investment, the DSC-P1 and Marine Pack combination are absolutely the best thing we've seen to date! (See the note immediately below though, for information on truly professional underwater housings.)

Important added note on the Sony Marine Pack underwater case
After reading our somewhat hyperbolic description of the Sony Marine Pack case, reader Allen Wicks took us rather severely to task. He pointed out that there are a number of very high-quality third-party underwater housings on the market, made for a wide variety of cameras. He singled out the housings made by Ikelite as being particularly noteworthy, offering excellent quality, at the lower end of the price range for professional underwater housings. Of course, the Ikelite cases start at anywhere from 3 to 4 times the price of the Sony Marine Pack.

Allen was quite right in chiding us for our admittedly over-the-top coverage of the Marine Pack: We called it "robust" without having had the benefit of taking it on even one dive, let alone the "scores" he felt were needed to truly assess the quality of underwater accessories. It's also quite true that there are other very high-quality underwater cases on the market, including onest that undoubtedly surpass the modest specifications of the Marine Pack. We thus felt it would be in order to somewhat clarify our position on the Marine Pack:

We've seen a number of underwater housings for digicams, provided by both manufacturers and third parties, all retailing for somewhere around the cost of Sony's entry. (List price of US$250.) It's within this limited playing field that our comments were meant to apply. Most of the cases we've seen have had either significant depth limitations, or what looked to us to be generally poor build quality. (Too much plastic in the operating parts, weak or no spring-loading on the controls, obvious parting marks from the molding process, etc.) The Sony Marine Pack struck us as an all-around excellent piece of engineering, although we admittedly were comparing it to other products intended for the amateur market. If you have the money, we'd not be at all surprised if a $750-950 Ikelite case would prove to be better constructed, more versatile, easier to use, etc. For the money though, we think the Sony Marine Pack is an exceptional deal.

Another note from Allen about underwater photography with digicams
Allen also pointed out a signficant limitation of essentially all digicams relative to underwater photography: The change in refractive index as light travels from the watery surroundings through the air gap in the housing and thence to the digicam lens introduces a "multiplier effect" (our term, not his) on the focal length of the lens. This makes it very difficult to take wide-angle underwater pictures with any reasonably normal zoom lens. Allen gave as a rule of thumb the fact that, on 35mm equipment, a 20mm lens has about the same angular coverage underwater as a 35mm lens on land. Thus, the P1 in its Marine Pack housing will apparently only be capable of relatively telephoto shots. This is fine for macros and single-fish pictures, but not conducive to capturing sweeping underwater panoramas.

Another limitation is external flash. Given the vagaries of lighting underwater, some form of fairly powerful strobe unit is often required. There's no provision for such with the DSC-P1/Marine Pack combination.

These may well be issues of greater concern to professional underwater photographers (like Allen) than the rest of us "splash & shoot" snappers, but we felt they clearly deserved mention while we were once talking about underwater photography.

Thanks, Allen for lending the voice of experience!

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