Sony has been on a roll lately with its Exmor R-sensored point-and-shoot cameras, and the compact but capable Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 ups the ante established by its predecessor, the highly rated Cyber-shot DSC-WX1.
The 12-megapixel, 5X-optical-zoom (24mm to 120mm) WX5 offers the same f/2.4 Sony G lens, impressive image quality, low-light bracketing capabilities (via Handheld Twilight mode), Sweep Panorama mode, and pocket-friendly size as the WX1, and it adds a pair of 3D-shooting modes to its arsenal of in-camera tricks.
Full manual controls are still missing, which makes this compact camera a tough sell for experienced photographers. Casual shooters probably won't miss them much; the WX5's scene modes and other shooting options cover most of the bases, and they're a lot of fun to use.
Camera Controls and 2D Shooting Modes
Although the DSC-WX5's physical appearance and features are very similar to those of the DSC-WX1, it has a few notable changes. With the WX5, Sony has refined some of the shooting modes found in the WX1, added a few more options to the mix, and changed several of the hardware controls. What's more, this camera accepts SD and SDHC cards in its combo slot as well as Sony's proprietary Memory Stick format; you can insert one of the two formats at a time, but not both.
Other key improvements over the WX1 are in the zoom controls, which are now on a ring around the shutter button rather than a thumb-operated toggle. The WX5 also has a dedicated video recording button on the back (it shoots 1920-by-1080 AVCHD video at 60i, an upgrade from the WX1's 720p, 30-fps video), as well as stereo microphones on top (the WX1 had a single, mono mic).
In addition to the menu of scene modes accessible from the camera's back-mounted mode dial (which include common settings such as Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Snow, and Fireworks), you get dedicated mode-dial selections for Background Defocus mode, 3D shooting modes, Sweep Panorama mode, and an HDR-like setting that Sony calls Superior Auto mode. Click the thumbnail images at left to see the full-size versions of each of our test shots, taken (from top to bottom) in Superior Auto mode, Intelligent Auto mode, and Background Defocus mode.
At its heart, Superior Auto mode is a reworking of the older WX1's Handheld Twilight scene mode: The setting takes up to six shots in rapid succession at different exposure settings, and then combines the shots in-camera to make a single image with a high dynamic range. The results are impressive, but they often look surreal: Colours appear bright and oversaturated, and shadowy areas are clearly defined. For HDR enthusiasts, it's good to have the Superior Auto mode option available at a click of the mode dial, but it's also nice to have the original Intelligent Auto mode available for more-accurate-looking photos.
Although it doesn't have dedicated aperture controls for manually tweaking a shot's depth of field, the Cyber-shot DSC-WX5's Background Defocus setting lends a similar sense of depth to macro shots and close-up portraits, blurring the background and drawing the viewer's eye to the foreground subject. It works well, but only when you're close to your subject and there's plenty of distance between the foreground subject and the backdrop; otherwise, the camera doesn't quite know where to start making the image blurry.
Sweep Panorama mode remains the best implementation of an in-camera panorama mode we've ever seen, thanks to its ease of use. Just press the shutter button once and then pan the camera across a scene either horizontally or vertically, and you have an instant panoramic image. This is the second generation of Sweep Panorama; Sony now calls the mode Intelligent Sweep Panorama, claiming that it handles moving subjects a bit better than the previous implementation did. In my tests, evidence was inconclusive on that claim; I still saw some odd artefacts in panoramic images that involved moving subjects, and panning the camera too fast across a scene results in a truncated, not-quite-panoramic image. Panning the camera slowly across a static scene works beautifully, however.
The WX5 has useful automated settings for fast-action shooters, too. Right on top of the camera is a quick-access button to the burst-shooting mode, which snaps as many as ten full-resolution shots per second. The most-granular set of controls you have at your disposal is in Program Auto mode, which lets you adjust exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering, and autofocus settings (spot, center, or multipoint autofocus). The WX5 has no true manual focus, but it does have a motion-tracking setting to keep moving objects in focus.
To see the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX5's 3D-shooting modes in action, watch our video review of the camera. The Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 (along with its slimmer, touchscreen-operated cousin, the Cyber-shot DSC-TX9) is one of the first single-lensed cameras to offer 3D-shooting capabilities--albeit with notable limitations and proprietary prerequisites. On the mode dial is a dedicated selection for 3D Sweep Panorama mode, which works just like the camera's normal Sweep Panorama mode but outputs an .MPO-format file (in addition to a normal JPEG file) that's viewable on a compatible Sony 3D TV with active-shutter glasses.
We were lucky enough to have a compatible Sony TV set in the PCWorld Labs, so we were able to put the camera's 3D skills through an informal test. There are still some growing pains to work out in 3D land, though: Because the TV we used didn't natively support the .MPO file type, we connected the camera to the TV via an HDMI cable and used the camera's on-screen controls to play back 3D images.
During 3D playback, our panoramic images certainly had an added dimension, but our camera-and-TV combo did a better job of producing images that appeared to stretch deep into the TV screen rather than pop out of it. Landscape scenes looked far more impressive than shots with a subject in the immediate foreground: we saw an odd flickering effect in foreground subjects on the right side of our images when we viewed them in 3D, but landscape scenes appeared to extend deep into the screen, almost diorama-like.
It's fun stuff, but after using 3D Sweep Panorama mode a few times and viewing the images, we started to see the advantages of a dual-lens system. One big limitation here is that you have to use the camera's panorama setting to create a 3D image; framing a quick snapshot of your buddy for 3D-viewing purposes is hard when you need to pan the camera almost 300 degrees to take the shot. We're hoping that next-generation versions of the feature include a truncated version of the 3D mode that lets you pan the camera over a shorter distance to create the 3D effect.
The Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 also sports an in-camera 3D mode that you don't need glasses to enjoy. Its Sweep Multi-Angle setting employs the same sweeping motion as the Sweep Panorama mode--but uses slightly different in-camera processing--to create the illusion of taking the same photo from several different angles.
During playback of Sweep Multi-Angle shots, you tilt the camera from side to side to "navigate" around in your image, essentially changing the viewing angle of the shot; it's a lot like viewing a hologram from different angles. The effect is very cool, especially the first time you see it in action, but I have the feeling that it's a mode you'll use a couple of times, show off at a party, and then possibly forget about.
Long story short, the Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 deserves credit for being the first everyday, single-lens camera to take 3D photos, and Sony deserves kudos for its imagination in implementing such modes. But this camera should definitely be considered as a point-and-shoot model first, and 3D shooting should be regarded as a fun but imperfect feature.
PCWorld Labs Image- and Video-Quality Tests
Luckily for the Cyber-shot DSC-WX5, it shines in the realm of 2D--both in terms of its shooting features and its image quality. In PCWorld Labs subjective testing for image and video quality, the WX5 outscored many higher-priced cameras in overall image quality.
The WX5 was especially impressive in sharpness and lack of distortion, earning a rating of Very Good in both categories. Color accuracy and exposure quality erred on the side of oversaturation and overexposure, and the WX5 received a score of Good for both categories.
The WX5 also captured better-quality video in well-lit situations than most point-and-shoot cameras we've tested, but its low-light video capture is a definite weak spot. Audio capture from its stereo microphones was excellent. The DSC-WX5 earned a video-quality score of Good based on the strengths of its bright-light video and audio capture, but you'll probably want to look elsewhere if you want satisfactory video quality in low-light situations.
Here are the sample clips for the PCWorld Labs' subjective video-quality tests, shot in AVCHD format at 60 interlaced fields per second in bright light and low light. Select 1080p from the drop-down menu in the lower-right corner of each video player for the highest-quality footage.
As a compact, everyday point-and-shoot camera, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 distinguishes itself from the pack with its unique modes for low-light shooting, panoramic images, and automated but useful image effects. Seasoned photographers are bound to baulk at the lack of manual controls (especially for the asking price), but anyone who wants an easy-to-use pocket camera that goes beyond the competition in fun factor and image quality will find it a great match for their needs. Its 3D-shooting modes are nifty, but they're first-generation implementations, and ultimately they shouldn't drive your buying decision.