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Sony DSC-H55
14.1MP | 25-250mm (10X) ZOOM | $199/£209

The Cybershot DSC-H55 is something of a break from previous Sony H-series travel zoom cameras, being a much more traditionally 'compact' design than the DSLR / squirting toy camera-influenced H10 and H20. In fact, the H55 looks pretty much like all of the other travel zoom cameras that we're testing, but fortunately it does offer a few cool features that help to set it apart from the competition, amongst them Sony's 'Sweep Panorama' and DRO (dynamic range optimisation) modes.

  • 14.1 effective Megapixels
  • 25-250mm equiv lens with 10x optical zoom
  • 1280 x 720p HD video recording
  • 3.0-inch LCD with 230,000 dots resolution
  • Sony SteadyShot Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 3200
  • Face Detection, adult or child-priority face detection, and smile shutter
  • DRO dynamic range optimisation mode
  • 15 shooting modes including 10 Scene modes
  • In-camera retouching (trimming, red-eye correction and sharpening)
  • Battery life: 310 shots (still capture)

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Overview

Ergonomically, the Cybershot DSC-H55 couldn't be more different to the H20 that we tested in last year's travel zoom roundup. Sony has ditched the DSLR-inspired styling, but the feature set (with the exception of lens specification) remains more or less the same. Some of our criticisms of the H20 have been addressed in the H55, perhaps the most significant of which was the poor placement of the 'smile' button on the older model, which was all too easy to mistake for the similar in appearance on/off button. The H55 has a smile button, but it has been repositioned to the 4-way rocker switch on the rear of the camera.

The H55 has a handgrip of sorts, but in reality it is little more than a subtle bulge on the extreme right of the camera, with no texture to aid a firm grip. A small depression serves as a thumbrest on the rear of the camera, but again, it isn't textured, and we've found that with hot or wet hands, the camera can easily slip. Some texture here, or some rubber accenting would make the camera easier to use one-handed, as well as (arguably) adding an extra touch of quality.

The H55's standout features aren't new in this camera. Sweep Panorama has been around for a while, and so has DRO, but this doesn't mean they're not worth having onboard. DRO is a simplified version of the system which Sony uses in its Alpha DSLRs, and is designed to get the most possible tonal information from a single image. Again, it works well. Sweep Panorama is explained a little further down this page.

Key Features

Less a handgrip, more of a slight groove in the bodyshell, the H55 isn't as comfortable to hold as some of the cameras on test here, but it isn't the worst. Again, it's amazing that a 10x optical zoom can fit into such a slim body.
When fully extended, the 25-250mm lens adds a lot of bulk to the camera, but handling is unaffected (i.e. the camera doesn't become unbalanced).
As usual for this range, a fairly weak flash provides adequate, but not outstanding illumination for close-range portraits and fill-in. It is badly positioned though - it's very easy to obscure with your finger by accident.
The Sony's four-way controller is accompanied by play, menu and delete buttons.
The camera top is home to the power button, zoom slider, shutter release and exposure mode dial. Back away - there is nothing more to see here.
The lens covers a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 25-250mm. Not as long (or quite as wide) as some of the competition but a very useful range nonetheless.
Unlike earlier Sony compact cameras, the DSC-H55 can accept either Sony's proprietary Memory Stick or the more standard Secure Digital media. Both cards go into the same slot (but not at the same time).
The H55 features a DRO dynamic range optimization function, which is designed to increase the tonal range of exposure, especially in situations like backlighting. There are two modes (three if you count 'off') - 'Standard' and 'DRO Plus'.

Image quality and performance

The most nagging frustration that we have with the H55 is its operational speed, which in some respects verges on the soporific. A startup time of 2 seconds (approx) is fine, but 1.6 seconds to bring up a review image is a little slow. Likewise, the H55 suffers from the same 1 second (approx) lag between pulling the zoom toggle and the camera actually zooming into an image in review mode as it's near-relative the HX5. In combination, this means that from pressing the playback button to seeing a magnified image of the picture you just took takes around 3 seconds, which soon becomes frustratingly long if you're trying to capture a shot of a tricky subject, like a child or pet. On the subject of image review, something else that might also be an issue for you is that the Sony's LCD screen shows a slight but noticeable 'shimmer', which is most apparent in areas of fine detail, especially in review mode. The dpreview office is split between those of us who don't notice it, those of us that notice but don't mind, and those of us that find it very distracting.

The H55's 25-250mm lens zooms through its entire span in a reasonable 2.2 seconds, but shot to shot time is a little sluggish, at approximately 3.5 seconds, including AF acquisition.

In terms of critical image quality, the H55 delivers a lot of detail, and reasonable definition when viewed at 100%. Like all of the 14Mp cameras in this test, however, diffraction means that you shouldn't expect to get significantly 'better' images than you might expect from a 10Mp or 12Mp sensor - just slightly bigger files. The H55's high ISO files are nothing much to shout about, but none of the cameras in this test perform brilliantly when the light gets really low. We were disappointed with the results we got from the H55 in our low light 'real world' scene though, which were rather dark compared to the majority of other cameras. Although high contrast detail is reasonably well-retained by the H55 at all ISO settings , the overall murkiness of the exposures in dark conditions makes the camera less useful than it could be. Flash exposures are bell-balanced though, and the H55 makes a good companion for social photography, albeit one that is prone to occasional overexposure in skin tones.

Something that surprised us about the H55 (and the HX5) is that it's automatic 'always on' optical image stabilization system is not as effective as the systems in most of the other cameras in this test. A 40% hit rate of sharp images in our test environment is ok (the HX5 manages 60%), but not great. To be fair, 1/30sec exposures at the long end of the zoom is a pretty harsh test, but the H55 doesn't have the longest telephoto reach of the cameras in this group, and it is clear that it's OSS system isn't as effective as some of those that can go longer, like the Samsung HZ35W and Nikon Coolpix S8000.

Image quality from the H55 is very good in most situations, and only starts to fall apart where we'd expect it to - towards the higher end of the ISO scale. The 25-250mm lens shows very little fringing, and although the Sony is one of the least customizable cameras here, fortunately it is very capable when left to its own devices.

Sony's Sweep Panorama works very well indeed most of the time, and obvious joins are relatively unusual when it is tasked with creating panoramic images of static subjects. One of the reasons why it works so well is that the image is created using the H55's video feed, but this is also why panoramic images are so grainy, and small compared to stills.

Summary

As we would expect, the H55 generally turns out bright, nicely saturated, print-ready images with very little need for manual intervention. From our various studio and real world tests, it is clear that the Sony's various systems are generally very capable, and left at its default settings, we have no complaints with the overall quality of the H55's output. This is lucky, since the H55 offers very little in the way of customization apart from some basic 'cookie cutter' scene modes designed to boost saturation for landscapes, beach scenes, etc.

Overall then, the H55 does exactly what it is designed to do. However, there are better cameras in this group, in terms of critical image quality, versatility, and value for money. The H55 isn't a bad camera, by any means, but despite the addition of an 'M' mode it is in most respects an 'auto everything' compact, and there are cameras in this group that offer more.

  • We like: Capable key systems, good image quality at low ISO settings, uncomplicated ergonomics, dual SD/MS slots

  • We don't like: Very limited customization, OSS not as effective as rival systems, smudgy output at high ISO settings.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55
Category: Travel Zoom Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Value
PoorExcellent
Good for
On-the-go photographers looking for point-and-shoot simplicity.
Not so good for
Speed, and anything requiring advanced manual control
Overall score
66%
The Sony Cyber-Shot H55 is a very capable point-and shoot camera which packs an impressive feature set. As long as you don't want to take a lot of control over your photography the H55 will serve you well, but slow operation, slightly sketchy image quality and a lack of customization mean that the Sony doesn't score as well as other cameras in this group.
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