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Sony CyberShot DSC-W120
7.2MP | 32-128mm (4X) ZOOM | $148 US, £105 UK

Sony was one of the first players in the digital camera market, and one of the first to offer truly compact metal-bodied cameras. Indeed the Cyber-Shot range has been around now for over a decade and has enjoyed considerable success. The W series was originally conceived as a budget range for the analog to digital switcher and was specifically designed with more conventional 'rangefinder camera' styling. But that was in the days when Sony offered digital compacts in a range of shapes and sizes, whereas today the entire market is about minimalism and it appears that the new holy grail of camera design is to get as close to the shape and size of a tin of Altoids as possible. And so the current W range (which like most others consists of six superficially similar models with various combinations of pixel counts, zoom ranges and feature tweaks) has that typical 'pack of cards' styling and, whilst not as slim as Sony's premium models, is perfectly pocketable.

We picked the W120 because it's the most popular (and one of only two to slip under our $150 cut off), and is a far better choice than the W110, which costs almost the same but doesn't have image stabilization (and is otherwise identical). Although one of the more expensive cameras in this group the W120 does offer a lot of bang for your buck, with a useful 4x zoom, image stabilization, full metal jacket and HD connectivity for displaying your images on a high definition television. You also get VGA quality MPEG movie capture and a range of fairly sophisticated features not always found on budget models.

  • 7.2 effective Megapixels
  • 32-128mm equiv lens with 4x Optical zoom and up to 2x Digital zoom
  • 2.5- inch LCD with 115,000 dots resolution
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 3200
  • 9-Point Autofocus and Face Detection
  • 11 scene modes including Smile Shutter Mode
  • Faster BIONZ processor
  • HD output
  • Available in Silver
  • Optional Accessories available, including HD cradle

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Overview

The W120 is another of the cameras in this round-up that looks more expensive than it is. The whole casing is metal and the front has a smart, uncluttered appearance. The back of the camera is slightly less clean in its layout, having squeezed all of its controls (including the mode dial) onto its rear face. There's a (minute) viewfinder included and, though it's not the easiest thing to see through, it could be handy in really bright conditions in which glare prevents you seeing the rear LCD.

The Sony user interface is nothing if not quirky: the 'Menu' button brings up what would be considered a sub-menu on any other camera, including all the key shooting parameters, while the menu containing all the underlying camera behavior settings is accessed via the 'Home' button. As with any user interface, you find your way around it eventually, but it's hard to escape the nagging doubt that it takes longer to learn than is strictly necessary. We're also not completely certain that slideshow mode is important enough to warrant its own button, though this is obviously connected to the inclusion of HDTV connectivity (via an optional cable).

Key Features

The Sony treads a fine line between the deck-of-cards format and a more traditional camera shape. It's easy enough to grip - in fact a lot more so than the considerably slimmer models further up Sony's extensive Cyber-Shot range.
The W120 has a mode dial that gives direct access to the camera's key modes and has a 'SCN' position for its less commonly-used scene modes. In addition to buttons you'd expect to see, it has a 'Home' button that takes you to the camera's main menus. The Menu button takes you to a sub-menu with the key shooting settings. It's unusual but doesn't impact on usability once you've got used to it.
The W120 is one of the few cameras in this test to include an optical viewfinder. This one is comically small, even by the petite standards of its peers, but theoretically it'll be useful on days when it's too bright to see the screen.
The 'Menu' button brings up a series of options that overlay on top of the preview image. The complexity of this menu varies, depending on which shooting mode is selected - reducing to just image size and flash mode in 'Easy' mode.
The Home button brings you to what would be considered the main menu in most other cameras. It makes little, if any, difference to using the camera as you quickly learn which button you're supposed to press.

Image quality and performance

As mentioned throughout this article, there isn't a huge difference between any of the cameras on test here when it comes to pixel level image quality and the range from best to worst isn't huge. Perhaps because it has the joint lowest pixel count here the Sony W120's output is, at a pixel level, one of the best, particularly if you take the entire ISO range into account (ignoring the ISO 3200 setting, which is pretty awful). In fact overall we were very impressed with the W120's picture quality. Sure, there's still some softness and some smearing of low contrast detail - and a touch of corner softness at the wide end of the zoom - when viewed at 100%, but at standard print sizes the results are excellent. Exposure and focus are very accurate (even in low light) and flash performance is excellent - perhaps the best here.

Just as importantly, the W120 feels very fast and very responsive compared to pretty much all the cameras here; focus especially is noticeably faster, even in low light and at the long end of the zoom. Flash recycle is still a bit slow, but it's better than any of the AA powered cameras in this test and rarely keeps you waiting more than a second or so.

Nit-pickers won't like the W120's output viewed at 100%, but at normal viewing or printing magnifications it's excellent, and at higher ISO settings is better than most of the other cameras in this group.

Flash performance is excellent and can even be used for macro shots, as the example here shows.

Summary

The Cyber-Shot W120 does exactly what a pocket camera should; reliably produce sharp, colorful and well exposed photos at the push of a button in a wide variety of shooting conditions. The inclusion of image stabilization and high ISO settings that produce usable results makes it far more versatile in less than perfect light than some cameras here, and the fact that it is fast and responsive in use make it much less likely to miss the shot. Of course it's far from perfect; the screen is low resolution and hard to see in bright light, the output isn't going to win any awards when viewed at 100% on-screen and the user interface is a little quirky, but it is without a doubt one of the best point and shoot models in this test, and we wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to friends or family shopping for a snapshot camera on a tight budget.

  • We like: Surprisingly good image quality, fast responsive operation, good flash performance, well built and compact design, decent feature set including optical image stabilization, 4x zoom lens
  • We don't like: Low resolution screen that's hard to see in bright light, proprietary Sony Memory Stick storage format.
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