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Sony CyberShot DSC-W300
13.6MP | 35-105mm (3X) ZOOM | $310 US / £220 UK

The Sony W300 may look uncannily like the W120 tested in the Budget roundup last month, but in fact it's the camera with one of the highest specs in this test. For many months after its launch February '08 this was the highest pixel-count compact on the market, and there are still only a handful of cameras to fight for that particular title. A titanium-coated body sets this model apart from the five other less expensive W-series cameras Sony currently builds. As you'll have probably come to expect if you've looked at all the other cameras in this review, it's got an automatic scene selection mode and smile shutter option.

What it doesn't have, unlike all the other cameras in this group, is a proper wideangle zoom - the W300 sports a rather pedestrian 35-105mm (equiv.) lens, which - given the price - puts it at something of an immediate disadvantage, titanium body or not.

  • 13.6 effective Megapixels
  • 35-105mm equiv lens with 3x Optical zoom and up to 2x Digital Zoom
  • 2.7 inch LCD with 230,000 dot resolution
  • Optical Viewfinder
  • Optical Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 6400
  • Face Detection of up to 8 faces and Dynamic Range Optimizer
  • 9-Point Autofocus and Semi-Manual Focus
  • 13 scene modes including Intelligent Scene Recognition and Smile Shutter Mode
  • Faster BIONZ processor
  • HD output (stills)
  • In-Camera Retouching
  • 15MB internal memory
  • Anti-scratch Titanium-coated body
  • Available in Gray
  • Optional Accessories available

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Overview

The feature-packed nature of the W300 means the back of the camera gets pretty crowded, with no space left for your thumb - it rests on the mode dial, though it's unlikely you'll turn it by mistake. We tend not to be a big fan of the tiny optical viewfinders that sometimes appear on compacts, not least because they rarely reflect the image area that will be captured terribly well. However, there are some users that like them, particularly those who live in places that regularly experience bright enough weather that they have difficulty seeing the screen.

Other than that, the W300's feature-set is consistent with what we've seen from the other cameras in this test: there's an automated scene selection mode, and the smile shutter that waits until your subject is enjoying themselves before firing the shot. The only real stand-out feature of the W300 is its use of Sony's proprietary Memory Stick format that generally commands quite a premium over the cost of a SDHC card of similar speed and capacity.

The W300 has a 2.7", 230,000 dot screen of the type that occurs in all but the highest- and lowest-end compacts. However, the user interface on the W300 is unnecessarily convoluted for our tastes and needs. Most of the compacts we've tested have a sub-menu containing a handful of the most commonly changed settings (e.g. Exposure Compensation), then a main menu with more detailed options (such as metering modes), then perhaps a setup menu for underlying settings (e.g. how to display the date).

Instead of this, the Sony has a main menu that runs to 19 options (so not the quickest to dip into for a quick setting tweak), and the Home menu. Or rather, the Home menu menu: six tabs, each of which contain icons representing more menus and features. The system is structured sufficiently well that you don't have to press the Home menu button too often (and perhaps users planning to simply point-and-shoot won't venture in there at all), but our hearts sink when we realize we're going to have to wade in to format the memory card, for instance.

Key Features

Like many of the cameras here, the W300 is a reassuringly heavy, solid-feeling camera (probably the highest quality finish in the group). There's no space or relief for resting your thumb on, but it does sit well on the mode dial, which is fine, since it's unlikely that you're going to rotate it, simply by pressing your thumb to it.
The back of the camera has a good selection of buttons and dials. There's a Manual mode, if you want to take control over the exposure
For when the daylight makes the screen invisible, the W300 has an optical viewfinder. It's a bit like looking through the middle of a Biro, but if it's a feature you're convinced you can't live without, it's there.
The W300 doesn't really have what we'd consider a sub-menu of regularly changed settings. Instead there's this side-bar, with 19 options that have to be scrolled through (with no hint given about how far through them you are).
The main settings menus are all accessed via the 'Home' button, that provides access to a series of functions and menus. There are six tabs, but only five can fit on the screen at any one time. The final tab is the one with all the useful settings, further split out into four menus. It's not the easiest system to use by any means.

Image quality and performance

Focus speed in good light is generally fast (like most Sony compacts) but more often that we'd like, especially at the tele end of the zoom, it fails to lock focus in anything but the brightest lighting conditions. On the plus side the comparatively bright AF illuminator let's you focus almost in darkness, just make sure you don't blind your subjects!

The W300 starts up very quickly so you're less likely to miss that crucial shot, and although there is a noticeable shutter lag it's about average for this class of camera, as are the write and shot-to-shot and flash recycle times. Operation in review mode (image browsing and magnification and so on) is a little slowish.

From an image quality point of view the W300 has the same issues as the other high pixel count models here; at a pixel level the output even at base ISO looks far from clean, with unpleasant artefacts, smearing of low contrast detail and a touch of noise visible in the shadows. Stepping back a little and looking at normal viewing magnifications things are a lot more appealing, with natural colors, excellent metering and white balance, and accurate focus (comments above aside). Resolution is amongst the best here, though we saw noticeable edge softness at the wide end of the zoom and a slight fall in sharpness at the long end.

Shooting under optimal conditions (outdoors, good light) the W300 produces impressive output with natural color and excellent exposure. But it's not all good news; there's noticeable smearing of low contrast detail even at base ISO, the lens is a bit soft in the corners at the widest zoom setting and at a pixel level the output looks over sharpened and over processed.

Summary

The W300 is a beautifully built, reassuringly solid compact with surprisingly good handling for such a small camera. Aside from occasionally struggling to focus at the long end of the zoom in low light it's pretty reliable as a point and shoot camera, rarely (if ever) really getting things wrong. The output looks good at normal print sizes with color that's vivid without being unnatural and plenty of detail. But - and there's always a but - it's expensive, the lens range is a bit boring, the user interface won few friends here and it's far from the fastest camera in its class. To round things off all those pricey extra megapixels bring precious little to the party, and for the average user there are less expensive W series cameras with far fewer pixels that will produce identical output.

  • We like: Build and styling, reliable point and shoot operation, some cool features, screen

  • We don't like: Smearing of low contrast detail, soft edges at wide end, boring zoom range, price doesn't reflect anything other than fancy casing and essentially redundant extra megapixels
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