Sony hasn't reinvented the wheel with the H7, and the design is very, very similar to the H2 and H5 that came before it. Like the H9 the H7 is surprisingly light - only more so, which helps when walking around all day, but doesn't help stability - nor does it inspire confidence. A few of the buttons have moved around and the command dial has migrated from the handgrip to the rear panel, but overall the recipe is the same as it has been since the original H1. The most obvious external difference from the H9 is the screen, which is smaller and doesn't tilt out. This means the body itself is marginally shallower.
In your hand
Like the models that preceded it, the H7 is well-balanced and fits the hand nicely (the grip is slightly different to the H5, and I prefer it, but everyone's hands are different). My only complaint - or observation - is that it actually feels a little too light; the H9 felt insubstantial, the H7 actually gets dangerously close to 'toy like'. Although you can easily shoot holding the camera in one hand, it's a lot steadier (and a lot easier to use the zoom control) if you use both. As a point and shoot camera it's surprisingly easy to use, but if you like to change your exposure, ISO, white balance etc settings a lot the H7 takes an awful lot of getting used to - partly because of the reliance on menus, partly because the new control dial is in a much less useful place than it used to be. The camera is also quite deep, but this will only be an issue if you're blessed with tiny hands.
One big change over the previous 'H' models is the use of a Lithium Ion battery pack (presumably to deal with the power demands of that huge screen). Battery life is marginally better than the H9, though still better if you use the viewfinder and turn the continuous IS off. Sony quotes 300 shots per change (LCD, CIPA standard), but we struggled to get more than about 220 per charge. Spare battery a good idea.
Directly beside the battery is the Memory Stick Duo (or PRO Duo) slot. The H7 - like most recent Cyber-shot models - doesn't ship with a card, but there is a measly 31MB of internal memory to get you started (enough for about 10 shots).
The electronic color viewfinder appears to be the same as the one used on the H5, so it's still a bit small (it's like watching a film from the very back of the cinema), but the resolution is good and it's fairly bright. One small point - the new design doesn't have much of an eyecup at all, meaning in bright light the viewfinder can be hard to see.
Although the screen is the most obvious 'budget' aspect of the H7 it's not terrible. It's smaller (though 2.5" is plenty big enough in my book) and has far too few pixels (115,000), which means the pretty new menus don't look anywhere near as nice as they do on the H9. The viewing angle and brightness aren't that great, and the anti-reflective coating does little to stop glare making it difficult to use in bright light.
The H7's flash pops up automatically when needed, and it's got a great range (up to 9.8m / 32 feet), but be aware that this relies on the auto ISO going very high, so don't expect miraculous image quality at anything over a few meters. There is a very bright AF illuminator that allows the H7 to focus in total darkness up to a distance of around 1.5m.
The biggest change over the previous H range is the new lens, which now covers an even more ambitious 15x zoom range. The good news is that Sony hasn't just stretched the long of the zoom; the wide end got wider too, the lens now covers an incredibly versatile 31-465mm equivalent range. The only downside of this focal length largesse is that the maximum aperture at the long end has dropped nearly two thirds of a stop (from F3.7 to F4.5).
As with previous models Sony supplies a lens adaptor ring and a rather unwieldy bayonet-fit lens hood that adds considerably to the bulk of the camera but is essential for avoiding flare on bright days. If you like to use filters on the front of your lens be warned: the lens adapter has a huge - and decidedly non-standard - 74mm thread.
On the left side of the body (viewed from the rear) you'll find the usual Sony multi-connector. This doubles as a video out and USB port (and can provide 1080i HDTV signal with the optional component cable). Why Sony didn't go the whole hog with HDTV output and allow a digital connection (HDMI) I don't know - that would be really impressive.
On the opposite side of the body is a funny little square connector for use with the (optional) mains adapter.
The standard four-way controller offers instant access to flash, macro, display mode and self-timer functions, and is used to navigate the on-screen menus. Around this is the new control wheel, which has moved from it's (much more sensible) position on the front of the grip - this is very easy to knock with your thumb accidentally too. Note the new 'home' button, used to access all basic settings no matter what mode you are currently in.
The mode dial sits next to the recessed power switch on the top of the camera. Here you'll find all the manual exposure modes, movies, plus the four most commonly-used scene modes (portrait, advanced sports, twilight and landscape).
The shutter release is perfectly positioned on the top of the grip. Note that the two buttons found on the H9 (for metering and drive modes) are gone, those functions now relegated to menu options.
Last but not least the H7 ships with a fairly sophisticated remote control. Nice touch.