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Sony DSC-H20
10.1MP | 38-380mm (10X) ZOOM | $279/£215

After the H3 and H10 (which at least for the time being remains in Sony's portfolio alongside the H20) the Sony DSC-H20 is the third generation of Sony's 10x zoom compact cameras and is, at least from the outside, very similar to its predecessors. As you would expect, compared to the H10 the megapixel count has been slightly upped (from 8.1 to 10.1 megapixels) and the camera now also features 720p HD video capture. However, the 10x zoom lens remains unchanged. The headline specs are pretty much in line with the rest of the pack but the H20 is the odd one out in so far that its zoom lens only starts at a rather unhelpful 38mm while the other cameras in this test offer wide angles between 24 and 28mm. Of course the H20 also offers a range of digital helpers such as face detection, dynamic range optimizer and scene recognition.

  • 10.1 effective Megapixels
  • 38-380mm equiv lens with 10x optical zoom, up to 57x 'Smart Zoom' at reduced resolution
  • 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, D-Range optimizer and smile shutter
  • 15 shooting modes including 10 Scene modes
  • HDTV video output (with optional composite cable)
  • In-camera retouching
  • Battery life: 290 shots

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Overview

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20 is the odd one out in our group test in a number of ways. With its fake 'prism', the more pronounced hand grip and the slightly more protruding lens housing its shapes appear to be SLR-inspired, whereas the designers of the competition opted for simpler, fairly boxy shapes. It's also the only camera in this comparison that comes with a plastic body. There is nothing wrong with that though, the H20's body feel solid and well made (apart maybe from the slightly flimsy pop-up flash) and lies comfortably in your hand. A rubberized hand grip and thumb rest ensure the camera can't slip even when things get a little more hectic.

The most important difference though is the Sony's lens. With its 10x zoom it's pretty much in line with the competition, but where all its competitors opted for a wide-angle lens, the H20's widest setting is 38mm. You'll have problems framing a group shot of your football team in a small room but in turn the 380mm at the long end of the lens can be very useful if your subjects are located in the distance. For most people the wide-angle will be more useful but if tele-photography is your thing then the H20 might be a good option, it entirely depends on your photographic needs but the lack of wide-angle makes the Sony a less convincing all-rounder than the others here.

The H20 user interface has been designed for simple point-and-shoot operation. There is no external exposure compensation button and we've never been big fans of Sony's two-tier menu-structure. Having said that, after some initial adaptation time you'll find your way around the settings easily, it only can get a little longwinded if you intend to change them too frequently.

Another user-interface-related point of criticism is the H20's new smile button. As the name suggests it activates the smile shutter, a feature that is a nice party-trick but probably of limited photographic value to most (in this mode the camera takes a picture as soon as it detects a smile on a subject's face, no need to press the shutter button). The problem is that the button is identically shaped to the the on/off button and sits right next to it. If you, like myself, tend to switch the camera on and off without looking at it, you'll pretty regularly activate smile mode instead.

Key Features

The Sony H20 has the most prominent, built-up grip of any of these cameras, it also has a substantial rubber thumb rest on the rear. It fits very firmly in your hand and provides easy access to the zoom rocker and shutter button.
At full zoom the H20's lens extends further than some of the other cameras in this test but it also offers the longest 35mm equivalent focal length (380mm). It doesn't offer any wide-angle capability though, which could be limiting.
The H20's pop-up flash is comparatively powerful for a compact camera. At the short end of the lens (38mm equivalent) it covers approximately 7m using Auto ISO.
The Sony's four-way controller is accompanied by play, menu and delete buttons. The H10's rear zoom buttons have been replaced by a zoom rocker around the shutter button.
The camera top is home to the power, smile mode and shutter button with zoom rocker. The mode dial has been placed in the corner.
The lens covers a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 38-380mm, making it stand out from the other cameras here in that it offers no real wide angle coverage (though it has more reach at the long end). Sony's Super SteadyShot image stabilization helps to avoid camera shake.
The Sony is the only camera in this test that comes without a dedicated exposure compensation button. You'll have to dive into the menu for adjustments.
The H20's slightly unusual two-tier menu structure means you press a couple of buttons and scroll to find the settings menu. Once you get there it's all pretty straightforward though.

Image quality and performance

The Sony takes around 1.7 seconds to start up; making it fractionally slower than most but nearer to the rest of the bunch than to the slowest (the Olympus). The zoom takes around 2.3 seconds to work its way out from the short to the long end of the range, putting it around the middle of the performance range. It's focus that really appears to be the Sony's strong point, with it taking just 0.5 seconds to achieve focus in our moderate indoor lighting test.

Image browsing in review mode is not the quickest (but fast enough), and the LCD shows a slightly pixilated preview for a split second before the proper image appears. However image magnification is pretty swift.

The H20 generally produces appealing consumer-friendly 'ready for print' images. The colors and contrast are natural and can be further adjusted in the menu. Default sharpening is a little strong but just stops short of being overdone. There is some evidence of noise reduction smearing at low ISOs but the Sony is one of the better cameras in this respect. We found the focus and exposure to work reliably in the vast majority of photographic situations. Like with all these cameras there is a slight tendency to clip highlights, so in bright and/or contrasty situations it might be useful to apply a hint of negative exposure compensation.

There is also some evidence of chromatic aberrations but you'll only find them on the typical high contrast edges and usually it's not severe enough to show in normal sized prints. At the long end of the lens there is also a little softness and loss of contrast but this is common to almost all long zoom digital compact cameras. Other than that the H20's output at base ISO is really quite unproblematic and very close to the top in this test.

Of course increasing the ISO introduces the usual noise and noise reduction related problems but all in all the Sony H20 does a decent job in low light. It preserves more detail than for example the Samsung, Olympus or Canon. The H20 comes with the most powerful flash in this comparison and does a very good job at flash images. Exposure is well balanced with natural skin tones and due to the extra power in the flash there's no need to increase the ISO too much, resulting in good retention of detail.

The H20 is one of the best performers in terms of detail at lower ISO settings, and not too prone to highlight clipping. Exposure and focus don't usually leave any reason for complaint either. There is some fringing at most zoom settings but it's not usually intrusive enough to be noticeable at normal output sizes. At higher sensitivities the cameras suffers form the usual loss of fine detail but it still one of the better models in this respect.

Summary

As we've mentioned above the Sony H20 differentiates itself from the rest of the pack by its 38-380mm zoom range which doesn't really give you anything you could call a wide-angle but at the same time offers plenty of reach at the long end of the zoom. If this is a good or bad thing entirely depends on you photographic needs but for general use some more wide-angle would certainly be recommendable.

However, if you have decided the Sony's zoom range is just right for you the camera produces decent output at low sensitivities with reliable exposure and good colors. Higher up the ISO scale things look differently but while the H20 shows all the usual noise and reduction artifacts it is still one of the best in this respect.

The user interface is designed for point-and-shoot action and may not be for you if you like to interfere manually with camera settings. It's possible but longwinded and not as intuitive as on the competing models. All-in-all the H20 does a decent job at what it was designed to do. As a prospective buyer you should make sure though that the camera's photographic offerings match your requirements.

  • We like: Fastest lens at the long end (F4.4), effective image stabilization, good flash output, quick focus, good results at base ISO, appealing color and tonality, accurate focus and metering, longer lens than competition

  • We don't like: Menu structure, few external buttons, smile button, smeary results at higher ISO settings, some chromatic aberration, no wide angle capability
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Comments

Matafuko
By Matafuko (1 week ago)

Just picked up a second hand SX200 for £35!
I bought it because I was surprised at a 12mp, 12x optical, 720p HD and manual function camera would be available so cheaply these days.
I have an SLR but wanted a smallish carry around thing. I am not - in any way - precious about it being top of the line, but the resolution, zoom and manual functions are perfectly adequate for me.
I'm in pretty much total agreement with your review and once you replace the idea that it's the most expensive in the batch test with the fact that I got it second hand for a steal - there's not a bad word I can say about it!
(It's even in the cool blue colour)

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