Sony hasn't reinvented the wheel with the H9, and the design is very, very similar to the H2 and H5 that came before it. Maybe it's the materials, maybe because it's a bit lighter, but the H9 doesn't have quite the same 'quality' feel as the H5. In fact everyone who picked it up commented on how light it was, 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.
In your hand
Like the models that preceded it, the H9 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). 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 suprisingly easy to use, but if you like to change your exposure, ISO, white balance etc settings a lot the H9 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 isn't terrible, but it isn't great - especially if you use the LCD screen (as opposed to the viewfinder) and leave the IS on all the time. Sony quotes 280 shots per change (LCD, CIPA standard), but we struggled to get more than about 200 per charge. Spare battery a good idea.
Directly beside the battery is the Memory Stick Duo (or PRO Duo) slot. The H9 - 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.
The screen is simply superb, and puts most competitors to shame. At 3.0-inches and 230,000 pixels it's the same as the H5. Like the H5 the H9's screen could do with being a bit brighter - it's nigh on impossible to see in bright light. This is despite a fancy anti-glare coating (which you need to polish continually as it shows every finger - or nose - print).
Of course the big change is that the screen is now articulated, albeit in a way that only allows a limited degree of movement (apparently there are patent issues surrounding the side-hinged approach used by Canon). The screen can be tilted up and and through 90-degrees - great for waist-level or over the head shooting. The only downside is that mechanism adds further to the depth of an already quite chunky body.
The H9'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 H9 to focus in total darkness up to a distance of around 1.5m.
Making a reappearance on a Cyber-shot for the first time in half a decade is 'NightShot' - Sony's infrared 'night vision' technology (featured on most of its camcorders). Flip this switch and an invisible infrared light is activated allowing you to take monochrome pictures (with a lovely 'desert storm' green glow) in total darkness. It's great for sleeping kids or shy badgers.
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. Above the connector is the NightShot on/off slider switch.
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. Directly behind the shutter release are two buttons for metering and drive modes (the drive button also activates the various bracketing options).
Last but not least the H9 ships with a fairly sophisticated remote control. Nice touch.