As befits a camera designed to be first and foremost a serious photographic tool the Cyber-shot H1 takes no risks with design, following the same basic 'SLR-like' styling of the majority of its direct competitors. It's a serious-looking camera bristling with buttons and switches, and despite being mainly plastic - only the fixed part of the lens barrel is made of metal - it feels very solid and pretty substantial. A small thumb grip on the rear of the body, combined with the well-proportioned grip on the front, means it not only feels very secure when used single-handedly, it is also easy to reach virtually all the controls with one hand.
In your hand
Whereas many of Sony's compact cameras put super-smooth styling ahead of handling, the H1 has obviously been designed by someone who actually uses a camera to take pictures. It's not that small (though next to, for example, the Panasonic FZ20 or any DSLR it looks positively lilliputian), nor, at just shy of 600g, is it that light, but it is incredibly well-balanced and feels very stable indeed in use. I rarely felt the need to support the H1 with two hands (though of course there will be some advantage in doing so from a camera shake point of view), and I found overall handling to be much, much better than first appearances might suggest. If you have very small hands you might find the depth of the body a little uncomfortable, but I doubt there are many for whom this applies.
The H1 takes two AA batteries (NiMH recommended - and supplied). which slot into the base of the handle under a sturdy push 'n' slide cover. Battery life is good - though not the best (that big screen and big lens gobble power at a fair old rate) - around 290 shots using the LCD and 320 using the EVF (CIPA standard testing). Not bad at all for only two AA's! As ever it pays to carry a few spares.
In a very neat bit of design the battery compartment cover is hinged in the middle allowing access to the Memory Stick slot without risking the batteries falling out - or even powering down the camera. Unusually for this class of camera the H1 has 32MB of internal memory, and doesn't ship with a Memory Stick. Sony recommends the use of PRO sticks if you want to use the movie feature or shoot bursts.
As is now standard in this class of camera the H1 sports a small electronic viewfinder that shows exactly the same information as the main screen. The EVF is very small (side by side with the Canon S2 IS it looks about half the size), but it is very bright, and very crisp (115,200 pixels) and - crucially - remains usable even in very bright light.
The H1 has by far the largest screen in its class - a whopping 2.5-inches. As ever I'd like to see slightly more pixels used (115,200 is no more than most 1.8" screens), but to its credit the screen is very bright, very clear and seems entirely free of lag. Sony's hybrid technology means the screen has a reflective background that allows you to use it - albeit with a bit of squinting - in very bright direct sunlight. In fact, we rarely found a situation where the screen gave us any cause for complaint at all.
The shutter release is perfectly positioned on the top of the grip. Directly below the shutter release is a 'jog dial' that can be turned (to change settings) and 'clicked' to make selections. The jog dial makes using features such as manual exposure, program shift and AE-compensation a breeze - you don't even need to take your eye away from the viewfinder. It's as close to using an SLR we've yet seen in this type of camera. Excellent.
The H1's flash pops up automatically when needed, and has a maximum reach of around 6.8 m (22 feet) at the wide end and 5.2 m (just under 18 feet) at the long end - in both cases using auto ISO sensitivity. There's a - very - powerful autofocus illuminator that (as long as there's some contrast in the scene) allows the H1 to focus in almost complete darkness at distances of up to about 1.5 meters.
Unusually for a high-end Sony camera the H1 doesn't boast a Carl Zeiss branded lens (apparently this is something to do with Carl Zeiss not being happy with the moving lens element needed for optical image stabilization). It does, however, have a full 12x optical zoom covering the same useful 36-432mm range as the Canon S2 IS and Panasonic FZ5, and a very similar F2.8 to F3.7 maximum aperture.
The lens extends by around 27mm (1.1 inches) when powered up, after which most of the zooming is internal (the barrel doesn't extend much further).
Sony supplies a lens adaptor ring (which allows the use of 58mm filters and tele/wide adaptors) and a bayonet lens hood in the box with the H1.
The USB (2.0 high speed) and AV out ports are located under plastic cap on the left side of the camera (viewed from behind). The cap is a little fiddly, and is attached to the camera with some fairly flimsy-looking rubberized 'hinges'. There is no 'AC-in' port as such - Sony sells an optional 'dummy battery' type mains adaptor.
This shot shows the zoom rocker switch and image stabilization (or 'Super Steady Shot' as Sony likes to call it). Annoyingly the stabilization button only toggles between on and off - you can't change the IS mode without going into the setup menu.
The main mode dial sits next to a recessed power switch on the top of the camera.