The Sony HX1 is very SLR-like in appearance with its deep handgrip, protruding lens barrel, popup flash, and nicely offset EVF eye piece. Cosmetically there are very few changes from the H50, and from a distance it is quite easy to mistake one for the other. The controls are logically laid out, with dedicated buttons for most of the shooting settings, and anybody who has used a superzoom, especially a Sony one, will be right at home on the HX1.
In a move that was welcomed by some in the dpreview office, the rear scroll wheel which was set around the multi controller on the H50 (a layout I personally preferred) has been moved to the top back of the camera where the zoom rocker used to be. The wheel has a 'push click' to cycle between the various settings it controls (such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and ISO, depending on what shooting mode you are in) and it's easy to use - though we'd still prefer dual dials for the ultimate 'SLR like' operation.
The tilting rear LCD moves 90 degrees up or down, meaning you can shoot over your head or down low with ease. The design of the rear LCD is not quite as flexible a fully articulated unit such as that on the Canon SX1 IS, but it's still better than having a fixed one. Unfortunately though, its benefits disappear almost completely the moment you turn the camera to portrait orientation.
On the HX1 there is no button to manually raise the built in flash. Instead you must set the flash to Auto or On (through the menu); when you press the shutter release the flash will then pop up automatically. Not quite as intuitive as having a dedicated button and automatically activating the flash whenever it is flipped up.
The mini-SLR design of the HX1 means that you will not be fitting it in the average coat or jacket pocket, and when shooting it is more comfortable hanging around your neck than dangling from a wrist. Fortunately the decision by Sony to use a Li-ion battery instead of AAs means that the camera feels pretty light, and should not give you a sore neck after a long outing. The only real design flaw we found with the HX1 is that the lens cap is quite loose and prone to falling off as you take it out of your bag (or pocket if you have a really big one), and we can envision a brisk trade in lens caps as owners lose the original. Overall the construction of the HX1 feels solid despite the liberal use of plastics, and should take a few bumps in its stride.
In your hand
With a deep, textured hand grip (much deeper than on the H50), the HX1 is quite comfortable to hold. Your index finger naturally sits on the shutter button, and the decision to move the zoom rocker from the back of the camera to around the shutter button makes zooming more natural and comfortable. The camera feels light in your hand and is well balanced, but the placement of the rear multi controller means that, like all such cameras, it can be difficult to use one handed.
The HX1 comes with yet another new battery. Out goes the NP-BG1 used in the H50, in comes the 870 mAh NP-FH50. The new battery does not add much weight to the camera, but should give you better battery life. In design it resembles a miniature version of the batteries Sony uses in its Alpha range of DSLR cameras.
Sony continues to push its proprietary (expensive) card format with the HX1. The placement of the Memory Stick DUO slot is under the battery compartment. The battery is held in with a retention clip so that it does not fall out when the door is opened, and you need to press the Memory Stick in before it comes out. It is impossible to remove/change the Memory stick when the camera is on a tripod.
The viewfinder of the HX1 is of the electronic type (EVF) and is 0.2 inch and about 201K pixels. It seems quite crisp, but the refresh rate is quite bad in low light conditions, and it suffers from the 'set down a long tunnel' look. The EVF compares well to that on the Panasonic FZ28, but is not as good as the one on the Canon SX1 IS (and not even close to the Canon SX10 IS, which is best in class).
The rear LCD on the HX1 is the same 3 inch 230K dot one found on the H50. Images generally look crisp and the refresh rate is quite good, but it suffers from the same jerkiness in low light as the EVF. The LCD is at its best indoors, where it is bright and easy to see. Outdoors the LCD is quite visible, as long as you are not in direct sunlight (where the reflections make it almost impossible to see).
While not fully articulated, the LCD on the HX1 can be tilted 90 degrees in both the up and down direction. When shooting in landscape format the LCD design on the HX1 should have no disadvantages against articulated LCDs, allowing you to shoot over your head in crowds and to easily reach a low shooting position without having to bend down too far. However in portrait format it's less useful.
The shutter button has a definite half press position (where auto focus is activated), and though a little spongy, is quite satisfying to use. The zoom rocker, set around the shutter button, takes a moment to respond when used. The zooming action has only one speed, making fine adjustments quite difficult.
The built in flash is quite powerful, having a range of 9.2 m at wide angle, dropping to 5.1m at telephoto. There are four modes: Auto, On, Slow Syncro, Off, and red eye reduction functionality. The flash pops up quite high, and in use the lens did not cast a shadow even at the wide end of the zoom range. Flash is not available in continuous shooting and bracketing modes.
There is no flash hot shoe on the HX1. In the spot where it would be, the HX1 adds (over the H50) stereo microphone, which records the high quality audio found in the HX1 videos.
The lens on the HX1 extends over a very impressive range from 28mm on the wide end to 560 mm on the telephoto end. The widest aperture is is F2.8, dropping to a less impressive F5.2 at the telephoto end. Built in optical image stabilization (IS) should help you take sharp images even at the telephoto end, somewhat canceling out the relatively slow aperture.
The lens extends by 4.5 cm when at the telephoto end. The zooming action is smooth but relatively slow and, with only one zooming speed, it is quite hard to make fine zooming adjustments. There are no markings on the lens to show you the zoom setting, instead this is displayed in on the LCD (or EVF) at the top left hand corner as a multiple of the widest setting.
There are only two ports on the HX1 and they are both on the left side of the camera behind covers. The top one is the DC in port, for use when you don't want to power the camera from batteries. The second is a proprietary port that outputs to a combined USB2/composite AV cable or HDMI. No HDMI cable is included.
The multi controller is situated in the same location as it was on the H50, but there are are a few changes. What was the 'home' button now only performs the delete function as the home menu has been removed, and the clicky scroll wheel that rotated round the multi controller has been removed. The multi controller is now colored the same black as the rest of the camera.
The top of the camera is largely unchanged from the H50. The playback button has been moved closer to the EVF, and next to it is the new programmable custom button (smile shutter / white balance / metering mode). The focus and continuous shooting mode / bracketing mode buttons remain in the same locations. To make room for three new functions on the mode wheel, all of the scene modes have been moved together under the one SCN position.
The scroll wheel that was situated around the multi controller on the H50 has been moved to the location where the zoom rocker used to be. It now has two functions: it acts as a scroll wheel for image playback, and is also used for changing aperture/shutter speed/exposure compensation. Pressing it in allows you to cycle through the changeable settings in P/S/AV/M shooting modes.