The DSC-L1 has the same simple, clean, fuss-free design as the Cyber-Shot U series, though the overall look and finish also has echoes of Sony Ericsson's latest latest cell phones. It's certainly small, though at just over an inch thick it's a little less shirt-pocket friendly than ultra-slim models such as the Canon SD300 or Pentax S4i. The rounded front wasn't to everyone's taste I showed it to, but no one could deny the build-quality (virtually all metal body, subtle use of different surface textures) is superb. External controls, though still fairly minimal, are more extensive than on the DSC-U40, and include a four-way 'joystick' that not only allows much easier navigation of on-screen menus, but also offers quick access to flash mode, self timer, metering mode and quick review mode. Alongside the dedicated image size button this means the majority of 'point and shoot' controls are accessible without entering the menu system.
In your hand
Camera manufacturers aiming to design the smallest possible camera always risk sacrificing handling and general usability; there's only so far you can go with miniaturization before you lose stability and the average user feels like their fingers have turned into bananas as they grapple with the tiny controls. The DSC-L1 doesn't quite get to this point, and indeed feels very stable in the hand (thanks in part to its less than featherweight 152g fully loaded). The lack of height and smooth exterior means holding it in one hand - even with the textured thumb-grip on the rear - doesn't feel totally safe, and I found myself more often than not using my left hand to support the lens end of the camera, especially when zooming.
The combined battery/Memory Stick Duo compartment sits under a sturdy spring-hinged 'slide out and swing open' door. Both battery and card click into place, so no danger of losing one when changing the other. The DSC-L1 accepts Memory Stick Duo and Duo PRO cards (PRO cards are faster). Battery life from the Li-Ion cell (240 shots/120 minutes according to Sony, using CIPA standard testing) is not bad at all.
The InfoLITHIUM battery is charged in-camera using the supplied mains adapter. This plugs into a small proprietary socket under a small flap on the right end of the camera (viewed from the front). Next to the AC socket is a mini USB port for connection to a PC - and according to the spec it's real USB 2.0 (high speed), rather than merely compatible.
The small flash is underpowered (a quoted range 2.0m), which restricts it's usefulness. The red-eye reduction (using a burst of pre-flashes) has to be turned on and off via the setup menu, which is fiddly, but you do at least get a slow synch function and a three-step output level control (-, normal, +). For social snaps of small groups or a little fill-flash it's fine, but don't expect miracles.
The L1 sports a new ultra-compact 32-96mm equivalent 3x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens. The F2.8 to 5.1 aperture is nice and bright at the wide end, but - inevitably in such a small unit - is less useful at the long end of the range, which means slower shutter speeds or increasing the CCD sensitivity. The lens retracts fully (and very quickly) into the camera body completely when not in use.
The 1.5 inch anti-reflective screen may only have 78,000 pixels but it is surprisingly clear and very bright. The screen is one of Sony's 'hybrid' TFTs - there is a reflective plate behind the display and you can turn off the back light in very bright situations. It does work (and extends battery life by about 10%), but only in direct sunlight. The screen doesn't 'gain up' in low light, but the AF illuminator is vey powerful and very effective at distances of up to around 2.0 m.
For reasons best known to Sony's designers the L1 sports a non-standard tripod mount (it's smaller than the normal). A very sturdy tripod adaptor is included in the box, which places the mount in the center of the camera and ironically makes the camera easier to hold with one hand by adding a little height.
Unlike the U series of ultra-compact cameras, the DSC-L1 has a four way control button for navigating menus and changing basic photographic settings. My only complaint is that the design of the camera is such that if you shoot with one hand in program mode you'll find your thumb accidentally turning the spot metering on and off continually. I got so sick of this (and the resultant weird exposures) that I abandoned program mode most of the time I was shooting.