Every parent thinks their baby is the most beautiful in the world, but I feel fairly sure that even Sony would admit the W7 lags behind somewhat in the style stakes. It's a boxy, rather inelegant camera, and its design makes me think water will squirt out of the lens when you press the button. But the continuing popularity of the W series shows that Sony isn't stupid - there is a ready market for an unpretentious camera with a bit of bulk to it - many users (especially men) find the latest ultra-compact models simply too small to use - certainly too small to hold steady. The W7 (like the W5 and W1 before it) is built like a tank, has a really solid, 'quality' feel to it (in part due to its fairly hefty 250g weight). The control layout follows the usual Sony Cyber-shot pattern, though the slightly larger body means the buttons get a little more room to breathe than they do on, for example, the ultra-compact P and T series cameras. You also get an optical viewfinder - something gradually disappearing from ultra-compact models.
In your hand
It may not be the prettiest kid on the block, but the slightly bulkier format does give the W7 a very solid feel in the hand, and handling is excellent. The chrome finger grip on the front and small thumb grip on the rear do a great job of ensuring rock-steady operation, even single-handed (though it still feels safer - especially when using the zoom rocker - to support the camera with both hands).
The combined battery/Memory Stick compartment sits under a sturdy spring-hinged 'slide out and swing open' door. There's nothing to hold the batteries in place when you open the door, so be careful when changing cards. Battery life from the two AA NHM cells (420 shots/210 minutes according to Sony, using CIPA standard testing) is excellent.
No Memory Stick is supplied with the W7 (the camera has 32MB of internal memory to get you started). You can use standard Memory Stick (or Duo with an adaptor), but you'll need PRO cards to shoot high resolution, high frame rate movies.
The small flash is pretty average for this class of camera (a quoted range 4.5m at the wide end). 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 W7 sports the usual 3x Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens covering a range equivalent to 38-114mm. The F2.8 to F5.2 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 into the camera body completely when not in use, and can be extended with various Sony wide and tele adapters, and filter kits.
A rubberized flap covers the mini data (USB) and audio/video (AV) ports. The W7 offers full USB 2.0 'High Speed' transfer (480 Mbits/second).
The 2.5-inch anti-reflective screen is big for a budget camera, and is very bright. In good light it has a fairly high refresh rate and suffers from very little perceptible lag. On the downside it only has 115,000 pixels (not a lot for such a big screen), meaning it looks a little more 'pixelated' than we'd like, but it does work very well in bright light, and gains up automatically in very dim conditions (when the preview image slows down and gets a little grainy).
The optical viewfinder is pretty standard fare for this type of camera. Sure, it only shows around 85% of the scene, is too small and isn't even that clear, but it is at least usable (and better than many ultra-compacts), and is near enough to the lens to avoid parallax errors in most normal shooting circumstances. Two LEDs indicate focus status (top, green) and flash status (bottom, yellow).
The main mode dial - the W7 has three main shooting modes; auto, program (fully automatic but with many more menu options) and full manual, and seven scene (subject) modes. The other positions on the dial are for movie mode and playback. In the middle of the dial sits the large, very sensitive shutter release.
The remaining controls are clustered around the ubiquitous four-way controller on the rear of the camera. Macro, flash and self-timer get their own buttons (as does image size, bottom left).
The zoom rocker switch sits at the top of the rear of the camera, perfectly positioned for operation with your thumb. The buttons are also used for magnifying images in playback mode and for switching to thumbnail view.