The H2 follows the the same basic 'SLR-like' styling of the H1 before it - and 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. Compared to the H1 it's a little sleeker, and a little more 'Cyber-shot', but I must confess I actually preferred the styling of the previous model. Functional changes are minor; a couple of buttons have moved to the top left of the rear panel and the zoom lever is now nearer to the shutter release, but there's nothing here that has a significant effect on handling.
In your hand
Like the H1 before it, the H2 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 FZ30 or any DSLR it looks positively lilliputian), nor, at just shy of 550g, is it that light, but it is incredibly well-balanced and feels very stable indeed in use. 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. Overall 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 H2 takes two AA batteries (NiMH recommended - and supplied). which slot into the base of the grip under a sturdy push 'n' slide cover. Battery life is good - much better than the H1 - thanks to the smaller screen, at around 400 shots using the LCD or EVF (CIPA standard testing with the supplied 2500 mAh cells). 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 to allow 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 H2 has 32MB of internal memory, and doesn't ship with a Memory Stick Duo. Sony recommends the use of PRO sticks if you want to use the movie feature or shoot bursts.
As is standard in this class of camera the H2 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 S3 IS it looks about half the size), but it is much bright and sharper (200,000 pixels) and - crucially - remains usable even in very bright light.
Somewhat surprising is Sony's decision to reduce the screen size to 2.0" (the H1 had a 2.5" LCD). The resolution is also on the low side (85,000 pixels), but to its credit the screen is very bright, very clear and seems almost entirely free of lag. Next to, for example, the Canon S3IS, the H2's screen is evidently brighter and more contrasty, and works better in bright 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. The Panasonic FZ30 aside, its still as close to using an SLR we've yet seen in this type of camera. Excellent.
The H2's flash pops up automatically when needed, and has a better maximum reach than the H1; around 9.0 m (29 feet) at the wide end and 6.8 m (22 feet) at the long end - in both cases using auto ISO sensitivity. It'll go even further if you crank up the ISO to the max. There's a - very - powerful autofocus illuminator that (as long as there's some contrast in the scene) allows the H2 to focus (albeit slowly) in almost complete darkness at distances of up to about 1.5 meters.
Although the lens looks identical - and certainly appears to have identical specifications - to the one on the H1, it is now branded 'Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar' (the H1 lens was a Sony), and we suspect it has a different coating. Either way the range is impressive; 36-432mm (equiv.) giving a whopping 12x optical zoom with a decent F2.8-3.7 maximum aperture. Of course it's also optically stabilized, something we consider essential for such a long telephoto.
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 H2. There's also a substantial clip-on lens cap to keep the front element nice and safe when not in use.
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 newly-positioned display mode and menu buttons. The zooming mechanism is two-speed (it goes faster if you push the buttons harder) and very smooth (though I'd like an even slower zoom for movie shooting).
The standard four-way controller offers instant access to flash, macro, AE compensation and self-timer functions, and is used to navigate the on-screen menus. Below is a button for image size (but not quality) settings in record mode and image deleting in playback mode.
The mode dial sits next to the recessed power switch on the top of the camera, and I like the fact that the scene modes are right here on the dial (not in a menu as they are on so many cameras). Note the new High Sensitivity mode (up to ISO 1000). To the left is the image stabilization (or 'Super Steady Shot' as Sony likes to call it) button. Annoyingly the stabilization button only toggles between on and off - you can't change the IS mode without going into the setup menu.