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Photographic tests

White balance

The W80 has seven manual white balance presets in addition to the default Auto WB mode. Unusually (even for a camera at this level) the W80 doesn't have a custom (measured) manual white balance option, which is unfortunate; as the examples below show it's difficult to get anything approaching a neutral result in any kind of artificial lighting (something that was mirrored in our 'real world' experience).

Auto White Balance Fluo Preset Auto White Balance Incandescent preset
Fluorescent light - Auto white balance poor,
Preset white balance average
Incandescent light - Auto white balance very poor, Preset white balance Average

Flash

The W80's small built-in flash has a quoted working range (using Auto ISO) of 3.3m (10.8 ft) at the wide end of the zoom and 1.8m (5.9 ft) at the tele end, which just about acceptable for social snaps across the dinner table or down the pub - though be aware that in order to get anywhere near this range the auto ISO has to leap to 400, which reduces quality noticeably. The pre-flash red-eye reduction system doesn't work very well and slows down the camera, though you can at least remove it later in-camera using the playback mode 'retouch' menu.

Click here for flash test chart

Skin tone - Color and exposure are both excellent, though at ISO 400 quality isn't great and there's very strong red-eye.

Movie

As usual the W80 offers a maximum movie mode quality of 640 x 480 pixels at 30 frames per second, and like all Sony models it saves clips in MPEG format. This is marginally more efficient than the motion JPEG system used by most competitors at the highest quality setting you're getting through about 1.3MB per sec). The quality is actually pretty good, though there are some fairly obvious compression artefacts when viewed on the big screen.

You cannot zoom whilst filming but you can of course use the optical SteadyShot system to reduce the jerkiness of your clips.

Sample movie: 640 x 480 pixels @ 30 fps
File size: 9.4MB, 7.52 secs, at wideangle

Click on the thumbnail to view the movie
(caution: large file!)

Optical image stabilization

The W80's optical image stabilization ('Super Steady Shot') system has two modes: Continuous (IS on all the time) and 'Shooting' (stabilization is only activated when the button is half-pressed to lock exposure). The first option makes framing easier - the Steady Shot system steadies the preview image - but obviously uses more battery power (it's on all the time).

As with all cameras of this type it's difficult to really quantify how useful an image stabilization system really is; I have no problem hand-holding a 35mm equivalent lens at 1/30 a second, and we've yet to find an IS system that can counter shake at 1/15th second or longer with any guarantee of effectiveness. At the very longest zoom setting (105mm equivalent) we found the IS system capable of significantly reducing blur at 1/50th and 1/40th, but below that the effectiveness was patchy to say the least.

Basically in the W80 Super Steady Shot gives you a small advantage - and allows you to shoot sharper images at the long end of the zoom - but the short lens range and limited effectiveness at shutter speeds below 1/30th means it's a fairly narrow set of shooting circumstances we're talking about. Where it can be shown to have a real benefit is when shooting movies. For stills, the limited effectiveness of the IS - plus the small maximum aperture - means that getting totally sharp pictures at the long end of the zoom in anything but blazing sunshine is a challenge; in low light it's nigh on impossible.

Since the W80 has no way of manually selecting shutter speeds we haven't been able to do our usual IS test, so here's a fairly representative sample of the effectiveness of the system when it works:

1/40th second, hand-held, 105mm (equiv.)
IS off IS on ('continuous' mode)

Macro

The W80's macro capabilities are actually pretty good for a camera in this class; at the wide end you can get as close as 4cm, capturing an area around 44 x 33mm. At the long end of the zoom the nearest you can focus is 35cm (around 1.1 ft), which will fill the frame with an area of 123 x 92mm.

Focus is fairly slow in macro mode, particularly in low light and there is fairly excessive corner softness.

Resolution

Sony is obviously using a fairly light anti-alias filter on the W80's sensor; the resolution is surprisingly good, though it starts to get a bit messy as you head towards the highest frequencies. Of course in the real world you're unlikely to see any of this in your photos. It's worth noting sharpness (and performance in general) of the lens drops off fairly rapidly towards the edges and corners, though again for typical 'snapshots' it's nothing you'll see in a print.

Crops

Click here for the full resolution test chart

Horizontal LPH

Absolute resolution 1600 LPH
Extinction resolution 2100 LPH *

*moiré visible

Vertical LPH

Absolute resolution 1550 LPH
Extinction resolution 2100 LPH *

*moiré visible

Distortion and other image quality issues

As we see with most ultra compact cameras there is a fairly high measurable distortion at the wide end of the zoom - around 1.3% - but it's nothing to worry about unless you're in the habit of copying artwork (click here for test chart).There is a small (0.2%) amount of measurable - and visible - pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of the zoom (click here for test chart).

General comments

How you view the W80's output in normal use will depend on a couple of factors, including your personal tastes and the kind of pictures that make up the majority of the photographs you take. I personally found the results a little 'overdone', with more sharpening and higher saturation than I'd like, but for 'out of the box' immediacy they are perfect for the target audience. But I must say that I was far more impressed with the W80's 'real world' output than the studio tests had led me to expect.

Of course by dpreview's metrics there are a lot of 'issues' that won't bother the typical W80 user, from corner softness to mild color fringing and the usual highlight clipping and excessive noise reduction these aren't results that bear very close scrutiny on-screen.

More seriously there are some issues in low light that are going to be much more problematic for the casual social snap shooter. For one thing focus speed and accuracy both suffer indoors under normal domestic lighting, meaning 'capturing the moment' at social occasions can be a frustrating experience to say the least. This isn't helped by the fact that the screen's refresh rate drops perilously low once light levels start to fall meaning even framing the shot becomes a hit and miss affair. At anything over ISO 800 the results are simply too fuzzy to be of use for anything but a small postcard print.

In conclusion then, in good light the W80 produces images that give little cause for complaint, and that produce pleasing prints at 'normal' sizes. But if you take a lot of pictures in low light the poor high ISO performance and slow focus mean you'll be getting a lot more failures than we'd like to see in a camera of this type.

Highlight clipping / dynamic range issues

Although it's by no means the worst offender we've ever come across, the W80 will clip highlights if there's too wide a range of brightness in the scene being photographed. This is compounded by the steep tone curve and a slight tendency to overexposure when confronted with such situations (obviously the latter can be to a small extent be reduced by careful use of AE compensation). We also found channel clipping (posterization of colors) in very bright conditions.

35mm (equivalent), F2.8 105mm (equivalent), F5.2

Color fringing

Again, not a big issue, but if you look closely at high contrast edges you'll find some purple or red fringing, though it's rarely serious enough to appear in a print.

100% crop 35mm (equivalent), F8.0

Noise

With tiny, high pixel count chips noise is always going to be an issue, and to a large degree this is more a test of the effectiveness (both measurable and visible) of a camera's noise reduction system. Designers have to balance the desire to produce smooth, clean results with the need to retain as much detail as possible (if you blur away the noise, you blur away image detail too).

As we're seen with most recent Sony Cyber-shot models, the approach taken by Sony is to apply fairly aggressive noise reduction at all ISO settings, though the tiny 1/2.5" sensor is obviously struggling at anything over base ISO. The net result is a combination of noise and the smeary effect of heavy luminance NR that means using anything over ISO 200 is going to produce results we wouldn't want to print any bigger than a postcard - and even then they don't look too hot.

ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO 3200
100% Crops

Noise graph

Indicated ISO sensitivity is on the horizontal axis of this graph, standard deviation of luminosity is on the vertical axis. It's interesting to see that, unusually, the noise reduction really kicks in at ISO 200, and the measurable noise stays fairly low until you hit ISO 3200. Of course it's not really 'low noise' - this is just highly aggressive noise reduction.

Low contrast detail

What the crops and graph don't show is the effect of noise reduction on low contrast fine detail such as hair, fur or foliage. An inevitable side effect of noise removal is that this kind of detail is also blurred or smeared, resulting in a loss of 'texture'. In this test the crops below show the effect of the noise reduction on such texture (hair) as you move up the ISO range.

100% Crops
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO 3200

Having seen the lab test results it comes as no surprise that the noise reduction has a serious impact on fine detail - if you look closely you can see that even at the lowest ISO setting there is a little smearing of the finest low contrast details, getting progressively worse as you turn the sensitivity up. At ISO 400 and over things are starting to look pretty mushy with less and less detail visible - I wouldn't use anything over ISO 200 for anything important.

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