The DSC-H3 is Sony's first attempt at an affordable compact big zoom camera and (at least at close inspection) the H3 has 'budget' written all over it. Design-wise it bears a striking resemblance to the plastic 'cameras' that you can buy at souvenir stands all over the world, the kind that let you view a different postcard scene in the viewfinder each time you press the shutter button (or as someone here rather unkindly commented, it looks like one of those water squirting joke cameras). Unfortunately the build quality matches that design: the plastic looks and feels cheap, and the pop-up flash leaves an especially fragile impression. It's worth mentioning that the black version has, to our eyes, slightly more appeal.

While Robert Capa almost certainly would not have chosen the H3 to photograph the Korean War, the design actually works quite well in your hands. The camera is amazingly compact (and fairly lightweight) for its zoom range, but never feels unstable. And of course if you want a long zoom range in a pocketable package the H3 is one of only a handful of alternatives, and all are 'built to a price'.

For a camera with the H3's feature-set the external controls are pretty basic. The ubiquitous four-way controller, the menu and Sony's unique 'Home' buttons and the zoom controller are located to the right of the screen. The top plate of the camera accommodates the power-button, mode dial and shutter button. The H3 is essentially a long zoom 'point and shoot' camera, and that is reflected in its user interface. A number of important photographic settings such as ISO or White Balance don't get their dedicated button and can only be accessed via the slightly longwinded menu.

The H3 is very compact and lightweight for its zoom range and the edgy design works well in your hand. One-handed operation is not a problem, although at the long end of the zoom it is definitely beneficial to hold it with both hands despite of the support you get from the optical image stabilization.
If you want your H3 to look really cool simply attach the supplied extension tube and lens hood. This will roughly triple the size of the camera. You'll also need the extension tube if you want to use the (optional) wide angle and tele converters or a filter.

Body elements

The H3 uses an NP-BG1 Lithium Ion battery pack that is good for up to 330 shots or so per charge (CIPA standard, LCD on). The battery compartment sits under a hinged plastic door on the right side of the body (viewed from the back). This is also where you'll find the 'click in, click out' Memory Stick DUO slot. The H3 also has 31MB of internal memory.

The H3's basic controls are located to the right of the 2.5" screen. The four-way controller is used for navigating menus and also gives direct access to flash, macro and self-timer and display modes. On the left are the MENU and HOME buttons.

The 2.5-inch screen reflects the H3's 'cost cutting' approach and has a very low resolution for its size (115,000 pixels). This means menu screens and both preview and review images look quite grainy. The anti-reflective coating is pretty efficient but also prone to smearing caused by fingerprints. It's useful to always carry a cleaning cloth when photographing in bright conditions.
The camera top is kept very simple. To the right there are the power and shutter buttons and the mode dial. The center is occupied by the pop-up flash. From this angle you can see that - with the lens retracted - the H3 is remarkably slender for a camera with a 10x optical zoom.
Like most recent Cyber-shots the H3 has a single multi-function port for video and USB connectivity (so unfortunately you can't just grab just any old USB cable to connect to a PC). The supplied cable only provides standard video output - you'll need to buy the optional component video cable if you want to view your pictures in high definition quality (the H3 supports 1080i).
The H3's 10x zoom lens covers a range equivalent to 38-380 mm on a 35mm camera. While this is more than enough reach for most purposes on the long end the 'wide' end isn't really that wide at all. You will run into problems using the H3 for group portraits in cramped indoor locations. The maximum aperture at 38mm is F3.5, this drops to a F4.4 at the tele end. This is a stop slower than the Canon SX100 IS, but then the lens is a lot smaller.
The built-in flash pops up automatically when its services are required. It's one of the more powerful flashes we have seen on a compact camera - the range is about 7m (23 ft) at the wide end of the zoom, dropping to 5.6m (18.4 ft) at the tele end (using auto ISO). As long as you don't mind sensitivity being pushed up to 400 you can easily illuminate an entire room.

Control and menus

Despite a relatively large number of settings (no 'A' or 'S' modes though) the H3 is essentially a 'point and shoot' camera and that is reflected in the menus. As long as you don't use them too much, i.e. let the camera work in its 'Auto' mode, you're ok. Once you start trying to adapt settings yourself things can get a little longwinded. The interface structure is somewhat less intuitive than the competition's and you can fairly easily get lost in the menu netherworld. The Image Quality and ISO settings are right there when you press the Menu button but you have to scroll down quite a bit to change your White Balance which is an essential parameter for many photographers.

As usual you can choose the amount of information displayed on-screen. Shown here is the most detailed view, with lots of shooting information ranged around the screen, plus a live histogram. Also shown here is the optional 'grid' overlay. Half-press the shutter release and the camera will lock focus and exposure. The H3 has three main AF area options (center, spot and - as shown here - multi). Alternatively you can set the focus to a number of pre-defined distances.
A 'virtual mode dial' appears when you turn the real mode dial. This is useful if you don't want to take your eye off the screen. Pressing the menu button in record mode brings up a scrolling menu covering a large number of photographic settings including image size, AE-compensation, ISO, white balance etc. The menu has quite a few extra options in 'P' mode (including AE bracketing).
In playback mode you can choose the level of information displayed, from none to full shooting information and histogram (as here). Pressing the wide button on the zoom rocker lets you display 3x3 or 4x4 thumbnails. You can also zoom into the image up to 5x.
The playback menu has a couple of pages of scrolling menus including the usual delete, protect, slide show and print order options. The retouch menu allows you to apply a variety of fairly unusual special effects to saved images, plus trim or remove red-eye.
Pressing the 'Home' button - no matter where you are in the menus or what you are doing with the camera - brings up the camera's 'home' page. This is supposed to be a simple way to access the most common functions - and change some less common settings. Unfortunately Sony still has not made this customizable. The camera's various settings and options are spread over six pages of menus split into four sections. The 'Main Settings' pages cover basic camera settings including video output (and HDTV format).
There are then two pages of 'Shooting Settings' - covering things such as display and AF options, and so on. The last two menus are used to set the date and time and to change the language.