Conclusion - Pros

  • Good resolution, great color, excellent exposure, accurate focus
  • Bright, punchy results that produce pleasing prints without the need for post-processing
  • Very little highlight clipping
  • DR-optimization works, though the effect is pretty subtle
  • Generally very responsive, focus very fast (in most circumstances)
  • Packed with features; comprehensive photographic controls
  • Versatile, genuinely useful 31-465mm equivalent 15x zoom range
  • Powerful flash
  • Image stabilization
  • Program shift and bracketing
  • Fast automatic face detection in auto and portrait modes
  • HDTV output (via optional cable)
  • In-camera effects
  • Lovely large, clear, contrasty tilting screen (though see cons, below)
  • High resolution viewfinder (though see cons, below)
  • Very bright AF illuminator
  • NightShot mode
  • Can zoom during movie mode
  • Improved continuous mode
  • Good macro performance
  • Lens hood, filter adapter and remote control in the box

Conclusion - Cons

  • New user interface slow, convoluted and often confusing
  • Rear control wheel huge step backwards from the H5's 'turn and click' dial on the grip
  • Images quite soft and not that clean
  • Excessive noise reduction robs images of fine texture at anything over ISO 100
  • Occasional strong NR ('watercolor effect') artefacts at ISO 80 and ISO 100
  • No JPEG quality options (and default setting too highly compressed)
  • Some focus hunting at long end of the zoom (especially in low light and at short subject distances)
  • Easy to accidentally change settings with your thumb, especially when shooting 'single handed'
  • 74mm filter size restricts you to Sony's own limited range of filters
  • New lens a lot slower (F4.5) at the long end than its predecessor (F3.7)
  • Image stabilization doesn't seem quite as effective as competition (and camera doesn't choose a fast enough shutter speed)
  • Poor artificial light Auto White Balance
  • Small viewfinder - and no eyecup so glare a problem in bright light
  • Screen difficult to see in bright daylight
  • Fairly prevalent chromatic aberration
  • Strong purple fringing, particularly at wide end of zoom
  • HIgher than average distortion
  • Corner softness at wide end of zoom
  • Movies are a little over-compressed
  • No RAW mode
  • Sports mode chooses small aperture over high shutter speed, and is therefore pointless unless used in really, really bright light
  • 'Full' HDTV output only 1080i, not digital output (HDMI)
  • Too many options (predictive focus, face detection, ISO) not available in all modes
  • Battery life not fantastic when using the LCD and continuous mode IS

Overall conclusion

I have to say that the H9 was a camera I really expected to like, and I started this review expecting to be able to rave about how a great camera had got even better. In reality my experiences with the new flagship Cyber-shot zoom were decidedly mixed, and at times downright disappointing.

We'll start with the good news. Stretching the wide end of the lens to a 31mm equivalent is a welcome change, and one that offers significantly more photographic potential than adding any more to the telephoto end ever could. The new articulated screen is great, the improvements to continuous shooting much-needed and the new special effects and NightShot features - though far from essential - are fun, and could even be useful.

And most of what we loved about the H2/H5 is still here; the huge feature set, extensive photographic control and solid handling, the accurate focus and exposure and the bright, pleasing colors, the fast focus at wider zoom settings. It is one of those wonderful cameras that anyone can pick up, turn on and get great results from, so reliable are the fully automatic settings. In fact on paper the H9 is a huge and important upgrade to what was already one of the better 'big zoom' cameras on the market, and at around $450 it is even a little cheaper too.

But as the long list of cons above suggests, all is not rosy in the H9 garden. For one thing the new user interface appears to have been designed by someone drafted in from the games division, and though it looks lovely it simply doesn't work on a digital camera. Changes to the controls mean that what used to be easy (turn the dial on the front of the grip to make selections, click it to confirm them) is now downright fiddly. I pride myself on being able to master any camera's user interface within a few hours, whereas with the H9 I was still struggling to make quick changes after nearly a month of use. If you tend to pick up your camera, point it at your subject, and press the shutter without changing any settings then you'll find the H9 a dream to shoot with; if you want to actually use all those advanced controls be prepared to spend a long time mastering the interface. Intuitive it isn't. There's no doubt Sony's Cyber-shot interface needed a refresh, but next time give the job to someone who actually uses a camera on a regular basis yeah?

But UI and control issues aside what of the output itself? Here again Sony seems to have missed the mark more often than we'd like. Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that the H9 produces poor output, it is far from perfect, and if you look too closely it's not difficult to find niggles - some of which are carried over from the H5 (fringing, softness), some are new. That the H9 uses such strong noise reduction and heavy compression is made all the more annoying because it would have been so easy for Sony to give users the option to override the default settings - or even chuck in a raw option; the Bionz processor is surely up to it.

And so to conclude, you may think from reading the comments above that we would recommend giving the H9 a wide berth, but things are never that clear cut. There is much to praise here, and anyone who thinks you can have a 31-465mm equiv. lens in a $450 compact without some compromise is living in a dream world. If you don't intend to produce big enlargements I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the pictures you get. No, it's the fact that most of what's wrong with the H9 could have been avoided easily at the design stage that is so infuriating.

Bottom line; if you want a huge zoom range in an affordable, compact body that offers SLR-like handling, and can be relied on to produce appealing output at normal print sizes with minimal effort, the H9 is a serious option. Overkill, sure, but compared to an SLR with similar lens coverage it's a fairly small investment even if you do only use it as a big 'point and shoot'.

If you think this sounds like me saying 'if you want a big lens 'point and shoot' but don't care too much about image quality' then you're not far wrong. - and to be fair, sharpened up a bit and printed at 5x7 inches the pictures look perfectly good.

On the other hand if you actually want to use all those photographic features, or have exacting image quality demands, then - like the Olympus SP-550UZ - the H9 really is one compromise too many. And you'd better be prepared to spend a lot of time mastering the interface - and developing the finger and thumb dexterity needed to make the most of all those controls. This is why the H9, for us at least, doesn't quite have what it needs for a wholehearted recommendation.

Detail Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 7.5
Ergonomics & handling 7.0
Features 9.0
Image quality 7.0
Optics 7.0
Performance (speed) 8.5
Value 8.0

Above Average

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