Operation and controls

I have to say that - despite a raft of spec and performance improvements over the H2/H5 - the H9 is a real disappointment when it comes to to actually using all those advanced features. The problem is twofold; there is still the lack of external controls that we complained about last time, but this is seriously compounded by a new user interface that may look nice but is over complicated and often awkward to use. The newly positioned rotating dial is a huge step backward from the 'click and turn' finger wheel used on the previous model - it's not as fast (mainly thanks to the fact you have to press the center button to switch between settings), and it's nowhere near as easy to use without taking your eye away from the screen.

Of course the truth is that in normal photography you aren't changing all the settings with every shot, but I do like fast access to ISO, white balance, AE compensation and Aperture (program shift is perfect for most situations), and most of the time you can just leave everything on auto and just 'point and shoot'... but I found myself cursing Sony for making it so fiddly to change such basic settings on a regular basis.

Elsewhere flash, macro, metering and burst modes do get their own buttons, and the main screen offers direct access to ISO and AE-C.

Rear of camera

The back of the camera is where we find the most important external difference to the H2/H5; the 3.0-inch screen dominates, though there's still room for some controls above and to the right. At the top, next to the electronic viewfinder, are (from left) the finder/LCD button, the play mode button and zoom rocker (which you'll struggle not to press accidentally if you try to hold the camera with one hand). Below the zoom controls are the menu button, the four-way controller and control dial and the new 'home' button. AE compensation, which had its own button the H5, is now accessed via the screen. The big screen means the controls are a little cramped, and we found the control dial a little too easy to nudge accidentally (which will change settings).

Top of camera

The H9 - like most of its direct competitors - has an 'SLR-like' design with a fairly deep body and deep grip. As you can see, the body is actually quite deep if you include the articulated LCD.

Display and menus

Although what you see on-screen when actually taking pictures hasn't changed significantly since the last 'H' cameras, the latest generation of Cyber-shots has an entirely new menu system. It's a fairly radical departure from the system used on previous cameras (which had remained fundamentally unchanged for many years), and appears to have been inspired by the user interface of Sony's other personal electronics devices, particularly the PSP and PS3. This extends to the the use of a 'home' screen with all the basic camera settings and functions gathered into one place - accessible at the push of a button no matter what the camera is doing at the time.

The system looks great but is overly complex, often counter intuitive, has inconsistent navigation and takes forever to master. Having a two-level menu system with several ways to access the same settings just means it takes longer to learn and as I used the H9 I kept wondering if the designers had forgotten that its primary - only - function is to take pictures and movies.

The only saving grace is that you can avoid entering (and getting lost in) the menu system most of the time because the key settings are accessed from the main record screen.

As usual the DISP button cycles through the various on-screen display options. This is the most basic in P mode - shooting settings are shown along the bottom. ISO, AE-C, program shift and focus pattern can be changed directly using the control dial (in a system very similar to that used by Kodak on its high end cameras). Note that the aperture and shutter speed settings are updated continually (i.e. you don't need to wait until you half-press for metering). Half-press the shutter release and the camera will lock focus and exposure. The H9 has three AF area options (center, flex spot and - as shown here - area).
The most detailed display has additional information - plus a live histogram. The grid lines you see in all these shots are optional. A new virtual mode dial appears when you turn the real mode dial - useful if you don't want to take your eye off the screen (though it stays around for too long).
The control dial on the back of the camera is used to change ISO, exposure values (in A,S,M modes), program shift (P mode), AE compensation and focus pattern. Because you need to use the 'OK' button when selecting which setting to change it's nowhere near as fast as the front control wheel on the H5 - a real usability step backwards. Manual focus is also set via the control dial.
A switch on the side of the camera turns on one of the H9's more unusual features, NightShot. This allows you to photograph in total darkness using infrared illumination. Two buttons behind the shutter release allow you to cycle through continuous shooting (including bracketing) and metering modes.
Pressing the menu button in record mode brings up a scrolling menu of less commonly-accessed settings (image size, color mode, white balance, flash AEC, red-eye mode, contrast & sharpness settings, stabilization). I was disappointed that you can't use the control dial to scroll up and down the list - you have to use the arrow keys. Note that the menu is actually shown as an overlay on top of the live preview. The contrast menu has the usual 'low', 'standard' and 'high' options, plus a 'Dynamic Range Optimiser' setting that automatically sets the contrast according to what you are photographing.
As with record mode you have three choices when it comes to the amount of information overlaid on images viewed in playback mode; none, basic and advanced (with histogram, shown here). You can scroll through images using the left-right buttons or the control dial. Pressing the left (wide) zoom key brings up a display of 3x3 thumbnails of saved images. Unusually for a camera with such a large screen you can't view a greater number of (smaller) thumbnails.
Pressing the right (tele) zoom key allows you to magnify images up to 5x. You can also scroll around magnified images using the four-way controller. The play menu offers the usual range of options, including protecting, rotating and deleting images, plus slide shows and print ordering (DPOF).
New for the H9 are a set of built-in image effects (under the 'retouch' menu item). Here you can apply soft focus vignettes, turn parts of the image black and white, remove red-eye and add a 'cross filter' or fisheye effect. The tools are actually pretty good - if you like that kind of thing.
Most offer several options for the location and strength of the effect. It's worth giving the slide show function a quick mention, as its one of the most advanced we've yet seen, with professional transitions and a choice of background music (you can even add your own music). In conjunction with the remote control and HDTV output it's a fairly powerful way to show your pictures on a television without any other equipment.
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, but since it isn't in any way customizable it's hard to see the point of it. The play tab has options to switch directly to play mode (like pressing the play button), index display or slideshow. Next to this is the print tab (where you can go straight to the printing page and, oddly, download music for use in slideshows). Then there is the 'Manage Memory' tab - the only place you can format the card (as well as create new folders and copy between the internal memory and MS Duo card).
The settings tab has several pages of general camera and shooting options. The shooting settings include options for single or continuous focus, AF illuminator, digital zoom, conversion lenses and more.