Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sony W80 vs Canon A710IS; Or What Worked For Me

For Christmas this year I got a new pocket camera--or to be more precise I went out and bought myself a new pocket camera. But that's another story. I say a new pocket camera because I thought that I had discovered my perfect pocket companion last year about this time--but I was wrong. Let me explain.

In fact, I almost don't need another camera at all. I have an old Lumix camera which is great, except for the fact that it will only record videos at 320 x 240 pixels at 15 frames a second--not really very usable for anything other than an animated thumbnail. So here's the list of what I knew I'd like in a pocket camera at the end of last year:

Must Haves:
1. VGA video (640 x 480)
2. Pocketable
3. Decent image quality (4 MP or above--although not more than 8, please)
4. Good price--\Like, less than $300

Like to Haves:
5. Image stabilization
6. Good High ISO Performance
7. Standard media card and battery
8. Manual controls

Dream List:
9. Hotshoe for external Flash
10. RAW
11. Great User Controls

So, as you can see what I really wanted was a Canon G7 or now a G9--and I admit that I would probably greatly enjoy such a camera but they are not in my price range. So after careful deliberation I came to the conclusion that the Canon A710IS would be just about as close as I could get. So I ordered one and played with it, used it on occasion, and carried it with me many places, but I just didn't use it very much. After 10 months or so I decided it was time to sell it, and move on.

As I looked back on my experience with it I noted a few serious drawbacks for my use. First, it was slow and unresponsive most of the time--the AA's just didn't have enough juice to make it go fast or long. Second, although it had a number of helpful manual controls I was consistently frustrated by the fact that a number of the settings would reset to default every time I turned the camera off. I wanted to leave it on spot meter and burst mode all the time--yet there I was digging around in menus to try to get my perfect combination every time I turned it on. Argh! Third, it was bulky--just small enough you wanted to put in your pocket, but big enough that you regretted it the moment it was in there.

So my new ideal camera--similar but smaller, faster, and cheaper. I looked at Samsung, I looked at (I don't recommend it) Sanyo, I looked at Fujifilm--in the end it was a Sony on sale at Office Depot that caught my attention. The demo didn't work, of course, but the Office Depot person kindly opened a new one and turned it on for me. I took a couple of quick photos in the store and I liked them. This doesn't usually happen. I'm a little spoiled with my DSLRs. Since the store was local I decided to take it home with me without really understanding the specs. Besides, I purchased on specs last time, and that didn't go so well.

So here's how the Sony spec'd out:
1. 30 Frames Per Second VGH Video till the card is full--MPEG Format
2. Very Pocketable
3. 7.2 MP
4. $150 at Office Depot
5. Sony's very good image stabilization
6. Pretty good High ISO performance--more below.
7. Sony's silly proprietary Memory Stick Pro Duo which is just a long SD card that won't work in anything but Sony devices and without which Sony devices rarely work. Grrr. And a dedicated battery--which has good power for fast operation and pretty long battery life.
8. No manual control of shutter and aperture--but exposure compensation and a spot-meter are pretty good.
9. Hotshoe--dream on
10. Raw--are you kidding
11. Now I like the user interface on this little camera. The buttons are miniscule but their functions are logical and smart, and they are responsive. This probably isn't the best UI ever, but it certainly isn't as bad as some of the reviews I read had made it sound.

And after a week or so I am glad to say that I continue to really like this little camera. The high ISO performance is based on a high noise suppression default--which means that you can get pretty nice, but a bit soft, ISO 400 or even ISO 640 images. Digital noise in an image is the grainy off-color stuff that gets worse and worse in your photos the darker the room is when you don't use flash. Sony's solution on this camera is to blur some of that graininess away, but that also blurs away some of the detail; so, if you are looking for absolute resolution out of this camera you might be disappointed. Like I said before, I'm perfectly happy with 4MP resolution for a point and shoot and I think that this camera at least achieves that in its usable ISO range (I would say ISO under 800 is usable for prints). Note that this is a subjective judgment. The key things that set this little camera apart, for me are that it is a stylish, durable, metal-cased, tiny pocket camera; it has image stabilization; and I picked it up for $150. Also, its controls are fast, it has a burst mode that stays on, and the video mode is just what I was looking for.

So, is this a Canon G9, of course not. Does it fill my need for a handy photographic tool that doesn't weigh 3 pounds and has video capability, you betcha. The bottom line for me--if you get a pocket camera, don't get too bogged down in the specs (these little machines aren't really meant for making oversized prints anyhow). Instead, pick something you like and that you think is fun. The best way to figure that out--never thought this ebay bargain shopper would say it but--buy local.

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