Sony Cyber-Shot HX30v Review
Last updated on 01/18/2013
Sony's top-of-the-line compact zoom camera sports an incredible array of features, such as a 20x zoom, 1080/60p HD video, high-speed burst shooting, GPS, and WiFi. But does the new 18 megapixel sensor push the technology too far at the expense of image quality?
By Chris Weigl
Sony began its HX compact line just in 2010 with the HX5, a camera sporting a decent 10x zoom range, high-end CMOS sensor, and high-speed burst modes. These same three pillars, zoom range, image quality, and speed, have come to define Sony’s HX series ever since, with subsequent models quickly jumping to 16x and now 20x zoom, higher-resolution sensors, and a plethora of imaging tricks based on the 10fps burst. Past models have garnered quite a following due to this blend of functionality, although Sony has historically struggled with heavy-handed noise reduction.
The HX30v sits at the very top of the 2012 line, vying against the best of the competition with a new 18 megapixel CMOS sensor, manual modes, a 20x optical zoom, GPS, WiFi and 1080/60p HD video. When the specifications were first revealed most were a little disgusted with Sony, for those 18 megapixels make these the densest sensors on a compact yet. If the 16 megapixel sensor’s results were just ho-hum, why move on to an even higher count? We’ll see how Sony fared below, but it’s still a long list of impressive features that, along with the multi-shot modes, make the camera an attractive compact travel option. With new 18 megapixel sensor inside, has Sony managed to produce a camera we can wholeheartedly recommend?
Body and Design
Sony’s austere, modern aesthetic is at the heart of all their camera designs, yet it seems a bit lost beneath the mountain of features Sony fit into the HX30v. With this camera utilitarian seems a more appropriate descriptor than fashionable. The HX30v is boxy and brick-like but also very well built; there’s little give to the plastic exterior and the only worrisome section is the flimsy battery door along the bottom. The camera’s heft is about the same as the Fujifilm F770’s, quite a bit more than Panasonic or Canon’s offerings. You’ll still be able to slide the HX30v into a pants pocket, but it doesn’t fit as comfortably as we’d like.
To begin our tour of the body, the front of the camera is dominated by the protruding 25-500mm 20xoptical zoom lens. At f3.2-5.8 it isn’t particularly fast, but this is par for the course for a compact travel zoom. Sony has taken advantage of the large lens by also adding a similarly full handgrip, which sticks out almost as much and balances the camera. The oversized rubberized grip makes holding the camera a real joy, a welcome change from the non-existent handholds on other models.
The top of the camera has a pop-up flash on the left side, a stereo mic right above the lens, an On/Off button, shutter button ringed by zoom toggle, and finally a mode dial. The mode dial includes a real hodgepodge of settings, some of which seem an odd choice for direct access: Intelligent Auto, Superior Auto, Program Auto, Manual, Memory Recall mode, iSweep Panorama, Movie mode, 3D mode, Scene Selection mode, and Background Defocus mode. Sitting on the seam of the top and back plates is also a Custom button.
The back of the camera features a bright, 921,600 dot 3-inch LCD screen. To the right of the screen is a indented rubber thumb grip, which sits next to the Movie Record button. The Playback button sits just above a 4-way turning controller with select button in the center. The top button changes display mode, the right is for flash settings, the bottom brings up the Photo Creativity settings, and left is for the self-timer and burst settings. Below the controller sit a Menu button and Help/Trash button. The camera bottom includes the battery/card compartment, USB slot, and off-center metal tripod mount.
User Experience and Performance
As mentioned previously, the HX30v has a variety of automatic modes to help you get the best photo possible. Harnessing the power of its 10fps burst mode, the HX30v’s Superior Auto takes multiple photographs and combines them for either higher dynamic range or lower noise, depending on the scene. While processing the resulting photo takes a bit longer than just saving an image in Intelligent Auto, the system works surprisingly well. These same burst modes are accessible through the scene selector, but the Superior Auto works well enough to not even bother with manually selecting low-noise or HDR in a menu. Other scene modes you may be interested in include Soft Snap, Soft Skin, Beach, Night Portrait, Pet, Gourmet (food), Snow, Fireworks, and Advanced Sports Shooting. There are only 15 options here, but they’re legitimately useful choices unlike the dozens other manufacturers include.
In addition to these automatic modes, you also have access to Program mode and a Manual mode, which encompasses aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual. While shutter priority could be useful, aperture is controlled through a neutral density filter rather than a variable iris. This gives the user no control over depth of field and only two aperture options at any given focal length. This is typical for mid and low-range cameras, but we would have liked to see real aperture control on a camera at this price. Sony has also included a Memory Recall mode, which has storage for three of your favorite shooting setups. Also on the mode dial lie Background Defocus, which merges two photos to selectively blur the background, 3D mode, and the ever-popular iSweep Panorama. Do note that the resulting panoramas’ resolution is limited unless you hold the camera vertically.
Autofocus on the camera was impressively fast and sure-footed. It was able to focus in exceptionally low light levels and, with Superior Auto, capture reasonably sharp images handheld. We were even able to focus on a passing seagull on a grey cloudy background – a true autofocus torture test. Sony has includedtracking autofocus too, which you set by focusing on the subject in the center of the frame and hitting the select button, but it wasn’t all that reliable. Processing times and write times were also exceptionally quick, especially given the 10fps burst mode, and playback navigation was smooth. While turning on was reasonably fast at about two seconds, switching between modes is the one real letdown to an otherwise snappy performance. Turning the mode dial brings up a full-screen graphic with a description of the selected mode, but it stays up for a full four seconds before live view continues. You can tap the shutter button to go straight to live view, but we wish there was a way to turn this “feature” off.
Controls were, for the most part, intuitive and facilitated easy operation. We assigned ISO to the custom button, but there’s a plethora of other options to choose from. Shooting settings are controlled by a quick menu along the left side of the screen, which is brought up by hitting the menu button. It would have been nice to have the center selection button bring up this menu instead, but that button is maddeningly assigned to the less-useful tracking autofocus. Direct access to flash, burst mode, and display settings on the 4-way controller are great, but the bottom My Colors selection is only available in the fully automatic modes. This is a great way to change brightness, color, vividness, or add funky picture effects like toy or partial color, but the limited accessibility is frustrating.
Also included in the HX30v are both a GPS and WiFi. The GPS can be set to either track your journey or just tag photos with your current location, both pretty standard options in 2012. The WiFi can be used tolink with an iOS or Android device, to which it will automatically send photos, or online to sites like Youtube, Facebook, or Picasaweb. You’ll need to download Sony’s Playmemories App to get started on your phone, though the images sent are not full size.
Sony has, overall, done an exceptional job at making the feature-packed HX30v simple to use. Manual users will find plenty of customization options to play with while those looking for point and click operation will be happy with the Intelligent or Superior Auto modes. While the sheer number of options could have been overwhelming, Sony has managed to strike an ideal balance between features and simplicity.
Despite worrying that 18 megapixels is simply too many pixels for a sensor of this size, the HX30v actually does a very decent job. In normal single-shot mode, the sensor pulls a surprising amount of detail out of a scene. There’s a bit of smudging at ISO 100 when viewed at 100%, yes, but at full screen or even larger images look natural. So while pixel-level detail may not be as good as the 16 megapixel cameras of Sony’s last generation, that just doesn’t matter when images are viewed at an equivalent size. As the ISO ramps up, noise reduction smearing also increases but color reproduction stays good through ISO 3200. In single shot mode, ISO 800 or 1600 at a stretch are the feasible limits.
The image quality changes when you move to Superior
Auto, which analyzes a scene and then chooses whether to combine a burst into a
High Dynamic Range image, low noise composite, or to reduce handheld blur.
Image quality in this mode oftentimes suffers at the pixel level, with fine
detail blurred into oblivion in the combine process (see right). Low-contrast detail like
veined foliage or rippling water turn into a monotone mess, while high-contrast edges are emphasized. These deficiencies don't matter if you always view images full screen or only make small prints, but they are easy to pick
out when zoomed in. This story changes when you move into lower light,
where combining images produces more detail and less grain than a single shot
would. The tipping point is around ISO 800, where the combined photos begin to
yield an advantage over single shot. iSweep Panorama mode also gave mixed
results, with both high and medium resolution settings messing up the photo
stitching. Results get noticeably worse in low light, where the
feature might add an extra door to a room, but outside still yielded some
Lens quality is adequate if not outstanding, with corners standing out as a weak point throughout the zoom range. The long end of the zoom, too, is better in theory than in practice; images shot at 500mm really do resemble watercolor paintings. Flare wasn’t a problem unless the sun was in the frame, which also caused the sensor to yield some false colors. This is par for the course, though, and average for point and shoot’s today.
Video quality is where the HX30v really shines, with that 60fps yielding the smoothest footage we’ve seen in a compact camera. The camera’s autofocus is able to keep up while zooming, too, and the zoom noise is non-intrusive.
Sony has done an admirable job of marrying automatic features with customizable manual operation in the HX30v, managing to appeal to a wide swath of market by being as dead simple or complex as the userwishes. Despite a few minor usability issues, the HX30v is easy to operate and the in-camera guide comes in handy if you have any questions. The camera’s video, burst speed, and autofocus performance stand out as true strengths, but there are really very few weaknesses to find here. Although the lens quality could be better, such versatility is still preferable to not having the range at all.
Intelligent Auto or the manual modes is where you’ll want to
keep the Mode Dial for the majority of your shooting, simply because they yield
images with the most detail. Sony’s much-touted Superior Auto, with its
multi-purpose image combining, just doesn’t yield dramatically better photos.
The camera too-often chooses to combine photos when it really isn’t necessary,
resulting in over-processed images devoid of detail. It’s only at higher ISOs
that the mode really comes into its own, yielding impressively sharp images at
ISOs as high as 6400 without a hint of camera shake. With these shortcomings in mind, Superior Auto is still a lot of fun to shoot in and can yield some really great images under the right circumstances.
Without a doubt, Sony’s latest compact zoom camera is a worthy competitor to the best offerings from Panasonic, Canon, and Fujifilm, but the choice comes down to what you’re looking for in a compact. Sony’s strength is in its speed, but image quality from Fujifilm’s F770EXR and Canon’s SX260HS is a bit better. The smaller and lighter Panasonic ZS20 is another great choice, which produces images on par with the HX30v’s. Nikon makes the S9300, too, but we recommend any of these others over that model.