Sony compact cameras have historically been average performers that sacrificed image quality for style, but they've come a long way since their superficial beginnings. Steady improvement over the past few years has resulted in the DSC-W350, an amazingly small middle-tier point-and-shoot. While the camera's design (we got a pink model for review, one of several shades clearly meant to appeal to the ladies) and almost completely automated controls will probably put off serious shooters, the W350 is a surprisingly responsive and fun camera with decent image quality that should appeal to casual photographers with a sense of style.
Despite its small price tag, the W350 doesn’t feel cheap. The body is made up entirely of brushed aluminum, which is great to hold and gives a real sense of durability. This thing is amazingly small, too, definitely one of the smallest on the market. It fit into any of my pockets with ease, and would fit into skinny-jean pockets without a problem. It’s also very light and I found myself forgetting I even had the camera with me. My one complaint is the sliding door at the bottom of the camera that gives access to the memory card and battery; it’s mounted on a very flimsy hinge that seems likely to break.
The W350 incorporates a 26mm wide-angle lens, a welcome change from the narrower 28mm typical of its competitors (as well as the 34mm of the higher-end W370). You’ll have no trouble fitting everyone in a photo, and the telephoto end (4x optical zoom) is long enough for typical usage. The lens is fast, too, featuring a bright f2.7 at the wide end for better low-light pictures. This is only about a half-stop better than the f3.3 that has become the norm, but every little bit helps.
Button layout and design is fairly typical for a camera in this price bracket. The back of the camera features a bright 2.7-inch LCD with an array of the usual buttons along the right side. If you’ve used a camera at all in the last two years, these controls should all be familiar and you’ll be using the camera in no time. The zoom rocker is at the top, followed by a mode slider for switching between pictures, panoramas and movies, a playback button, a four-way selector, a menu button and a delete button.
User Experience and Performance
The first thing one notices when turning the W350 on is the responsiveness. This thing is fast. It starts up in a little over a second, takes a picture with very little shutter lag (as long as you pre-focus), and scrolls through pictures in playback mode without a loading hitch. It really is an excellent social camera: quick performance matched with a go-anywhere size.
Like any current-generation snapshooter worth a look, the W350 features an iAuto mode, which automatically and reliably chooses a scene mode based upon the setting of the picture. It worked very well for me, and resulted in crisp, bright, well exposed pictures, though they could be a bit too bright in high-contrast situations during the day and at night. Most of the other settings are pretty standard, although I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the hilarious Smile Detection Mode (which gets its own button on the directional pad!). Selecting this option brings up a smile meter that triggers the shutter when it detects a big enough smile. You don’t have to do a thing other than decide whether you want a Slight Smile, Normal Smile, or Big Smile to trip the release. This mode will provide laugh after laugh as you try and coax a happier moment out of your friends.
There’s really nothing to complain about as far as performance is concerned, the W350 is fast, accurate and just doesn’t get in the way. What more can you ask for?
Image QualityThe W350 doesn’t make any grand claims regarding its image quality, but it does just fine given the target market. Pictures were just okay for landscapes, which were let down by soft corners, but portraits were well exposed and vibrant. The face recognition really does work and there was never a problem with someone’s face being in shadow. This particular review camera had a very soft left side in some photographs, poor enough to warrant a return if you bought one like it, but such decentering problems are usually isolated and happen to some degree with all cameras. Just make sure you check yours out of the box.
At ISO 80 through about 200, images are sharp and contain a lot of detail. There are some problems, most significantly highlight clipping and over-sharpened halos, but overall things look pretty good. This isn't meant to perform particularly well in poor lighting (you'll have to turn on the flash), but even if you do have to crank up the ISO, noise is never really a huge problem. Instead, the noise reduction just kicks in at higher and higher amounts to blur the noise away. This is an interesting trade-off, as it meant that pictures never really looked grainy at higher ISOs, just softer. While pixel-peepers may complain, the average snap-shooter taking pictures of her friends won’t notice or care. Kudos to Sony for recognizing the camera’s target market and finding a good balance of apparent detail to noise reduction.
One of the selling points of Sony’s digicams is the Sweep Panorama function (advertised in those Taylor Swift-starring TV spots), which takes pictures in rapid succession to stitch together an extremely wide panorama. While a fun gimmick for playing around, the panoramas the W350 produced were extremely low resolution and barely hold up when simply looking at them on a computer screen. Although a neat idea, discerning shooters might find themselves taking panoramas the old fashioned way: a few shots side-to-side, stitched together with the aid of photo software.
The W350 also has 720p HD video. It looks good. You wont find the same degree of quality as a on dedicated camcorder, but it’s sharp enough for most uses and even allows zoom during recording.
Quite simply, the Sony DSC-W350 is a lot of fun. While it doesn’t lend itself to great creativity due to the lack of manual settings, it takes automatic shots extremely well. You’ll find yourself more willing to take the camera out because it makes taking pictures so darn easy. The iAuto mode really seems to work, and Smile Detection means you wont even have to time your photo -- the W350 does it all for you. The responsiveness of the camera, too, ensures you get the photo you want when you want it, without waiting for the W350 to focus or the flash to fire.
Such ease of use is great to have, but the small size and useful zoom are what really seal the deal on this one. A camera so small lends itself to being taken everywhere, ensuring you never miss the perfect photo opportunity. The zoom range and lens speed are great too. For the social shooters out there who want quality photographs with minimal fuss, I can’t recommend the Sony W350 enough.