I’ll come clean and admit that I didn’t used to like Sony’s digital cameras at all. I used to consider them over-priced, underpowered, clumsy, bulky and unattractively designed. I’ll also freely admit that over the past couple of years I’ve been repeatedly forced to eat my words as the company has released one technically impressive and beautifully designed camera after another. The current range of Cyber-shot cameras are among the prettiest, best made and best performing cameras on the market, and it’s no surprise that Sony is now the world leader in digital camera sales.
The DSC-P200 is Sony’s entrant into the relatively new market sector of seven megapixel snapshot cameras, competing alongside Canon’s IXUS 700, Nikon’s CoolPix 7900, the Olympus C-70, the Samsung Digimax V700 and the Casio Exilim EX-Z750 among others. Sales in this sector have been disappointing so far this year, so manufacturers are under pressure to come up with something really special, and in this respect the P200 is an impressive contender. For just £224 it delivers blistering performance, outstanding image quality and a comprehensive list of features that must have the competition seriously worried. At that price it’s cheaper than the Canon, Olympus and Casio, and only slightly more expensive than the Nikon or Samsung, plus it offers a lot of camera for the money.
Build quality is exemplary, with a strong aluminium case, securely-mounted metal controls and an attractive brushed-metal finish that shrugs off finger marks. Sony’s distinctive design, with the lens at the far end of a relatively long and thin body, makes the P200 compact enough to fit in a shirt pocket but with enough space for the control layout to be refreshingly uncluttered. The controls are a bit on the small side, but they’re well designed and not as fiddly as they might look.
Unusually for a high-end camera the P200 has both a large 2.0in LCD monitor and a decent optical viewfinder. The monitor has 134,400 pixels, which is above average for its size, giving it extremely sharp definition. It’s also bright enough to use even in strong sunlight. Other good external features include a metal tripod bush (many are plastic) and a small sub-hatch built into the main card/battery hatch to accommodate the recharger plug. It also has an AF illuminator for shooting in low-light situations.
It is the P200’s performance that is the real eye-opener. Switching on from a cold start, Sony claims that it is ready to take pictures in 1.3 seconds, but in fact I measured it at approximately 1.1 seconds, which is astonishingly fast. Shooting in normal continuous mode it can shoot five full-resolution shots in just under five seconds, but then has to pause for six seconds to write them to the memory stick. The camera is supplied with a 32MB Memory Stick card, big enough for nine full-resolution shots.
As well as single-shot and burst mode, the P200 also has an unusual multi-burst mode, which can take a sequence of shots in very quick succession, with the interval variable to either 1/7.5th, 1/15th, or 1/30th of a second. It then displays the sequence as a slideshow on the monitor.
The rest of the P200’s systems are just as high-performance. The multi-zone autofocus is one of the quickest I’ve ever seen, and seems to be reliably accurate under most circumstances. For times when it might be confused there is also the option of centre and spot AF, as well as a five position manual focus option. The exposure system is also very good. As you’ll see from the accompanying sample pics, the multi-segment exposure meter is accurate under most normal circumstances, although a brightly-lit macro subject did seem to confuse it slightly, producing a slight under-exposure. That said you can always use the spot and centre-weighted metering for those trickier subjects.