Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. It was only last July that I reviewed the Casio EX-Z1000, which was the first compact digital camera to sport a 10-megapixel sensor. Inevitably every other major camera manufacturer (except, notably, for Fujifilm) quickly followed suit, not wanting to be left behind in the marketing race, and pretty soon every brand’s flagship compact was a 10MP model.
However when it comes to digital camera sensors, more pixels doesn’t necessarily mean better picture quality. Many of these super-powerful compacts had problems with excessive image noise at higher ISO settings, and suffered from limited dynamic range, as a direct result of the reduced physical size and correspondingly lower sensitivity of the individual photocells making up the sensor. It has also been suggested that the resolution of a 10MP sensor is actually beyond the resolving power of many compact camera lenses, totally negating any potential advantage to be gained from the more powerful sensor. In fact some people have noted that in many cases overall image quality was actually lower than equivalent seven or eight megapixel cameras, and indeed this sector of the market has proven to be more popular than the more expensive 10MP premium models.
You’d think manufacturers would have learned their lesson, and stopped listening to marketing departments who are only concerned with printing larger numbers on the box, but as sure as night follows day the next generation of even-more-powerful sensors has arrived, so here I am taking a look at the new 12.1-megapixel Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W200. It’s actually not the first 12MP digital compact camera; that honour goes to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX100, and it certainly won’t be the last, since Casio has already launched the EX-Z1200 and I hereby confidently predict that within six months all of the other manufacturers will have jumped on the 12MP bandwagon. This time even Fujifilm is getting in on the act.
To be fair, if anyone can produce a successful 12-megapixel compact, it may be Sony. The W200 is equipped with a 1/1.7-in SuperHAD CCD, which is ever-so-slightly larger than the normal 1/1.8-in sensors found in most other high-powered compacts. The SuperHAD design has slightly larger microlenses than conventional CCDs, which may help with light gathering. It also benefits from a Carl Zeiss lens, so hopefully the superior optical quality can make use of the additional resolution.
To be even fairer, the W200 is also a pretty nice camera in its own right. As far as I'm aware it isn’t just a more powerful update of an existing model, it is an totally new design. Apart from the 12.1-megapixel sensor it has a specification that puts it into the top bracket of high-performance compacts, with the aforementioned Carl Zeiss f/2.8-5.5 3x zoom lens (equivalent to 35-105mm), Sony’s Super SteadyShot CCD-shift image stabilisation, 2.5-in 115k monitor screen and an optical viewfinder, an all-metal body, an ISO range of 100-6400 and optional manual exposure. Of course that kind of spec doesn’t come cheap, and although you can find it for under £230 from some online sellers, you’re more likely to see it priced at around £280. The Panasonic Lumix FX100 is about the same price.