Sony's Bionz image processor, and its compact cameras in general, have a solid reputation for performance, and the W290 is very quick in every respect. It starts up in just over 1.5 seconds, and in single-shot mode it has a consistent shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.6 seconds, which is very fast. In continuous shooting mode it can maintain a little under two frames a second, which for a 12-megapixel compact costing £199 is exceptional performance.
Sony's nine-zone compact camera autofocus system just keeps getting better. The W290 focuses quickly and accurately in virtually any lighting conditions, and it has possibly the best low-light focusing of any compact camera I've recently encountered. It has a fast and very bright AF assist lamp with a useful range of at least four metres, and focuses quicker in total darkness than some other compacts do in daylight.
The W290's built-in flash is also very good, with excellent coverage and easily surpassing its claimed three metre range. Close range metering is excellent, and the recycle time after a full-power shot is approximately seven seconds.
Image quality is generally good, thanks in no small part to the Carl Zeiss lens, which provides outstanding detail resolution, with excellent corner sharpness and no trace of chromatic aberration, although it does suffer from quite distinct spherical distortion at the 28mm end of the zoom range. Exposure metering and focusing are both reliably accurate, and the Dynamic Range Optimiser (DRO) feature ensures good shadow detail and a minimum of burned-out highlights.
The only image quality problem the W290 does have is associated with image noise, but it's a bit unusual. Images appear slightly noisy even at the minimum sensitivity setting of 80 ISO, with a faint grain right across the image. It does reduce the level of fine detail slightly, but it doesn't really get any worse until 800 ISO, and it's only at 1600 ISO that detail is lost in the darker areas of the frame. Even shots at the maximum 3200 ISO still retain quite good colour reproduction.
While it may not have the best picture quality in the world, and some of the controls are a little fiddly, if you want a camera that will take a good photo quickly and reliably in virtually any lighting conditions then the Sony W290 is very hard to beat. Excellent build quality, lightning-fast performance and the additional versatility of the 5x wide zoom and HD video recording make this camera outstanding value for money.