The price of digital cameras has dropped dramatically over the past few years, and today there aren't too many compact cameras that cost over £300. The ones that do are a pretty select bunch. There are a couple of super-zoom models such as the extraordinary Casio EX-F1 or the Nikon P90, and some high-spec semi-pro cameras such as the Ricoh GR Digital II, Sigma DP1 and Canon G10, not to mention the beautiful Panasonic LX3 and its counterpart the massively overpriced Leica D-Lux 4 (basically an LX3 with a Leica badge and an extra £150 on the price). However these are all complex cameras designed for serious and experienced photographers. The top end of the consumer compact market is occupied by cameras like the Canon IXUS 980 IS and the new IXUS 990 IS (review coming soon), or the Fuji F200 EXR, but even these retail for under £300. No, at the very top of the tree, the honour of being most expensive consumer compact on the market goes to today's review camera, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T900, which costs a wallet-crushing £325. You can get an entry-level DSLR with a lens for less.
When you first open the box, you might be forgiven for thinking it's a bit of a rip off. At first glance it just looks like a 12.1-megapixel update of last year's Cyber-shot T77, and indeed the T900 does have many similarities to that model, such as its 4x zoom Carl Zeiss lens. However when you look closer you notice the details that set the newer model apart. On the front it has stereo microphones for its 720p HD video recording mode, while on the back it has a huge and pin-sharp 3.5-inch 921k touch-screen monitor. On the top plate the T77's fiddly little rocker-switch zoom control has been replaced with a nice smooth rotary bezel, and the sliding front cover has been reshaped to include a small finger grip, making a surprising improvement to the camera's handling.
What the T900 inherits from its forebears is Sony's usual excellent build quality, and the handsome but practical style of the camera. The body is half metal, half plastic, but it is very solidly put together and what few external controls it has are solidly mounted and sensibly positioned, although the narrow strip on the right of the screen and the extended strap lug make a barely adequate thumb rest. It's all too easy for your thumb to end up on the screen, however as long as you don't accidentally change the flash mode, the camera will detect the touch and temporarily deactivate the touch screen interface, which is quite clever.
I'm not usually a fan of either top-left-corner lenses or sliding panel designs, but even I will admit that the T900 is a pleasure to use. Despite being slightly larger than the T77 it is actually slightly lighter, and at just 16.3mm thick it's one of the slimmest cameras on the market. Like other models in the T series it is available in silver or the attractive dual-texture black finish shown here. A brown version is available in some territories, but not in the UK.