The Sony HX20V takes over from the HX9V that we reviewed last year as the flagship travel compact within Sony's Cyber-shot compact digital camera range. There is, of course, the HX200V with its 30x zoom, however given the dimensions of that model it’s much more of a superzoom/bridge camera than a travel compact. The HX20V, by contrast, packs a 20x optical zoom yet remains small enough to slip inside a trouser pocket.
Travel compacts are particularly popular at the moment with all of the main manufacturers looking to grab their share of what is a highly lucrative market. The good news here is that the increased competition should make for better cameras, at least in theory. In recent weeks we’ve reviewed the Lumix TZ30 and the Canon SX260 HS, both of which impressed and scored well. Does the Sony HX20V have what it takes to beat either model? Let’s take a closer look at find out.
At its heart the HX20V employs a 1/2.3inch backlit Exmor R CMOS sensor that produces 18.2MP of effective resolution. This might only be a relatively small jump from the 16.2MP resolution of last year’s HX9V model, but it does suggest that Sony isn’t quite ready to give up on the megapixel arms race yet. The new sensor is complemented by the latest generation of Sony BIONZ image processer that allows the HX20V to shoot at a maximum 10fps (albeit for a maximum 10 consecutive frames) and record 1080/50p Full HD video. Sensitivity, meanwhile, ranges from ISO 100 to 12,800.
Other notable highlights, in addition to the 20x optical zoom include a Clear Zoom function that allows up to 40x magnification at full resolution; Sony’s own SteadyShot image stabilisation technology for blur-free images at slower shutter speeds and extended focal lengths; built-in GPS with bundled software that allows you to track your journey via Google maps; a generous range of shooting and exposure modes; a selection of Picture Effect digital effects filters; and last but not least a high-resolution one-touch Panoramic mode.
Sadly though the HX20V is JPEG only, which means it can’t shoot lossless Raw images for enhanced editing potential in a digital darkroom. This does strike us as something of an omission given that the HX20V (or indeed any other travel compact) is likely to be used in all kinds of exotic and interesting locations where a bit of post-production might make all the difference. Needless to say we look forward to the day when more manufacturers include Raw shooting on their travel compact models as standard.
While there’s no Raw, there are two JPEG compression settings to choose from: Normal (more images) or Fine (better quality). If you don’t think you need the full 18.2MP then resolution can be pegged back to a choice of 10MP, 5MP or VGA quality. And while the sensor records 4:3 images by default, it’s also possible to shoot 16:9 at a choice of either 13MP or 2MP. If you want to produce images in either a 3:2 or 1:1 aspect then you’ll need to crop them down on a computer.
Of course, the big draw with the HX20V as with all travel compacts is the convenience of having a huge focal range to hand in a camera only a little bigger than a regular compact. In this respect the HX20V gets a 20x optical zoom that provides the 35mm focal range equivalent of 25-500mm.
Extending its 20x reach a bit further is Sony’s proprietary Clear Zoom technology. This basically doubles the reach of the optical zoom (up to a maximum of 40x) while keeping the full 18.2MP resolution intact. Trying it out, we were actually quite impressed with the results – not the sharpest by any means but certainly usable for Facebook-bound snapshots and the like. If 40x still isn’t quite enough then it’s also possible to use the Digital Zoom to reach a maximum 80x at 18.2MP, 151x at 5MP or 306x when shooting at the VGA quality setting. Good luck getting anything even remotely useable at these settings though!
The HX20V offers a good range of exposure modes, although nothing particularly new that we haven't seen on an advanced Sony compact before. There are Program and Manual options, and while the degree of user control on both is fairly generous, it's worth bearing in mind that the Manual mode only offers a choice of maximum aperture (f/3.2) and minimum aperture (f/8), with nothing in between to choose from. In other words, it's not really all that flexible.
Intelligent Auto is basically an automatic scene selection mode, and is capable of delivering consistently good results. Superior Auto mode, meanwhile, takes things one step further by automatically firing off several shots at once when required (which isn’t all the time) and then blending the results together. In this respect it's not unlike having an automatic HDR mode at your disposal, although thankfully a relatively subtle one that aims for realism rather than drama. This makes it particularly useful for tricky lighting situations, such as strongly backlit subjects.
Rounding things off are a range of 15 individually selectable Scene modes, three fully customisable Memory Recall modes and a 3D capture mode (for which you'll need a compatible 3D monitor to view the results on). There's also a quirky Background Defocus mode that's quite well suited to portraits as it takes multiple images and combines them with some clever processing to throw the background out of focus. It doesn’t always work, but when it does the results aren’t too bad.
Last but not least is the Sweep Panorama mode – a really neat feature that Sony has been refining for the past few years. This basically allows you to create 180-degree panoramas simply by holding the shutter button down and sweeping the camera in a predetermined direction. While Fujifilm and Panasonic also offer very credible takes on panormaic technology, Sony still just about has the edge, thanks primarily to the ability to shoot high-resolution panoramas.
As is increasingly de rigueur these days, the HX20V comes with a set of nine different Picture Effect digital filters: HDR Painting, Rich B&W, Miniature, Toy Camera, Pop Colour, Partial Colour, Soft High-key, Watercolour and Illustration. It has to be said that some work better than others, but they are quite fun.
Movie abilities have been a strong point of Sony compacts in recent years and the HX20V continues this tradition with a generous - albeit slightly perplexing - range of video recording options. You can choose to record movies in either the HDTV-friendly AVCHD format or the more computer/web-friendly MP4 files. Selecting AVCHD opens up a further range of options, including a top 'PS' setting of 1080/50p/28Mbps Full HD, which is supported by 'FX' (1080/50i/24Mbps), 'FH' (1080/50i/17Mbps) and 'HQ' (1080/50i/9Mbps) options.
MP4 recording options, on the other hand, include 1080/25p Full HD, 720/25p HD and VGA standard definition. In all instances, sound is recorded in stereo via two microphones on the top of the camera, and while there’s a wind-cut filter there's no external microphone input. We like how it's possible to record still images while the HX20V is shooting video, even though it's only possible to shoot in 16:9. Sony's SteadyShot 'Active' image stabilisation technology is pretty handy too, especially if you don't have a particularly steady hand or if you are moving while recording.
While it's undoubtedly good that Sony has seen fit to include such a broad range of recording options, we do wonder how many users will fully appreciate the differences between the various AVCHD settings, or indeed realise that movies shot at the highest 'PS' setting cannot be transferred to DVD. To this end we'd really like to see some clearer in-camera guidance to help users to better understand the choices they are faced with. We should point out that this is not a particular criticism of Sony, but rather all manufacturers who equip their cameras with a multitude of similar-sounding and potentially confusing AVCHD options.