The HX20V is undoubtedly a stylish looking camera that’s very much in keeping with its slightly higher than average price tag. Our review sample came in a shade of grey with a slight amethyst hue to it (think Asus Transformer Prime, but more subtle) although it’s also available in an all-black version.
Build quality is pretty high. The front fascia, top-plate the lens ring and top-plate are all treated to a metallic finish, but the back of the camera (and the memory card/battery door) is made from toughened plastic. Overall, the camera does feel quite solid and well built though, and certainly doesn’t feel in any way cheap. At around 250g with battery and card there’s also a reassuring weight about it.
The front of the camera is given an ergonomically sculpted finger grip that’s made from a rubber for added grip, while the back gets a concave thumb rest. Together these allow you to hold the camera comfortably and securely. One-handed operation isn’t a problem either, although even with the SteadyShot image stabilisation switched on you may want to use two hands in order to get a more steady hold.
In keeping with other Sony compacts (and CSCs) buttons are few but well spaced. The D-pad on the back is surrounded by a circular ring that moves independently of the D-pad and which can be used to cycle through various shooting and menu options. The in-camera menu can take some time to get used to though as it’s effectively split into two layers – a top level of ‘quick menu’ items and a more detailed menu for more general camera settings, including formatting the memory card, and changing from AVCHD to MP4.
Thing is, you can only access the latter by opening up the former. The top-level ‘quick menu’ is accessed via the Menu button on the back of the camera. From here, you’ll be offered a range of shooting settings, the number of which will depend entirely on which exposure mode you are using the camera in (more for Program and Manual, less for the iAuto and Superior Auto modes). If you can’t find what you want then you’ll need to scroll down to the suitcase icon and open up the main menu. It does takes a bit of time to remember where everything is.
The zoom is controlled via a spring-loaded rocker switch around the shutter release and takes 2.5seconds to fully extend or retract when the zoom is fully pressed. Feathering the zoom control for more precise control we counted approximately 32 individual stops between 25mm and 500mm.
One area where the HX20V really does is in autofocus performance. Not only does the camera come with a generous range of AF options (Multi AF, Centre AF, Flexible spot, Manual/Semi Manual, Tracking and Face Detection) it’s no slouch when it comes to locking on either. Used outdoors in daylight (in either sunny or overcast conditions) you can expect focus lock-on to be near instantaneous, with the overall speed only dropping slightly at dusk or dawn. Used indoors under artificial lights the HX20V still holds up very well, although it does of course prefer bright bulbs. In especially dark conditions the HX20V has a relatively powerful AF Assist light built into the front of the camera that can help it to lock on to nearby subjects.
Start-up time clocks up at a fraction over 2seconds, which is about average for a camera of this type. General processing speeds aren’t too bad, although they’re by no means the fastest we’ve seen on a travel compact either. Used in Single-shot drive mode the camera is actually rather slow, taking around 2.5secs to process each image; we managed to capture just four in 10seconds. Switching to High-speed Continuous drive mode the HX20V just about manages to hit it’s claimed 10fps (we timed it at 1.2secs for 10 images) although it can only record a maximum of 10 consecutive images after which the camera takes around eight further seconds to process them all. Used on the Low-speed Continuous setting, the HX20V shoots at around 2fps, again to a maximum of 10 consecutive images.
GPS performance can of course be affected by climatic conditions such as clouds cover, although that said we did manage to get a lock within two minutes when we first switched it on. It was only accurate to within 500ft however. Also GPS it is a notable drain on battery life, which is something to be aware of if you plan to leave it permanently switched on.
On the back of the HX20V is a 3in, 921k-dot TruBlack XtraFine LCD monitor. This offers excellent image quality in all conditions, including outdoors in bright sunlight. The only downside is that it’s something of a fingerprint magnet and quickly gets covered in grease, which necessitates constant cleaning.
Overall image quality is one of the HX20’s biggest selling points. While the Program and Manual modes offer plenty of user controls, including individual controls over saturation, contrast and sharpening, the more point-and-shoot orientated iAuto and Superior Auto modes are really consistent too. In fact they also offer some degree of user input via a simplified set of on-screen controls over brightness, colour temperature and saturation. You can also opt to layer your image with a Picture Effect digital filter while in iAuto or Superior Auto mode too.
Images shot in Program mode using the Standard colour profile (one of five options, the others being: Vivid, Real, Sepia, and B&W) and with all of the saturation, contrast and sharpening options set to standard, the HX20V is capable of producing images with plenty punch, pleasingly vibrant colour and good levels of contrast. Lens sharpness is better at wideangle and mid-range focal lengths than it is at the telephoto extreme though (something the HX20V shares with most other travel compacts), and we did notice some instances of purple fringing. At 18.2MP detail is, as you might expect, very good, especially when the camera is being used at lower sensitivity settings. At higher ones detail tends to be smudged as a result of the camera’s built-in noise-reduction algorithms.
Metering is generally quite good, although we did find with some regularity that the camera tended too underexpose by around a third of a stop. Thankfully, the camera offers /-2EV exposure compensation in all exposure modes so it isn’t hard to correct for. White balance is much more accurate though, and we didn’t encounter any great problems using the camera on AWB mode.
ISO performance is pretty impressive at lower settings, although quality does start to fall off quite rapidly once you hit ISO 800 and above. As with many small-sensor cameras, the top settings are really only for emergency use only though.
The Sony Cyber-shot HX20V is a feature-rich 20x travel compact that ‘s up there with the best of them. While the omission of Raw recording is disappointing, the HX20V is otherwise a very well appointed camera with plenty of useful shooting features and modes designed to help you capture the perfect image. Video capture is another strong point with the HX20 benefiting from a range of AVCHD and MP4 recording options. Still image quality is, on the whole, very good – just so long as you stick to the lower ISO settings. At higher settings, the 18.2MP sensor does seem to suffer somewhat from being so densely populated, with noise becoming something of an issue over ISO 1600. Overall then, a fantastic travel compact only slightly held back by the lack of Raw recording and noise issues at higher sensitivities.