Touch screens are gradually creeping into our lives; we use them on the underground, at the airport check-in and on handheld devices, so why not extend the technology to digital cameras? The 8-megapixel, 3x zoom, Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1 is not the first compact to go there – both Toshiba and Kodak have made attempts with varying success. But the large 3in LCD monitor on offer, and blob-like icons that make up the display, make operating the N1 so intuitive you quickly forget that, actually, it’s all a bit of a gimmick.
One grumble is that, in an effort to make the screen huge while maintaining the pocket dimensions of the rest of the camera, essential controls like the zoom lever or the buttons that call up the on-screen menus and shooting info, have been miniaturised or squeezed out entirely. There’s no alternative of an optical viewfinder should you wish to conserve power by switching off the screen but, in truth, most of the happy snappers this product is aimed at won’t miss it and battery life is reasonable.
Build quality is high, with the 3x zoom stored flush to the body when the camera is deactivated. An attractive, brushed-metal fascia gives the N1 the appearance of an upmarket cigarette case. A winner in the style stakes, it’s no slouch when it comes to performance either. It powers up in under a second and displays little in the way of shutter delay – the time it takes for the camera to calculate focus and exposure between pressing the shutter button and actually taking the shot. Just 26MB of internal memory is provided, so budget for additional removable media in the shape of a Memory Stick.
As is consistent across the Sony range, colours are well saturated, with reds and greens in particular noticeable for their vibrancy, and people portraits imbued with a healthy glow. Images are also sharp for the most part – a testament to the quality of the optics – though, as with most digital compacts, low-light shots register image noise (film grain-like speckles) and occasional camera shake when shooting naturalistic interiors without the aid of the flash. Sony has tried to determine accurate focus with a built-in AF illuminator, but it’s not a fail-safe.
It’s actually in playback mode that this camera really shines, with a host of funky slideshow effects and musical accompaniment suggesting that this is as much a device for sharing images with friends and family as it is for taking them. A default Pocket Album feature stores low-res versions of every image taken, so you can recall and display those that have already been downloaded or deleted. Again, this is an area where the larger screen really comes into its own. Visibility outdoors is also impressive, in that sunlight doesn’t force the user to cup their hands around the LCD, though it displays some noise when used as a viewfinder indoors.
Whereas touch screens on previous generations of digital cameras have hampered rather than aided operation, the Cyber-shot DSC-N1 is arguably the best attempt yet, and the huge 3in LCD feels like it will withstand repeated finger stabbing. If there’s one downside, it’s that you’ll be constantly wiping it clear of fingerprints and smears, but the wow factor remains.