Review: CyberShot DSC-P10 Digital Camera
Price: $600 (list); $450 (street)
Requirements: Mac OS 8.6 or Mac OS X, USB
Recommended: Mac OS 9 or later. The manual offers specific compatibility advice.
Since I have had the use of my own digital camera for approximately two months now, and I have thought long and hard about an answer to the question, I face writing a review on it without knowing exactly who to recommend this camera to. This is because when you first pick up Sony’s flagship compact digital camera for 2003, the CyberShot DSC-P10, and start to play around with it, you will find it incredibly hard to put down.
The first thing about this camera that makes an impression is its size. Measuring just 4.25" in length and just over 2" in height, the P10 is smaller than Sony’s previous efforts—no mean feat given the boost in specification compared to larger siblings such as the DSC-P72. Any pre-conceptions that the P10’s size makes it vulnerable to damage vanish once it is picked up; although it weighs a mere seven and a half ounces, the camera feels reasonably solid and durable, enough to withstand the odd accidental knock, not that you would ever forgive yourself if you dropped it.
Looking around the camera’s enclosure, a few features immediately catch the eye. The core lens sports a 3x optical zoom and an additional 4x digital zoom function, and automatically adds about an inch to the camera’s depth when it is switched on. A standard tripod mount is offered on the bottom of the camera, and the side features an easy-open panel for access to the rechargeable InfoLithium® battery and media slot. The back features a 1.5" full-color LCD screen, most of the camera control buttons, and the necessary I/O ports, while the top of the camera is reserved for the shutter release and power buttons.
Once switched on, the P10 will always be in one of six modes, each represented and accessed by a dial surrounding the shutter release button. Three of these are used for picture taking, the one feature that one expects every camera to support out of the box. Most pictures will only require the auto-adjustment mode, in which the focus, exposure, and white balance values are automatically adjusted to suit the environment. Those who prefer having complete control over their camera’s settings will appreciate the programmed mode, in which all options are configured through an extremely easy-to-use menu system. A scene selection mode is also available, for pictures which fit one of six predefined profiles.
In any of the three picture-taking modes, the P10 lets you choose the desired image resolution of your next photo from a choice of five, ranging from VGA (640x480) to an astonishing 5.0 effective megapixels, which I am reliably informed equates to 2592x1944 pixels. The additional capture modes when taking still images make this camera all the more desirable: the camera can take three pictures in rapid succession (optionally with the exposure value slightly shifted in each image), can record an attached audio file of up to 40 seconds, or it can simultaneously store a lower resolution (320x240) “thumbnail” of the normal-sized image for e-mail purposes. After taking your picture you have the option of instantly reviewing the shot without switching to playback mode, and quickly deciding whether you want to keep or delete what you just shot.
Additional features worthy of mention at this point are those offered by the viewscreen. The built-in viewscreen offers four display modes, from displaying basic information on top of the current image, to full information, to full information plus a live histogram. Personally, I cannot see the appeal of a live histogram graphic other than to perhaps judge brightness balance, but a few people might find this more useful than I would. The viewscreen is fine for judging the position of the camera when taking a picture, but there may be times when the sun is too bright to see what’s on the viewscreen, or it otherwise detracts from picture-taking. In these situations, not only does the camera’s standard viewfinder come in handy, but the viewscreen can also be turned off to save battery power and keep distractions to a minimum.
Picture quality, as you would expect, is excellent. The camera’s support for taking macro shots of fauna especially gives highly impressive results, with a great attention to detail and accurate color reproduction. The one limitation the camera does suffer from here is the forced JPEG image mode; while images are generally captured at the finest quality, the lack of support for a lossless file format such as TIFF is slightly disappointing.
A nice feature of the camera meanwhile is its ability to record true motion pictures, in MPEG-VX format. In this “movie mode,” an additional two kinds of “movies” are supported: Clip Motion creates an animated GIF image of up to ten separately-shot frames, and Multi Burst shoots sixteen frames in customizably quick succession and stores these frames as a single image. If you prefer your movies with sound, there are two MPEG movie resolutions to choose from, 160x120 and 640x480. Both average about eight frames per second, and both record sound. The larger resolution naturally consumes available space like nothing else, and the smaller resolution seems too small graphically despite the obvious space savings. I would have liked to see and use a compromising 320x240 resolution for general purpose movies, but otherwise I am happy with the available choices.
While capturing your media may be the first thing you would want to do with a digital camera, the fun comes when you decide what to do with it. With this in mind, the Playback mode of the P10 is truly impressive, and offers features almost too numerous to list here.
Most of these options focus on still images, and a lot can be done to previously captured photos without the need of a photo editing program. Viewing a still image on the built-in viewscreen can be slightly tricky if you want to check on some of the details, so the P10 conveniently lets you zoom in on an image with up to 5x magnification, and navigate around the image using the arrow keys. If a photo was accidentally taken at the wrong resolution, this can be changed at a later stage, although changing the resolution upwards of the original will, naturally, not automatically add detail that wasn’t there before. Individual images can be rotated on-screen (for viewing purposes only), protected against accidental deletion, or marked for printing at a shop or on a DPOF-compatible printer. Finally, media can be stored in separate folders on the removable media. Unfortunately, it seems that once media is captured it cannot be moved from one folder to another by using the camera alone, although this can be done by computer.
When dealing with previously recorded movies, the camera lets you adjust the volume during playback, pause at any point, and even rewind and fast-forward through the movie. Even more interesting is the rudimentary movie editing functions on offer, which allow for cutting up the movie into segments, as well as the reordering and deleting of segments as necessary. Image sequences can be split in much the same way.
In the event that you become tired of constantly pressing the back/forward buttons to navigate through all of your images, press the “zoom out” button. This lands you in multi-view mode, which displays thumbnails of nine pieces of media at a time. The cursor keys let you move around this view, and a scroll bar on the left hand side indicates how far down you are in the list of images for that folder. Zoom out further and you enter another view, which displays a thumbnail of an image alongside a detailed list of its properties.
The sixth and final mode deals with general camera configuration options, and neatly leads me into discussing various hardware features of this camera. As you would expect, this is where you set the date and time, language, and LCD features; this is also where you set various options relating to the media, along with the option of formatting it entirely and starting afresh. A number of more interesting settings include the option to turn off audio feedback, which I can see many people using once they become irritated by the constant beep-booping and imitation shutter sounds, and the choice between NTSC and PAL formats when mirroring what the camera sees on a television, using the supplied AV cable.
As this camera is a Sony product, it happily supports Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick technology. Despite various complaints about its incompatibility with the more popular formats, the Memory Stick format is quickly coming into its own as a multi-purpose storage tool, with ports appearing in everything from electronic photo frames to Sony’s VAIO range of computers. Not that this matters when you connect the P10 to your Mac with the supplied USB cable; if you are running Mac OS X, this camera is supported without the need for any additional configuration. Once it’s plugged in the camera goes into USB mode, the Stick automatically mounts as just another external drive (albeit with a nice Memory Stick icon) and can immediately be used within the Finder, iPhoto, and even GraphicConverter. Classic Mac OS users will require a quick driver installation, but all is otherwise well.
The three I/O ports—AC power, A/V, and USB—are located side-by-side on the back of the camera, behind a protective cover. While this cover makes perfect sense, it seems ever-so-slightly flimsy when it is unhinged and swung out the way. That there is nowhere for the hinged cover to go, added to the fact that it cannot be detached from the camera itself, leads to worries that too much stress on the hinge could lead to the cover snapping off entirely.
Documentation, happily, is ample, and covers everything you would want to know about using the camera. The 100-plus-page manual not only covers the camera’s various functions and menu system, but also offers a comprehensive troubleshooting guide as well as a step-by-step instruction guide on how to use the camera with both Windows and the Mac OS. The manual even goes as far as including charts on how long a battery charge will last depending on how you use the camera (the average is about an hour and a half), how many pictures you can take depending on the image resolution and the size of the Memory Stick used, which image resolutions are suitable for which purpose, and so on. All in all, an essential reference.
So, who is this camera geared towards? Although this is my first digital camera, there is the slight possibility that a first-timer might become overwhelmed by the sheer number of features offered by this camera, a few of which I only discovered today while writing this review. It’s certainly not for professional photographers: while the 5MP resolution delivers stunning results, professionals already carry larger, bulkier cameras offering resolutions of up to 13MP. No, it would appear that the DSC-P10 would appeal most to hobbyists or people otherwise reasonably serious about photography, who want a lot of features packed into a compact case and are prepared to pay for the privilege. It is an excellent all-rounder, which despite a few trivial drawbacks delivers brilliant results.