HandlingIf it ain't broke, don't fix it ... especially when it's already a very good bridge camera. In fact, Sony hasn't changed much in its updated bridge, and the HX200V is very similar indeed to the HX100V released last year. Keen-eyed readers will note that the mode-selection dial has changed colour—it's now black—and that the self-timer and continuous shooting buttons have been merged to make room for the new Auto mode settings (see inset). Otherwise, the camera bodies are identical, which means the HX200V offers the same excellent grip and high-quality build (in spite of the rather plastic finish) as the HX100V. All in all, it's a nice camera to use.
The camera has the same multifunction control ring around the lens as seen in the HX100V, which can be used to control the zoom (you can otherwise use the standard zoom control around the shutter-release button) or for focusing in manual mode. Note that these are still the only two options available—you can't assign a choice of settings to the control ring like you can in the Canon S100, for example.
The screen hasn't changed either—it's the same 920,000-dot VGA display with wide viewing angles and good onscreen image quality. The LCD also flips out vertically so you can line up shots at waist height or over the top of your head. However, in the HX200V, the screen has been calibrated differently. While the gamma (grey scale) was a real problem in the previous model—washing light greys out to white—it's pretty much perfect in the HX200V, giving a very even grey scale. With its new settings, the screen has a slight blue overtone, but it's not much of a problem in reality, and colours are reproduced more accurately overall.
On the whole, the Sony HX200V is a pleasant and practical-to-use bridge camera. The only real let-downs are the low-grade viewfinder and a certain lack of advanced functions (there could be more customisable controls, for example, and there's still no RAW mode).
ResponsivenessAgainst the clock, the HX200V proved a subtle but distinct improvement on the HX100V. The most notable change is the start-up time, as at 2.2 seconds, Sony has managed to shave off half a second. Although it's still a pretty bog-standard start-up time, it's actually not bad for a bridge, and allows Sony to catch up with Panasonic's model. For photo-to-photo turnaround too, the HX200V comes in neck and neck with Panasonic's FZ150.
The autofocus is on the better side of average, working in under half a second in good light and under a second in low light. As usual, the burst mode snaps ten frames in a second ... followed by several seconds of thumb-twiddling while the camera saves the shots to the memory card.
Picture QualityThe HX200V uses the same lens as the HX100V, as well as a BSI CMOS sensor. In this model, however, resolution has been upped slightly to 18 Megapixels. This sensor has the highest pixel density we've seen yet in a compact camera, at 63 Mpx/cm².
You may remember that the arrival of 16-Megapixel BSI CMOS sensors in Sony's cameras was accompanied by some rather aggressive image processing, which mercilessly smoothed out zones of block colour to eradicate noise (thus wiping out finer texturing) and accentuating edges to make them stand out. While this proved a hit with point-and-shoot consumers and fans of flattering, read-to-print images, some true pros found the pictures over-processed and unnatural. As a result, Sony announced that it would be working on ways of improving the way textures in images are maintained and rendered in 2012 models.
The result is actually quite good. Texture from the background of the scene is preserved more effectively, and while the HX200V takes more grainy photos, the image looks more natural and less 'reconstituted' than those taken with its predecessor. Up to 1600 ISO, a good level of detail is maintained and pictures generally hold up well. At 3200 ISO, however, the edges start to look softer and heavy granularity is visible on 8" x 10" prints (20 x 27 cm). This setting is therefore probably best avoided, as are the 6400 ISO and 12800 ISO 'extended ISO' settings, obtained by combining several images taken successively in a low resolution then treated to 'intelligent' interpolation and rather heavy handed accentuation.
Optical quality is as expected. Upgrading to 18 Megapixels doesn't bring any real gain in fine detail but, on the whole, the results are good. While the edges of the frame aren't quite as sharp as the centre at wide-angle settings, things get better much quickly as you start to zoom. In fact, quality is incredibly consistent across the frame at 200 mm. A high level of precision is maintained up to 810 mm, although some chromatic aberration is still visible.
On the whole, the Panasonic FZ150 and Canon SX40 lenses do a slightly better job. It's only at the longest focal lengths, at which all three cameras do an excellent job, that the 50% higher resolution of the HX200V really brings a slight gain in detail. That said, some uses will still prefer competitor models, which effectively correct chromatic aberration. Similarly, some will prefer Panasonic's more natural approach to image processing, while others will prefer Sony's instantly printable results. Otherwise, you may want to pick the Canon as the best trade-off between the two!
VideoThe HX200V has the same video modes as the HV100V. It therefore films Full HD—like most models at this price level—with a good level of sharpness and an image that's generally pleasant to watch. It's perhaps not quite as flattering as video filmed with the Canon model, but the dynamic range holds up well. It's also nice to see that you can set the video framerate at 25 or 50 frames per second in interlaced or progressive scan formats. Note that to use the 50p mode to the best of its ability, you'll need heavyweight memory cards and a powerful computer. However, you could argue that it's worth it—videos flow smoothly, giving a much better result than Canon's 24 frames per second video. Over to you to decide what suits you the best.
Sound quality is decent too. Voices and distinct noises are rendered well, and there's an audible stereo effect—even if it's a little more marked in the SX40. The only drawback is that the buzzing of the zoom motor can still be heard slightly in very quiet scenes. This, however, is soon masked by any other noise.