With the HX9V being one of the star superzoom compacts of 2011, there's a fair bit of pressure on Sony to come up with something even more amazing—or at least just as good—for its 2012 replacement. Sony hasn't been afraid to make major changes in the Cyber-shot HX20V, however, introducing a new 18-Megapixel sensor and 20x zoom lens. But in spite of its new specs and more rounded design, the HX20V is still a relatively classic compact, with no newfangled features such as a touchscreen or web connectivity.
HandlingThe HX20V brings some slight improvements to the design and handling of the HX9V. For example, the handle is now covered with a rubber finish that improves grip and which is more comfortable to hold than the ridged handle in the HX9V. Similarly, the rubber grip pad on the back of the camera is now smaller, more stylish and also more effective. The HX20V is still a relatively heavy camera by current market standards, but build quality is good in spite of a slight wobble to the flash and lens.
Like in other recent Sony HX cameras, the HX20V has a 920,000-dot LCD. It has been treated to the same improvements in calibration as Sony's HX200V, with a stable grey scale, very slightly cool colours, and colour fidelity on the better side of average. All in all, it's a pleasant display to use.
The HX20V has a clear interface with a selection of custom options (Custom button and MR modes), but there's still no RAW mode and no real diaphragm. This in turn means that there are only two aperture settings available in A and M modes: f/3.2 and f/8 at wide-angle, and f/5.8 and f/14 at telephoto. This compact therefore isn't really designed for expert users, but is more geared up for amateur snappers who may only venture out of Auto mode now and again.
ResponsivenessOne blip in the excellent HX9V was its unimpressive start-up time—at 2.3 seconds, it was about average for 2011 compacts but it was nothing out of the ordinary. The HX20V makes a major improvement in this field, shaving half a second off the start-up to bring Sony's 2012 model above average, especially for a camera with this kind of zoom lens (the compacts with the fastest start-up times usually have the least powerful zooms).
Otherwise, the HX20V has the same top-end performances as other recent Sony models—it focuses almost instantly in good light, and still very quickly in low light, it has a fairly fast photo-to-photo turnaround time and a continuous shooting mode that snaps 10 frames in 1.4 seconds.
All in all, there are compacts out there that are a little faster to get going or to save an image, but you'd have to look to SLRs or mirrorless cameras if you really want a snapper that's noticeably faster than this.
Picture QualityThe 18-Megapixel sensor in the HX20V has already been seen in Sony's HX10V and HX200V. However, the 25-500 mm (20x) zoom lens is all new. It'll therefore be interesting to compare picture quality in the HX20V with that of the HX10V, which uses the excellent 16x zoom lens seen in last year's HX9V.
The ISO test results hold no real surprises. Images look quite processed, with a complex combination of smoothing to reduce granular noise, image accentuation for eye-catching results and the return of finer textures. On the whole, pictures look pretty good up to 1600 ISO (for 8" x 10" / 20 x 27 cm prints), while 3200 ISO is best kept for exceptional circumstances only. However, you might as well forget about the ridiculous 6400 ISO and 12800 ISO extended ISO settings—the camera compiles a burst of images into one shot using interpolation and pixel fusing with not-so-great results.
At wide-angle settings, the HX20V lens takes decent shots. Quality over the frame is a little less consistent than in the HX10V, but it's a subtle difference that will only really be visible on full-sized shots. On an 8" x 10" print (20 x 27 cm), the two cameras giver perfectly comparable results unless you happen to look at the pictures under a magnifying glass. Plus, the fact that purple fringes are a bit less visible will be good news for some users. In fact, on this front, the HX20V does a distinctly better job than the Panasonic TZ30, which will be one of its main rivals in the superzoom compact market this year.
At 200 mm, the HX20V delivers sharper results in the middle of the frame than many top camera lenses. In fact, it's one of the few models we've tested that manages to pick out the tiny feet of the components on the graphics card in our test scene. Unfortunately, this level of quality isn't maintained around the edges of the frame, where the HX10V and, in particular, the Olympus SZ-30 MR, do a slightly better job. It's the same story at the maximum zoom setting, where the HX20V lens is very sharp in the centre but isn't quite as good in the corners of the frame. On the whole, we reckon the HX9V/HX10V offers just as good a trade-off in quality and has the advantage of being more affordable—unless you really need that 500 mm focal length setting.
VideoThe video mode is up to Sony's usual high standards, offering Full HD resolution at 25 fps or 50 fps and stereo sound.
Video images are clean, sharp and well defined, and while scenes filmed indoors do look a bit dark, there's no sign of speckling video noise.
The stereo effect is clearly audible and audio fidelity is good. The only slight drawback is that the buzzing of the zoom motor can be heard in very quiet scenes. That said, you're not likely to notice it in most day-to-day situations.