Sony generally loads its HX-series cameras with powerful zoom lenses. After the 10x lens in the HX7V, the 16x zoom in the HX9V and HX10V, and the 20x lens seen in the excellent HX20V, the HX50V pushes up the zoom power to 30x, bringing this compact camera on par with Sony's HX200V bridge. The HX50's lens isn't as fast as the 30x zoom in the HX200V, with aperture at f/3.5-6.3 compared with f/2.8-5.6, but the 24 mm wide-angle setting is an improvement on the bridge's 27 mm. And above all, the HX50 is much more compact. In fact, when switched off, the lens unit is a full 6 centimetres shorter. Nice work Sony!
Still, next to its fellow compacts, the HX50V feels a little bulky. It's beefier than the HX20V, gaining almost 1 mm in width, depth and height, and generally feels like a stockier camera to handle. You may struggle to slide this compact into anything smaller than a jacket pocket, though it should easily fit into a bag. Build quality is exemplary here, although we did sport a couple of minor flaws. First, Sony uses a USB port cover held on by a flimsy bit of plastic instead of using a proper hinged compartment door. That's neither attractive nor particularly robust, especially since the USB port will be in frequent use as your only option for charging the camera. Second, there's no battery guide to help you slot the battery in the right way round. Similarly, the SD memory card guide is impossible to see. Other than that, Sony has done a great job with the HX50's build and finish.
Sony has made the most of the HX50V's new-found bulk to make a few changes to the camera's general design and layout. Like the NEX-7 and the RX1 (pictured above with the HX50V), this compact has been treated to a second settings dial on upper edge. The left-hand dial is used to switch between the various shooting modes, whereas the right-hand dial adjusts exposure. This certainly isn't unique to Sony compacts, as the Fuji X20 also uses this layout, but it's still a nice touch. On top of that, the HX50V has gained an accessories hot-shoe, compatible with the same 2,360,000-dot OLED viewfinder as the RX1(the FDA-EV1MK), which is strangely similar to the Olympus VF-4.
A new "Custom" button has appeared on the back of the camera. This can be set to bring up ISO settings, white balance, metering mode and smile detection. The latter option can be set to one of three sensitivity levels for "Big", "Normal or "Slight" smiles. However, we didn't find it worked all that well.
The menus are cleverly and logically designed. All the main settings can be accessed via the "Menu" button and the camera settings are found right at the end, which can take a little getting used to. However, that's no big deal in the long run. Sony has also tried to keep this camera easy to use, notably thanks to the "?" button. This in-context help button brings up handy explanations for all sections of the camera's menu. That can be particularly helpful for beginners or for users looking to understand the ins and outs of their camera's advanced or unfamiliar options like "Clear Image Zoom" (see inset). However, once you quit the help function, that's it—the menu doesn't remember your place, so you have to start again from the beginning to find your setting. That's nothing major, but a "Back" button would be really helpful here.
The HX50 is well-equipped with a 3" 921,000-dot screen. Viewing angles are excellent, but whites are a little too light. The onscreen image is a bit on the cool side (colour temperature = 8047 K) and colour fidelity isn't amazing. Sony hasn't bothered adding touchscreen controls here, which you really feel when you're trying to set up the Wi-Fi mode, for example. And, speaking of Wi-Fi, the onboard connectivity options work very well here, with everything staying nice and smooth. You can send photos and videos to a smartphone or tablet, back up shots to a PC or view them on a TV. It's just a shame that Sony doesn't offer a wider range of settings via its PlayMemories apps.
With a big, heavy zoom lens to deal with, the HX50 takes 2.3 seconds to start up fully. That's not too bad for a superzoom compact, but Panasonic's rival Lumix TZ40 with its more modest 20x lens takes a second less to get going. On closer inspection, it seems that Sony's 2013 model manages to maintain about the same start-up time as 2011's HX9V, but with a zoom lens that's been boosted from 16x to 30x! Put like that, it sounds rather more impressive.
Sony has shaved half a second off the photo-to-photo turnaround time compared with the HX20V, bringing the HX50V level with Panasonic's Lumix TZ40. The burst mode shoots at seven frames per second for a maximum of 10 shots. That matches the spec sheet's promises, but you have to wait seven seconds between each burst for the photos to save.
The HX50V uses a new 1/2.3" 20-Megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor and 30x zoom lens. That's a lot of new tech for one little compact. The camera's approach to image processing feels familiar, though—it's typical Sony stuff with a very "processed" look. That said, colour noise is kept under control nicely. Compared with its lower-res competitors, the boosted pixel-count promises shots with higher levels of detail and increases your options for cropping shots. But with the pixel density now at 70 Mpx/cm² (compared with 17 Mpx/cm² for the near-iconic RX100), maintaining performance over the various sensitivity settings could get rather more complicated.
The results are excellent from 80 to 800 ISO, with hardly any digital noise. A slight drop in contrast and saturation is visible in our test lab shots, but that won't be an issue in real-life situations. A low level of smoothing appears at 1600 ISO, in turn creating a hazy veil, but some fine detail is maintained. Things really begin to fall apart at 3200 ISO, as heavy smoothing wipes out detail. Although there's no trace of colour noise or black and white noise, the contrast and saturation drop dramatically. The 6400 ISO and 12800 ISO "extended" ISO settings are achieved using a burst of images, a feature already seen in the HX9V. And as with the HX9V, they're not even worth bothering with. All in all, the ISO results are perfectly good here, and Sony scores points for keeping colours neutral (there are none of the magenta or yellow tinges we've seen in some other models).
A 30x optical zoom sounds pretty unbelievable for a compact camera, but that's exactly what's on offer in the HX50. And since seeing is believing, here are a few examples of shots taken from the same viewpoint at 24 mm and at the maximum 720 mm zoom setting. Both shots were taken with the camera hand-held (no tripod).
Sample shot taken at 24mm (note the heavy image processing).
100% crop (700 x 525 actual pixels) from the sample shot taken at 24 mm.
Sample shot taken in exactly the same place at 720 mm (30x).
100% crop (700 x 525 actual pixels) from the sample shot taken at 720mm.
The good news is that the stabilisation system is remarkably effective. So unless you really want to punish the HX50 by making it shoot at the maximum zoom in night-time conditions, the 720 mm setting can feasibly be used. Just remember to hold your breath to keep camera-shake to a minimum!
In terms of pure lens performance, Sony has clearly needed to make a few compromises in order to pack a 30x zoom into such a compact package. No-one can really be surprised to see the maximum apertures at f/3.5-6.3. A peak in quality arrives pretty soon—around f/4, in fact—after which sharpness levels start to drop, largely due to the sensor's very high pixel density. Over the whole aperture and zoom ranges, magenta fringes are clearly visible. Distortion is kept in check, however. At 720 mm, the lens has to fight against an extra kind of atmospheric veil, as air acts almost like an extra element to the lens, in turn affecting image quality. This is a well-known natural phenomenon that gets even stronger in polluted city environments (as you can see in our sample shots above, taken in central Paris). Plus, Sony's image processing system tends to ramp up the smoothing, which also takes its toll on finer detail.
All in all, this first 30x compact does a very good job, taking perfectly usable pictures over the whole focal range for photos up to 8" x 12" in size (20 x 30 cm). It's above all interesting to note that there's no noticeable drop in quality compared with a "classic" compact with 20x or even 16x or 18x zoom lenses. Sony's gamble has clearly paid off.
To get the best out of video in the HX50, you first of all need to switch to AVCHD mode in the menu. Out of the box, this camera is set to record in the MP4 format, but that means you don't get Full HD resolution or the 50 fps framerate (progressive scan or interlaced formats available). Image quality is excellent and the autofocus tracking system works well. As is often the way, blacks are a little blocked up here, but that in turn keeps exposure levels in check. Audio quality is fine, although voices can sound a bit metallic.