In early 2013, any camera-maker wanting to build a high-end compact that's bang on trend has a pretty simple formula to follow. First, there needs to be a BSI CMOS sensor stuffed full of pixels (18.2 million in this case) and a powerful zoom lens (here it's 20x, with a focal range of 25mm to 500mm). Then, there should be a dash of Wi-Fi for must-have connectivity (check) and a touchscreen (erm ... not this time, sorry). Sony's WX300 ticks almost all of those boxes, packing its specs into a sleek, compact, pocket-sized camera that looks a bit like the firm's RX100 expert compact. That's certainly a good start, but can the WX300 deliver? Read on to find out.
With its stylish brushed-aluminium casing, its minimalist, almost RX-ish design, and dimensions about on par with a pack of cards, it can be hard to believe that the WX300 has a 20x zoom lens. Officially, the WX300 is Sony's "small camera with big ideas," claiming to be the "world’s smallest camera with 20x optical zoom." From afar it looks like a stylish little snapper. Up close the finish is spot-on. On the whole, build quality is very good. The mode-selection dial is nice and firm (although a little small) and it doesn't spoil the camera's carefully designed outline. The various buttons are all nice to touch and use, and the camera generally feels pleasant and natural to handle in spite of its compact size. Pickier users may be disappointed to see that the battery compartment door is a little wobbly and that the screen picks up fingerprints very easily. Those greasy marks and smears can soon put a damper on the camera's sleek design.
After our first hands-on with this camera when it was presented earlier this year we were pretty annoyed to see Sony using a TN screen panel, which is always disappointing in a supposedly "premium" camera. We also noticed that the screen's lower viewing angle was annoyingly tight, so the screen looked dark when viewed from below (e.g. when lining up a shot over a crowd or an obstacle). However, for day-to-day use, the screen isn't as bad as we had initially feared. In fact, it remains perfectly usable in pretty much all conditions, which more or less debunks our initial concerns.
A 20x zoom lens may not seem all that jaw-dropping these days (but still!). However, a 20x zoom lens this small is really something else. Especially since, unlike many competitors, Sony's WX300 lens retracts fully into the camera body when switched off, making for an impressively pocket-friendly design. The zoom is relatively quiet to use even if, as usual, it takes its time to get going and to zoom through the whole focal range. But that takes nothing away from Sony's impressive miniaturisation—and we're always fans of that. One slight drawback of the camera's compact design is that using the "Menu" and "Delete" buttons requires a certain amount of finger acrobatics if you're using the camera with one hand.
The range of options in the internal menus confirms that this compact is aimed at general, non-advanced users. There's no sign of a RAW mode, let alone a 3:2 aspect ratio option (you only get 4:3 or 16:9), semi-automatic modes, exposure correction or a manually selectable macro mode. In fact, there's not even a macro scene mode. Instead, Sony has loaded this camera with mostly automatic functions and modes (including a Superior Auto mode), all of which are nicely designed, aren't too invasive and help beginners find their feet effectively. A help page for each function is available via the "?" button on the back of the camera. The help menu covers all the most frequently asked questions about life with the WX300, arranged handily in alphabetical order. A nice touch!
Like all superzoom compacts, the WX300 is quite slow to start up. This ain't no running joke, it's just the way things are with powerful lenses. While Sony's compact does better than many—its lens is actually among the speediest superzooms—we still think that it's about time manufacturers sorted out their priorities and started trying to make zoom lenses that deploy more quickly. In fact, a responsive lens would no doubt be more useful than a lens that zooms to 1200 mm! We may be taking out or frustration on this Sony compact today, but we'll be getting stricter about this in the future.
The autofocus does a fantastic job at both wide angle and telephoto settings. You'll hardly have time to say "cheese" and the shot will already be taken, which is good news for anyone worried about missing those must-have moments. With the WX300, you can shoot a scene as quickly as it happens. On this front, the WX300 has nothing to envy of the HX20V. However, the autofocus slows down in low light. Here, Sony's compact lags behind the Panasonic TZ35, for example, which does a better job of keeping performances consistent. In fact, the Sony model sometimes has trouble readjusting its focus when shooing two far-off subjects one after another, which in turn doubles the time it takes to focus (from 0.5 seconds to almost 1.1 seconds, which obviously affects its average). The WX300 is easily outdone by the Fuji FinePix F770 EXR.
However, the Sony WX300 does a better job than most with photo-to-photo turnaround, as it's one of very few models that saves a photo in just one second. However, that only works for the first three photos. After that, you have to wait around two seconds before the camera will again let you take three shots in quick succession, and so on and so forth. That's a little less impressive.
The burst mode can shoot at up to eight frames per second for a maximum of ten photos. Once you get to ten shots you have to wait around 7.5 seconds before you can start shooting the next burst. That may seem a bit long, but it's no big deal in most situations. One interesting thing we noticed is that in playback mode, the ten photos from your burst are displayed as a folder rather than as a series of shots. Once in the folder, you tilt the camera to the right or left to flick between shots. That's certainly fun, but it also means that the WX300 probably has an onboard gyroscope or accelerometer hidden away somewhere. So why Sony didn't make use of that to load the camera with a virtual horizon (a very handy and slightly addictive function!)?
With its 18-Megapixel BSI CMOS ExmorR sensor and 20x lens, the Sony WX300 has both a high-powered zoom and a high-resolution sensor. Still, 8" x 12" (20 x 30 cm) prints look perfectly fine from 80 ISO to 800 ISO up to the zoom's half-way point. At higher zoom settings (towards 500 mm), a slight trace of barrel distortion is visible. Smoothing at the highest zoom setting is even more visible, though, wiping out finer detail for the benefit of the very effective stabilisation system. Chromatic aberration is kept in check in all cases and the lens isn't particularly prone to flare or other unwanted reflections. That helps make the lens nicely versatile.
The ISO test results can basically be split into three. From 80 ISO to 800 ISO the Sony WX300 is pretty much flawless, giving a level of detail that's more than satisfactory. Large dark areas are handled well and smoothing is kept under control. At 1600 and 3200 ISO there's a first drop in contrast and finer detail starts to get smoothed away, but there's still no multi-coloured noise. Things fall apart completely, however, at the highest sensitivity settings (from 6400 to 12800 ISO), which won't be up to much more than shooting UFOs in the middle of the desert. Thankfully, these settings are more or less hidden away at the end of the menu.
In addition to the 20x optical zoom lens, Sony has loaded the WX300 with "Clear Image" technology. This is basically a digital zoom with advanced image processing functions, promising picture quality good enough to "simulate" a 40x optical zoom. We found that this function worked reasonably well for print sizes up to 4" x 6" (10 x 15 cm). It can therefore give a handy bit of extra extra zoom power in certain extreme circumstances. (Note, however, that this doesn't mean we've changed our minds about digital zooms, which we still think should be avoided wherever possible.)
The video mode is no match for the photo mode in this camera. Some speckling video noise is still visible with static and well-lit subjects. Add to that a pretty heavy dose of smoothing to wipe out finer detail, and general sharpness levels take a hit. Plus, like many digital cameras, the Sony WX300 tends to block up darker parts of the picture. For Full HD AVCHD video at 25 frames per second, we've seen better.
For users looking for effective operation rather than pure image quality, however, the focus tracking in this camera works brilliantly with continuous focusing that's smooth and quiet. Similarly, no noise from the zoom lens is picked up in the background of videos, which is excellent. The WX300 can take still photos while recording video, but these are captured in a 16:9 aspect ratio and in a resolution of 4896 x 2752 pixels.