Sony's DSC-HX50 is the camera we're currently recommending to anyone that asks us which compact camera they should buy. Sure, that conversation often gets deeper and we might end up concluding that something smaller, something cheaper, or something more SLR-shaped is more suitable, but if you want our default response, this is it.
Wide-angle to Big Zoom
This is based on the assumption that you want a camera that's pocketable, fast, takes great video and is equally adept at snapping friends in a dimly lit pub as it is tracking a football player from the opposite side of the stadium. The HX50 is all that and more. It's built on the foundations of the HX20V, extending the optical zoom range to an amazing 30x and adding Wi-Fi features.
30x optical zoom
The zoom really is something special. It can be used hand-held at full stretch thanks to superb image stabilisation and there's very little chromatic distortion from the lens. Its three-part concertina'd mechanism gives the HX50 more bulk than most compacts. It's not huge, and that extra girth is just about the only compromise with the camera in general. That big zoom also makes it easy to create depth-of-field effects in auto mode, simply by stepping back and extending the zoom to bring your subject into focus with a blurred background.
Image quality is consistently excellent (click the test shot above to view it at full 20MP resolution). As with previous models in the series, the DSC-HX50 often draws upon its multiple-shot technology to stack up a burst of images in order to maintain high shutter speeds in low-light or to avoid motion blur. The results are surprisingly good and in many cases this allows you to shoot without a flash for much more naturual colours. This compositing process can leave you hanging for a few moments after you've taken a shot, so if you need to reload more quickly you can step down from the "Superior Auto" mode to "iAuto". Exposures are mostly spot-on, textures and shadows are reproduced with clarity and depth, and colours are vivid without saturating.
Hi-def video from the HX50 is absolutely stunning. It shoots 1080p at 50fps (or less if you prefer), and captures an amazing amount of detail. The big zoom and image stabilisation combine once more to make this an incredibly versatile video recorder. Distant objects can be made to fill the frame, especially if you push up to the camera's perfectly usable 60x digital zoom limit. Movement is super-smooth, whether you're tracking and panning, fixed on a single point or zooming while filming. This is easily the best video you'll get from a compact camera, and better than the footage from many camcorders at this price level. Oh, and the smattering of realtime picture effects is also available in video mode.
A number of extras can be clipped onto the multi-interface shoe, including a stereo microphone and an electronic viewfinder. Although the FDA-EV1MK electronic viewfinder will set you back more than the camera itself, it's good to know there are options for expansion.
Why, oh why, oh Wi-Fi?
Camera manufacturers seem to feel the need to add a Wi-Fi badge to the box, regardless of whether the Wi-Fi features really add anything to the package. Wi-Fi should be a convenience feature but (in common with its rivals) the HX50's Wi-Fi implementation requires so much faffing around that it's hardly worth bothering with. Transferring images is far easier via USB or by removing the SD card, although some will appreciate the ability to fire the shutter remotely from a smartphone.
If you buy it for the Wi-Fi features you'll be disappointed. Otherwise, the HX50 will fill your life with beautiful pictures and video. Sure, it takes up a bit more pocket space than you'd like, but it's a small price to pay for such a brilliant all-rounder.
Review by Tony Horgan.