Even though the Sony Cybershot W290 is not a blockbuster, revolutionary camera, Sony has done all they can to make it interesting, with some success. The unassuming ultracompact is outfitted with an array of appealing features that definitely make it attractive to consumers who want the best bang for their buck.
At quick glance at the specifications is enough to generate excitement. The W290 features a 12.1-megapixel sensor and an above-average 28mm wide-angle lens with 5x optical zoom. It also has the ability to shoot high-definition video clips in 720p resolution, which is all the rage in digital cameras this year.
If you haven't bought a Sony digital camera before, be aware that they do not use Standard Digital (SD) memory cards as most other brands do. Sony cameras use proprietary Memory Stick media cards, which are about the same size as SD cards, but are based on different technology. That means that if you have a bunch of SD cards from a previous camera, you can't use them with the W290; you'll need to stock up on Memory Stick cards instead.
The Cybershot W290 follows Sony's design template for ultracompact cameras. It's a slim, boxy gadget, with a shiny reflective faceplate. The idea seems to be: simple design for simple operation. The W290 can be easily slipped into a pants pocket, and is surprisingly lightweight.
The back of the camera features a vivid 3.0-inch LCD display. Without question, the quality of the LCD is excellent, perhaps one of the best LCDs I've seen. It's clear, easy to use, and very bright (even on normal brightness settings). Small, subtle details are visible when framing photographs, and menus are easy to read and navigate.
The buttons on the back of the camera are slightly problematic. For example, the buttons for accessing the menu, accessing image and video playback, and deleting images, are incredibly small. In particular, the menu and delete buttons are very close together and close to the four-way directional pad. To press them, a user must be very deliberate and focused in their movements. They are only slightly raised off the body of the camera, as well, presenting a further challenge. Another small button: the smile shutter mode button, which is located on the top of the camera. Since it's mostly by itself, it's easier to press, but is still quite small.
The W290 has two shooting modes that will be of specific interest to casual photographers looking for a straightforward, streamlined photographic experience. "Easy" mode removes extraneous information from the camera's LCD display, showing you only the remaining battery life and the remaining photos that can fit on your Memory Stick. It also will indicate which mode the camera is in (such as macro mode) if necessary. In "Easy" mode, everything's taken care of, and no frivolous information is left to distract.
The other mode is "Intelligent Auto," a smart shooting mode which analyzes the environment you're shooting in and automatically adjusts the focus and scene modes to ensure the right settings for a particular photo. Throw in face detection and Sony's Super SteadyShot Image Stabilization, and the W290 practically takes the photos itself. In fact, in "Smile Shutter" mode, the W290 does take the photo itself, when it identifies a smile on the face of your subject.
The W290 can take photos in a variety of aspect ratios and qualities. The primary "fine" shooting mode is in 4:3 at 12 megapixels; though the 9-megapixel widescreen 16:9 setting is available should you wish to take photos that are viewable on a high-definition television. In general, the photo quality of the W290 was satisfying. Considering the high-level of automation going on in this camera, it's not surprising. If you're the kind of shooter who's comfortable letting the camera do all the work, this camera will be a pleasure to work with. If you crave any degree of manual control, it may drive you a little batty. There is a "Program Auto" mode which allows some degree of adjustment to ISO and white balance on the part of the photographer, but the W290 is mostly locked down.
High-definition video modes are very popular on digital cameras these days, and the W290 is equipped with the ability to take 720p video clips that can be played back on a high-definition television. Though these modes do represent a significant improvement over the old, blurry video modes of yesteryear, HD digital cameras are still in their infancy. The W290's video mode is good, but not great, and certainly not up to the standard of true high-definition camcorders (and perhaps even other HD cameras like the Panasonic ZS3). Consumers should have reasonable expectations of what this video mode can do, and view it as a nice bonus rather than a primary reason to purchase this camera.
Sony gets points off for not including a cable to connect the camera to an HDTV, however. They do include a cable for connecting the camera to a TV using standard-definition capable composite cables. A separate cable that uses Sony's proprietary cable hookup (for the camera side) and HDMI (for the TV site) must be purchased to get a true HD connection.
The Sony W290 is a truly automatic camera. For casual or novice photographers who care little for making manual adjustments and simply want a camera that takes consistently good photos with little coaxing, this will be a dream. The value is definitely there, considering the affordable price tag, as well.