Sony Cyber-shot DSC-G1

The Cyber-shot G1 is a fancy camera that throws in a few tricks that few cameras have included.

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With its 921,000-pixel, 3.5-inch LCD screen, the G1 is practically a TV (in contrast, the usual camera LCD has about 220,000 pixels). 2GB of internal memory makes it possible to carry your whole photo library around with you for display on that huge LCD.

The G1 looks pretty ordinary in all other respects: A 6-megapixel ultracompact with a relatively slow, narrow f/3.5-4.3 38mm-114mm 3x zoom lens. It does use Sony's SuperSteadyShot optical image stabilisation, and offers a 640 x 480 30fps movie mode; interestingly, it does not use Sony's MPEG VX MPEG-2 recording, instead switching to MPEG-4.

At 204 grams, the Cyber-shot G1 is certainly not the lightest compact camera in the world. It's big, too, because at 93.3mm by 71.7mm by 25.3mm, it's not what we would call spare change, either.

Unlike the Cyber-shot T100, the G1's lens cover cannot be slid open with a light push of the thumb. Instead, the semi-automatic sliding mechanism has to be released with a clasp located on the camera top. Open it and a lot more than just the lens is revealed, including a speaker (located on the bottom) and a slide-out panel of physical buttons for camera controls (zoom, playback, flash, macro) on the right.

Most of the buttons on the back are a trifle small; in fact, the designer obviously had to spill some of the buttons over to the right edge of the G1, such as the five-way joystick and the buttons for menu, home and display. Of course, that's because of the generous 3.5-inch screen which is quite possibly the largest we've seen for a compact camera.

It's a good thing the physical controls are not too much of a maze. We found it easy to make sense of, especially since this is also the first Sony camera to base its menu interface on both the PSP and the PS3's. The mammoth display helped a lot, too, and came in real handy for framing shots as well as viewing our pictures in gallery mode.

On the left side of the camera is a 3.5mm earphone jack and there's a WLAN button on the top, but we will get into that later. Oddly, the tripod mount on the G1 is located on the extreme left of the camera which is not exactly the center of the unit. So look out if you are using one of those tiny table-top aluminum tripods since your top-heavy camera plus tripod setup are liable to topple.

Wi-Fi wizardry?
The hero feature of the G1 is undoubtedly its vaunted Wi-Fi abilities and Sony evidently tries to bring out the G1's wireless best with two features aimed to ride on one of the keywords of the Web 2.0 movement -- community building.

The collaboration shot feature on the G1 is essentially Friendster on camera. You link up your G1 with your friends' (up to three), shoot a picture of that hot young thing and the same image will be automatically sent to your buddies' cameras, too. In practice, we found connecting G1s to be slow-going. First, we had to set up nicknames for each of the G1s before initiating the proper startup screen. Then we had to press both WLAN buttons simultaneously (we tried, but even a lag of 1 second is not permitted) and wait for the cameras to shake hands before collaboration shooting was a go. Sony claims a connectivity range of 10-30 metres. But do take note that if you want to sync up while one G1 is a fair distance from the other (in our case, it was 10 metres), you will need to work out a signal to allow both parties to sync the cameras at the same time (we tried shouting). If you are looking to link up three cameras, you need to run through the same procedure twice; once to hook up two, and the second time to sync all three together.

Once everything is up and running, the collaboration shot feature is rather fun. A 10 metre range is a lot to play with, especially when we started shooting from different parts of the office. It is akin to having a periscope to look over the wall at the other side of the fence.

When we took a picture on one G1, we noticed there was a 1-second lag before the image was transmitted to the other G1, although the transfer speed can also depends on the resolution you are shooting at. That's cool by us. But the lag time increased to 4 seconds when both G1s shot a picture at the same time. So if you and the buddy are liable to be shutter-happy, be warned that the cross-update of pictures between two cameras is not exactly real-time.

The second Wi-Fi feature is the Picture Gift. As the name suggests, it allows the user to select pictures from one G1 and transmit them over to another G1. It's easy, but there are quite a bit of permissions involved. After the G1s are linked, you will need to specify which G1 is the receiver and which is the sender. Next, you need to select the images and each highlighted picture will be notated with an arrow pointing upward, after which small thumbnails of the photos you have selected will appear in your pal's G1. He will select the ones to accept from you and the download will start automatically. We felt the transfer speed was not too shabby at 0.34MB per second.

Keeping in mind its community features, the G1 supports image labelling. But don't get your hopes up, it's not tagging in the Web 2.0 sense. Instead, you are expected to work with the labels that're provided in the G1 (family, kids, wedding, birthday, etc.) and stick it on an image accordingly. With labelling, you can search for pictures based on keywords, which is a good thing if you have a lot of images to manage.

Kudos to Sony for supporting the drag-and-drop file transfer of music files and making them playable on the G1 without the need for Sony's SonicStage software. Ironically, that's something you can't do with the Sony NW-A800.

There's the standard choice of three metering modes (multi, center and spot), but the real kicker here, on top of its Wi-Fi features, is its built-in 2GB internal memory. It's way ahead of the curve for all the cameras we've seen in terms of storage capacity and, if it is not enough, a Memory Stick Duo slot serves for additional memory expansion.

Something else we love about this Sony is the built-in music player. It obviously borrows cues from the Walkman range. There's the mega bass and the automatic volume limiter system (AVLS) feature that comes standard in Sony music players, but it's not terribly impressive when it comes down to audio performance.

Using two reference tracks, Diana Krall's You are getting to be a habit with me and Massive Attack's Angel, we find the G1 is a little flat on the treble and mids, but possesses ample oomph on the bass line. But unless you need oodles of bass, stay clear of switching the mega bass too high as it sacrifices details in favour of a boomy sound.

The built-in single speaker can be used for music playback as well, but it's pretty faint in terms of the volume it can belt out.

Performance and Image quality
The G1 is not too shabby when it comes to pulling off its camera moves. In our tests, the G1 took 5.1 seconds from startup to capturing a picture. Subsequently, shot-to-shot timing without the flash is just 1.6 seconds, and 6.1 seconds with the flash enabled.

Autofocus in bright daylight is certainly no challenge for the G1 and, in our low-contrast test environment, it took just 1.38 seconds to lock onto a subject. In terms of shutter lag, the G1 scored a speedy 0.5 second which is pretty decent. In burst mode, the G1 was capable of 2.63 shots per second and 2.1 seconds for zoom. We noticed a bit of ISO noise with the G1. While it's not noticeable at ISO 80 with our ColorChecker chart, this started to manifest itself at ISO 100, and at IS0 200, the noise began picking up, softening finer details. At ISO 400, we began to see mottled off-colour speckles and, at ISO 800 to 1,000, it was literally too much noise to bear.

For a test of its image quality, we took the G1 out. The auto white balance did a good job; even in a tungsten-lit environment, it did fairly well, although, it's a bit of a stinker that the G1 does not have manual white balance settings. We detected minimal purple fringing and a funny tendency for the story to enhance the green part of the colour spectrum.

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