Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-W170 offers a 10Mp sensor and a pleasing wide-angle Carl Zeiss lens with 5x optical zoom, not to mention a number of fun features, in a sturdy, industrial-looking form.
However, the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170's shortcomings - the soft image quality, in particular - somewhat mitigate the positives it brings to the table.
While the front of the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 is simple and shiny, dominated by the seemingly gigantic Carl Zeiss lens, the back is a bit cluttered with buttons and dials. The clearly labeled function dial helps matters, though.
The zoom toggle switch is similarly easy to use, but we found fingernails were an asset when it came to the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170's tiny buttons. One of those is the menu button, which many people will need to press fairly often. An aspect we found particularly irritating is that the "down" button doubles as the self-timer, which we often tripped and had to exit. But after consulting Sony's very good manual a few times, we got the hang of the settings.
The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 is very responsive, with no shutter lag. For old-school holdouts, the W170 packs a tiny viewfinder, a feature lacking from many new point-and-shoot cameras.
The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170's viewfinder is so small that we almost never used it, but it's nice to have, just in case the battery runs low. The camera's 2.7in screen works well for most compositions, except in the brightest direct sunlight.
We were thrilled to discover that the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 has 5x optical zoom (28mm to 140mm) - a bit above average for cameras of this class. Unfortunately, our test zoom images were disappointing, especially from what should be a high-quality lens. Pelicans soaring over a slow-moving ferry became indistinct gray blobs floating above a huge, slightly less blurry blob.
The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 does better at wider angles, but even then pictures look slightly soft yet oddly oversharpened, with artifacts appearing along high-contrast edges. Colour and exposure, however, are quite good across the board.
The image-quality shortcomings were also apparent to our panel of judges. The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 received an overall image-quality rating of only Fair, lagging behind competing point-and-shoot cameras in sharpness and general image quality.
In our hands-on tests, however, portraits in close settings were adequately sharp, vivid, and well lit with automatic flash. The camera also does reasonably well in low-light settings, rendering natural-looking skin tones. Flash intensity is adjustable, a wonderful feature that we look for on every camera. (Without flash, though, expect plenty of noise at ISOs over 400.)
Then there's the really fun stuff: one of Sony's bells and whistles is smile detection, which you can apply in adult or child priority modes. This feature keeps the shutter from firing until your subject smiles, and it works quite well. You can also boost the saturation of your color shots, or apply artistic filters such as black-and-white or sepia, from within the camera.
Battery life is another plus - the Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 fired off 310 shots on a single battery charge, enough to earn it a rating of Very Good when compared with other point-and-shoot cameras.
Manual settings include three kinds of light metering (centered, multipatterned, and spot metering), as well as white-balance modes. The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 also has a helpful optical image-stabilisation feature and a dynamic range setting that provides a little more detail in shadowed areas. You'll find macro and several scene modes, too, although not as many as we've seen in other cameras of this class. Sony does include the essentials here, such as landscape, night portrait, beach/snow, and twilight.
The Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-W170 shoots 640-by-480-resolution video at 30fps. The lens is quick to focus, but you cannot zoom while shooting video.
Overall, the Sony DSC-W170 has several very appealing features that may win over some people, but its image quality doesn't overwhelm. We expected better performance from its 5x optical Carl Zeiss lens. Nevertheless, this camera's interesting features are definitely a draw.