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The year's best travel zooms face off. Sony won in 2011, but Canon makes a strong comeback today.
We regarded Sony's HX9V as easily the best travel zoom camera of 2011, and let's face it, 2012 turned out to be sort of a weak year for this category. So we continued recommending the HX9V, even after the new year, and even after this product starting to become less and less available for purchase on the market. When we finally got around to testing Canon's SX260, it seemed to be the only camera capable of dethroning the HX9V. And now, finally, we have Sony's response: the HX30V. (Not to be confused with the HX10V, which has been repositioned as a lower-end camera)
They're both great cameras that appear quite equal on paper, but this is a face-off that's been two years in the making. So which one is best? That depends on what you want to use it for.
This is probably the least exciting part of the comparison, since the two cameras are on pretty equal footing features-wise. They share the key component, a 20x optical zoom lens, and both offer more manual controls than most other competition—the HX30V has a hamstrung manual mode, while the SX260 HS actually offers all the PASM modes. Continuous burst speed is identical at 10 frames per second for 10 shots. Both cameras also offer GPS functionality that actually works, and the HX30V also includes Wi-Fi, though this features is of dubious usefulness.
Perhaps the most significant differentiating feature is video. The SX260's handling of video is certainly competent, but it's no match for the HX30V's gorgeous 1080/60p clips. If video is important to you, this Head to Head is over.
Canon is going to take this category. While both 20x lenses are strained by their ambitious design, resulting in some chromatic aberration, the SX260's lens starts off sharper than the HX30V, and stays sharper regardless of focal length. The HX30V's sensor also produces more image noise than the SX260 HS. Much more. In fact, shots captured with the Sony at ISO 100 could almost be compared to shots captured with the Canon at ISO 400, or even 800. The SX260's dynamic range is also superior, by about two stops, though this figure is exaggerated by the difference in noise performance. Still, the SX260 takes better photos, hands down.
Ease of Use
Although we appreciated the HX9V's manual mode last year, this feature should've evolved into a full sized mode to stay competitive in 2012. Obviously that didn't happen, making the SX260 a much more flexible option for changing settings and styles on the go. The gulf is widened by Canon's intuitive menu systems, against Sony's version which hasn't been designed as wisely. Sony's interface seems designed around simple operation for beginners, but experienced users will find themselves tasked with lots of extra scrolling.
Our overall scores ended up placing the Canon SX260 HS ever-so-slightly ahead of the Sony HX30V, and we're satisfied with that result. These are two excellent cameras, competitively priced, but the SX260 offers superior image quality at a street price that's about $100 less than the HX30V. This verdict comes with one important caveat: videos captured with the SX260 HS are adequate, but don't hold a candle to the HX30V's 1080/60p video. Your purchase decision should come down to—quite simply—whether or not video performance is important to you. Otherwise, it's hard to go wrong with either, but pick up the cheaper SX260 HS if you can.