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These days, superzooms are more super than ever. Though they were stuck at 24x magnification for several years, recent advances in lens design, image stabilization, and sensor technology have allowed these cameras to top 60x and keep on climbing.
Sony's newly announced H400 holds the current "world's longest" title with a 63x design, but the company's flagship is the new Cyber-Shot DSC-HX400V (MSRP $499.99)—an update to last year's HX300 that carries on with the same 50x zoom. It's a minor refresh in the grand scheme of things, but there are a few additions worthy of note, including GPS, WiFi, NFC, and automatic 4K photo conversion.
We got to spend a little time with the new Sony sniper cam on the show floor at CP+ 2014, and came away with some initial impressions on its build quality, operation, and feature set. And while we don't think it'll end up being one of our favorite superzooms, the HX400V certainly has plenty to offer.
With its recent releases, Sony has largely unified the look and feel of its SLT, mirrorless, and superzoom lines. All three types of cameras share similar grip designs, materials, and button layouts, which makes it very easy to get acquainted with a new Sony camera when you upgrade.
The HX400V, for its part, looks virtually identical to the earlier HX300, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent A3000 mirrorless model and A58 SLT. Up front, the softly textured grip has been carefully contoured to fit your right hand, the massive lens barrel gives you plenty to hang onto with your left, and a tiny, low-res electronic viewfinder presides above it all. The 3-inch rear LCD tilts out and then up or down. Notably, it's not a touch panel.
The lens barrel has been subtly redesigned since the HX300 with a more premium feel, both in terms of materials and movement. It's super grippy and silky smooth, and it makes manually focusing a legitimate pleasure—at least, relative to most of its competitors. On the side of the barrel you'll find a switch to select between AF/Zoom (which lets you use the lens ring to zoom and leave focus up to the camera), DMF (which lets you manually override autofocus), and MF (which leaves focusing entirely up to you).
Aside from the grip, the body itself is all hard plastic, and frankly it feels pretty cheap and hollow. The annoyingly flat buttons don't have much travel, and the zoom toggle... well, it makes us glad you can use the lens ring instead. We had the same complaints about the HX300, so while it's no surprise that the story's the same here, it's still a disappointment. A $500 camera shouldn't feel like a toy, but this one does.
At its imaging core, the HX400V is virtually identical to last year's HX300. Inside the cheap plastic body you'll find the same 20.4-megapixel EXMOR R CMOS sensor and the same 50x (24-1200mm equivalent) optically stabilized zoom lens, though the processor has been upgraded to a new BIONZ X unit. The new chip is the same one used in the high-end Cyber-shot RX10 and Alpha A7/A7R, and Sony says that in the case of the HX400V, its power has been applied to reducing image noise in both stills and videos.
The big additions for this year's model have to do with connectivity. The newly added "V" in the product name refers to the camera's built-in GPS capability, and the HX400V also offers Sony's standard WiFi suite with NFC pairing. Though limited in terms of manual control, Sony has one of the best WiFi implementations on the market, so it's great to see it filtering down throughout the Cyber-shot product range. As usual, you get access to the Sony PlayMemories app store for optional software feature downloads.
This year is shaping up to be the coming-out party for 4K television, and Sony is naturally interested in getting 4K content from its cameras to its TVs. The HX400V includes a nifty automatic 4K conversion feature that will pump out appropriately scaled stills to your UHD display. It's nothing you couldn't do yourself with a little time in Photoshop, but it's certainly nice that the camera will take care of it for you.
Like its predecessor, the HX400V can shoot full-HD 1080p video at 60p and 24p, which should please budding cinematographers. Also like the HX300, the new camera does not offer RAW recording. That's a bit of a surprise given the new, more powerful processor, and something that could keep some enthusiasts from considering the HX400V.
Sony isn't the only company to play it safe with a flagship superzoom while zooming for the stars with a cheaper, otherwise less attractive model. Probably the most extreme example is Panasonic, which offers the 60x Lumix FZ70 alongside the far superior 24x FZ200. Nikon is doing the same thing with its newly announced 60x P600 and 42x P530—the latter being the more generally desirable model.
It might seem counterintuitive to many buyers, but there's a good reason for this strange behavior. Designing monster zooms is really, really difficult, and when you get up to 60x and beyond it's hard to maintain the kind of image quality you expect from a top-tier product. So while we can't comment on the HX400V's ultimate image quality until we get one into our labs, we feel confident in predicting that its 50x lens will offer sharper, clearer shots than the 63x optic on the Cyber-shot H400.
Compared to other 50x superzooms, the HX400V offers solid bang-for-your-buck. Historically, Sony superzooms haven't stacked up to their competitors from Canon—like the PowerShot SX50 HS, our current favorite in this category—but they're far from the worst in the category and should perform well enough to satisfy most users. And crucially for many buyers, the HX400V trumps the SX50 HS in terms of features. Superior video options, excellent wireless connectivity, and a lovely ergonomic design are just a few key advantages.
Of course, the SX50 HS has also been on the market a lot longer, and its price has come down to the point that all those extra features are pretty much cancelled out unless you absolutely need them. Buyers who prefer Sony's design language and video options would also do well to consider the older HX300 if WiFi isn't a necessity. At $100 less than the new model, it's a relative bargain, and much closer to a direct competitor to the Canon.
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