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Does anyone else feel that? The wave of déjà vu sweeping over this review? I think I'm going to be sick...
The Cyber-shot DSC-TX30 (MSRP $349.99) is Sony's third—yup, third—attempt to convert the same good idea into a good camera. Back in 2011, Sony realized that there's a demand for ruggedized cameras that don't necessarily need to stand up to scuba diving or mountain climbing, but can simply endure a spilled drink or a drop on the floor without breaking. If that same camera could also look stylish, all the better.
And so the TX10 was introduced. It was an interesting prototype, but performance and especially usability were poor, so kept waiting. In 2012, out came the TX20, but sadly it retained the all-touchscreen interface of the TX10, and was therefore just as obnoxious to shoot with.
Another year later and here we are, reviewing the TX30. Do you think Sony has finally brought this model up to snuff? We'll give you one guess.
The TX30 is, at the very least, an attractive design. In fact, we have no doubt that's the sole reason this series continues to sell. After all, it's the third iteration in as many years, so someone must be buying.
Anyway, even we can't argue with the good looks of the rear panel, which is dominated entirely by a 3.3-inch OLED touchscreen display. The front panel, like all TX models, is distinguished by a large sliding lens cover, which moves up and down to turn the camera off or on. The cover is flush with the rest of the body when slid to the "off" position, giving the entire camera a sleek, very compact form factor.
All this is great if your top priority is looking trendy, and our test model even came in a delightful pink color scheme. But if you want to—I don't know—actually shoot some photos, this design leaves much to be desired. Right away you'll notice the big sliding lens cover is a pain to grip and move. Sony added some texture to this surface for the TX20, but not enough, and the TX30 is still just as slippery, especially when wet.
The all-touch interface is a far bigger problem. The slow, poorly designed menu system is worsened by the touchscreen's blood-boiling lack of precision and propensity to misread your inputs. We do recognize that this touchscreen is a little more responsive than last year's, but using the TX30 efficiently is going to require a lot of practice. Sony wisely gives you the option to customize the left sidebar with four frequently used settings, but adjusting any other setting is going to waste a lot of your time.
Worst of all, since the entire rear panel is touch-sensitive, this leaves absolutely no room to safely rest the thumb. There are two workarounds: either place your thumb comfortably on the screen and risk accidentally activating touch-to-focus, or find another home for your thumb and risk a grip that isn't secure. It's a good thing this camera is ruggedized, because you'll be dropping it all the time.
Did we mention the shallow shutter release? Or the imprecise zoom "nub?" And forget shooting two-handed—your fingers will always be in danger of obscuring the lens. We could go on and on.
We'll admit that the vast majority of our gripes about the TX30 deal with design, not performance. In fact, the camera is indeed capable of capturing a decent photo or two, especially if you only plan to use it for everyday snapshots. But let's not forget that this camera costs $350, and still has some image quality drawbacks that are more common on cameras at half the price.
Be aware that the TX30 is simply not capable of capturing a photo with an acceptable level of noise. Even at minimum sensitivity, the camera's noise rates are as high as what we typically expect from ISO 400 or 800 in a camera at this price range. Since the TX30's flash is also rather weak, this camera makes an all-around poor choice for low-light photography. That's a shame, because we do see the nightclub scene as one of the few potential use-cases for a stylish yet troublesome ultracompact.
So those pictures of your friends will have to wait for daytime. But there's another problem. The TX30 has excellent color accuracy after we correct for saturation. After we correct for saturation. The fact is, the TX30 is plagued by heavy oversaturation, and there's no way to fix it in-camera. You might not care about inaccurate blues and greens, but human subjects will appear far more reddish than they do in real life.
What about sharpness, the last of the "big three" tests? Actually, sharpness scores are phenomenal. A bit too phenomenal, in fact. The TX30 is yet another compact that uses a technique called "oversharpening" or "overshoot" to give the illusion of legitimate sharpness. Most small cameras do, but technique is detrimental to image quality. Look for the telltale too-dark borders and too-bright halos along high contrast edges. That's how you know your camera is faking it.
True to Sony's claim, the TX30 is indeed capable of 10 frames per second burst shooting performance, but to make this happen you'll need to get your shutter speed to 1/250th or faster. Without any other manual control, that means turning up ISO sensitivity and introducing more image noise.
Still, even if burst mode only works half as well as it's supposed to, 5 fps is pretty darn good, and we found ourselves using this feature all the time. Unfortunately, this triggers a long pause after each burst, as the shots write to your microSD; we would've appreciated the ability to keep shooting while the buffer empties.
The TX30's Background Defocus mode is also compelling, probably because the rest of the tough cam market is trending toward larger apertures and better macro photography. Sadly, although the TX30 can focus on very close subjects, it doesn't actually have a wide aperture, so any "bokeh" is no more attractive than what you could've added in Photoshop. If you're into other picture effects, Sony's are some of the best. Illustration mode is particularly convincing, and we'll admit to having an embarrassing amount of fun turning our co-workers into cartoon characters.
Sony cameras are also known for their video performance, and the TX30 does deserve some praise here. This isn't a 60p device, which is disappointing, but the 1080/60i clips are smooth and sharp, and the silent optical zoom is unlocked while a recording is in progress. Just don't try shooting any videos in low light.
Why are people still buying these cameras? Is it the big screen, the colors? We know it's not the user experience. So... what then? We've heard it before: Touchscreens move units. But why? This isn't a phone; it's a camera, and cameras need buttons. Otherwise they'll handle like the TX30.
Every spring we hear it over again: "I need a camera. It has to be cute and I have to be able to spill a drink on it." We also hear: "...and it has to cost less than $100," but let's not get greedy. The point is, we want this line to succeed. The concept of a camera that isn't necessarily "adventure-proof," but simply "life-proof," is a great idea. Note that our imaginary camera buyer didn't even mention image quality, so really all we need is a decent camera that won't be destroyed by a puddle and isn't a chore to use.
But the TX30 is a chore to use, and doesn't come close to earning our recommendation, even if we were to ignore its image quality problems entirely. Do not be taken in by this camera's gorgeous exterior, the Cyber-shot TX30 is way more trouble than the fashion statement is worth. Check out our 2013 Waterproof Showdown for the best in the genre.
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