Sony's W range of cameras is in an awkward position, sandwiched between the entry-level, easy to use P series and the semi-pro V and F models with all their long lenses and technical wizardry.
With its modest 5MP sensor and distinctly pedestrian 3x zoom lens, the DSC-W5 is in danger of being overshadowed even by its closest Sony rival, the ever-so slimline T3, let alone the hordes of cameras from other manufacturers.
While the DSC-W5 might look like a grumpy, dumpy teenager on paper, it's quite different in the flesh.
The traditional styling is perfect for holding for long periods and the metal casing isn't just a flimsy airbrushed facade - this is one chunky and very solid camera. Despite that, it's not too heavy (a shade over 250g with battery and card) and it'll just about fit into a jacket pocket for a night out.
The W5 wakes up in just over a second and Sony has worked on reducing shutter delay, but it's still hovering at around half a second.
The autofocus system is pretty reliable, especially if you switch it into multi-AF mode. You've also got centre-weighted focus and five presets, including the ever-useful infinity for shooting landscapes through glass.
The 3x zoom lens has a disappointing 38mm wideangle setting and takes an age (well, two seconds) to labour up to its maximum extension of 114mm. To be honest, it was surprising to find the prestigious Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar label on the front of the lens.
Around the back, Sony has jumped on the LCD bandwagon with a generous 2.5-inch screen. Sporting plenty of pixels (115,200), a good response rate and powerful, distinct colours, this is a joy to use both inside and out.
Indeed, it renders the tiny optical viewfinder superfluous unless you're running out of juice. The four-way menu pad is well made, with buttons far enough away from each other to use in a hurry, and instant access to flash, macro and self-timer functions.
A dedicated button gives access to image size (but not quality) in Capture mode and delete (but not delete all) in Playback mode. You can also call up a live histogram with the Display button.
The mode dial on top covers all the ground you'd expect, with seven program modes, movies, playback, auto everything, program and manual.As befits the W5's in-between status, enthusiast photographers have to make do with just a full Manual Exposure mode rather than Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, although this is easy to use.
You hit the centre button, and then use the four-way pad to adjust speed and aperture, with a live feedback of whether you're under- or overexposed.
Other features include centre and spot metering, a range of white balances (not custom), and tweaks to sharpness, contrast and saturation. There's no exposure bracketing but the Burst mode is good, shooting a generous nine frames in around seven seconds. You also have a Multi-burst mode for recording 16 small successive frames as one larger image. The built-in flash gives even coverage but doesn't reach beyond a few metres.
On the storage front, the DSCW5 comes with a decent 32MB of internal memory, as well as a Memory Stick slot. Strangely, you still need to invest in a Memory Stick PRO to get the maximum quality VGA 30fps movies, as the internal storage maxes out at fine quality and 25fps.
Nevertheless, movies look sharp, smooth and colourful and sound great, too. If you could just record in something other than memory-munching MPEG1 format, Sony could be onto a video winner.
Power's another perennial problem, so it's great to see the W5 playing at the very top of the game. Not only does the camera squeeze an eco-friendly 420 shots (CIPA standard) from a single charge of its two NiMH batteries, but you can also use a brace of AA cells in an emergency - the perfect combination, we reckon.
But it's in imaging quality that the DSC-W5 truly impresses. The lens that seems sluggish and whiny to use delivers sharp, accurate images without a trace of distortion. The digital processing is superb, with punchy colours and little noise, even at ISO 400. Shooting fine quality 5MP photos creates fi les of around 2MB each, with the smoothness of edges and sharpness of detail beating some rival cameras with an extra 2MP or 3MP.
The DSC-W5 doesn't initially inspire much confidence, but before you look at slimmer, sexier or more highly specified models, take some time to check out its image quality.
Couple that high-quality photography with practical storage and power options and this middleweight camera is certainly worth a second look. Mark Harris