Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1 Digital Camera

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A couple of years ago, Sony came out with the stunning Cyber-shot T1, with 2.5-in. LCD screen and a 3X optical zoom buried inside a very slight case. The new N1 is a noble successor.

Three key elements set the N1 apart from other Sony cameras: a touchscreen, an internal 500-image photo album and the capability to play animated, musical slideshows on the camera's screen. Each of these can be found in competing cameras, but none done so elegantly, and never all together. The execution of these new elements, combined with the 8.1-megapixel camera's overall impressive performance, makes it one of the most promising cameras of the holiday season and beyond.

We've grown used to touch screens on everything from PDAs to the ticket kiosks at the movie theater. Why not one for the camera? The key is screen size: the N1's roomy 3-in. LCD makes touching, even without a stylus, easy. The interface is well designed. While shooting, you can control flash, shooting mode, file size and more with a tap, and then enter a menu for more options. Immediately after powering it up and shooting a few pictures, I found myself tapping this way and that, like I was the author of the user's manual or something. I was able to jump right into slideshows and long term storage album without ever even opening the user's manual.

The album and the slideshow feature are two parts of a philosophy that Sony has adopted, which goes something like this: Small cameras like the N1 go wherever you go. If you're on a plane and want to show pictures of your kids/pets/toy trains to the person sitting next to you, why not pull out your camera, instead of a wallet, PDA or specialized device? And if you do pull out your camera, why not make the slideshow at least partially interesting to your show-n-tell victim?

The album automatically saves 500 pictures you take. Once you hit 501, the oldest gets deleted (though you can protect or delete them on your own). Photos are arranged by date, so if you recall that, for instance, your wedding anniversary is August 6, then a quick jump to that date in any given year shows you how you celebrated. Once you've found a set of pics you want to show off, you select one of four generic music tracks and a slideshow style like Stylish, Active or Nostalgic, and then tap Start. What you get may not be DVD-ready, but it looks smooth and sounds surprisingly good. You can even scrawl on pictures in your album, using finger as paintbrush, though sadly you cannot export those shots. Not yet, at least.