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Sony Dev-50 digital binoculars fill a double bill as a still or video camera

Andy Ihnatko | June 5, 2013
" they're like Luke Skywalker's binoculars, as seen in Episode IV?"

Aha! But there are two lenses and two image sensors! Yes, you can shoot HD video in true, stereoscopic 3D! Wow! But all of this comes at a high price: The DEV-50 is $2000. Sony is taking pre-orders now for an estimated ship date of June 21.

Analog vs. digital
The DEV-50's feature set far exceeds that of conventional optical binoculars, no doubt. However, at its core binocular task of letting you examine far away as though there were up close, this super-high-tech digital version isn't as good as the conventional kind. Although its electronic viewfinder is beautifully sharp and the pixels aren't noticeable while you're observing, a conventional binocular's 100 percent optical light path always yields crisper images than a digital binocular's lens to image sensor to EVF pipeline. And even a $600 set of conventional binoculars allows you to observe a wider range of colors, tones, and shadow details.

The question then becomes, are the DEV-50's unique digital features good enough to overcome shortcomings at its core feature. To answer this, I spent a couple of weeks trying them out under a range of typical scenarios, and focused on three major tests.

Round one: Birds
I can tell a first-generation MacBook Air from a third-generation one at a split-second glance, but the only birds I can name have either been featured on U.S. currency or in animated movies. So I went on a walk through a nature preserve with a naturalist and wildlife author who's been birding for 30 years. We spent about an hour swapping between the DEV-50 and his midrange-price 10x binoculars.

The DEV-50 comes with large rubber eyepieces that block out all ambient light--and your entire peripheral vision--which offers a bright digital view. But to save power, the electronic viewfinders remain dark until a little light sensor next to the eyepiece detects that you're holding the binoculars up to your face.

The delay didn't bother me, but to my experienced birder companion, the half-second blackout before observation was disorienting and annoying. It was an interruption in his mental bird-spotting workflow; worse, he thought it would be a problem when trying to identify those little birds that flit around, when every split-second counts. So the DEV-50 presents a problem for one of the three things birders use their binoculars for: I've spotted a bird, and now I want to identify it; I want to follow a bird across the sky; and, I want to scan this swampy area and see what's visible.

He also faulted the DEV-50's comparatively soft image and "flatter" detail. "Two different species of birds can look completely alike except for the streaking on their chests," he said. "That's where I'd much rather have my binoculars than yours. And with yours, maybe I can see and identify these birds, but I don't feel like I can really appreciate them."


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