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(NOTE: This camera is not in stores yet. Projected ship date is early August, 2000)
*2.1 megapixel CCD delivering 1600x1200 pixel images
*156 Megabyte CD-R drive for image storage (!)
*Lower JPEG compression, optional uncompressed TIFF format
*12-bit digitization, extensive exposure controls
Permanently archived digital photos straight from your camera, at about $0.02 apiece! No more file-compression limitations for the Mavica line! - For the last four days, we here at the Imaging Resource have had a unique opportunity to test and work with a brand new camera from Sony that we feel is arguably the most significant digicam announcement this year. Just as their perennially popular floppy disk-based Mavica line seemed headed for a technological dead end, Sony has pulled an amazing hole card and produced a new camera with dirt-cheap removable media and essentially no capacity limitations, all the while retaining the universal usability and "no cables" appeal of the original Mavica line. The secret? A 3" (77mm) CD-R drive integrated with a 2.1 megapixel digital camera. The CD-R gives the new Mavica 156 megabytes of removable (yet directly archivable) storage capacity, eliminating the ever-increasing storage crunch as multi-megapixel sensors pushed up against the 1.44 megabyte capacity limit of conventional floppies. Combined with the rich feature set, 2.1 megapixel CCD, and 12 bit digitization of their previous top of the line MVC-FD95, the new model clearly deserves the title of "ultimate Mavica." (Uber-Mavica?)
While the heroes here are the Sony engineers who managed to make CD-R work in a portable device, the real winners are clearly the camera-buying consumers, particularly the huge segment who liked the cheap-media/no-cables aesthetic of Sony's Digital Mavica series. We see the resulting camera, the MVC-CD1000 as one of the most significant product announcements in the digicam industry in the last 12 months, and a likely harbinger of things to come. Before we delve into the specifics of this new model, let's first take a look back at the digicam industry over the last couple of years, to explain why we think the MVC-CD1000 is so significant.
Look Ma, No Cables! The Triune Way to Media Nirvana...
Much to the dismay of their competitors, Sony has more or less dominated the US digital camera market over the last two years, thanks almost entirely to their Mavica product line. This has perplexed many enthusiasts and pundits (ourselves sometimes included), who've pointed to the Mavica models' generally higher prices and lower resolutions than competing models. "Geez," they/we would say to a new or prospective Mavica owner, "you could have bought a camera with twice the resolution for the same amount of money! What's the deal?" To which the Mavica owner would invariably reply something along the lines of: "I don't care, I just stick the floppy in my computer, and I've got my pictures. (And they're fine pictures for what I want to do with them.)"
There are of course other reasons people buy Mavicas, including the much longer than average zoom ratios on the lenses of many models. As we've pointed out in the past, a 14x zoom lens on an 0.8 megapixel camera gives you the same number of pixels on a distant subject as would a 17 megapixel(!) camera with a 3x zoom lens. Ultimately though, the Mavica purchase decision almost always ended up being heavily influenced by the fact that the cameras stored their pictures on standard floppy disks. Why is this such an overriding issue with users? Understanding the importance of the floppy is essential to understanding how Sony has consistently managed to capture 30-40 percent of the entire US camera market year after year. At the root of the issue are three key factors that we've puckishly called the "Triune Way to Media Nirvana." Follow the three steps of The Way, incorporate them into otherwise reasonably well-designed digicams, and you too can rule the digicam marketplace. ;-) Here are the keys to Media Happiness:
1) Cost: Media of the Way must be cheap, preferably very cheap. Floppies satisfied this requirement admirably, as they've become almost a disposable commodity. This is important for several reasons. For individual users, the appeal of cheap media is obvious. Going on a long trip? No problem, just bring along a 50-pack of floppies, and you're all set. What's maybe less obvious is the appeal of cheap media in corporate, organizational, institutional, and educational settings. School generally aren't too keen on kids running around with cameras having a $100-200 chip in them that can be removed and lost or stolen. Even in a corporate environment, the risk of loss of expensive media is enough to keep otherwise worthy cameras off purchase lists. The fact that the Digital Mavicas used media that was so cheap as to be almost free was a huge benefit in a number of these high-volume market segments.
2) Capacity: Media of the Way must have plenty of capacity. Floppies fit this requirement pretty well in the early days of VGA resolution (640x480) cameras, when a "high quality" image occupied only 100K or so. Fourteen or fifteen "high quality" images on a disk? Cool! Need to shoot more? No problem, just stick in another twenty-cent disk and shoot another fifteen or so photos. This is the area that was becoming an increasing problem for the Mavicas though, as CCD resolution and image quality continued to rise. The latest floppy-based Mavicas could only store 4 images per floppy in their highest-quality mode, and even at that were using more image compression than many users wanted to settle for. Clearly something had to give, leading many to predict that Sony's market edge would eventually turn into a liability, given the Mavica's dependence on floppies.
3) Universality: Media of the Way can be used in any computer anywhere, any time, without special software or hardware to access it. This was the ultimate selling point for the Mavicas: Virtually every computer in the world has a floppy disk drive in it, and just about all of them can read standard DOS-formatted 1.44 megabyte floppies. You could therefore take an image-bearing floppy disk out of any Mavica, stick it into virtually any consumer-level computer, and immediately use the photos. No software, no cables, no muss, no fuss. People hate cables. People love floppies. People loved Mavicas and paid a premium for them. People bought hundreds of thousands of Mavica cameras for this simple reason: They could use their images. (And their friends could too.)
Running out of steam: The capacity crunch
As noted above, the floppy disk fulfilled all the requirements of the "Way" when typical image file sizes were under 100K, but had an increasingly hard time as resolution and file sizes grew. One possible solution to the crunch appeared in the form of the FlashPath adapter for Memory Sticks. This clever gadget was developed by SmartDisk Corporation, as a variation of their earlier units created for use with SmartMedia cards. The (exact) size and shape of a floppy disk, the FlashPath could be inserted into a computer's floppy-disk drive, and be read and written to just like a standard floppy. Well, almost... The FlashPath required custom driver software to be installed on the host computer to trick the floppy drive into dealing with the odd, non-rotating device. Also, quirks of the Macintosh floppy drive design precluded the ability to write to the FlashPath, restricting its use as a read-only medium. (Not a major problem for digicam usage, since the main objective is to read images from the memory card into the host computer.) The special version of the FlashPath adapter created for Sony accepted Sony's Memory Stick memory cards, and had special firmware to allow it to work with the latest Mavica designs. (Sorry, pre-2000 Mavicas can't use the new FlashPath memory solutions.)
The FlashPath approach relieved the capacity crunch, as Memory Sticks are currently (June, 2000) available with capacities as high as 64 megabytes. They unfortunately violate the other two principles of the Triune Way however: They're expensive (the FlashPath itself sells for about $100, and a high-capacity Memory Stick is another $100 or more), and some of the universality is lost. True, most computers can be made to read FlashPath devices, but doing so requires the installation of software drivers. While this installation process is simple enough, it's enough to stop many consumers in their tracks. So, the FlashPath/Memory Stick solution was only a partial solution, and one not likely destined to be popular.
An "Out of the Blue" Solution: CD-R
It may be unpardonable conceit, but we're always amazed when someone thinks of something that hadn't at least occurred to us first. ;-) Actually, it's not so much that we're so smart (no emphatic agreement from our readership, please!), as that most of the developments in the digital camera world represent incremental improvements of existing technology. The FlashPath was clearly a unique solution from an unexpected direction, but that was a couple of years ago. Since then, much of digicam development has been a matter of another megapixel here, a user-interface tweak there, and so on. (This isn't to deny that digicams have advanced enormously over the last two years, but few of those advances could truly be called revolutionary.)
We have to admit then, that we were among those tsk-tsking over Sony's seemingly unbreakable commitment to the Almighty Floppy: "Nice run while it lasted, but now it's time for someone else to have a turn" would about sum up our attitude to the Mavicas. In support of this, we felt that Sony themselves had seen the writing on the wall, with their higher-end CyberShot digicam line moving to semiconductor memory in the form of Memory Sticks, rather than floppy-based storage. True, the newest Mavicas, with their 12 bit A/D conversion, greatly improved low-light capability, and higher-resolution sensors did a lot to breathe new life into the line, but we were feeling that the rest of the digicam world was finally going to get a chance to catch up with the market share that Sony had built upon the Mavicas' popularity.
We further confess that the idea of putting a CD-R into a digicam never occurred to us. For one thing, as far as we knew, CDs pretty much needed to be five inches (120mm, to be precise) in diameter, although we'd seen those CD business cards along with everyone else. We knew that the CD business cards caused problems in a range of drives, so didn't consider smaller formats to be viable. Well, it turns out that not only are small CDs viable, but there's actually a provision in the official ISO specification for CDs having diameters of both 120 and 77 mm. In fact, virtually any CD drive out there can physically handle the 77mm CD size, including the new slot-loading iMacs! (Emphasis on the latter, because we really didn't think this would be the case, until we checked the specs. For those interested, here's a link to the Apple Technical Library article that discusses this - turns out odd shapes are a no-no, but 77mm size is just fine.) Actually though, even if your CD drive doesn't support the smaller disks, you're still OK: Sony provides the interesting "CD Expander Donut" (our term ;) shown in the photo at left.
Completely aside from the issue of size, the other thing blocking our thought processes about CD-Rs in digicams was our awareness of how finicky CD-R writing can be: We've got more than our fair share of "coasters" (non-functional, written CD-Rs) to prove the point. It seems this is an area where Sony's electromechanical/optoelectronic engineers really worked overtime, in designing a CD-R system with sufficiently robust head-tracking to enable it to write successfully, even in the face of moderate amounts of vibration, changes in orientation, etc.
Not enough hurdles? How about one more: Normal CD writing basically involves burning data into a continuous spiral track occupying the entire data area of the CD. "Multisession" technology has existed for a while, that allows data to be recorded in discrete batches, but as far as we know, this is limited to a few or at most a few dozen "sessions" per disk. In a camera, unless you trust mightily to a mammoth buffer memory, each photo is logically a separate writing event, meaning that there could be hundreds or even thousands of separate "sessions" per disk. Yikes!
It turns out that "packet writing" is the key to avoiding this problem, as it provides a way for the CD recorder to drop discrete chunks of data into place, without having to open and close a "session" each time. Tricky stuff, but it works. In order to read the resulting disks with a normal CD drive though, you have to "finalize" a session, which eats about 8% (roughly 13 megabytes for sessions after the first one, for lead-in and lead-out areas) of the total disk space. Thus, you'll want to view the images in the camera until you're ready to offload a fair number of them. Alternatively, if you have a packet-capable CD-R drive (note, CD-R, not just a CD-ROM drive), driver software from Adaptec (and possibly others) will let you read the disks, even if they haven't been "finalized." This could be viewed as a bit of a limitation, but the MVC-CD1000 also sports the first USB port on a Mavica, allowing images to be read from "unfinalized" disks just as you would from a normal USB-connected digicam.
Notes for Mac owners: In order to avoid a 1-megabyte limit on writeable file size, Sony had to go with the Level 3 ISO CD standard, which supports larger data sizes in packet-writing mode. This means though, that Macs need a UDF format extension to be added to the Mac OS to enable reading of the resulting disks. NOTE that the "UDF Volume Access" extension that ships with OS9 is apparently not adequate to the task. Although Apple's UDF Volume Access claims support for version 1.5 of the UDF ("Universal Disk Format(tm)") specification, the Adaptec UDF Volume Access Version 1.04 extension is apparently required to read the version of the UDF format used by the Mavica MVC-CD1000. We can, however attest to the fact that the iMac supports both the 77mm disk size, as well as the Adaptec Volume Access extension, as we were able to successfully read "finalized" CDs from the MVC-CD1000 on our slot-loading iMac. (A 400MHz DV model, running Mac OS 9.0.4.)
General Camera Features
The close resemblance between Sony's new FD95 Mavica and the just-announced CD1000 is no accident: Rather than build a new camera from the ground up around the CD-R technology (but can that be far behind?), Sony engineers instead opted to simply graft the new CD-R drive onto an existing design. Thus, the body, controls, camera electronics, and most operating menus on the CD1000 are identical to those of the FD-95.
Here's a list of camera features, cribbed from our forthcoming full review of the FD-95:
To this, add the following features unique to the CD1000:
|Let's take a quick walk around the new camera. As you'll see, the controls are essentially identical to the FD95, only the arrangement being different, to make room for the CD-R drive mechanism and electronics (and hinged back for CD access)|
|From the front, the view is almost identical to the FD95, although the right side of the new model bulges a bit more, to provide the diameter needed for the CD-R housing. You can't tell in this shot, but the handgrip on the CD1000 is slightly smaller than that on the FD95. The bulge on the left and bottom sides of the lens is for the anti-vibration system used to reduce the effects of camera shake at long telephoto settings. This has been a feature of the top-end Mavicas since the FD91, although we think the Steady Shot system on the new FD95 and CD1000 is considerably more effective. (We haven't been able to test one of the new units side by side with an FD91, this is just our impression based on our recollection of the FD91's performance.|
|The handgrip side of the camera is quite plain: On the older Mavicas, this is where the opening was for the floppy drive. This view also shows the much-elongated top-mounted viewfinder of the CD1000. The new design is apparently to accommodate control buttons located on the other side.|
|Here we see the left-side controls, and the door latch for the CD-R drive. (The drive lives behind the camera's rear panel.) The Program AE, +/- buttons, and white balance controls have moved up from their positions on the FD95, and now live on the side of the viewfinder assembly. The A/V port has moved down to the bottom, underneath the lens barrel, while the external flash connector from the top of the FD95 has moved to just above the rear cover latch.|
|Many of the controls are still on the back of the camera, although they've all moved to above the LCD display screen. The "Display" button turns the information overlay for the LCD viewfinder on and off, while the "LCD" button does the same for the entire rear-panel LCD itself. (The tiny LCD that drives the "optical" viewfinder remains on at all times.) Also back here are controls for speaker volume, flash mode, spot metering, and macro mode. Menu navigation is controlled by a hemispherical rocker toggle control at upper right. The mode dial formerly on the back has moved to the top, and the power on/off switch is now on the right, where the floppy eject button was on the FD95.||
|The top of the camera holds the mode control on the right, where it's easily reached by your right thumb. The shutter button is in the usual place, and the microphone has been moved atop the slanting front of the viewfinder assembly. The onboard flash and flash shoe mount round out the complement of top-panel accouterments.|
|The bottom of the camera holds the battery compartment cover, tripod mount, and (to either side of the tripod mount) side-mounted ports for A/V output and digital I/O (USB). Our one real complaint about the design of the CD1000, shared in common with the FD91 and FD95, is that the bottom really has too little flat area around the tripod socket. (Which at least is made of metal, to give credit where due.) This tiny footprint makes for a very unsteady tripod mount, which is all the more regrettable because it could have so easily been avoided: There's absolutely no reason (other than design aesthetic) for the tripod platform to be so tiny: It could easily have extended at least another half-inch or so in all directions, which would have dramatically improved tripod stability. (I guess we have to find one thing to dislike on every; camera, and this is it for us on the CD-1000. ;)|
|We're not used to providing inside views of cameras we review, this is some kind of a first: Here are two views of the CD compartment, both with and without a CD in place. The entire back of the camera hinges open to provide access to the CD spindle.|
|As part of making the CD-R work in a handheld environment, we noticed that the Sony engineers have provided a very compliant mount for the CD: The whole mechanism "floats" on what feels like a stiff rubber suspension system, to reduce the effect of vibration while reading or writing the drive. It's not terribly clear in this shot, but the "floating" portion of the mechanism is the black-colored area on the right side of the compartment. We confess that the drive is the area of our greatest concern on the CD1000: CD-R technology requires fantastically close tolerances and precise head control. It made us a little nervous every time we inserted or removed a CD, with our fingers so close to the lens mechanism. Still, while we weren't overly rough with it (pretty darn cautious, given that this was one of only a few units in the world at the time of our initial testing), we found that the camera seemed to have no problems writing, even with pretty substantial amounts of handheld jiggling during the process. (I mean, we really tried to make it mis-write, but never succeeded, even when knocking it on the top, sides, bottom, and back with our hand while it was writing a file. - Nary a problem.)|
Using CD-Rs in the camera
Virtually all aspects of the CD1000's operation are identical to those of the FD95. The sole exceptions have to do with the care and handling of the CD-R discs themselves.
Whenever a new disk (or one that has previously been "finalized" is inserted, the camera will tell you that the disk needs to be initialized. Not being CD mavens, we suspect (but aren't sure) that this involves writing the "lead in" area for the next session, a roughly 9 megabyte area reserved for table of contents information for the session to come. (See Adaptec's CD-R site for information on the whole topic, including an excellent glossary.) Initializing the disc appears to be a more critical operation than normal CD-R recording, as the camera asks you to place it on a level surface and avoid vibration during the process. The series of screens at right step you through the process.
Once a disk has been initialized, operation of the CD1000 is the same as that of any other Sony camera, regardless of media. Shot to shot full-resolution cycle times averaged about 5.0 seconds in our testing, while VGA-resolution images cycled in about 4.0 seconds. Full-resolution TIFF files took about 40 seconds to write. We were surprised that the full-resolution cycle times were as fast as they are, given that the CD-R has to spin up to speed before it can write the files. The 4-5 second cycle time compares favorably with many cameras on the market using semiconductor storage.
When you're done with a set of shots and want to set up the CD-R to be read in a conventional CD-ROM drive, you must "Finalize" the session. The camera leads you through a set of screens for this process also, similar to those shown above for the initialization process. Finalizing also appears to be a more critical procedure than normal image writing, since the camera again asks you to rest it on a flat surface. Our guess is that this process writes the lead out for that session, and goes back to fill-in the Table of Contents for the session in the lead-in area. The first lead-out on a disk occupies about 13 megabytes of space, subsequent ones require about 4 megabytes.
We're sure this section of our preview will be of great interest to many of our readers: As we noted at the outset, one of the chief limitations of the floppy-based Mavicas is that they've had to use high levels of JPEG compression to fit any remotely reasonable number of photos onto each disk. With 156 megabytes of room on the CD-R though, the CD1000 has no such constraint. As a result, the typical file size for full-resolution JPEGS runs about 800-900 Kbytes. (This contrasts with 300-320Kbytes for the FD95.) The CD1000 is therefore operating at about a 7:1 compression ratio in JPEG mode, as compared to something on the order of 18:1 for the FD95. The results of this lower compression ratio are immediately evident in the CD1000's pictures: For the first time, there's a Mavica that needs to concede nothing to its competition in terms of image quality.
The unit we had was obviously an early prototype, given that production units won't be appearing in stores until sometime in early August. Sony asked that we treat this unit as a prototype in our reportage, but had no objections to our sharing photos with you, as the camera electronics are essentially those of an existing production model, the FD95. We didn't want to take a full series of our test shots with the unit, as we'd only have to repeat them later, once the production models came out. We did shoot a couple of our standard targets to share with you though, including the resolution target, the house poster, the Davebox, and outdoor shots of the house at wide angle, normal framing, full telephoto, and 2x digital tele. (How about the zoom on that lens!) We've also included a couple of TIFF shots, of the house poster and the outdoor house. (Yeesh, there goes our hosting bill for this month!) Other than the significant reduction in JPEG artifacts, the images were in all ways equivalent to those from the FD95 (no surprise), which we've just posted a full picture analysis of. (For issues of color fidelity, etc., refer to the FD95 Picture Analysis page.) Since the MVC-CD1000's images should be essentially identical to those of the FD95 (except as would be affected by differing JPEG compression levels), we'll make our comments here rather brief and refer readers to the FD95's pictures page for additional sample images:
MVC-CD1000 preliminary test images
|Our standard "Davebox" shot. (752k) Although the overall color balance is very similar to that of the FD95 (excellent overall, only the very slightest weakness in saturation of the subtractive primaries), we included this shot to show how well the MVC-CD1000 did with shadow detail: Shadows are the first place an image loses detail in the face of JPEG compression, so this is an area of noticeable improvement of the CD1000 over the FD95. (This image is also in the Comparometer(tm), so you can compare with other cameras.)|
||Our standard "Lady standing outside in the hot Georgia sun, wondering when this guy is ever going to get done snapping pictures shot". (840k) This was a shot the FD95 did a very good job on, which the CD1000 repeated. Excellent detail held in both highlights and shadows, excellent colors (This image is also in the Comparometer(tm), so you can compare with other cameras.)|
|This is our standard "House2" poster, (904k) which is an excellent test of detail handling. Again thanks to the lower JPEG compression, the MVC-CD1000 does an excellent job here. (This image is also in the Comparometer.) For the bandwidth masochists, here is a link to an uncompressed TIFF version of this image. (Raw link, no surrounding HTML: Download to your hard disk and open in an image editing program to view.)|
|Our ISO-12233 Resolution Target image. (788k) With a visual resolution of roughly 800-850 lines per picture height horizontally and 600-650 vertically, the MVC-CD1000 holds its own very well in the 2 megapixel marketplace. We haven't had time for a full set of shots covering the wide/tele range: This image was shot with the lens at a medium focal length, we'd guess an equivalent of 50-60mm on a 35mm camera. (This image is also in the Comparometer.)|
|A maximum wide-angle shot (892k) of the outdoor house test. At 39mm, the lens of the CD1000 (and the FD95) doesn't get quite as wide as those on some cameras, but it still takes in a useful area, pretty close to the average for competing cameras equipped with 3x zoom lenses.|
|This is our normal framing for the "Far" outdoor shot, (880k) useful for comparing with other cameras. Again, excellent detail and resolution. Note too, the exceptional handling of the very strong highlight on the white paint on the bay window: Digicams very frequently lose all detail in this area, but the CD1000 (and FD95) hold it nicely, thanks to their 12-bit digitization. Again, for the detail fanatics, here's an uncompressed TIFF version of this file.|
|Wow, how about that lens! This is a shot taken at maximum optical zoom. (896k) Most digicams can't get this close even with digital zoom, but the CD1000 delivers a full 2 megapixels of resolution at this magnification level. Very good performance, only a little corner softness and a hint of chromatic aberration. Very impressive!|
|Here's the same shot, this time with both maximum optical zoom and the 2x "digital telephoto" engaged. (868k) This was shot at the full-resolution image size, so the increased magnification is at the direct expense of sharpness: The same shot at a smaller image size would be sharper. (Equivalent to just cropping the central portion out of the optical-only zoom shot above.)|
We said at the outset that we considered the CD-R Mavica to be "arguably the most significant digicam announcement of the last 12 months", and we stand behind that conclusion. The original floppy-based Mavicas dominated the US digicam market for the past two years, despite the high JPEG compression that the floppy format mandated. The advent of CD-R technology in the Mavica line means that all need for such compromise has been removed. Sony has proven themselves capable of creating digicams with no-excuses image quality (witness the recent CyberShots, the DSC-F505V and the DSC-S70), and the CD1000 is a fair existence proof that there's no need for Mavicas to take a back seat to anybody in the image-quality arena anymore. While the current price differential for the CD-R technology is a hefty $300 US (the MVC-CD1000 is slated to sell for a US list price of $1299 in early August, 2000), this premium will doubtless come down as the technology matures and production ramps up. It's transparently obvious that the CD1000 is only the first of a full spectrum of CD-based products from Sony, that we expect will ultimately span the performance/resolution spectrum. (Can a 3 megapixel unit be far around the corner? It'll likely require a different camera body (or a slightly trimmed 2.6 million effective pixel spec, as in the F505V), but we're completely certain one is under development and nearing prototype stage even as we write.
Certainly, the new CD-R Mavicas won't be for everyone: Even a three inch CD still imposes a size requirement on the camera body that precludes the pocket-sized portability so in demand by many digicam users today. Likewise, the CD-R based Mavicas will be even more of a premium-priced product line than current floppy-based models are, restricting them to the upper end of the price curve, and keeping them out of the hands many potential users for some time to come. Looking back at the extraordinary popularity of the original FD91 Mavica though, (which sold for the princely sum of $999 for an 800K pixel camera at a time when two megapixel models using conventional media were already shipping), it seems safe to predict that the MVC-CD1000 will be a runaway best seller, and once again reshape the digicam landscape.
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