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Sony MVC-CD250

Sony adds features, and brings the price down on a 2 megapixel CD Mavica!

Review First Posted: 02/20/2002




MSRP $599 US

 

*
CD-RW provides 156 megabytes of write-once or rewritable storage!
*
2-megapixel CCD delivers up to 1,600 x 1,200 pixel images.
*
Surprisingly compact for a disc-media camera.
*
Excellent image sharpness, color, and low light shooting capability.

 

Manufacturer Overview

The year 2002 brings important new capabilities to Sony's revolutionary CD-Mavica digital camera line, which first began in late Spring 2000 with the introduction of the Mavica CD1000. Storing their images on CD-R (and now CD-RW) discs, the CD-Mavicas are a logical extension to Sony's original and enormously popular floppy-disk-based Mavica design. With each 80mm CD-R/RW disc storing 156 MB of data for well under a dollar at retail, the CD-Mavicas make nearly perfect traveling companions, since you can fit gigabytes of permanent storage into less space than that occupied by one paperback novel.

Sony seems to be making a habit of practically flooding the digicam market with new models each year at the Spring PMA show. (At least I certainly feel flooded with new models here, needing review! ;-) This year, in addition to three new P-series Cyber-shot units, Sony has also introduced a pair of new CD-Mavicas, the MVC-CD4000, and the MVC-CD250 that's the subject of this review.

As with last year's CD-Mavica introductions, Sony has again updated the technology to improve performance and enhance features. The biggest news of this year's Mavica announcements is the addition of large buffer memories to both cameras. The buffer memory not only reduces shot to shot cycle times, but also allows a "confirm before write" option, that lets you preview photos before deciding whether to keep them or not. This was perhaps the feature most mentioned by readers as topping their wish lists for future CD Mavicas.

With introductory list prices of $599 and $899 for the MVC-CD250 and CD400 respectively, the new models also bring CD-R(W) technology down market, competing with conventional digicams at fairly modest price premiums. Of course, all the whizzy CD technology would be meaningless if the cameras didn't perform up to par with other non-CD models on the market. Fortunately (for Sony and our readers alike), my preliminary tests indicate that the new cameras perform very well indeed, on a par with the top models in their respective resolution categories. (Emphasis on the word "preliminary" there: The images from the prototype models I looked at were a little noisy, something that will hopefully be addressed in the production models.) Given the low cost of the (very high capacity) media and their relatively compact sizes, these new cameras could be the ideal "vacation cameras," perfectly suited for extended trips without a computer to offload images. If you're planning a long trip this summer, you'd do well to seriously consider one of these new CD-Mavica cameras!



High Points



Executive Overview
With the introduction of the Mavica MVC-CD250, Sony combines the convenience of CD-R image storage with the ease of full automatic exposure control and a lower price point than previous models. The MVC-CD250 features a two-megapixel CCD for capturing high resolution images (a maximum resolution of 1,600 x 1,200 pixels) and a large buffer memory, to facilitate CD-R recording. With a user interface nearly identical to that of the recently released Cyber-Shot DSC-P71 model, the CD250 features smooth operation and user-friendly controls. Though the camera's size is governed by its relatively large CD-R/RW media, the camera has manageable proportions and comes with a neck strap for easy carrying.

The CD250 doesn't offer an optical viewfinder, only a large, color LCD monitor for image composition. (Although Sony does offer an optional clip-on eye-level finder attachment that shields the LCD from ambient light and lets you view it through an eyepiece.) When the LCD monitor is active, an information display reports the remaining battery power, CD capacity, flash status, and the number of available images, plus various exposure settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, image size, and quality. A "Solar Assist" feature includes a small translucent window above the LCD that directs additional light behind the panel in bright conditions. This added illumination boosts the effective brightness of the LCD's backlight, making the display much more usable in direct sunlight and other very bright shooting conditions.

The CD250 is equipped with a 3x, 6.4-19.2 mm lens (equivalent to a 41-123 mm lens on a 35mm camera), with a maximum aperture ranging from f/3.8 to f/3.9, depending on the lens' zoom position. Focus is automatically controlled using a contrast-detection system, though you can select Multi or Center focus area options. You can also choose one of the five available fixed focus settings, ranging from 0.5 meters to infinity. An AF assist light helps the camera focus in low light situations, and can be enabled or disabled through the camera's Setup menu. The CD250 offers Sony's 2x Precision digital telephoto, increasing the zoom capabilities to 6x (although digital magnification results in the usual greatly reduced image resolution and quality).

In addition to the full Automatic exposure mode, the CD250 also offers a Scene mode. Available "scenes" include Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Landscape, each designed to obtain the best exposure for specific shooting situations. Shutter speeds are automatically controlled on the CD250, and range from 1/1,000 to two seconds. Though the LCD monitor doesn't report this information, you can access the exposure information in Playback mode, via a detailed information display.

A Spot Metering option switches the exposure metering system to take readings from the very center of the image for difficult subjects such as those with strong backlighting. (A crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD monitor.) The CD250's White Balance options include Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, and Incandescent, to accommodate different types of lighting. Though can't manually control exposure, an Exposure Compensation adjustment lightens or darkens the image from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. For low-light shooting, the camera's ISO setting offers Auto, 100, 200, or 400 equivalents, and the "Twilight" scene settings boost ISO to 200, while permitting longer exposure times. The built-in, pop-up flash features Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, and Suppressed operating modes, with a variable flash intensity setting. Similar to other Sony digicams, the CD250 also features a Picture Effects menu, which captures images in Solarized, Sepia, Black & White, and Negative Art tones and a Sharpness setting allows you to control the sharpness and softness of the image.

The CD250 uses Sony's "MPEG EX" technology to provide greatly extended MPEG movie recording directly to the CD-R. One of the real breakthroughs of the CD250 (and its big brother the CD400) is that there's no arbitrary limit to how long you can record a movie for. - You can use the entire capacity of the CD-R disc, letting you record movies of up to 5 minutes, 52 seconds in the highest-quality mode (320 x 240 pixel HQX), and as long as 89 minutes in "SQ" movie mode (low-quality,160x 112 pixel images). This is pretty impressive, a real first for digital still cameras. (Sony is very careful to not bill the CD Mavicas as "camcorders," and for good reason when you compare their capabilities with "real" camcorder models. Still, this enormously extended recording capability is pretty unique.)

Like most of the Sony Mavica line, the CD250 offers a variety of still image recording modes, including a TIFF mode for saving uncompressed images. Voice mode records sound clips to accompany captured images (great for "labeling" or annotating shots you've taken). An E-mail record mode captures a smaller, 320 x 240-pixel image size that's easier for e-mail transmission, in addition to an image at the selected resolution size. Finally, a Burst 3 mode captures three images in rapid succession (0.5-second intervals) with one press of the Shutter button.

Besides its movie recording modes, a Clip Motion option (available through the Setup menu) works like an animation sequence camera, allowing you to capture a series of up to 10 still images to be played back sequentially. - The captured images are assembled inside the camera into a single animated GIF file. The camera also offers a Multi Burst mode, which captures an extremely rapid burst of 16 frames (30 frames per second), saved as a single movie file. The frames play back at a slower frame rate, giving the effect of slow-motion footage.

Like most of the Sony Mavica line, the CD250 offers a variety of still image recording modes, including a TIFF mode for saving uncompressed images. Voice mode records sound clips to accompany captured images (great for "labeling" or annotating shots you've taken). An E-mail record mode captures a smaller, 320 x 240-pixel image size that's easier for e-mail transmission, in addition to an image at the selected resolution size. An Exposure Bracketing mode captures three images at different EV levels, to help ensure the best possible exposure. Finally, a Burst 3 mode captures three images in rapid succession (0.5-second intervals) with one press of the Shutter button.

Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF, JPEGs, GIFs, or MPEGs depending on the Record mode, and are stored on the 80mm CD-R or CD-RW included with the camera. An NTSC video cable connects the camera to a television set, for reviewing images or recording them to video tape. (European models come equipped for PAL, but the camera itself can switch between the two standards via a Setup menu option.) A USB cable provides high-speed connection to PC computers, although Macs appear to not be supported directly. (You can read the "finalized" CDs on Macs with the aid of a software "init" provided by Roxio, formerly known as Adaptec Corporation.) The included software bundle appears to consist of "Pixel ImageMixer", a new (and apparently PC-only) software package. I'll try to evaluate this after PMA, once I've gotten hands on production models of the CD400 and 250.

The CD250 uses an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series), and comes with an AC adapter that doubles as a battery charger. InfoLITHIUM batteries communicate with the camera, showing exactly how much battery power has been consumed, and reporting remaining battery capacity via a small readout on the LCD screen. This is really valuable in avoiding lost shots when your batteries die unexpectedly. Battery life is also excellent, among the best I've found. That said, my standard recommendation of keeping a second battery pack charged and ready to go still stands, especially when the AC adapter isn't convenient.

Like Sony's other Mavica cameras, the CD250 is enjoyable to use, and its user interface and function set will be particularly appealing to novice users. Best of all, you get excellent image capacity with the CD-RW recording media, and a long enough movie recording time to rival some digital video cameras. Overall, a great camera for "midrange" users who want good photo capabilities and cheap memory media for long-term storage and/or long excursions away from the computer.


Design
The Mavica MVC-CD250's body design conforms to the round, three-inch storage media, giving the camera a smooth, curved appearance similar to the CD300 model. Although it's still a handful, the CD250 is surprisingly compact given its large media size. At 5.31 x 3.74 x 3.98 inches (138 x 95 x 101mm), it definitely won't fit into most pockets, but it does come with a neck strap and is easily carried in a small accessory camera bag (highly recommended to protect the camera). At 22 ounces (608 grams), including the battery, the CD250 is reasonably lightweight, with a hard, plastic body that gives it a strong, solid feel.





The non-telescoping lens dominates the left side of the camera's front panel, sharing its space with a small self-timer lamp, the flash, and the AF light. A rubberized finger grip protrudes from the right front side, providing a comfortable hold for your right hand, which should fit comfortably around the curve of the bulky hand grip. A plastic, spring-lock lens cap protects the lens surface, and can tether to the camera body via a small strap. A set of 37mm filter threads just inside the lip of the barrel accommodates standard accessory lenses and filters.





The hand grip (right) side of the camera has a neckstrap attachment eyelet, and the Command dial nearby (barely visible at the upper left corner, facing the rear or the camera), for adjusting exposure settings on the camera's LCD monitor. Just adjacent to the eyelet is the DC In connector jack, covered by a soft, plastic flap that remains attached to the camera when opened.





The left side of the camera has the second neckstrap eyelet on top (which also secures the lens cap tether), and a CD-R compartment "Open" latch, external accessory connection jack , and connector compartment below. A small, hard plastic cover protects the connector compartment, which houses the USB and A/V Out connection jacks. The external flash connection jack, labeled "ACC," hosts Sony's HVL-F1000 flash unit, as well as a handful of Sony accessories.





The CD250's top panel features a microphone, Shutter button, Mode dial, and Power switch. There's also a small, green LED lamp next to the power switch that glows steadily whenever the camera is powered on. The pop-up flash unit has been moved forward on the camera body, in comparison to the CD300 model, most likely in an effort to prevent the lens from blocking the flash on close-up subjects.




The remaining features and controls are on the CD250's back panel. These include the color LCD monitor, speaker, and control buttons. An orange LED lamp above the LCD monitor lights when the flash is charging or when the camera is powered off and the battery is charging via the AC adapter. In addition to serving as a navigational tool in the LCD menu system, the Four-Way Arrow pad controls several camera functions through its four arrow keys, including Flash mode, Macro, Self-timer, and Quick Review.

 



The CD-R compartment takes up the entire left side of the back panel, with the compartment door holding several camera control buttons and the LCD monitor. The compartment door flips open when the release lever is opened, but does not deactivate the LCD monitor. Instead a message on the LCD monitor reads "Cover Open." A tiny, red LED lamp beneath the LCD monitor lights whenever the camera is accessing the CD-R.





Finally, the CD250 features a fairly flat bottom panel with a battery compartment door and tripod mount. The angled battery compartment and the distance between the compartment door and tripod mount allow for quick battery changes while working with a tripod (something I always notice, given the amount of studio shooting I do with the cameras I test). A sliding, plastic door protects the battery compartment, and a small catch inside locks the battery into place and releases it when you're ready to recharge or replace the battery cell. The tripod mount itself is metal, a detail I always appreciate, especially on heavier units like the CD250. Also on the bottom panel (beneath the LCD monitor) is a tiny Reset button for use by service technicians, and a hidden compartment for a button battery to maintain the CD250's clock and calendar when the main battery is removed.


Viewfinder
For composing images, the CD250 features a color LCD monitor that automatically activates whenever the camera is powered on. The Display button just below the LCD monitor controls both the information and image display, turning both off or on. (Multiple actuations of this button cycles through viewfinder display with information overlay, viewfinder without information, and LCD off. (Note though, that even when the information overlay is disabled, certain critical data relating to camera operation and mode settings still appears on the LCD display. - Such things as flash, autofocus and metering modes in programmed exposure mode, and shutter and aperture settings in aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure modes.)




The LCD on the CD250 incorporates a "Solar Assist" (tm) feature, which I've seen on other manufacturers' cameras, and which was actually introduced by Sony a few years ago, on the MVC-FD81 camera. It consists of a small translucent window at the top of the LCD (visible in the photo above as the very bright bar on top of the LCD), which lets in ambient light behind the LCD screen to boost the effective brightness of the backlight. This feature works only in very bright surroundings, and the effectiveness will vary, depending on the orientation of the camera relative to the primary light source. (It works best when the sun is directly overhead.) Overall, I found the "assist" window to be quite helpful when using the LCD outdoors on a sunny day, making the CD250's LCD one of the most usable I've encountered for outdoor shooting. You can change the strength of the LCD backlight through the Setup menu, with options of Normal and Bright.


 

Back when I posted the original CD-300 review Sony emailed to inform me of their clip-on eye-level viewfinder/magnifier for the CD Mavicas. Called the DSAC-MVC, this gadget has a complete optical system in it, including a diopter adjustment, and purportedly provides enough magnification of the high-quality TFT LCD that it's quite usable for manual focusing. US selling price is $79.95 US. I haven't had the opportunity to test this gadget extensively, but have played with it a bit at shows, and it seems to work pretty well. (It is a tad bulky though.) This optical viewfinder adapter (shown above attached to the CD300) also fits the LCD on the CD250 and 400 as well. - This could be very handy if you need to do a lot of shooting in very bright outdoor ambient lighting, or if you're in an environment where the large, bright LCD screen would be a distraction for others. (Theatre photography?)

In Record mode, the LCD monitor's information display reports a bounty of information, including image resolution, JPEG compression level, number of remaining images (plus available CD-R space), exposure compensation, flash mode, and an excellent feature unique to Sony cameras: the number of minutes remaining on the battery. The LCD also reports the current shutter speed and aperture settings, when the Shutter button is halfway pressed.

In my testing, I noticed that the CD250's viewfinder was a little "loose," in that it showed a larger image area than what was actually in the captured frame. So, you'll need to back off a little when framing subjects, ensuring you have enough extra space around all four sides.


In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers an Index display mode as well as a 1.1 - 5x Playback Zoom, which enlarges captured images for closer inspection. Once enlarged, the arrow buttons enable you to scroll around inside the image. A Trimming function lets you crop the enlarged image, which I found to be a useful tool. A very detailed information display includes all exposure settings, and is accessed through the "W" side of the Zoom control. The Playback image information includes the file type (movie or still), image size, where the image falls in the Playback index, remaining CD-R capacity, file name, date and time the image was taken, and the remaining battery power. The CD250 provides an LCD brightness adjustment through its Setup menu, which changes the display to Bright, Normal, or Dark, depending on the shooting situation.


 

Optics
The CD250 is equipped with a 3x, 6.4-19.2 mm lens (equivalent to a 41-123 mm lens on a 35mm camera), with a maximum aperture ranging from f/3.8 to f/3.9, depending on the lens' zoom position. Focus is controlled automatically, but fixed focus settings are also available, ranging from 0.5 meters to infinity. The bright orange autofocus assist light is helpful in limited lighting situations. You can enable or disable the AF assist light via a setup menu option.

The CD250's macro shooting mode produced great results, capturing a minimum area of 1.78 x 1.34 inches (45.28 x 33.96 millimeters) in my testing. Color and exposure looked good, but the corners of the images get fairly soft when you're shooting at the minimum range of 3 cm. (Do note that, like many cameras, the best macro performance is achieved when the zoom lens is set all the way to it's wide angle position.)

In other test shots, I saw a moderate amount of distortion from the CD250's lens, most noticeably some softness along the left side of the frame. The lens produced an approximate 0.85 percent barrel distortion at the wide-angle setting, and an approximate 0.35 percent pincushion distortion at telephoto, both numbers fairly typical of other cameras I've tested. That said, chromatic aberration was very low, as I only saw two very faint pixels of red coloration on the side of the target lines in the corners of the resolution target. (This distortion is most visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

The lens also features filter threads to accommodate a variety of Sony lens conversion kits. Unlike the CD400, since the CD250's lens does not telescope out when the camera is turned on, normal 37mm-thread accessories can be used directly with the camera. (No special barrel adapter is required.) When working with a Sony lens conversion kit, you need to inform the camera (via the Setup menu) that the lens is attached, so the camera's autofocus can allow for the additional optical element.

The 2x Precision Digital Zoom function is enabled through the camera's Setup menu, effectively increasing the CD250's zoom capabilities to 6x. When engaged, digital zoom takes over once you've zoomed past the normal telephoto range. You can see the change from optical to digital zoom by observing the marker in the zoom range indicator on the LCD panel. As always though, I warn readers that digital telephoto is not the same as optical zoom and that it causes noticeable deterioration in image quality by adding excess noise and possibly softening the image. That said, I've always experienced great results with Sony's Precision Digital Zoom, as it does a nice job of holding on to image detail and sharpness. Also, as we get into larger and larger CCD imagers, digital zoom becomes useful at correspondingly larger file sizes. - With the CD250 though, its 4 megapixel CCD means you can only achieve lossless digital zooming with the 640x480 image size.


Exposure
Exposure control on the CD250 is straightforward and uncomplicated, as the camera remains under automatic control most of the time. A Mode dial on top of the camera lets you quickly select major camera operating modes. Additional control buttons on the back panel let you change basic settings, such as optical zoom, flash mode, and access the Self-Timer with a single button-push.

In addition to the Automatic exposure mode, there are three preset Scene modes that adjust the camera for shooting in specific situations: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Landscape. Twilight mode adjusts the exposure to capture a bright subject in dark surroundings (neon lights would be a good example), without washing out the color. Because Twilight mode also permits much slower shutter speeds, a tripod is recommended to prevent blurring from camera movement. Twilight Portrait works along similar lines, but uses the flash with a slow-sync setting to capture a fully-illuminated subject in front of the darker background. Landscape mode uses a smaller aperture setting to keep both the background and foreground in sharp focus, allowing you to capture broad vistas of scenery.

For normal exposures, the CD250 uses an "averaging" metering system, meaning that the camera averages exposure readings throughout the image to determine the best overall exposure. For high-contrast subjects, a Spot Metering option (selected via a button on the back panel) takes the exposure reading from the very center of the frame. A center crosshair target appears on the LCD monitor (inside the focus brackets), to show the location of the spot exposure reading. For metering off-center subjects, you can take your reading of the subject you want metered, then use the AE Lock button on the back panel to lock the exposure reading. Once exposure is locked, you can recompose the image and release the shutter. Spot metering is very handy when dealing with difficult subjects, such as portrait shots with strong backlighting, or any subject that's substantially brighter or darker than the background.

Exposure compensation can be manually adjusted from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments, in all exposure modes except Manual. The camera's light sensitivity can be set through the Record menu to Auto, or 100, 200, or 400 ISO equivalents, increasing the camera's low-light shooting capabilities with higher ISO settings. For exposures longer than 1/2 second, the CD250 automatically employs a Noise Reduction system, to reduce the amount of image noise from long shutter times. In my testing, I found the CD250's noise reduction processing to be very effective at eliminating so-called "hot pixels" in long time exposures. (Do note though, that the CD250 takes twice as long to complete an exposure when the noise reduction system is active. This is because it actually takes two exposures, one of the subject, and one with the shutter closed, to measure the sensor noise so it can subtract it back out of the photo. Thus, at the maximum exposure time of 2 seconds, the camera will actually be tied up for 4 seconds for each exposure.)

The CD250 also offers a menu selection for adjusting image sharpening in-camera, providing a range of sharpness values from -2 to +2 in arbitrary units. The default value of zero is fine for most uses, but you might want to boost the sharpness a bit if your shots will be printed on a low-quality inkjet printer. On the other hand, the lowest sharpness setting may be useful for images that you plan to manipulate in Photoshop or other image editing applications. In these programs, you typically want to apply sharpening at the end of the manipulation process, to minimize artifacts while you're editing the image. Finally, a 10-second self-timer can be activated by pressing the down Arrow button on the back panel. Once the Shutter button has been fully depressed, the small LED lamp on the front of the camera counts down the seconds until the shutter is released (a green dot in the LCD monitor flashes as well). You can cancel the timer by pressing the down Arrow button again.

When you have images stored on the CD-R, the left arrow key on the Arrow rocker button (back panel) activates a quick review of the previously captured image, and offers a delete option for removing the image. Pressing the arrow key a second time returns you to the normal image display screen, as does pressing the Shutter button halfway.


Flash
The built-in, pop-up flash on the CD250 has three settings that are activated by pressing the Flash button on the Arrow rocker pad: Auto, Forced, and Suppressed. Auto puts the camera in charge of whether or not the flash fires, based on existing light levels. Forced Flash means that the flash always fires, regardless of light level, and Suppressed Flash prevents the flash from firing, regardless of light levels. The flash is released from its compartment once the Shutter button is halfway pressed in either Auto or Forced modes. A Red-Eye Reduction mode is activated through the Setup menu, and works with both Auto and Forced flash modes. Red-Eye Reduction fires a small pre-flash to reduce the occurrence of red-eye effect in people pictures. When shooting in Twilight Portrait mode, the camera times the flash with the slower shutter speed, so that subjects in the foreground are well lit, and the darker background shows more ambient light.

You can adjust the flash intensity to High, Normal, or Low through the Record menu. This option makes the flash more accommodating to varying light levels or different subjects. I liked the fact that I could adjust exposure for the flash and ambient lighting separately, a feature that makes it easier to achieve more balanced exposures. In Normal mode, flash range extends from 2.6 to 11.5 feet (0.8 to 3.5 meters).

Movie and Sound Recording
In any of the CD250's still capture modes, you can record short sound clips to accompany images. This option is available through the Record menu by selecting the Voice record mode. You can record up to 60 seconds of sound for each image by holding down the Shutter button. Pressing and releasing the Shutter button quickly gives a preset five second recording length.

The Movie mode is accessed on the Mode dial on top of the camera by selecting the film frame icon. You can record moving images with sound at either High Quality (HQX) 320 pixels, or standard quality 320 x 240 and 160 x 112 pixels. Standard quality resolution sizes record movies using Sony's MPEG EX technology, which offers longer recording times. Thanks to the CD400's efficient use of buffer memory and (I'm guessing here) a higher recording speed on its CD-R drive, the camera works more like a digital video camera, with very long video recording times. (Although video and audio quality won't be in the same league as a real camcorder: See below.) When I was shooting with the camera, I had an available 89 minutes of video recording time available with a newly-inserted CD in the lowest-quality recording mode. The time ticked down as I recorded still images and sound clips, but I was amazed that the recording time was limited only by CD capacity. At the 320 x 240 and 160 x 112 pixel settings, the MPEG EX format records at eight frames per second, with an audio sampling rate of 4 KHz. Maximum recording time with a blank CD is 89 minutes, 24 seconds in the 160x112 mode, or 31:16 in the standard 320x240 mode. The 320 HQX setting captures 16 frames per second, uses less image compression, and increases the audio sampling rate to 10 KHz. It also only has a recording time of five minutes, 52 seconds available though. Additionally, movies captured in the 320 HQ setting play back full screen in Playback mode, as opposed to the smaller display shown with the MPEG EX settings.

I have to say though, that the CD250 won't challenge high-quality conventional camcorders though. It's video resolution is lower than good-quality camcorders, even in HQX mode, and the audio quality really isn't in the same league at all. In quiet moments of the recording, I could easily hear the faint twittering of the CD drive as it recorded the data. - It seems that Sony's camcorder engineers still have some things to teach the still camera group about sonic isolation between drive mechanics and the camera's microphone.


Clip Motion and Multi Burst
This is a slick little feature that I've really enjoyed on many Sony digicams. Clip motion first appeared on the Sony DSC-P1, and now seems to be a pretty standard option on all the latest Sony models. The Clip Motion capture mode turns the CD250 into an animation camera, recording up to 10 frames of still images, which are combined into a single GIF file for animated playback. Frames can be captured at any time interval, with successive presses of the Shutter button. When you've captured as many photos as you need, you just press the center of the Four Way Arrow pad to tell the camera to finish the sequence. Available image sizes are Normal (160 x 120 pixels) and Mobile (80 x 72 pixels), and the number of actual captured frames may vary with image size and available CD space. (You have a maximum of 10, but could be constrained to fewer if your memory is very full.) Files are saved in GIF format, and are played back with (approximate) 0.5-second intervals between frames. Unlike Movie mode, flash is available with Clip Motion.

Multi-Burst is a new recording option I first noticed on the DSC-P51 and DSC-P71 Cyber-Shot models. The mode appears to capture an extremely rapid burst of images, which are played back as a single movie (giving a slow-motion effect). You can select between Fine and Normal quality settings, and available frame intervals include 1/7.5-, 1/15-, or 1/30-second.

Special Record Modes
Like the earlier CD200 and many other Sony digicams, the CD250 gives you several file format options for still images. Through the Record menu, you can select TIFF for uncompressed images, Voice (mentioned above), E-mail, Burst 3, or Normal modes. E-mail mode records a smaller (320 x 240-pixel) image size that's small enough to be easily sent to friends and family by e-mail. The e-mail image is recorded in addition to the image size selected through the Record menu's Image Size option. (The TIFF option likewise records a maximum-resolution TIFF image in addition to a JPEG at whatever size and quality setting you've selected.) Burst 3 mode lets you capture a maximum of three frames in rapid succession, at 0.5 second intervals. Actual frame rates might vary with the image resolution and amount of information to be recorded, but in all my tests, it came in at a solid 0.5 seconds per frame.

Like the CD300 and many other Sony digicams, the CD250 gives you several recording format options for still images. Through the Record menu, you can select TIFF for uncompressed images, Voice (mentioned above), E-mail, Burst 3, or Normal modes. E-mail mode records a smaller (320 x 240-pixel) image size that's small enough to be easily sent to friends and family by e-mail. The e-mail image is recorded in addition to the image size selected through the Record menu's Image Size option. (The TIFF option likewise records a maximum-resolution TIFF image in addition to a JPEG at whatever size and quality setting you've selected.) Burst 3 mode allows you to take a maximum of three frames in rapid succession, at 0.5 second intervals. Actual frame rates will vary with the image resolution and amount of information to be recorded.


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time is to allow the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, we now routinely measure it using an Imaging Resource proprietary test system.

 

Sony MVC-CD250 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
7.93 / 26.2
When the camera is already familiar with the disc, startup times are much faster; inserting an unknown disc requires the camera to scan through it to read its directory structure, thus taking much longer to start up.
Shutdown
0
Shutdown time is effectively zero, since
there's no lens to retract. If you're still recording an image though, it could take several seconds before the CD is ready to be removed. (If you've just shot a TIFF image, it will take 28 seconds before the disc stops spinning.)
Play to Record, first shot
0.78
Very fast.
Record to play (max/min res)
2.77/6.81 large/fine file size

0.88/4.75 small/basic file size

First time in each set is for switch to playback mode after camera has finished saving the image. The second (and longer) time is for immediate switch to playback right after shutter is tripped.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
0.99 Wide/ 0.8688 Tele
Wide angle time is somewhat slow, tele time is average or better than average. (Very surprising, usually shutter lag is longer in tele than wide.)
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.58
A bit slower than average. (Average is about 0.5 seconds.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.14
A good bit faster than average. (Average is around 0.3 seconds.)
Cycle Time, max/min resolution
1.52 / 1.562
Excellent cycle times, thanks to big buffer. (Buffer holds 10-12 frames, depending on scene content.)
Cycle time, post buffer fill, max/min resolution
2.92 / 2.55
(28.2 seconds for TIFF)
Even after buffer fill, cycle times remain excellent. TIFF is the obvious exception, requiring fully 28 seconds to write the huge file to the CD.
Cycle time, continuous mode
0.5
Bursts limited to 3 frames, but quite fast, at 2 frames/second.
Frame rate, multi-burst
7.5, 15, 30
Small (320-240) sub-pictures stored in single 1280x960 image as a mosaic. Frame rates are very high, my measurements match Sony's claims of 7.5, 15, 30 fps.

 

Thanks to a huge buffer memory, the CD250 is quite fast from shot to shot. Startup can be *very* long though, particularly if the CD is nearly full, with multiple sessions (finalize/initialize) on it. Unfortunately, there's no option for adjusting the power-saving automatic shutdown interval. (The camera shuts itself off automatically after 3 minutes of inactivity.) If you tend to shoot on & off over a long period of time, you may need to train yourself to periodically switch the camera into play and back again, or half-press the shutter button, to keep it from going to sleep on you. The other speed issue is autofocus: Shutter lag isn't horrible (well, not too bad anyway) at wide angle, although still longer than I'd like to see. At telephoto it's quite long though. One possible saving grace though, is that the prefocus shutter lag is very short. Overall, the huge buffer memory made the camera feel very responsive when I was shooting with it, but the shutter lag could be an issue if you'll need to deal with fast-paced action on a regular basis.



Operation and User Interface
Like most of the Sony Mavica and Cyber-Shot lines, the CD250 offers a great user interface, that's uncomplicated and straightforward to operate. External camera controls reduce the reliance on the menu system and simplify overall camera operation. When you do need it, the LCD menus on the CD250 are very clear and easy to navigate. Overall, the control system is very well thought out, and very conducive to fluid use of the camera.


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Located on the right side of the top panel, this button sets focus and exposure when pressed halfway. Fully depressing the button fires the shutter. When the Quick Review (the shot just taken) is displayed on the screen, a half press of the Shutter button returns the LCD to the normal image display. When the Self-timer is enabled, fully depressing the Shutter button kicks off the 10-second countdown.


Mode Dial: Stacked on top of the Power Switch, this dial controls the camera's operating modes. Options include Automatic, Scene, Setup, Movie (film frame), and Playback modes.


Power Switch: Just beneath the Mode dial, this switch turns the camera on or off.



Zoom Buttons: In the upper right corner of the back panel, the Zoom buttons control the optical and digital zoom (when enabled) in any capture mode. In Playback mode, the wide angle button activates the Index Display mode, while the telephoto button controls the Playback Zoom up to 5x (the wide angle button also zooms back out). Once in Index Display mode, pressing the wide-angle side again displays the image information for the highlighted thumbnail, including exposure information.


Four-Way Arrow Rocker Pad (also: Flash, Quick Review, Macro, and Self-Timer Buttons): Situated just below the zoom buttons, this button serves a variety of functions. On its surface, the pad features four arrows, one pointing in each direction. When any settings menu is engaged, these arrows navigate through the menu options. Once an option is selected, you confirm the selection by pressing on the center of the button. (You will hear a dual tone when you press the center, as opposed to the single tone you hear when you press an arrow.) In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images, while the up and down arrows control the playback volume. If a movie file is displayed, pressing the center of the button triggers the movie playback. When Playback zoom is enabled, pressing the center of the button returns the LCD to the normal 1x image display.

In addition to menu scroll functions, the Arrow Pad also controls certain exposure and camera settings. The Up Arrow button is marked with a flash symbol, and cycles between the Auto, Forced, and Suppressed Flash modes (in all capture modes except Movie). The Right Arrow button, marked with the macro flower symbol, enables and disables the camera's Macro mode. The Down Arrow controls the Self-timer mode, cycling between Normal and Self-timer capture modes. Finally, the Left Arrow activates and deactivates the Quick Review function, which displays the most recently captured image on the LCD screen.


Menu Button: Located directly below the Four Way Arrow Pad, on the left side, this button activates and deactivates the settings menus in any camera mode except Setup (which automatically displays the menu upon entering the mode).


Display Button: Just beneath the LCD monitor, on the far left side, the Display button controls the LCD display in all camera modes except Setup. In Record mode, this button turns both the information and image display on and off. Pressing the Display button in Playback mode sequentially cycles through three modes: No display; image and information display; and image display only.



Open CD-R Compartment Latch: Tucked in the side of the CD-R compartment, just above the external flash connection jack, this sliding button opens the CD-R compartment door.


Camera Modes and Menus

Program AE: Marked on the Mode dial with a green camera symbol, Program mode places the camera in control of both the aperture and shutter speed settings, letting you set the remaining exposure variables (White Balance, ISO, Exposure Compensation, Image Size, Picture Quality, Flash, and Normal or Spot Metering).

Scene: Scene mode provides access to four preset shooting modes: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, and Landscape. The actual scene choices are made through the shooting menu, via the Scene setting menu. Twilight mode uses a slow shutter speed to accommodate darker shooting situations. Twilight Portrait uses the flash, in a slow sync mode, capturing the subjects in the foreground with the flash, and using the longer shutter speed to record ambient light from the background. Landscape mode uses a small aperture opening to keep both the foreground and background settings in focus. The Portrait mode uses a large aperture opening to decrease the depth of field, thereby keeping the subject in sharp focus and slightly blurring the background. Most exposure variables, except for aperture and shutter speed settings, are available in the Scene modes.

Setup: Setup mode lets you change basic camera settings.

Movie: Movie mode, marked on the Mode dial with a film strip symbol, captures MPEG movies with sound by default. Most exposure options are available, except for flash and ISO. If the Clip Motion option is selected from the Setup menu, Movie mode will capture up to 10 sequential still images, and combine them into a single animated GIF file. When Multi Burst is selected in the Setup menu, the camera records a rapid burst of frames, saved in a single image frame but played back on the camera as a slow motion animation.

Playback: Captured images and movies can be reviewed and played back in this mode. Images can also be erased, write-protected, copied, resized, set up for printing on a DPOF device, or played back in a slide show.

Record Mode: The Record menu is accessible in all capture modes by pressing the Menu button, however, not all menu options are available in all capture modes. (The menu is normally overlaid on the live viewfinder display. I've blocked the lens to produce a black background here, to help keep down the size of the screenshot GIF.)

Playback Menu: This mode allows you to review captured images on the memory card, erase them, protect them, set them up for printing, etc. When playing back movie files, you can opt for "cue/review" playback, which skips through the movie file quickly, several frames at a time. Pressing the Menu button displays the following options:

Set-Up Menu: The following three-page Set-Up menu automatically displays when entering this mode:

 

Image Storage and Interface
A small CD icon on the camera's LCD display lets you know how much of the disc is full and how many images are available, depending on the current resolution and quality settings. An "R" or "RW" below the icon lets you know what sort of disc is currently loaded in the camera. In Movie mode, the LCD reports the available recording time at the current movie quality setting. The CD400 allows you to protect individual images on the disc from accidental erasure or alteration through the Playback menu. The freedom of a CD-R drive has many advantages over saving images to floppies (as on some Mavica models), the main one being an increased amount of storage space -- 156MB.

It's important to note that there's a key limitation in Sony's CD-RW implementation, in that it's a sequential rewritable device, not a random access one. The reason for this is that the head movement and data clock synchronization requirements, which are dictated by true random access operation, would result in performance (write-time) tradeoffs that are unacceptable for digital camera applications. Thus, the "RW" aspect of the CD400's discs has some constraints on it. Foremost is the sequential operation, which means that you can only delete the last image recorded. That is, you can't open up more space on a disc by going back and deleting images shot earlier in the session. You can delete multiple images, but only one at a time, starting with the most recent and working backward. The huge benefit of CD-RW though, is that you can "unfinalize" and "format" discs, which (respectively) helps you save disk space when moving back and forth between camera and computer, and lets you reuse discs by wiping out all the previously captured images.

A brief note here, in response to some questions I've received about the earlier CD Mavicas: This issue of what constitutes "erasing" of an image and what images you can actually erase seems to be the cause of a lot of confusion. Several people have pointed out that the camera lets them "erase" images other than the last one shot, and in fact that they can do this on CD-R discs as well as CD-RW ones. You can always "erase" any image on either a CD-R or CD-RW disc, but you won't see a corresponding increase in storage capacity reflective of the space that the deleted image occupied. This is because "erasing" any image other than the last one shot (or any image on a CD-R disc) doesn't actually delete the image, but rather merely alters the disc's directory structure so that the "deleted" image no longer appears. You can only truly erase the last image on the disc, and then only on CD-RW media.

There's another generic limitation of CD-RW technology that prospective users need to be aware of, which is that the signal level delivered to the CD-ROM drive by CD-RW discs is quite a bit lower than that from normal CD-ROMs or CD-R write-once discs. Thus, some older CD-ROM drives may have trouble reading the CD-RW discs. As far as I know, any CD-ROM drive manufactured in the last three or four years should be able to read a CD-RW disc with no problem, but if you encounter difficulties, try a different CD-ROM drive before assuming it's a problem with the CD-RW disc or the CD-300 itself.

Using the CD-Rs in the camera is relatively simple. Whenever a new disc is inserted, the camera will tell you that it needs to be initialized. Not being a CD maven, I suspect (but am not sure) that this involves writing the "lead in" area for the next session, a roughly 9MB area reserved for the table of contents information for the upcoming session. 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. Once a disc has been initialized, operation of the CD400 is the same as for any other Sony camera, regardless of media.

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 this process using menu screens similar to those used 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. My guess is that this process writes the lead out for that session, and goes back to fill-in the session's Table of Contents in the lead-in area. The first lead-out on a disc occupies about 13MB of space, subsequent ones require about 4MB. The space taken by finalizing and reinitializing a disc leads to one of the major benefits of CD-RW technology over CD-R. With CD-R, every time you finalize and reinitialize a disc, you lose about 13MB of storage space. With CD-RW discs, you can "unfinalize" a disc, recover that space, and allow the camera to write new images to it. Additionally, unfinalizing a CD-RW doesn't erase any files. To completely erase all images on a CD-RW, the CD400 offers a Format option through the Setup menu, which also requires the camera to rest on a level surface with no vibrations. The Format function takes several minutes to complete. It's my guess that the camera is actually rewriting the entire disc, restoring it to a completely blank, initialized state. NOTE that unfinalizing and formatting are only possible with CD-RW discs, not ordinary CD-Rs.

In addition to finalizing a disc, the Playback settings menu allows you to write-protect, delete (sequentially), resize, or rotate individual images. When an image is resized, the original version is left where it is on the CD, and a new copy is appended to the end of the list of images, resized to the dimensions you selected. Rotation is much more confusing. The original image actually remains in place (even on a CD-RW disc), and a new, rotated version is recorded. The camera edits the directory structure of the disc though, so the new rotated version appears in the same place as the original, in the list of images as you step through them sequentially, or view them as thumbnails. Although the original image is still physically recorded on the disc, it is no longer accessible to either the camera or a computer. (I'm not sure, but some data-recovery programs may be able to retrieve "overwritten" or "deleted" files like this from the CD-R discs.)

You can also designate whether the camera numbers each image sequentially (from one CD to the next), or restarts file numbering with each new CD, by making a change in the Setup menu. The camera's Digital Print Option Format (DPOF) compatibility allows you to mark specific images for printing. Through the Setup menu you can decide whether or not to print the date and/or time on the image as well.

Image Size options include 1,600 x 1,200, 1,600 (3:2 ratio), 1,280 x 960, 640 x 480, and 320 x 240 pixels (E-Mail recording option). Movie file sizes are 320 (HQ), 320 x 240, and 160 x 112 pixels for MPEG Movies, or 160 x 120 and 80 x 72 pixels for Clip Motion files. In addition to the uncompressed TIFF file format, the CD250 offers both Fine and Standard JPEG compression levels, and a GIF option for the Clip Motion recording mode.

The table below shows the approximate still image capacities and compression ratios for the CD-R disc (main resolution sizes):

 

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
156 MB CD-R disc
TIFF
Fine
Normal
High
Resolution
1,600x1,200
Images
(Avg size)
19
5.76MB
131
1.2MB
235
664KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1 5:1 9:1
Standard Resolution
1,280x960
Images
(Avg size)
N/A
195
800KB
346
451KB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
5:1
8:1
Lowest
Resolution
640x480
Images
(Avg size)
N/A
657
237KB
1288
121KB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
4:1
8:1

 

A note about media: Whenever you put a non-Sony CD-R or -RW into the CD250, it flashes the message "Mavica DISC RECOMMENDED" on the LCD as it starts up. For the record, non-Sony CD-Rs seemed to work just fine in my test unit, but prior conversations with Sony technical staff revealed that inexpensive third-party media sometimes has problems with concentricity between the center hole and the data tracks, which can cause read/write problems. I never encountered this while working with third-party media in various Sony CD Mavicas, but just now did have a problem with expanded-capacity media in the CD400 test unit I have. Expanded-capacity CD-R media has been commonplace with full-sized CDs for some years now: The standard spec for full-sized CDs is a capacity of roughly 650 megabytes, but 700 megabyte discs are now quite common. In the same fashion, while the "official" spec for 80mm media is a capacity of 156 MB, you can find third-party discs on the market with capacities of 185 MB. This is an appreciable increase in capacity, to the extent that you might be tempted to give it a try. If you do, I'd advise checking it out carefully before you entrusted your precious photos to it. I was using a 185 MB disc in the CD400 during some of my test shooting, and ended up needing to reshoot a series of test photos. The problem was that, while the camera appeared to recognize and utilize the expanded capacity, after finalizing the disc, I was unable to retrieve the last dozen or so shots I'd recorded on the disc. It's possible that I might be able to access those photos via the USB port, but I haven't had time yet to wrestle with the software on my balky main Windows PC. Even if it does work in that scenario, I'd still advise against using expanded-capacity media as an inherently risky proposition.

Notes for Mac owners: In order to avoid a 1MB 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 that Macs need a UDF format extension to be able to read the resulting discs. 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-CD400. I can, however attest to the fact that the iMac supports both the 80mm disc size, as well as the Adaptec Volume Access extension, as I was able to successfully read "finalized" CDs from the MVC-CD400 on our slot-loading iMac. (A 400MHz DV model, running Mac OS 9.0.4.)

Video Out
Both United States and Japanese models of the CD250 come equipped with an NTSC video cable for connection to a television set. (I assume that European models come with a PAL cable, since there is a PAL setting on the camera.) Once connected to the TV, you can review images and movies or record them to video tape.


Power
The CD250 is powered by an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series) and comes with an AC adapter which doubles as an in-camera battery charger. The InfoLITHIUM battery packs exchange information with the camera, reporting approximately how many minutes of battery life are left. This information is displayed on the LCD monitor with a small battery graphic. The AC adapter plugs into a small socket on the camera's hand grip (just beside the neck strap eyelet). It can run the camera without a battery inserted, or charge the battery when the camera isn't in use.

The Li-Ion battery packs used in Sony cameras prevented me from making my usual power measurements, but the good news is that the InfoLITHIUM system reports projected camera runtime while the battery is being used in the camera. The following runtimes were reported by the CD250 with a freshly charged battery, in Capture and Playback modes. (Note that the runtime with the LCD backlight turned off will doubtless be longer than what is indicated on the LCD monitor, but since the time-remaining readout is only shown on the LCD screen, that information is unavailable.) While these are some of the best runtime numbers I've seen among digicams I've tested, I still always recommend users purchase and pack along a second battery. (Another advantage of the Li-Ion technology used in the InfoLITHIUM batteries is that they don't "self-discharge" like conventional NiMH rechargeable cells do, and so can hold their charge for months on the shelf or in your camera bag.)



Operating Mode
Battery Life
Capture Mode, w/LCD
176 minutes
Image Playback
244 minutes



Included Software
The Sony Mavica-CD250 comes with a software CD loaded with a package called ImageMixer, and PTP manager (Picture Transfer Protocol, a protocol used by Windows XP). As of this writing, I haven't had a chance to evaluate this software package, so will defer comment on it until I've tested a full production version of the CD250

In the Box
Included in the box are the following items:



Test Results
I only received my test unit of the CD250 a few days before its public announcement, so haven't had time to put together a full sample pictures page yet. (Stay tuned, I should have a full set of test photos up in a few days.) I can say though, that color looks very good, although noise is a tad high. - This could be a consequence of the prototype status of the unit I tested though, so final judgment will have to wait until I can get my hands on a production model.

Conclusion

Combining the ease of a full automatic, point-and-shoot digicam with the convenience of CD-R image storage, Sony's Mavica MVC-CD250 provides an inexpensive option for CD-R image capture. The camera features the same options and user interface that has made Sony so popular in the digicam arena, making the CD250 yet another welcome addition to the line. Good image quality and the availability of creative shooting modes recommend the CD250 to even the most inexperienced novices. Given the past performance of Sony Mavica digicams, I think the CD250 will do very well for itself.

 

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