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Sony MVC-CD400

Sony expands its CD-equipped camera line, adding a four megapixel CCD, a huge buffer memory, Hologram Autofocus, and a standard hot shoe!

Review First Posted: 2/20/2002




MSRP $899 US

 

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CD-RW provides 156 megabytes of write-once or rewritable storage!
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4-megapixel CCD delivers up to 2,272 x 1,704 pixel images
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Surprisingly compact for a disc-media camera
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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-CD250, and the MVC-CD400 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. In the case of the CD400 though, Sony has gone quite a bit further, adding the Hologram AF autofocus-assist technology (adapted from the ground breaking DSC-F707 Cyber-shot model), as well as a hot shoe flash mount to allow connecting third-party external flash units, and even studio strobes through an adapter. (Big kudos on the hot shoe addition, I've personally been beating Sony about the head and shoulders for years now, asking for just this feature. - Let's hope it shows up on some top-end Cyber-shot models in the near future too!)

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
Improving on the already excellent line of Mavica digicams, Sony has introduced the MVC-CD400, which boasts all of the great features of last year's MVC-CD300 model plus a few key extras. The MVC-CD400 has a larger, four-megapixel CCD for capturing higher resolution images (a maximum resolution of 2,272 x 1,704 pixels) and a large buffer memory, which reduces the camera's shot to shot cycle times in still-picture mode, allows "review before save" operation, and greatly extends the camera's movie recording times. (You can actually record continuously, up to the capacity of the CD-R(W) disc!) Sony has also included its innovative Hologram AF feature, which precisely focuses the camera even in complete darkness (more on that later). They've also added an external flash hot shoe, with a single contact for mounting more powerful flash units. What remains the same on the MVC-CD400 is Sony's tried-and-true, very user-friendly interface design, and the convenience and capacity of the CD-R recording media introduced with the MVC-CD1000 and continued in the CD200 and CD300 models announced last year. Similar in size to the MVC-CD200 and '300, the CD400 is by no means a "pocket" camera, but nonetheless easy enough to tote in a small camera bag. An accompanying neck strap gives you the option of carrying the CD400 out and ready to shoot.

The CD400 doesn't offer an optical viewfinder, only a large, color LCD monitor for image composition. (Although Sony does offer an optional clip-on eyelevel 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 CD400 is equipped with a 3x, 7- 21mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens (equivalent to a 34-102mm lens on a 35mm camera). Zeiss optics are noted for their quality and sharpness, making the lens a significant feature of the camera. My assessment is that it performs better than the lenses on most digicams I've tested. The aperture can be manually or automatically adjusted from f/2.1 to f/8.0, and focus is automatically or manually controlled, with a distance readout display on the LCD monitor to assist with manual focus. The CD400 also offers Sony's 2x Precision digital telephoto, increasing the zoom capabilities to 6x (although digital magnification results in the usual decreased image resolution and quality). Macro performance is good, with macro focusing distances ranging from 1.62 to 8.0 inches (4 to 20 centimeters). One of the coolest innovations in low-light focusing I've seen recently is Sony's Hologram AF option, which uses a laser diode and tiny holographic diffraction grating to produce a crosshatched pattern of bright red lines on the subject. This projected pattern stays more or less "in focus" almost irrespective of subject distance, so there's always a sharp pattern for the camera to focus on. Hologram AF isn't just for low light, you'll sometimes see the camera using it in fairly normal lighting if there's not enough contrast in the subject to focus effectively with the contrast-detection AF system. (Hologram AF was first introduced on Sony's high-end DSC-F707 Cyber-shot model, and it looks like we're going to see it spreading across the upper end of their various digicam lines.)

Besides the highly effective Hologram AF, Sony's new cameras also include new multipoint autofocus technology. In the case of the CD400, the AF system uses five different focus points within the image, and you can even manually select which focus area you want the camera to use.

In addition to the full Manual exposure mode, the CD400 provides Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program AE, and Scene exposure modes. Available "scenes" in the Scene exposure mode are Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, and Portrait, each designed to obtain the best exposure for specific shooting situations. Shutter speeds are adjustable in Manual mode from 1/1,000 to eight seconds, and a Noise Reduction feature automatically engages for shutter times longer than a second.

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 CD400's expanded White Balance options include Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, and One-Push (manual setting), to accommodate a broad range of lighting conditions. Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. The camera's ISO setting offers Auto, 100, 200, or 400 equivalents, increasing performance in low-light shooting situations. The built-in, pop-up flash features Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, and Suppressed operating modes, with a variable flash intensity setting. As an added bonus, the CD400 offers a single contact external flash hot shoe, for connecting a more powerful flash to the camera. (High praise for Sony finally including a nonproprietary external flash connection on one of their cameras: The previous lack of this has been the subject of frequent email from our readers.) You can also attach the Sony HVL-FL1000 flash unit to the external flash sync terminal on the side of the camera, and mount the unit to the hot shoe (a Setup menu option turns the hot shoe on or off). Similar to other Sony digicams, the CD400 also features a Picture Effects, which captures images in Solarized, Sepia, Black & White, and Negative Art tones and a Sharpness setting allows you to control the sharpness or softness of the image.

The CD400 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 CD400 (and its little brother the CD250) 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.)

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 CD400 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 Adaptec Corporation). The included software bundle looks rather sparse, apparently consisting only of "Pixela ImageMixer", a new (and apparently PC-only) software package. (A shame that no Mac software is included. :-(

The CD400 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 CD400 is enjoyable to use, and its user interface and function set have something for everyone. The full-featured exposure control options will satisfy the most advanced user, while its auto-everything "Program" exposure mode will meet the needs of the least-experienced novice. 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. Great optics, a four-megapixel CCD, and CD-RW image storage give the CD400 a strong edge in the digicam marketplace, and the addition of the Hologram AF focus tool makes the camera an excellent followup to the very well received CD300. (And the inclusion of a generic hot shoe flash connector really put the camera squarely in the "enthusiast" category, when it comes to features.)


Design
The Mavica MVC-CD400'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 CD400 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 23.3 ounces (638 grams), including the battery, the CD400 is reasonably lightweight, with a hard, plastic body that gives it a fairly strong, solid feel.



The telescoping Carl Zeiss lens dominates the left side (as viewed from the rear) of the camera's front panel, sharing its space with a small self-timer lamp and the Hologram AF laser diode. 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 substantial hand grip. When the camera is powered on, the 7-21mm lens extends an additional 3/4-inch beyond the fixed lens barrel. When the camera is powered off, or the Mode dial is set on the Playback or Setup positions for more than a short time, the lens retracts into the barrel. A plastic, spring-lock lens cap protects the lens surface, and can tether to the camera body via a small strap. A set of filter threads just inside the lip of the barrel accommodates Sony's line of accessory lens adapter kits.


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 CD400's top panel features an external flash hot shoe (hooray!) with a single contact, a pop-up built-in flash head, 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 CD400's back panel. These include the color LCD monitor, speaker, control buttons, and a small Command dial. 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. The tiny Command wheel at upper right lets you quickly change camera settings such as shutter speed and aperture, by pressing down and turning the dial, to scroll through selections in the on-screen exposure options displayed on the LCD viewfinder. In addition to serving as a navigational tool in the LCD menu system, the Four-Way Arrow pad controls several camera functions directly through its four arrow keys, including Flash mode, Macro, Self-timer, and Quick Review. Six dedicated buttons across the bottom of the back panel control such features as Menu, Display, Exposure Compensation, Spot Metering, Focus mode, and AE lock.


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 drive.


Finally, the CD400 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 CD400. 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 CD400's clock and calendar when the main battery is removed.


Viewfinder
For composing images, the CD400 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 CD400 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 CD400'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 eyelevel 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, f/stop, shutter speed, flash mode, and an excellent feature unique to Sony cameras: the number of minutes remaining on the battery. In Automatic and Scene modes, a half press of the Shutter button is necessary to display the current shutter speed and aperture settings, and in some capture modes, only applicable readings will be displayed.

I liked the Manual Focus display, which eschews the usual focus bar and instead reports the current distance setting in a single, numeric reading, which can be changed by turning the Command wheel (when the focus distance is highlighted on the LCD screen). The ability to set lens focus to a specific (numeric) distance can be invaluable when setting up for shots in low-light conditions. I also noticed that when you manually adjust the focus, the LCD monitor snaps into focus as soon as you select the right distance. (I first noticed this on the DSC-S75 camera.) I'm not sure how Sony managed to make focus changes so dramatically visible on the LCD, but whatever they did seems to work well, and makes the Manual Focus option much more useful than those I've seen on other cameras.

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 let you scroll around inside the image. The Display button controls the information and image display in Playback mode, cycling through three modes: No display, image with information, and image without information. 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. There's also a more extensive information display, accessed by pressing the thumbnail/zoom out side of the zoom toggle again, after you've reached the thumbnail display itself. The CD400 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 CD400 is equipped with the same 3x, f/2-2.5, 7-21mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens (equivalent to a 34-102mm lens on a 35mm camera) included on the earlier CD300 model (and the S75 and S85 Cyber-shot models before that). This lens produces unusually sharp images from corner to corner, noticeably crisper than what I've seen from many other digicams. The lens is protected by a removable, spring-lock lens cap, which comes with an easy-to-thread lens-strap opening and a small tether strap to keep it from getting lost.

In Aperture Priority and Manual modes, the aperture is manually adjustable from f/2.0 to f/8.0, in nine steps. Shutter speed is adjustable from 1/1,000 to eight seconds, with 40 available settings. Macro mode is engaged by pressing the right Arrow button, which changes the focus range to 1.62 to 8 inches (4 to 20 centimeters), when the lens is set at its shortest (wide-angle) focal length.

Focus can be controlled either automatically or manually, with a normal focal range from 19.7 inches (50 centimeters) to infinity, and a macro range extending down to 1.6 inches (4 cm). Pressing the Focus button under the LCD screen cycles between Manual and Auto Focus control, and manual focus point selection. In Auto focus mode, a central focus bracket appears in the center of the LCD display to help you line up shots. When Manual control is selected, you make adjustments by turning the same Command wheel used for aperture and shutter speed selection. As you turn the wheel, the focus distance is displayed on the LCD monitor next to the Command wheel arrow, which is a great help when shooting in low-light conditions. The 2002 Sony digicam lineup includes several models employing a multipoint autofocus system, that can focus on subjects at multiple locations within the frame. The CD400 has a total of 5 autofocus areas. The CD400's autofocus system normally selects the most appropriate AF point automatically, based on its internal AF algorithms. If you like though, you can select which of the five AF areas the camera uses manually. You do this by pressing the Focus button under the LCD repeatedly until the little focus bracket icon appears in the LCD's upper righthand corner. Once it does, rotating the Command wheel cycles between the normal central-area autofocus region and the five discrete AF areas. All five areas are clustered fairly closely around the center of the frame, but there's still enough separation to be useful in some situations with off-center subjects. - The screen shot above right shows the position of the AF points within the viewfinder frame, captured with the lens blocked to produce a black background that would show the AF markers more clearly.

Also helpful in limited lighting is the Hologram AF assist light, selected via the Setup menu, which helps the camera make adjustments in Auto Focus mode. I first saw Sony's Hologram AF system on the Cyber-shot DSC-F707, and was again impressed by it here. It uses a laser diode and tiny holographic diffraction grating to project a crosshatched pattern of bright red lines on the subject, allowing the camera to focus in total darkness. The nifty thing about the hologram is that the projected pattern stays crisply defined almost irrespective of subject distance, so there's always a sharp pattern for the camera to focus on. Hologram AF isn't only for low light, you'll sometimes see the camera use it in fairly normal lighting as well, if there's not enough contrast in the subject to use the normal contrast-detect AF system. Try pointing the camera at a blank wall in normal home / office lighting, and you'll see the pattern. The screen shot above right shows a camera's eye view of the Hologram AF pattern, as the lens zooms from wide to telephoto.

The lens also features filter threads to accommodate a variety of Sony lens conversion kits. These kits rely on a barrel adapter that screws onto the camera's body threads, providing a set of fixed filter threads ahead of the furthest extension of the telescoping lens assembly. The adapter by itself can also be used to attach non-Sony accessory lenses, such as macro adapters, etc. 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. (I don't have a thread size spec from Sony for this camera, so check with your dealer to insure lens-kit compatibility between other Sony models.)

The 2x Precision Digital Zoom function is enabled through the camera's Setup menu, effectively increasing the CD400'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. - In the case of the CD400, with its 4 megapixel CCD, you can use the digital zoom without any loss of quality at image sizes as large as 1280 x 960.


Exposure
Exposure control on the CD400 is just as straightforward and uncomplicated as on the CD300 model. 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 exposure settings, such as metering options, exposure compensation, and AE Lock with a single button-push. The small Command wheel (on the right side of the camera back) simplifies exposure adjustment even more, by allowing you to change exposure compensation, manual focus, aperture, and shutter speed, simply by first using it to select the functioned desired, pressing in to highlight the function, and then turning it to make adjustments. (This is actually much simpler than it sounds, particularly once you get used to how the controls work.)

Four main exposure modes offer varying levels of automatic or manual control: Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual. In Program AE mode, the camera controls the basic exposure, but lets you determine all other variables, such as ISO, white balance, and flash settings. Shutter Priority lets you set the shutter speed from 1/1,000 to eight seconds, while the camera controls the lens aperture. Alternately, Aperture Priority mode lets you set the lens aperture from f/2.0 (f/2.5 with the lens set at telephoto) to f/8.0 while the camera sets the appropriate shutter speed. In both Aperture and Shutter Priority modes, the shutter and aperture values will flash in the LCD panel (when the Shutter button is pressed halfway) if the camera disagrees with the chosen settings. This gives you an opportunity to adjust the exposure without wasting a shot.

Manual exposure mode provides complete control over aperture settings, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and metering. The camera reports the amount of under- or overexposure it thinks you've selected, with an EV value in the LCD monitor just above the aperture and shutter speed settings. If the camera disagrees with the shutter and aperture values, the EV value will flash in the LCD panel (when the Shutter button is pressed halfway), letting you change the settings for a better exposure. In all three adjustable modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual), the Command wheel adjusts the aperture or shutter speed settings. An arrow on the LCD screen points to one adjustable setting, such as aperture or shutter speed. Pressing in on the wheel highlights that setting in yellow, allowing you to make adjustments by simply turning the wheel. Pressing on the wheel a second time removes the yellow highlight, so that you can move the yellow arrow to a new adjustable setting. I recall having some trouble with the Command wheel on the CD300, apparently because I sometimes pressed it too rapidly. (I speculated that it had too aggressive a "debounce" delay on it.) This difficulty has apparently been corrected on the CD400, as I had no trouble whatsoever with the Command wheel on this new model.

In addition to the four main exposure modes, there are four preset Scene modes that adjust the camera for shooting in specific situations: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, and Portrait. 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 usually employs a slower shutter speed, a tripod is recommended to prevent blurring from camera movement. Twilight Portrait works along similar lines, but uses the flash in 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. Portrait mode uses a larger lens aperture setting to decrease the depth of field, keeping the subject in sharp focus, with the background slightly blurred.

For normal exposures, the CD400 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 CD400 automatically employs a Noise Reduction system, to reduce the amount of image noise from long shutter times. In my testing, I found the CD400's noise reduction processing to be very effective at eliminating so-called "hot pixels" in long time exposures. (Do note though, that the CD400 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 8 seconds, the camera will actually be tied up for 16 seconds for each exposure.)

White Balance (WB) can also be controlled in all exposure modes, with available settings of Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, and One-Push (manual setting). One-Push lets you set the camera's white balance by pointing it at a white card and telling it to use that color as a reference. As with many other Sony cameras, the CD400 offers a Picture Effects menu, providing a little in-camera creativity. Settings like Solarize, Black & White, Sepia, and Negative Art can add interest to your images by altering color or reversing the highlights and shadows.

The CD400 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 any other image editing application. In these programs, you typically want to apply sharpening at the end of the manipulation process. 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 CD400 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 1.6 inches to 16.4 feet (0.5 to 5.0 meters), an almost 2 meter increase in range over the earlier CD300 model.

An external flash sync socket is located on the left side of the camera, directly above the digital and video jack compartment. I was very pleased to see the addition of a hot shoe mount on top of the camera, as the previous CD300 model featured a "cold" shoe with no contacts. Through the Setup menu, you can turn the hot shoe on or off. The external flash hot shoe features a single contact, which means there's no exposure feedback provided between a flash unit connected there and the camera. (This is a principle argument in favor of using Sony's own HFL-F1000 dedicated accessory flash with the CD400.) Still, despite the "dumb" nature of the hot shoe connection, it's a real boon to photographers who have one or more non-dedicated strobes in their gear kit, or for those who want to use the CD400 with studio strobes. (A side note though: Be careful that you don't connect a studio pack with high trigger voltage to the hot shoe of the CD400! Digicam sync contacts aren't designed to handle high voltages, and you risk frying your camera if you plug in studio equipment directly. - Look for a "safe trigger" unit that uses a low voltage to trigger the strobes. Likewise, avoid certain older shoe-mount amateur strobes, such as the "HV" units from Vivitar, which present high voltages to the sync contacts.)

Movie and Sound Recording
Audio recording is a big feature addition on the CD400, relative to the earlier CD200 and 300. In any of the CD400'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. By pressing and releasing the Shutter button quickly, you can record for only five seconds.

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.

It does need to be said though, that the CD400 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 CD400 into an animation camera, recording up to 10 frames of still images, which are combined within the camera 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, and it'll merge all the images into an animated GIF file. 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 disc is very full.) Files are saved in GIF format, and are played back with (approximate) 0.5-second intervals between frames. Unlike Movie mode, the onboard flash may be used 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 captures an extremely rapid burst of images, stored as a single 1280x960 frame on the camera, and 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 CD300 and many other Sony digicams, the CD400 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, Exposure Bracketing, 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. In Exposure Bracketing mode, the camera takes a series of three images at different exposure readings: one at the normal meter reading, and two more at different EV settings. The exposure variance between shots is set through the Setup menu, through the "Bracket Step" option, with settings of +/- 1.0, 0.7, and 0.3 EV.


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a delay or lag time before the shutter actually fires. This allows 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, I now routinely measure it using a custom test system I designed and built for the purpose.

 

Sony MVC-CD400 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
5.2/21
Startup time depends on state of disc. If camera has seen disc before and not many files, time is about 5 seconds. If disc if full and/or camera back has been opened since last power-up, time can be 21 seconds or longer.
Shutdown
4.1
Time required to retract lens. If writing TIFF file, could take up to 51 seconds to be ready to remove disc. (Normal JPEGs are much faster, generally would be done by the time the lens retracts.)
Play to Record, first shot
1.52
Pretty fast.
Record to play (max/min res)
1.28 - 7.09
0.87 - 5.00
Top numbers JPEG large/fine, bottom set JPEG small/normal. First number of each set is for switch after camera done processing an image. Second number is for immediate switch to play after snapping the shutter.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
(wide/tele)
0.901/1.499
First number for telephoto, second for wide angle. Rather slow. 0.9 seconds is slower than average, but within normal bounds. 1.5 seconds is quite slow
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.663
A bit slower than average. (Average is about 0.5 seconds.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.157
A good bit faster than average. (Average is around 0.3 seconds.)
Cycle Time
1.95/3.5 L/F
(~28 sec to clear buffer)
Excellent cycle times(!) Buffer holds 6-8 frames in large/fine resolution mode, depending on subject, then cycle time stretches to about 3.5 secs. Buffer clears completely in about 28 seconds. Small/normal resolution cycles in about 2.2 seconds, buffer didn't fill after 20+ shots.
Cycle Time, TIFF
51.5
Quite slow. Camera controls locked out during TIFF disc writes.
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 CD400 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
As I mentioned in the Design section of this review, the CD400 offers the same great user interface that debuted on the CyberShot DSC-S75 model. Ever since they revised it last year, I've found Sony's user interface to be one of the most straightforward on the market. Additional external camera controls reduce the reliance on the menu system and greatly simplify overall camera operation. The ready access to exposure controls and other camera functions, and the less complicated menu system, mean that you spend less time scrolling through menu screens and options. Though the LCD menu is still required for some settings, overall camera operation is fast and uncomplicated. The Command wheel lets you adjust the exposure compensation, aperture, and shutter speed settings quickly. The Mode dial and the assignment of some functions to quadrants on the Four-Way Arrow pad, provide even faster operation. Overall, the control system is very well thought out, and very conducive to fluid use of the camera as a photographic tool.


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 Program (camera symbol), Shutter Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A), Manual (M), Scene (SCN), Setup, Movie (film frame), and Playback modes.


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


Command Wheel: Located on the top right side of the camera's back panel, this wheel controls aperture and shutter speed settings in Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes. When Manual Focus is enabled, turning the wheel adjusts focus and displays the focus distance on the LCD monitor. When the Exposure Compensation adjustment is activated, turning the wheel adjusts the exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments.


Zoom Toggle: To the left of the Command wheel, the Zoom toggle controls 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 toggle, 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 one of the arrows.) 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 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 Arrow Rocker 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. Pressing the Display button in Playback mode sequentially cycles through three modes: Backlight off; image and information display; and image display only. In Record mode, the information display never completely disappears. - Critical exposure and mode information remains onscreen, regardless of the state of the Display Button.


Spot Metering Button: To the right of the Display button, the Spot Metering button ( [•] ) switches between Spot and Normal (averaged) metering modes. When Spot Metering is enabled, a crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD screen.


Focus Button: Adjacent to the Spot Metering button on the right, the Focus button cycles between Automatic and Manual focus modes, and manual focus-point selection. In focus point selection mode, you can select from normal multifocus operation, or choose one of five small focus areas. (One in the center, and two on either side of center, vertically and horizontally.)


Exposure Compensation Button: Directly to the right of the Focus button, the Exposure Compensation button (+/-) activates the exposure compensation adjustment, which is changed by turning the Command wheel.



AE Lock Button: The final button in the series below the LCD monitor, the AE Lock button locks an exposure reading until the shutter is snapped.


Open CD-R Compartment Button: 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).

Shutter Priority: In Shutter Priority mode, you set the shutter speed (from 1/1,000 to eight seconds), while the camera selects the best corresponding aperture. All other exposure variables can also be adjusted.

Aperture Priority: In Aperture Priority mode, you set the desired lens aperture (from f/2.1 to f/8.0) while the camera selects the best corresponding shutter speed. All other exposure variables can also be adjusted.

Manual: Manual exposure mode offers full user control over exposure, including aperture and shutter speed settings. All exposure variables except for exposure compensation are available in this mode.

Scene: Scene mode provides access to four preset shooting modes: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, and Portrait. The actual scenes are changed through the shooting menu, via the Scene setting. Twilight mode uses a slow shutter speed to accommodate darker shooting situations. Twilight Portrait uses the flash, in a slow sync mode, capturing the illuminated 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 Menu: 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: As with the Record menu, the Playback menu is accessed by pressing the Menu button when in Playback mode. The following options are available:



Setup Menu: The four-panel setup menu is displayed on the LCD monitor as soon as you enter Setup mode:



Image Storage and Interface
The MVC-CD400 records still images and movies to a roughly three-inch (80mm) CD-R or CD-RW disc. This virtually eliminates the hassle of downloading files from the camera to your computer. Instead of messing around with cables and driver software, you simply take the CD from the camera and slide it into your computer's CD-ROM drive. An adapter is provided for those computers that don't accept the three-inch CD format. (This should be rare though, since the 80mm CD form factor was part of the original CD specification, so most computers should accept them.) There's also a USB connection and cable supplied with the camera (the USB port is in the connector compartment on the lens side of the camera). The USB connection lets you connect the camera as a disk drive to Windows computer (Windows 98, 98se, Me, and 2000 Professional are supported). The USB connection apparently does not support the Mac OS however.

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 2,272 x 1,704, 2,272 (3:2 ratio), 1,600 x 1,200, 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 CD400 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
(CD-R disc)
TIFF
Fine Quality
Standard Quality
Highest Resolution 2272x1704 Images 9 65 119
Approx.
Compression
1:1 5:1 9:1
High Resolution 1600x1200 Images N/A 131 235
Approx.
Compression
N/A
5:1
9:1
Standard Resolution 1280x960 Images
N/A
195
346
Approx.
Compression
N/A
5:1
8:1
Low Resolution 640x480 Images
N/A
657
1288
Approx.
Compression
N/A
4:1
8:1

 

A note about media: Whenever you put a non-Sony CD-R or -RW into the CD400, 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.)

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...



Video Out
Both United States and Japanese models of the CD400 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 CD400 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 CD400 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
153 minutes
Image Playback
257 minutes

 



Included Software
The Sony Mavica-CD400 comes with a software CD loaded with a package called Pixela ImageMixer, and PTP manager (Picture Transfer Protocol, a protocol used by Windows XP). I didn't examine Pixela ImageMixer, but was disappointed to see that it is a Windows-only application. While you don't need any application software to use the CD400's images on a Mac, it would be nice to see somewhat equal support for the Mac platform. (NOTE: In order to read the CD400's discs on the Mac, you do need a special software "init" in your system folder, available from Roxio (formerly Adaptec Corporation). Click here to get the "UDF" init.)



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



Test Results
In keeping with my standard policy, my comments here are rather condensed, summarizing my key findings. For a full commentary on each of my standard test images, see the MVC-CD400's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the CD400 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

The CD400 performed very well throughout my testing, producing good color accuracy in most instances. The camera's White Balance system handled most of my test lighting well, with the Manual setting producing the best results in most cases. I noticed a slightly warm tint in some shots with the Manual white balance setting, particularly in the Outdoor and Indoor (without flash) portraits, but color was about right. The CD400 did a good job with the Davebox test target, though the subtractive primary colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow) were slightly undersaturated. The CD400 had no trouble distinguishing the tough tonal variations of the Davebox, and accurately exposed the image. Skin tones looked good throughout the testing, without the too-pink magenta tints that sometimes plague digicams. However, I did notice some purplish tints in the blue flowers and Marti's pants in my Outdoor and Indoor portraits. This is a common failing among digicams I've tested though, and the CD400 didn't exhibit the problem as strongly as many cameras.

The CD400 performed well on the "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 600 lines per picture height, but I found "strong detail" out to at least 1,05 lines vertically and 1,150 lines horizontally. "Extinction" of the target patterns occurred at about 1,400 lines.

Optical distortion on the CD400 is a bit lower than average (although, along with most other consumer digicams, still too high IMHO) at the wide-angle end, as I measured a 0.62 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end showed much less distortion, with about 0.19 percent distortion present. Chromatic aberration is also relatively low, showing about three pixels of very light coloration on either side of the target lines. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.) The most evident distortion I noticed was some slight corner softness in a few shots, strongest on the left side of the frame.

I found the CD400's LCD monitor to be a little loose in the Viewfinder Accuracy test, as the monitor showed very slightly more subject area than what was actually captured. I couldn't measure the actual frame accuracy, as the standard measurement lines were just outside the frame in both wide-angle and telephoto images, but the viewfinder is likely very close to 100 percent accuracy. Given that I generally prefer LCD monitors to be as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, the CD400 performed fairly well here.

The CD400 did very well in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of only 2.3 x 1.7 inches (57 x 43 millimeters). Resolution is high, with sharp details visible on the coins, brooch, and dollar bill. Color and exposure both looked good as well. Some corner softness was visible from the lens, strongest on the left side of the frame, but it's overall not as bad as I'm accustomed to seeing in digicam macro shots. The lens' wide-angle setting also results in a little barrel distortion. The CD400's flash had trouble throttling down for the macro area, overexposing the top portion of the image while underexposing the lower portion. (That close, the flash was strongly shadowed by the lens barrel. A bit further away from the subject, it should do OK.)

Overall, I was pleased with the CD400's performance during testing, and the image noise levels seemed lower in the produciton model than I'd observed in the prototype. Color performance was good, and resolution remained high with excellent detail.


Conclusion
The original MVC-CD1000 CD Mavica was a revolutionary digicam, with inexpensive storage provided by CD-Rs and the trademark "universal media" appeal of the Mavica line. The CD400 expands on an already excellent digicam design, adding significant enhancements, including a larger CCD and the convenience of a very large buffer memory, not to mention audio recording and the (surprising) ability to record MPEG video and audio in real time to the CD-RW drive. I also appreciated the inclusion of the Hologram AF feature. - And most particularly, I liked the addition of a conventional flash hot shoe on top of the camera, all that was needed to turn the CD400 into a true "enthusiast's" camera. Along with its updated features, the CD400 still offers the well-designed user interface and flexible exposure control seen in other top-end Sony models. The CD400 is really one of the most "universal" cameras Sony has yet created, offering easy, fully automatic exposure and "scene" modes when you want them, or full manual control when you don't. It's really a camera that could be used about as well by a rank novice as by an advanced amateur, a fact I think will contribute to its popularity in the marketplace. A nice job Sony, highly recommended!

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