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Sony MVC-CD500

Sony further expands its CD-equipped camera line, adding a five megapixel CCD and a host of other features to last year's top-of-the-line CD Mavica model.

Review First Posted: 06/09/2003




MSRP $699 US

 

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CD-RW provides 156 megabytes of write-once or rewritable storage!
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5-megapixel CCD delivers up to 2,592 x 1,944 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 2003 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.

The improvements in this year's CD-Mavica lineup are less sweeping than those implemented in 2002, but the CD500 continues the tradition of the CD400 before it, of offering true "enthusiast" features in a CD-based digicam.

With introductory list prices of $499 and $699 for the MVC-CD350 and CD500 respectively, the new models once again reduce the cost of entry for CD-R(W) technology in a digicam, 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 tests indicate that the new cameras perform very well indeed, on a par with other top models in their respective resolution categories. Given the low cost of the (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. - The long battery life afforded by Sony's InfoLithium battery technology is also most welcome on extended outings. If you're planning a long trip, you'd do well to seriously consider one of these new CD-Mavica cameras!


High Points


Enhancements over last year's CD400:
For readers familiar with last year's MVC-CD400 model, here's a concise list of feature enhancements that have been added to the CD500:



Executive Overview
Improving on the already excellent line of Mavica digicams, Sony has introduced the CD500, which boasts all of the great features of last year's CD400 model plus a few key extras. The CD500 has a larger, five-megapixel CCD for capturing higher resolution images (a maximum resolution of 2,592 x 1,944 pixels) and continues the CD400's 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). The CD500 once again includes an external flash hot shoe for mounting more powerful flash units, but this year's shoe includes additional contacts to support Sony's new (and very versatile) HVL-F32X external flash unit. The user interface has also been updated somewhat, moving more frequently-accessed camera functions from the LCD menu system to external buttons on the case.. What remains the same on the CD500 is the convenience and capacity of the CD-R recording media introduced with the CD1000 and continued in the CD250, CD300 and CD400 models. Similar in size to the CD400, the CD500 is by no means a "pocket" camera, but nonetheless easy enough to tote in a small camera bag. An accompanying neck strap lets you carry the CD500 ready to shoot.

The CD500 doesn't offer an optical viewfinder, only a large, color LCD monitor for image composition. (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.) An information display on the LCD monitor 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 CD500 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/2.0-2.5 (depending on the focal length setting of the lens) 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 CD500 also offers Sony's Smart Zoom at image sizes less than 4.5M (3:2). Smart Zoom provides magnification levels as high as 3.8x for 3.1M, 6.1x for 1.3M and 12x for VGA image sizes by cropping CCD data without resampling, to maintain 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 to more and more of Sony's high-end models.)

Besides the highly effective Hologram AF, the CD500 also includes multipoint autofocus technology to calculate distance to the left and right as well as the center of the scene for subjects that aren't centered in the frame. The CD500 also lets you select from five different range finder frames (center, left, right, top or bottom).

In addition to the full Manual exposure mode, the CD500 provides Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program AE, and Scene exposure modes. Available "scenes" in the Scene exposure mode are Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Snow, and Beach, 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 1/25 second.

A Spot Metering option switches the exposure metering system to take readings from the very center of the image for difficult subjects like those with strong backlighting. (A crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD monitor.) The CD500's 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 CD500 offers a single contact external flash hot shoe, for connecting a more powerful flash to the camera, including the new Sony HVL-F32X and their older HVL-F1000 model. A Setup menu option turns the hot shoe on or off. Similar to other Sony digicams, the CD500 also features a Picture Effects, which captures images in Solarized, Sepia, and Negative Art tones. Sharpness, Saturation, and Contrast can also be adjusted from Normal to Plus or Minus settings.

The CD500 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) was breaking the arbitrary limit to how long you can record a movie. 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 (640 x 480 VGA mode), and as long as 89 minutes in "email" movie mode (low-quality,160 x 112 pixel images). This is pretty impressive, as only a very few digicams currently on the market support full VGA-resolution movie recording.. (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 (7.5, 15 or 30 frames per second intervals can be set from the Menu in Movie mode), saved as a single 1.2M image. The frames play back at a slower frame rate, giving the effect of slow-motion footage.

Like most of the Sony Mavica line, the CD500 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 perfect 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. Macs running OS X can import images via the USB connection into either Image Capture or iPhoto, although I wasn't able to get my G4 PowerMac running OS X 10.2 to properly recognize the camera when using iPhoto 2.0 - Only Image Capture 2.0 worked properly. Mac users running under OS 9 or earlier can read the "finalized" CDs on Macs with the aid of the UDF Volume Access "init" provided by Roxio (formerly Adaptec Corporation). The UDF access init isn't compatible with OS X though, so the only ongoing support is for reading the CDs through the camera and its USB connection, not in a Mac CD-ROM drive directly. 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 CD500 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 CD500 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 5-megapixel CCD, and CD-RW image storage give the CD500 a strong edge in the digicam marketplace, and the inclusion 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 CD500's body design conforms to its round, three-inch storage media, giving the camera a smooth, curved appearance similar to the CD400 model. Although it's still a handful, the CD500 is surprisingly compact given its large media size. At 5.5 x 3.825 x 4.128 inches (138.5 x 95.7 x 103mm), 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 21.2 ounces (601 grams), including the battery, the CD500 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 emitter. 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 5/8-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, tethered 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 tethers the lens cap), 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 HVL-F32X flash unit couples directly via the contacts in the camera's hot shoe.)


The CD500's top panel features an external flash hot shoe (hooray!) with five contacts, 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 sits well forward on the camera body, 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 CD500'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 turning the dial to scroll and pressing in to select options in editable exposure settings 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. A Menu button sits below the Arrow pad. Five dedicated buttons across the bottom of the back panel control such features as Display/Backlight, AE lock, Focus mode, Exposure Compensation, and Resolution. A small, red LED to the left of these buttons indicates when the internal CD reader/writer is accessing the disc.


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 CD500 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 CD500. 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 CD500's clock and calendar when the main battery is removed.


Viewfinder
For composing images, the CD500 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. This button cycles through three states: viewfinder display with information overlay, viewfinder without information, and LCD off. But even when the information overlay is disabled, critical information relating to camera operation and mode settings still appears on the LCD display. Things like 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 CD500 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 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 its 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 CD500'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.

When I posted the original CD-300 review, Sony emailed me about 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 magnifies the image on the high-quality TFT LCD enough to focus manually. U.S. selling price is $79.95. 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 earlier CD300 model) also fits the LCD on the CD350 and 500 as well. This could be very handy if you need to shoot a lot 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, reporting instead 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 many 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: Image with information (including a histogram), image without information, and no display. 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 toggle at the thumbnail display itself. The CD500 provides an LCD brightness adjustment through its Setup menu, which lets you change the display to Bright, Normal, or Dark to accommodate the shooting situation.


Optics

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The CD500 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 CD400 and CD300 models (and the S75 and S85 Cyber-shot models before that, as far as I can tell). 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 (in metric units) on the LCD monitor next to the Command wheel arrow, which is a great help when shooting in low-light conditions. The current crop of Sony digicams employ a multipoint autofocus system, that can focus on subjects at multiple locations within the frame. The CD500 has a total of five autofocus areas. The CD500's autofocus system normally selects the most appropriate AF point automatically from the that are arranged horizontally across the middle of the frame. (Left, right, and center.) If you like though, you can select which of the five AF areas the camera uses manually, the manual choices expanding to include AF areas above and below the center of the frame.. 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, a new spot-AF point in the exact center, and five discrete, normal-sized AF areas. All five normal AF 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 useful 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 at almost any 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. (This particular screeenshot is borrowed from my review of the F707. - The laser pattern on the CD500 looks just the same.)

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 beyond 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 have 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 Smart Zoom function is enabled through the camera's Setup menu, effectively increasing the CD500's zoom capabilities from 3.8x to 6x depending on the image size you are capturing. Unlike most other digital zoom functions, Sony's Smart Zoom does not resample the image, so no image deterioration occurs as a result: Pixels are simply excised from the central portion of the sensor's image, and packaged as a separate file. When the optical zoom reaches 3x, Smart Zoom takes over, if enabled in the Setup menu. The maximum zoom scale for 3.1M images is 3.8x, 1.M is 6.1x and VGA is 12x. The AF range finder frame is not shown when Smart Zoom is active, but the central AF area is given priority.

 

Exposure

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Exposure control on the CD500 is just as straightforward and uncomplicated as on the CD400 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 control works.)

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 (although Program Shift lets you can change the combination of f-stop and shutter speed), 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), warning you to change the settings for a better exposure. In all four adjustable modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and Program Shift), the Command wheel adjusts the aperture or shutter speed settings. An arrow on the LCD screen points to the adjustable setting, such as aperture or shutter speed. Pressing in on the wheel selects that setting, highlighting it in yellow, and allowing you to make adjustments by simply turning the wheel. Pressing on the wheel a second time deselects the setting, removing the yellow highlight, so that you can scroll to any other adjustable setting. I recall having some trouble with the Command wheel on the CD300, apparently because I sometimes pressed it too rapidly. I had no trouble whatsoever with the Command wheel on this model.

In addition to the four main exposure modes, there are six preset Scene modes to adjust the camera for shooting for specific situations: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Snow, and Beach. 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. Snow preserves color despite the glare of bright scenes like snowscapes and optimizes focus like landscape. Beach exposes for the blue of the water in seaside of lakeside scenes where automatic exposure systems are often fooled.

By default, the CD500 uses Multi-pattern Metering system, taking exposure readings throughout the image to determine the best overall exposure. A Center-Weighted Metering option determines exposure by the brightness of the subject at the center of the image. For high-contrast subjects, a Spot Metering option (selected via the Menu 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 values (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 1/25 second, the CD500 automatically employs a Noise Reduction system, to minimize the colored pixels in dark backgrounds common with long shutter times. In my testing, I found the CD500's noise reduction processing to be very effective at eliminating so-called "hot pixels" in long time exposures. (Do note though, that the CD500 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 except Auto, 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 CD500 offers a Picture Effects menu, providing a little in-camera creativity. Settings like Solarize, Sepia, and Negative Art can add interest to your images by altering color or reversing the highlights and shadows.

The CD500 also offers a menu selection for adjusting image sharpening in-camera, providing normal, plus and minus values. The default value of normal 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 minus 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 CD500 has four settings that are activated by pressing the Flash button on the Arrow rocker pad: Auto, Forced, Slow Synchro, 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. Slow Synchro always fires the flash, like Forced Flash, but also leaves the shutter open longer, to capture more of the ambient light on the background. 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 in Auto, Forced, and Slow Synchro flash modes. (Thus technically making the CD500's flash an 8-mode system.) 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 to the CD400 (the previous CD300 model featured a "cold" shoe with no contacts), doubly so to see it continued here, with added contacts for Sony's new HVL-F32X external flash unit. Through the Setup menu, you can turn the hot shoe on or off. Where the CD400's hot shoe contained only a single contact, the shoe on the CD500 is adorned with no fewer than five. The added contacts interact with Sony's recently-introduced HVL-F32X flash, which boasts a host of useful features, including super-bright autofocus-assist illuminator LEDs, and (most importantly) true through the lens (TTL) flash metering when paired with the CD500 and Sony's new DSC-V1. (Read our news article on the HVL-F32X from the Spring 2003 PMA show, for more info on its functions.) The hot shoe naturally also functions as a conventional "dumb" shoe, 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 CD500 with studio strobes. (A side note although: Be careful that you don't connect a studio pack with high trigger voltage to the hot shoe of the CD500! 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
Like the CD400 before it, the CD500 also offers audio recording. In any of the CD500'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 40 seconds of sound for each image by holding down the Shutter button after you've snapped the photo. By pressing and releasing the Shutter button quickly, you can record a five-second, fixed-length clip. In playback mode, you can play any sound clips by pressing the OK button in the center of the multi-controller rocker switch.

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 640 x 480-pixel VGA resolution or 160 x 112-pixel email resolution. The CD500 incorporates Sony's latest "MPEGMovie VX" technology, which permits recording times at even the 640x480 resolution that are limited only by available CD storage capacity. Maximum recording time with a blank CD is 5 minutes 51 seconds for the VGA quality level, and a 89 minutes an 11 seconds at the email resolution setting. Movies captured at the email resolution setting play back on the camera's LCD screen at a reduced size, while VGA-quality ones play back full-screen.

While the high resolution of VGA mode and long recording times of email mode are very impressive, you really shouldn't consider the CD500 as a viable stand-in for a true camcorder. Its image quality in email mode is pretty rough, and its frame rate at both resolution settings is well below that of conventional camcorders. The CD500 is excellent for "video snapshots," and might be useful for capturing short clips of action for assembly in a video-editing program, but its audio quality isn't in the same league as that of a good-quality camcorder. 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. Also, in common with essentially every other digicam offering movie recording with sound, you can't actuate the CD500's zoom lens while you're recording a movie, presumably because the sound of the lens motor would be too obtrusive. (You can adjust the zoom lens however you like before recording, but once recording has begun, the focal length of the lens is fixed.) Bottom line, you'll still want a camcorder if you need o do a lot of general video recording.


Clip Motion and Multi Burst
This is a slick little feature that I've really enjoyed on recent 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 CD500 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 merges all the images into one animated GIF file. Available image sizes are Normal (160 x 120 pixels) and Mobile (120 x 108 pixels), and the number of actual captured frames may vary with image size (Mobile is  restricted to two frames) and available CD space. (You have a maximum of 10 in Normal size mode, but could be constrained to fewer if your disc is nearly 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. Note though, that the GIF format only permits 256 colors, far less than millions the camera normally captures.

Multi-Burst is a newer 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, 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. When viewed on a computer though, the images simply appear as a single 1280x960 image with the individual frames arranged as 16 small sub-images within it.

Special Record Modes
Like many Sony digicams, the CD500 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 takes less time to transmit 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 the 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.

NOTE: My qualitative characterizations of camera performance below (that is, "reasonably fast," "about average," etc.) are meant to be relative to other cameras of similar price and general capabilities. Thus, the same shutter lag that's "very fast" for a low-end consumer camera might be characterized as "quite slow" if I encountered it on a professional model. The comments are also intended as only a quick reference: If performance specs are critical for you, rely on the absolute numbers to compare cameras, rather than my purely qualitative comments.

Sony CD500 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
5.2/21
Startup time depends on state of disc. If the camera has seen the disc before and it has few files on it, 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
10.25/2.44
Times shown are to write a large/fine file, or to retract lens if the camera isn't currently writing. If writing TIFF file, could take up to 51 seconds to be ready to remove disc.
Play to Record, first shot
0.44
Very fast.
Record to play (max/min res)
3.32 - 10.25
3.18 - 5.7
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)
0.659/0.647
First number for telephoto, second for wide angle. Very fast, among the fastest cameras on the market.
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.312
A bit faster than average. (Average is about 0.5 seconds.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.100
A good bit faster than average. (Average is around 0.3 seconds.)
Cycle Time
1.36/7.4 L/F
(~28 sec to clear buffer)
1.7/2.5 S/N
Excellent cycle times(!) Buffer holds 6-8 frames in large/fine resolution mode, depending on subject, then cycle time stretches to about 7.4 secs. Buffer clears completely in about 28 seconds. Small/normal resolution cycles in about 1.7 seconds, buffer still seemed to fill after about 10 shots.
Cycle Time, TIFF
101
Extremely slow. Camera controls locked out during TIFF disc writes.
Cycle time, continuous mode
0.45
Bursts limited to 3 frames, but quite fast, at a bit over 2 frames/second.(Seemed to alternate between 0.4 and 0.5 seconds between shots.) (Why only 3 shots though? There's a 9-shot buffer!)
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 CD500 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 and 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.

Happily, Sony has dramatically improved the CD500's shutter lag over that of the CD400. With a shutter lag (the delay between pressing the shutter button and the actual firing of the shutter) of only 0.65-0.66 seconds, the CD500 is one of the fastest-focusing cameras on the market. Combined with very good cycle times (at least until the buffer memory fills), the CD500 would make an excellent camera for amateur sports shooting. One of the biggest mysteries of the CD500's design though, is why Sony chose to limit continuous-mode shooting to only 3 frames in a series. The camera clearly has 8 or 9 frames of buffer memory, so why not make all of it available for continuous-mode shooting? I suspect the answer has to do with keeping the "Burst 3" mode a consistent feature across their entire camera lineup, but that seems like an absurd limitation to place on a camera, particularly in light of the CD500's other advanced features.

Overall, apart from the possibly long startup times, and the incomprehensible 3-shot limitation of its continuous-shooting mode, the CD500 is one of the fastest and most responsive digicams on the market.


Operation and User Interface
As I mentioned in the Design section of this review, the CD500 offers the same great user interface seen on other 2003-model Sony digicams. I've found Sony's user interface to be one of the most straightforward on the market, and in many of their 2003 models, they've moved additional camera controls to external buttons to further enhance the user experience. The ready access to exposure controls and other camera functions, and the uncomplicated menu system mean that you spend less time scrolling through menu screens and options than you would with many other cameras on the market. Although 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, Slow Synchro, 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.


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


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.


Image Size / Trash Button: Directly to the right of the Exposure Compensation button, the Exposure Image Size / Trash button permits selection of available image resolutions in Record mode or deletes images in Playback mode.


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 six preset shooting modes: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Snow and Beach. 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. Snow preserves color despite the glare of bright scenes like snowscapes and optimizes focus like landscape. Beach exposes for the blue of the water in seaside of lakeside scenes where automatic exposure is often fooled. 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 six-panel setup menu is displayed on the LCD monitor as soon as you enter Setup mode:


Image Storage and Interface
The CD500 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 although, 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) or a Macintosh running OS X. 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 CD500 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 the greatly 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 CD500'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 although, 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 wipe out the image data from the disc, but instead merely deletes the file listing in the disc's directory so that the "erased" image data can no longer be accessed. You can only truly erase the last image data written to the disc, and then only on CD-RW media.

There's another generic limitation of CD-RW technology 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-500 itself. (Mac owners see the note below though.)

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 CD500 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 while it's being carried out. 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 CD500 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/RW 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 each image as well.

Image Size options include 2,592 x 1,944, 2,592 (3:2 ratio), 2,048 x 1,536, 1,280 x 960, 640 x 480, and 320 x 240 pixels (E-Mail recording option). Movie file sizes are 640x480 (VGA), and 160 x 112 pixels for MPEG Movies, or 160 x 120 and 120 x 108 pixels for Clip Motion files. In addition to the uncompressed TIFF file format, the CD500 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/RW disc (main resolution sizes):

 

Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
(CD-R disc)
TIFF
Fine Quality
Standard Quality
Highest Resolution 2592x1944 Images/
Size
7
15.1 MB
51
3.1 MB
95
1.6 MB
Approx.
Compression
1:1 5:1 9:1
High Resolution 2048x1536 Images/
Size
N/A 81
1.9 MB
145
1.1 MB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
5:1
9:1
Standard Resolution 1280x960 Images/
Size
N/A
194
804 KB
345
452 KB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
5:1
8:1
Low Resolution 640x480 Images/
Size
N/A
655
238 KB
1284
121 KB
Approx.
Compression
N/A
4:1
8:1


A note about media: Whenever you put a non-Sony CD-R or -RW into the CD500, 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 discs sometimes have 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 did actually have a problem with expanded-capacity media in the CD400 sample I used for my review of that model. 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 (and larger) 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 or more. 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 entrust 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 it. It's possible that I might be able to access those photos via the USB port, but I never 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 shipped with Mac 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, Roxio's UDF Volume Access "init" is apparently required to read the version of the UDF format used by the Mavica CD500. I can, however attest to the fact that the iMac supports both the 80mm disc size, as well as the Roxio Volume Access extension, as I was able to successfully read "finalized" CDs from the CD500 on our slot-loading iMac. (A 400MHz DV model, running Mac OS 9.0.4.)

For Mac OS X users unfortunately, the situation is somewhat worse: As noted earlier in this review, Macs running OS X can import images via the USB connection into either Image Capture or iPhoto, although I wasn't able to get my G4 PowerMac running OS X 10.2 to properly recognize the camera with iPhoto 2.0. (It worked fine using Image Capture 2.0, but the application took a *long* time (a couple of minutes I think, although I didn't time it) to recognize the camera. Unfortunately, there's no equivalent to the UDF Volume Access init for Mac OS X, so the only way to read the discs is to use the camera as a USB-connected CD drive: The Mac's own CD-ROM isn't capable of recognizing the finalized CDs created by the CD500.

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 CD500 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 CD500 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 pack used in the CD500 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 CD500 with a freshly charged battery, in Capture and Playback modes. While these are excellent runtime numbers, I still always recommend you 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
151 minutes
Image Playback
217 minutes



Included Software
The Sony Mavica-CD500 comes with a software CD loaded with Pixela ImageMixer 1.5, and PTP manager (Picture Transfer Protocol, a protocol used by Windows XP). Pixela ImageMixer runs under Windows 98/Me/2000/XP and Mac OS 8.51-9.2. (NOTE: In order to read the CD500's discs on the Mac OS 9, you do need a special software "init" in your system folder, available from Roxio (formerly Adaptec Corporation). Click here to get the "UDF" init.) Per my earlier notes, there is no equivalent to this init for OS X, so OS X users are forced to transfer files via the USB connection.



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



Test Results
In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Sony Mavica MVC-CD500's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the CD500's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

Conclusion

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The original 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 CD500 expands an already excellent series, 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 inclusion of a conventional flash hot shoe on top of the camera, a feature that turns the CD500 into a true "enthusiast's" camera. Along with its updated features, the CD500 still offers the well-designed user interface and flexible exposure control seen in other top-end Sony models. The CD500 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. I'd really like to see a less contrasty default tone curve, but the available reduced-contrast setting helps with harshly-lit subjects. Overall, another nice job on a CD-based digicam, with useful improvements over last year's top-end model, and at a lower cost to boot. Highly recommended!

<<CD-500 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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