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Sony MVC-FD91
Modest resolution, but a 14x optical zoom lens and lots of flexibility, with the ultimate in simple interfacing: A floppy disk!

(Full review 18 March, 2000)

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800,000 pixel sensor for 1024x768 images
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14x true optical zoom lens, with image-stabilization
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Very flexible metering and exposure control
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MPEG Movie recording mode
   

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Highlights

  • 800,000 pixel, 1/3 inch CCD delivering up to 1024 x 768 images.

  • 2.5 inch, color, TFT LCD monitor that physically rotates 180 degrees.

  • Real image optical viewfinder with data display.

  • 14x, 5.2 to 72.8 mm lens (equivalent to a 37 to 518mm lens on a 35mm camera.

  • Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Twilight capture modes.

  • Automatic, Outdoor, Indoor and One-Push white balance settings.

  • Built-in, pop-up flash with Automatic, Forced and Suppressed modes and manually controlled intensity settings.

  • Spot metering option.

  • 10 second self-timer.

  • Steady Shot option to decrease camera shake.

  • MPEG movie record mode.

  • Voice Memo record mode.

  • E-Mail and Bitmap (uncompressed) still image record modes.

  • Manual focus option.

  • Image storage on 3.5 inch floppy disks.

  • InfoLITHIUM battery system.


Manufacturer Overview
Sony has long been a dominant player in the digital camera field with their Mavica(tm) line of floppy-disk based cameras. In this review, we cover the first Mavica we've tested extensively, the FD91. This camera has been one of the dominant digicams in the marketplace over the last year or so, thanks to its long list of features. Perhaps paramount in many users minds though, is the ease of interfacing it offers, via the built-in floppy disk drive that saves images to floppies, which you can then just insert in your PC to read. There's a lot more to the FD91 than just a floppy disk though, so read on for the full story...



Executive Overview
Your first reaction upon seeing Sony's MVC-FD91 might be "Wow, what a handful!" It's ok, we thought so too. Sony's MVC-FD91 seems like a veritable giant when compared to other digicams where pocket-sized portability is a prime objective. Although this camera will never hitch a ride in a coat pocket, what it lacks in portability it makes up for in many other areas. For example, the camera body is that big because it actually stores images on 3.5 inch floppy diskettes. The runaway popularity of Sony's floppy-based Mavica line has proven how highly most consumers esteem easy interfacing relative to a tiny form factor. No cables, software, or compatibility issues: Just slip the floppy into your computer, and copy the images anywhere you want, load them into a word-processing document, email them, or whatever. Speaking from the vantage point of people who have often done battle with balky PC serial-port connections, we can attest to the appeal of a floppy disk as a digicam interface medium!

Interestingly enough, the camera actually weighs quite a bit less than you'd think by looking at it (33 oz. or 950g), thanks to its all plastic (but seemingly quite rugged) body. Combine that with the 14x optical zoom and the MPEG movie capability, and you'll appreciate just how much Sony has actually packed into the FD-91's body.

We were very intrigued by the camera's options of an optical viewfinder or LCD monitor. Not necessarily by the existence of the two, mind you, but by Sony's handling of them. The MVC-FD91 allows you to choose, via a switch on the back panel, to use the optical viewfinder or the LCD monitor. What's wonderful about this is that if you select the optical viewfinder, the same information display from the LCD monitor goes with it: The "optical" viewfinder actually uses a tiny (and lower-power) LCD screen to show you what the camera's seeing. Sort of an "electronic SLR" (single-lens reflex). We like the idea of being able to see the exposure settings, flash, etc. in the viewfinder. We found it a little difficult to navigate the menu system while using the optical viewfinder though, and preferred to switch over to the LCD monitor for that task. And speaking of LCD monitors, this one is really cool: The LCD panel actually lifts up off the back of the camera and can flip upwards to 180 degrees. There's also a second hinge that allows it to flip up and then lie flat, parallel with the top of the camera. We can think of several uses for this handy feature (ground-level macro shooting, for one). 5052 x 3789 pixels, or as we mentioned earlier, the MVC-FD91 offers a 14x optical zoom with its 5.2 to 72.8 mm lens (equivalent to a 37 to 518mm lens on a 35mm camera). The lens is really one of the key features of the FD91's design: While the camera's image resolution is fairly modest by current standards (1024 x 768), the extra-long ratio zoom more than makes up for it if you're shooting distant objects. Consider this: If you were shooting at the extreme end of the 14x zoom setting, you'd have to have almost a 20 megapixel CCD to get the same effective resolution on a camera with a standard 3x zoom lens! (How'd we figure that? Consider that a typical 3x digicam zoom lens tops-out somewhere around an equivalent focal length of 105mm. The FD91's maximum telephoto setting is 4.9 times that big. Thus, to deliver the same number of pixels on your subject, a camera with a 3x zoom lens would have to have a CCD with 5052 x 3789 pixels in it. That's about 19 megapixels!) Not to say that the FD91 is just like a 19 megapixel camera, but it's important to consider the type of shooting you're likely to do before you just blindly compare pixel counts: If you commonly shoot subjects a long ways off (nature photos? kid's soccer games?), the FD91 can reach out and grab the subject like no other digicam on the market. The lens also has a remarkably effective "Steady Shot" system that helps you hold the image steady when you're shooting at such long focal lengths, as well the ability to focus down to 1cm for ultra-macro shooting, without the need for a separate macro mode. Finally, apertures range from a very fast f/1.8 to f/11. There's even a manual focus mode, where you can focus the lens by hand, using the ridged focus ring on the end of the lens, just like traditional manual-focus lenses for film cameras. Pretty remarkable!

Although there's no full manual control, Sony does give you both Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes. In both, you select one value while the camera chooses the corresponding one. The only minor criticism we have here is that when you're setting the aperture, for example, the camera doesn't tell you what it's setting the shutter speed to. There's also a Twilight mode that extends low-light performance (although not to true night-photography levels), and a full Program AE for when you want the camera to do all the work. We were glad to see the inclusion of a manual (One-Push, as they call it) white balance mode in addition to the standard Automatic, Indoors and Outdoors options. A much appreciated spot metering option gives you greater flexibility over your exposure in those high contrast situations. The on-board pop-up flash gives you some added control as well, letting you set its intensity level. When combined with one of the semi-manual modes, you have a good bit of control over flash exposure.

Aside from the traditional still capture mode, the MVC-FD91 has a movie option. You can record up to 60 seconds of images and sound in a 160 x 112 pixel size and up to 15 seconds at a 320 x 240 size. Movies are recorded as MPEG files and most of the same exposure options are available as with still images. Additionally, you can record up to 40 second sound bytes to accompany still images. Under the capture mode menu, the MVC-FD91 gives you the added option of recording still images as bitmaps (uncompressed 640 x 480 images) or e-mail compliant images (320 x 240 for easier e-mail transmission) at the same time as higher-resolution ones.

We mentioned earlier that the MVC-FD91 stores images to a 3.5 inch floppy diskette. This makes it really easy for users to transfer images to a computer. Simply pop out the disk and insert it into your computer's floppy drive! There's no cabling to figure out and you don't have to worry about using the AC adapter while downloading to save battery power. Packaged with the camera is MGI PhotoSuite SE, compatible with Windows and Mac operating systems. This package makes it simple to collect images, display them in a slide show or photo album as well as make minor corrections (take out Red-Eye or enhance color, etc.). Also included are several fun templates which allow you to create calendars, mock magazine covers, greeting cards, etc. with your images.

Power-wise, the MVC-FD91 runs on Sony InfoLITHIUM NP-F330 rechargeable battery packs (NP-F530 and NP-F550 packs can also be used). What's great about the InfoLITHIUM system is that the battery communicates with the camera about its power consumption. This appears to you as remaining battery time in minutes displayed on the LCD. To keep the internal clock running during battery changes, the MVC-FD91 utilizes a small CR2025 lithium battery as well. The camera has an auto power-off option which shuts down the camera after three minutes of inactivity. This is great from a battery conservation standpoint, but we'd like to be able to adjust the timer somehow.

Overall, we really liked the versatility of the MVC-FD91. The flexibility of the rotating LCD panel, the 14x optical zoom, the MPEG movie capability and the use of floppy disks make this a fun camera to use. We think that novice consumers and advanced amateurs alike will love this one. You get enough exposure control to get creative, with the luxury of a full automatic mode when you want to take it easy. If you can live with a maximum usable print size of somewhere around 5x7 inches (due to the modest 0.8 megapixel CCD resolution), the FD91 delivers a tremendous range of features. And as noted, for extreme telephoto shooting, there really isn't anything else on the market that can touch it. (March, 2000)

Design
Sony's MVC-FD91 makes a hefty first impression with its large dimensions. We were surprised when we first picked it up to see how light it actually felt. The camera weighs in at 33 ounces (950g) including the battery pack. While that may seem a little hefty, it's still lighter than what your first assumption may be, mostly due to the tough plastic body. The camera's overall size is 5.6 x 4.1 x 6.5 inches (139.8 x 103 x 162 mm). Although it's not pocket-friendly (the size must accommodate the required floppy disks) and the very long-ratio zoom lens, the MVC-FD91 does come with a neck strap for easy carrying.


The top of the FD91 is fairly plain, lacking the small black & white status readout common to most digicams we've tested. You can see the grille for the onboard microphone at left, and the shutter button on the right. You can also see the ridged manual focusing ring on the front of the lens in this view.

The large lens protrudes from the front of the camera, with a squared off rest to keep the lens from banging when the camera is set down. (This "rest" also houses the Steady-Shot system.) We liked the inclusion of the pop-up built-in flash, but found the release mechanism on the side a little tricky to operate (it's hard to slide when holding the camera by the right hand grip).

We liked the bulky hand grip on the side of the camera, which gives a solid hold. Conveniently, the floppy disk slot is also on this side, making it simple to change disks in and out when the camera is mounted on a tripod.

A lot of the camera's controls are on the left side of the camera (when viewed from the back), which took us a little bit to get used to. Zoom, focus, Steady Shot, White balance and Program AE options are all controlled from this side.

A number of controls do remain on the back panel though, namely power, spot metering, capture mode, flash and the display button. The optical viewfinder and LCD panel also live back here and offer some interesting options. First of all, the MVC-FD91 allows you to switch between the optical viewfinder and LCD monitor with a sliding lever. We liked the idea of having the information display in the optical viewfinder, but found it a little awkward navigating through menus with our face crammed against the back of the camera. The design of the rear-panel LCD itself is extremely accommodating though. It lifts up and has the ability to flip upwards 180 degrees. Or, it can lie flat, parallel to the top of the camera thanks to a second hinge. We especially appreciate this feature since it goes well with studio work. (A lot of the shooting that we do is in the studio.)

We also greatly appreciated the placement of the tripod mount and the battery compartment. They're far enough away from each other to allow battery changes while mounted. The metal threads of the tripod mount also gave us a bit more security that we wouldn't strip them when we tightened down the tripod screw. Our only complaint with the tripod mount was that the socket didn't have a lot of flat area around it, particularly toward the front of the camera. This made it a little more prone to front-to-back rocking when mounted on the tripod.


Viewfinder

The MVC-FD91 offers a great deal of versatility with its viewfinder options. You can switch back and forth between the "optical" viewfinder and the LCD monitor by sliding a small switch on the camera's back panel. What this means is that you can have either one or the other, but never both together. The "optical" viewfinder actually uses a tiny (and lower-power) LCD screen to show you what the camera's seeing. Sort of an "electronic SLR" (single-lens reflex). The interesting thing about the optical viewfinder is the internal information display. You basically get the same display that appears on the LCD monitor but shrunk down, complete with menus. We like the idea of being able to see the exposure settings, flash, etc. in the viewfinder. Navigating the menus through the optical viewfinder is a bit of a trick (one we weren't able to easily do). We found it easier to switch to the LCD panel while selecting menu options. One other note on the optical viewfinder: It has a dioptric adjustment switch for eyeglass wearers. It's a little hard to find, but it's located directly beneath the viewfinder (we actually discovered it when we turned the camera upside down, looking for something else).

If you decide you'd rather use the 2.5 inch LCD monitor to compose your images, you'll get a pleasant surprise. Sony designed the LCD monitor so that it actually lifts up and off of the back panel for positioning up to 180 degrees. It even inverts the image once it gets to 180 degrees so that the image is still right side up (useful when your using the self timer and want to see yourself in the shot). The panel can also lay flat, parallel to the top of the camera. This cuts out all that bending over when you're using a tripod, or for ground-level macro shooting. The LCD monitor brightness and the camera's volume controls are actually on the side of the LCD panel, meaning you must first lift the panel out to access the controls. This again is slightly awkward, but overall we applaud the design. (It's hard to predict what other manufacturers will do, but we wouldn't be surprised to see more of these multiple-position LCD screens on other cameras in the future. It's a really nice feature.)

As you'd expect, the "optical" and LCD viewfinders on the FD91 are in exact agreement with each other, no surprise given that they both display the same image. The viewfinder system is about typically accurate for optical viewfinders on digicams we've tested, but a bit less accurate than is common for LCD finders. We measured the frame coverage of the FD91's viewfinder at 85% in telephoto mode, and 87% in wide angle.


Optics

As noted in the "Executive Overview" section, the FD91's lens is a big part of what makes the camera so unique: Equipped with a 14x, 5.2 to 72.8 mm lens (equivalent to a 37 to 518mm lens on a 35mm camera), the MVC-FD91 easily holds the crown for "zoom power" in the current digicam market. This is very significant if you're likely to do a lot of shooting of distant objects. (Nature shots, or some sporting events.) At only about 0.8 megapixels, the CCD on the FD91 is small by current standards, but the long telephoto capability more than makes up for this when shooting distant objects. What matters in those situations is how many pixels the camera can deliver "on target." With a maximum equivalent focal length of 518mm, the FD91's lens is about 4.9 times longer the maximum telephoto setting of the general run of 3x zoom lenses found on most digicams. To get the same number of pixels on your subject at maximum telephoto on a 3x zoom camera, you'd need a CCD with 5052 x 3789 pixels in it, or about 19 megapixels total! (Pixel equivalents obtained by multiplying the 1024x768 resolution of the FD91 by 4.9, to account for the longer focal length of the FD91's lens.) Now, we hasten to point out that the FD91 is not by any means comparable to a 19 megapixel camera in any general usage. For really long telephoto shots though, there's nothing else on the market (March, 2000) that even comes close.

That 518mm equivalent telephoto capability would be of relatively limited use though, were it not for the surprisingly effective "Steady Shot" anti-vibration system that Sony provides. Normally, there'd be absolutely no way you could hand-hold exposures with that long a telephoto, in anything other than bright, glaring sunlight.(The rule of thumb in the film-camera world has always been that you should use a shutter speed of one divided by the focal length of your lens in millimeters, to avoid blur from camera shake. Thus, for a 500 mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/500.) We'd heard about the Steady Shot system before we first encountered it on the FD91, but frankly weren't expecting all that much. I mean sure, it would make some difference, but just how much could it really do? The answer is "quite a lot": We were frankly amazed by how much it steadied the image in the viewfinder (and the resulting pictures we shot) when working at the maximum telephoto setting. With Steady Shot turned off, no matter how hard we tried to hold the camera still, the image in the viewfinder would still twitch and jiggle with every heartbeat, muscle tremor, or seeming breath of air. The moment we switched on the Steady Shot system though, things quieted right down. We don't have any tests to quantify the amount of shake reduction the FD91 achieves, but on a subjective level, it was a very impressive performance. We're convinced that a telephoto this long would be impossible to handhold without it.

With a maximum aperture of f/1.8, the FD91's lens is quite "fast" as well, which should contribute to good performance for sports and other action shots (the larger aperture letting in more light, and permitting a shorter shutter speed), as well as providing an option for isolating your subjects with shallower depth of field.

The lens has 52mm filter threads, giving you the option of attaching specialty filters and auxiliary lenses. While the camera doesn't have a macro mode, the lens can focus on objects as close as 0.5 inches (1 cm) from the lens in full wide angle mode. At the furthest telephoto end, the lens can focus as close as 2.7 feet (80 cm). When shooting in Aperture Priority mode, you have the ability to set the aperture manually from F/1.8 to F/11, and the camera will select the appropriate shutter speed. We also liked the inclusion of a manual focus option, controlled by a switch on the side of the lens. Once in manual focus mode, you control the focus with a ridged focus ring at the end of the lens. We did find though, that the focus operation was fairly slow, taking quite a few seconds to rack from one end of its range to the other. (Unlike most film camera lenses, the focus ring on the FD91 doesn't connect directly to the lens mechanism, but instead just commands the camera's stepper motor to move the internal lens elements appropriately.) In normal shooting though, the rather slow focus operation of the FD91's lens is more than made up for by the fact that it focuses continuously. Thus, whenever you press the shutter button, the lens is most often already pretty close to being focused on the subject.

Distortion-wise, the FD91's lens generally does pretty well. Geometric distortion is fairly low, with 0.6% barrel distortion at its wide angle position, and essentially no distortion at all at the telephoto setting. Chromatic aberration is also exceptionally low. The only noticeable defect we observed was poor corner focus at the widest-angle setting.


Exposure

The MVC-FD91 gives you a fair amount of exposure control, although you don't get the full manual control that we'd like to see. In addition to the Program AE mode which controls both aperture and shutter speed, the MVC-FD91 offers Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Twilight exposure modes. Both aperture and shutter priority modes give you control over the corresponding setting while the camera controls the other. As we mentioned earlier, aperture can be manually set from F/1.8 to F/11 (although the camera will only automatically select apertures down to f/2.4) and shutter speed spans from 1/60 to 1/4000 seconds. Twilight mode simply adjusts the aperture and shutter speed for dark settings like night skylines and fireworks, but doesn't appear to appreciably increase the lower limit of the usable light range. The camera lets you know when images are in focus and when the exposure is locked through indicators on the display. When the green circle is solid, the camera is ready to snap the picture.

When shooting in Program AE, you do have control over the exposure compensation through the display menu. You can adjust the exposure from -1.5 to +1.5 EV in 0.5 EV increments. White balance is also easily controlled, with options for Automatic, One-Push, Outdoor and Indoor. One-Push lets you manually adjust the white balance by placing a white card in front of the lens and pressing the manual adjustment button until the white value is set. (This "preset" white balance option is one we'd like to see more widely available, as it can really help get good exposures in unusual lighting conditions.) We also greatly appreciated the ability to activate a spot metering mode, which takes the exposure values from the very center of the composition as opposed to the averaging of values of the entire image. Spot metering is useful for high contrast subjects, where you'd rather have the exposure set for a specific highlight or dark area. A self-timer (accessible through the on-screen menu) gives you a 10 second countdown, complete with an audible beep, after the shutter button is pressed.

Sony doesn't state an ISO value for the MVC-FD91, but judging from the aperture and shutter speed settings it chooses under various lighting conditions, the ISO appears to be about 50. Combined with the shutter speed range of 1/60 to 1/4000, and the aperture range of f/1.8 to f/11, this should correspond to a usable light range of about 100 footcandles (1100 lux) to something way brighter than anything you're likely to encounter on the earth's surface. (Short of direct exposures of the sun.) At the low-light end of the range, the performance is decidedly modest: Our low-light tests start at a level of 8 footcandles, and at that point, the FD91 was clearly already beginning to run out of steam. That said though, it does appear that it can do somewhat better than the 100 footcandles our interpretation it's ISO would indicate. An equivalent ISO of 100 might therefore be closer to the mark at low light levels. That said, with a maximum exposure time of 1/60 of a second, the FD91 clearly isn't a likely candidate for after-dark available-light photography.


Flash

The MVC-FD91 comes with a handy pop-up flash that Sony rates as effective from 2.6 to 8.3 feet (0.5 to 2.5m). The 8.3 foot distance rating seemed to agree fairly well with our own measurements, which showed it beginning to fall off fairly substantially somewhere around 9 feet. A flash button on the back panel of the camera alternates between Automatic, Forced and Suppressed flash modes. Sony also states that the flash will work with shutter speeds from 1/60 to 1/1500 seconds. You can adjust the flash intensity through the capture menu, with options for High, Normal and Low. We like this flexibility, especially when combined with the Aperture and Shutter Priority modes. By playing with the flash intensity and other exposure settings, we found we could achieve a fair bit of control over the final images, using the flash for "fill" illumination in otherwise brightly-lit situations. Our only significant complaint about the flash system was that we found the release mechanism for the pop-up flash to be a little tricky and tough to slide back. This is only a minor concern that we eventually learned to work with, but felt it was worth mentioning.


Movie Mode

We were glad to see Sony's inclusion of the movie mode, which allows you to record both images and sound. You can record up to 60 seconds at the 160 x 112 size and up to 15 seconds at 320 x 240. Within these time frames, the camera records both image and sound as long as you hold down the shutter button. If you just press the shutter button momentarily, the camera records for five seconds. Movies are recorded as MPEG files and you have the same amount of exposure control as with still images.


Special Record Modes

The MVC-FD91 has a couple of interesting recording options for still images, accessed through the capture menu. The E-Mail option records a still image at the 320 x 240 JPEG size for easy e-mail transmission, in addition to a full-resolution one, at whatever image size you've selected in the menu system. This lets you capture full-resolution images to keep, while at the same time getting smaller versions that you can just drop into an email to share with others. (Without tying up Grandma's 14.4K modem for a couple of hours.) The Voice option lets you record a sound byte to accompany a still image (up to 40 seconds). And finally, the Bitmap selection records a non-compressed 640 x 480 image, as a Windows BMP bitmap file.


Shutter Lag / Cycle Times

When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time is to allow the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is almost never reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, we now routinely measure it with an electronic test setup. Likewise, we measure and report on how quickly the camera can take sequential exposures in various capture modes.

In the case of the MVC-FD91, we were surprised by how fast it was, both in terms of shutter lag and from shot to shot. Thanks to the continuously-focusing lens system, shutter lag in full autofocus mode was only 0.18 seconds. (This is much faster than most digicams, which generally run closer to 0.8 seconds, with many even slower than that.) Half-pressing the shutter before the exposure doesn't gain the time you normally would from prefocusing the lens (it already is prefocused), but does take care of exposure and white balance computation before the exposure itself. Shutter lag for shots taken from the half-pressed button position was only 0.11 seconds. These shutter lag times are unusually short, suggesting that the FD91 might be a good camera for action photography. The only caution we'd make is that the focus may not be quick enough to track objects moving toward or away from the lens very rapidly: You may need to use the trick of using manual focus to prefocus on a specific spot, and wait for the action to move into the field of view.

Cycle time (the minimum time between successive shots) was also surprisingly fast, given that the camera has to start up the floppy drive and write the image data to it. In maximum resolution/quality mode, the shot-to-shot cycle time was only 5.5 seconds, dropping to 4.35 seconds for minimum resolution/quality images.


Operation and User Interface

Although the myriad controls and buttons on MVC-FD91 appear somewhat daunting at first, its user interface is very uncomplicated once you get the hang of it. (This seems to be a common trait with Sony cameras, as they appear complicated at first sight and then quickly become easy to operate). The user interface as a whole heavily relies on the LCD display or the optical viewfinder color display. The absence of a status display panel means you must use one or the other when altering settings. Overall, the layout of the controls makes sense, with all the optical adjustments on the side of the lens and the exposure adjustments grouped together on the side of the camera body. Once you get used to the layout, changing modes and settings is a snap.


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button: Located on the top right of the camera, this button sets the focus and exposure when pressed halfway and fires the shutter when fully pressed. When using the self-timer, the shutter button triggers the 10 second countdown.



Focus Ring: Located on the end of the lens, this ring adjusts the focus when shooting in manual focus mode.



Zoom Lever: Located on the left side of the lens barrel, this lever controls the optical zoom on the lens (up to 14x).



Focus Switch: Also located on the left side of the lens, this switch shifts between Auto and Manual focus modes.



Steady Shot Switch: Located just beside the Focus Switch, this switch turns the Steady Shot function on and off.



Open Flash Switch: Located on the left side of the camera, this sliding switch releases the pop-up flash.



White Balance Button: Located on the left side panel of the camera, this button selects the white balance mode (Automatic, Indoors, Outdoors or One-Push).

One-Push Button: Located directly beneath the White Balance button, this button sets the white value when in One-Push white balance mode.



Program AE Button: Located beneath the One-Push button, this button sets the exposure mode (Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Twilight).

Program AE +/- Buttons:
Located beneath the Program AE button, these buttons adjust exposure settings such as the aperture and shutter speed, depending on the exposure mode selected.


Dioptric Adjustment Lever: Located on the underside of the optical viewfinder, this lever adjusts the viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers


Brightness Button: Located on the left side of the LCD panel, this button controls the LCD brightness.


Volume Button: Also located on the left side of the LCD panel, this button controls the camera's volume level.



Display Button: Located on the back panel of the camera, this button turns the information display on the LCD monitor on or off.



Flash Button: Located directly beside the Display button, this button controls the flash mode (Automatic, Forced and Suppressed).



Power Switch: Located on the back panel of the camera, this sliding switch turns the camera on and off.



Disk Eject Lever: Located at the very bottom right of the back panel, this sliding lever features a smaller sliding lock and ejects the diskette.



Play/Still/Movie Switch: Located below the LCD monitor, this switch selects between Playback, Still and Movie capture modes.



Rocker Toggle Button: Located below the LCD monitor, this button has four arrows that navigate through menu screens in both playback and capture modes. Pressing the center of the button confirms menu selections.



Spot Meter Button: Located below the optical viewfinder, this button turns the spot metering function on and off.



Finder/LCD Switch: Located directly beneath the optical viewfinder, this switch changes the image display from the optical viewfinder to the LCD monitor and vice versa.



Open Batt Switch: Located on the bottom of the camera (on the battery compartment cover), this switch unlocks and opens the battery compartment.

Camera Modes and Menus
The FD91 has a number of operating modes, selected via the Program AE button mentioned above. The LCD screen displays for them are virtually identical though, and have relatively little information of interest, so we won't show the different displays separately here.

Program AE: In this mode, the camera controls both aperture and shutter speed, basing the exposure on existing light levels. The user has control over exposure compensation (EV), flash, white balance and metering.

Aperture Priority
: Here, you select the desired aperture setting (from F/1.8 to F/11) while the camera selects the most appropriate corresponding shutter speed. As in Program AE, you still maintain control over the flash, white balance and metering mode selections.

Shutter Priority
: Similar to the above, you control the shutter speed (from 1/60 to 1/4000 seconds) while the camera chooses the aperture setting. You control flash, white balance and metering mode, if desired.

Twilight
: In this mode, the camera selects the best aperture and shutter speed settings for dark scenes like city scapes and fireworks.

Movie Mode
: This mode allows you to capture up to a 60 second 160 x 112 or a 15 second 320 x 240 movie with sound. You have all the above exposure capabilities, including the ability to change from Program AE to Aperture or Shutter Priority.

Playback Mode
: This mode allows you to review captured still images and movies on the LCD panel. An index display puts up to six images on the screen at one time for quick review.

Capture Mode Menu

  • Clock Set: changes the camera date and time settings.

  • Beep: turns the camera beep on and off.

  • Disk Tool: allows you to format or copy the diskette.

  • File Number: sets file numbering at Normal or Series.

  • Flash Level: sets the flash intensity at High, Normal or Low.

  • Image Size: selects the image size at 1024 x 768 or 640 x 480 for still images; 320 x 240 or 160 x 112 for movie images.

  • Quality: sets image quality at either Fine or Standard.

  • Record Mode: sets the record mode at Bitmap, Voice, E-Mail or Normal.

Playback Mode Menu

  • Clock Set: changes the camera date and time settings.

  • Beep: turns the camera beep on and off.

  • Disk Tool: allows you to format or copy the diskette.

  • Delete: deletes the selected image (option to cancel).

  • Copy: copies the selected image (option to cancel).

  • Protect: turns file protection on and off for individual images.


Image Storage and Interface
The MVC-FD91 records still images and movies to a 3.5 inch, 2HD, DOS formatted diskette. This eliminates a good deal of the hassle of downloading files from the camera to your computer. Instead of messing around with cables and driver software, you just take the disk from the camera and put it in your computer. A small disk icon on the camera's LCD display lets you know how much of the disk is full and how many images have been shot. In addition to the standard write protection of the entire diskette (simply slide the lock switch), the MVC-FD91 allows you to protect individual images on the disk from accidental erasure or alteration. Additionally, all the standard rules about floppies apply here, such as keep diskettes away from heavy magnetic fields and don't get them wet. This type of image storage is perfect for PC users, who should have a floppy drive readily available on their machine. Newer Mac users, however, will need to utilize an external floppy drive since the camera doesn't have any digital connection jacks and the latest Macs don't come with floppy drives.

Below is the approximate amount of images and compression ratios for a standard 1.44MB diskette:

Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity High Resolution Standard Resolution
Images Approx.
Compression
Images Approx.
Compression
Uncompressed Quality n/a n/a 1 1:1
Fine Quality 6 6:1 10 10:1
Standard Quality 25 6:1 15 10:1



Video Out
The MVC-FD91 does not have a video-out port.



Power

The MVC-FD91 comes with a Sony InfoLITHIUM, NP-F330 rechargeable battery. (It can also use NP-F530 and NP-F550.) InfoLITHIUM means that the battery communicates with the camera to let you know how much power is left (displayed on the LCD panel in minutes as well as with a battery icon). If you need to run the camera for longer periods than the battery pack will allow, a supplied AC adapter should do the trick. There's also an auto power-off function which shuts down the camera after three minutes of inactivity.

Additionally, the MVC-FD91 uses a small Sony CR2025 lithium battery to maintain the internal clock and calendar. The lithium battery compartment is located on the back panel of the camera, below the optical viewfinder.

To our mind, the InfoLITHIUM battery technology is a huge plus for the MVC-FD91: We've so often pulled a digicam out of the drawer or off the shelf, only to discover that the batteries were half-dead. No way to tell if that's the case either, as there's no indication of how much use they've seen, when they were last charged, etc. With the InfoLITHIUM system, you know within a few seconds of turning the camera on exactly how much charge/operating time is left. Overall battery capacity is quite good, and buying a NP-F550 battery gives very good operating life. Finally, the lithium-ion technology used in the InfoLITHIUM cells means that the batteries don't "self-discharge", holding their full charge when not in use, for months at a time.

Unfortunately, the camera/battery communication of the InfoLITHIUM system means that we can't test power consumption in our normal fashion on the FD91. Instead, we've provided the table below showing operating times in various camera modes, as reported when the camera was operating from a freshly-charged NP-F530 battery.

Operating Mode Operating Time
Capture Mode, w/LCD 66 min
Capture Mode, Eyepiece Viewfinder 88 min
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD 66 min
Half-pressed w/o LCD 88 min
Memory Write (transient) n/a
Flash Recharge (transient) n/a
Image Playback 147 min


Included Software
Included with the MVC-FD91 is a software CD with MGI PhotoSuite SE, compatible with Windows 3.1x, 95, 98 and NT as well as Mac OS 7.5 and higher. The software comes in English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese versions. MGI PhotoSuite SE retrieves images from the floppy and allows you to view them through a slide show or album. The software also helps you set up images for printing (with the Mavica Printer accessory, sold separately, of course). In addition to the traditional editing and manipulation tools, the PhotoSuite offers a variety of templates to help you turn your images into mock magazine covers, sports cards, greeting cards and calendars.

The MVC-FD91 also works with Sony's ImageStation website (http://imagestation.sony.com), which allows you to create personal Internet photo albums and purchase professional quality prints.


Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings: For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the MVC-FD91's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we 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 MVC-FD91 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the FD-91 produced good pictures for an 0.8 megapixel camera: Compared with other cameras having up to 1 megapixel resolution, image quality is quite good indeed. Colors are bright and accurate, and the camera does well with the difficult red/magenta color separation, and handles the tricky blues of our model's pants and blue flowers in the outdoor portrait shot quite well.

Resolution is on a par with other cameras up to roughly a 1 megapixel resolution, providing roughly 575 lines per picture height in both horizontal and vertical directions. As pointed out in the main body of the review, the real news on the resolution front is how many pixels the camera can deliver "on subject" in telephoto situations: The FD91's 14x optical zoom lens produces more detail for distant subjects than any other camera we've tested to date (March 2000).

The FD91 also offers good exposure control, with aperture & shutter priority metering, although it stops short of full-manual capability. "Bonus" features such as full MPEG movie recording add to its appeal, as does its ultra-simple floppy-disk interface. (You will need to pack along a goodly number of floppy disks though, on any extended outing.) In our tests, the camera's major weakness was in the area of low-light shooting: With only a 1/60 second maximum exposure time, the FD91 is only usable in fairly well-lit environments. (It can handle brightly-lit office and residential interiors, but no dimmer.) Flash performance is only average, with a maximum usable flash range of only 8 feet.

The FD91's viewfinder is unusual in that it offers an "optical" "through the lens" capability that's actually based on a tiny LCD. As a result, the "optical" viewfinder and back-panel LCD agree almost exactly with each other, although both are less accurate than we'd like to see. The viewfinders show 85% of the final image in telephoto mode, and 87% in wide angle. (This is about typical of optical viewfinders among cameras we've tested, but less accurate than most LCD viewfinders.) Still, we like the close agreement between "optical" and LCD finders, as it makes it easier to judge how to frame your subjects.

The FD91 performed very well in Macro mode, with a minimum coverage area of only 1.48 x 1.11 inches (37.69 x 28.37 mm). This is quite a bit better than most digicams manage.

As a bottom line to our tests, the FD91 delivers good color but less resolution than other cameras selling at its price point. For many users though, the low resolution will be more than made up for by the extraordinary 14x optical zoom lens, good exposure control, ease of interfacing (can't get any simpler than a floppy disk), and the MPEG movie capability. Particularly if you're interested in extreme telephoto shots with a digicam, the FD91 would be an easy choice...


Conclusion
Despite its substantial bulk and hefty price point, we really liked all the MVC-FD91 had to offer. It's image resolution is modest by current standards, but the 14x optical zoom and excellent exposure control make this a very versatile camera. A very effective image-stabilization system makes the 14x zoom actually usable for handheld shots at the maximum telephoto setting, which is pretty remarkable when you consider it's the equivalent of a 518mm lens on a 35mm film camera. We also liked the rotating LCD panel and the use of 3.5 inch floppies for image storage - no fussy cabling or waiting for downloads. Don't forget about the MPEG movie mode which also allows you to record sound. We can think of a million situations where that feature would be useful. Taken as a whole, it's easy to see how the FD91 achieved it's market-leading popularity: Enough resolution for many applications, a fantastic lens, good exposure control, and (the real kicker) no cables!


Reader Sample Images!
Do you have a Sony Mavica MVC-FD91 camera? If you'll post an album of your samples on one of the photo-sharing services and email us at photos@imaging-resource.com, we'll list the album here for others to see!

 

For More Info:
View the data sheet for the MVC-FD91

View the test images from the MVC-FD91

 

Reader Comments!
Questions, comments or controversy on this article? Click this link to see what other Imaging Resource readers have had to say about Sony Mavica FD91, or add comments of your own!


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