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Sony MVC-FD97

Sony adds a Memory Stick and USB to the FD95 - No more file-compression blues!

Review First Posted: 2/9/2001





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MSRP $899 US

 

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2.1 megapixel CCD, up to 1600x1200 images
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10x optical , 2x digital zoom, optically stabilized
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Records movies with sound
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JPEG, GIF, TIFF, and MPEG file formats
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Floppy or Memory Stick and USB computer interface


Manufacturer Overview
More than any other single company, Sony has dominated the digital camera market the last few years, thanks in large part to the easy computer interfacing offered by their Mavica(tm) line of floppy disk based cameras. Last spring (February, 2000), they stunned the digicam world by announcing no fewer than six new digicam models. This year (2001), they did it again at Spring PMA in Orlando, FL, announcing another six new units. As they did last year, this year's announcements affected both the Mavica and CyberShot lines.

The subject of this review is Sony's new Mavica MVC-FD97, redefining the high end of the Mavica line. Like other Mavicas, it retains the ever-popular internal floppy disk drive, permitting images to be exported from the camera to host computer simply by removing the floppy disk, inserting it in the computer, and copying the files. What's different this time is that the MVC-FD97 also includes an internal slot for Sony's Memory Stick flash memory cards. With capacities currently running as high as 64 megabytes, the Memory Stick slot completely eliminates the space crunch produced by trying to squeeze 2 megapixel files onto a 1.44 MB floppy disk. The new design can record to either the Memory Stick or floppy, and copy easily between the two media types. Really, this brings the best of both worlds: The ease and convenience of floppies for sharing images, but the capacity and speed of Memory Sticks for extended usage. Sony also added a USB interface for direct image downloads from the Memory Stick, brought over the clever "Clip Motion" feature from the CyberShot line, and dropped the price $100.

This latest Mavica really expands the reach and value of the Mavica line. More than just a "Mavica with a Memory Stick", the FD97 presents a strong value proposition, bearing the distinction of being the lowest-priced 10x zoom-equipped camera on the market. While other manufacturers competing in the long-zoom market space will doubtless answer with lower prices of their own, the FD97 marks a sharp break with Sony tradition of demanding premium prices for their products. With their new product lineup, they're serving notice on the industry that they'll be offering rich features and aggressive pricing. While this will doubtless be viewed with consternation by other manufacturers, it's only the very best of news for consumers.

With the FD97, we believe Sony has really broken out of the niche (albeit a unique and very profitable one) of "camera with floppy disk" to compete strongly in the broader "camera with big zoom lens" category. We think they've succeeded admirably, and predict much success for this latest extension of the Mavica line.


Highlights



What's New?
Given that it's an upgrade to the previous MVC-FD95, we thought it would be useful to give a quick synopsis at the outset of what's new in this model. Here's a quick list of key new features:



Executive Overview
As we've come to expect from Sony's Mavica digicam line, the MVC-FD97 is a bit of a handful, visibly standing out from the more pocket-sized digicams we commonly test. With a body size and style nearly identical to the previous FD95 model, the FD97's larger camera size is necessary due to its 3.5 inch floppy disk drive (a feature which has earned Sony much popularity in the consumer marketplace). In addition to the floppy drive, Sony has added a Memory Stick card slot, giving you two options for image storage. With image storage on floppies, you're free from the hassles of cables, download software and compatibility issues, though slightly limited by storage space. The benefits of a Memory Stick slot are multiple, ranging from the availability of up to 64 megabytes of image storage without using a floppy adapter to faster cycle times and more rapid downloads to the host computer. The higher capacity also permits the use of less image compression, resulting in better image quality. (Including an optional uncompressed TIFF file format.) Overall, the FD97 is very similar to the FD95 operationally, but the addition of the Memory Stick brings important improvements in several areas.

Like the FD95, the FD97's optical viewfinder is a smaller version of the rear LCD monitor, complete with information display and menus. The "optical" viewfinder actually uses a tiny (and lower-power) LCD screen to show you what the camera is seeing (a little like an "electronic SLR" or single-lens reflex). We like the idea of being able to see the exposure settings, flash, etc. in the viewfinder, but we also found it a little difficult to navigate the menu system with your face so close to the camera and preferred to switch over to the larger LCD monitor when making menu selections. The FD97 offers a 10x optical zoom with its 6 to 60mm lens (equivalent to a 39 to 390mm lens on a 35mm camera). The lens also features Sony's remarkably effective "Steady Shot" system that helps you hold the image steady when you're shooting at the extreme telephoto settings the FD97 is capable of. Focus ranges from 9.8 inches (25 cm) to infinity in normal mode and from an amazing 0.8 to 9.8 inches (2.0 to 25cm) in Macro mode. Finally, apertures range from a fast f/2.8 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.

Although there's no full manual exposure option, Sony does give you both Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority exposure modes. In these, you select one value while the camera chooses the most appropriate corresponding one. There are also Twilight and Twilight Plus modes that extend low-light performance (although not to true night photography levels - use the shutter priority exposure option for that), and a full Program AE for times when you want the camera to do all the work. Landscape mode locks the focus at infinity, and Panfocus allows you to quickly change focus from far away to close-up subjects. Both modes are perfect for fast action shooting situations when you don't have time to wait the second or so that the autofocus system requires. White balance offered the standard Automatic, Indoors, and Outdoors options, as well as a manual, or "One-Push" adjustment setting. A spot metering option gives you greater selectivity for your exposure with backlit and high-contrast subjects. The on-board pop-up flash gives you some added control as well, letting you set its intensity level. Combined with one of the semi-manual modes and the capability of connecting an external flash, you have a good bit of control over flash exposure. There's also a sharpness control and an entire menu of picture effects, which let you shoot images in black and white or sepia monotones, with a solarized effect, or as negative art.

Besides the traditional still capture mode, the MVC-FD97 has a movie option that lets you record up to 60 seconds of images and sound in the 160 x 112 pixel size, and up to 15 seconds at the 320 x 240 size. Movies are recorded as MPEG files and most of the same exposure options are available as for still images, with the exception of flash. Additionally, you can record up to 40 second sound clips to accompany still images. Under the capture mode menu, the MVC-FD97 gives you the added option of recording still images as black and white GIFs (good for capturing text or white boards) or e-mail friendly images (320 x 240 size for easier e-mail transmission) at the same time as higher resolution ones. New to the Mavica line is the Clip Motion photography mode, which takes 10 sequential still images and puts them together to be played back like an animation.

As we said earlier, arguably the biggest "news" is that the MVC-FD97 stores images on either a 3.5 inch floppy diskette or a Sony Memory Stick. Saving images to floppy diskettes makes it exceptionally 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. The downside to floppy storage is that the 1.44 megabyte floppy capacity limited the FD95 to only 4 high resolution images on each disk, and even that capacity required more image compression than many users were happy with. By contrast, Sony's Memory Sticks allow you to store up to 64 megabytes of images on a single card, letting the camera use much less image compression in that mode. (The FD97's uncompressed TIFF file format is only available when utilizing the Memory Stick, the option disappearing from the settings menu when a floppy disk is in use.)

An NTSC video cable is included with the camera (European models come equipped for PAL, but the camera itself can switch between the two standards via a menu option), as is a USB cable for high speed connection to a PC or Mac. (The USB interface is also new to the FD97, greatly speeding downloads of images stored on Memory Sticks.) MGI's PhotoSuite SE (Mac and Windows) and VideoWave SE (Windows only) software also accompanies the camera, providing organized image downloading, image-correction capabilities and a variety of creative templates for making greeting cards, calendars, etc., as well as basic video editing utilities.

For power, the MVC-FD97 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 batteries communicate with the camera about its power consumption. The resulting information appears to you as remaining battery time in minutes displayed on the LCD next to a battery symbol. 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-FD97. It combines everything we loved about the FD95 (long zoom, optical stabilization, great color) with the added features of a Memory Stick slot and the accompanying lower-compression JPEG and uncompressed TIFF formats, Clip Motion mode, and a fast USB interface. We'd like to see the inclusion of a full manual exposure mode on future Mavica models, since the camera already provides Aperture and Shutter Priority exposure modes. (It seems to us this would be an easy feature to add.) Overall though, both novice consumers and advanced amateurs alike should find much to like about the FD97. The combination of good exposure controls, 10x optically stabilized zoom lens, dual-media Memory Stick and floppy disk image storage, fast USB computer interface, and new "value leader" pricing make for an incredible package!


Design
As the most recent addition to Sony's Mavica series, the FD97 continues the line's trend of larger body styles, dictated by the physical dimensions of the included floppy drive. Despite first-guess estimates based on its hefty size, the camera feels lighter than you'd think. Weighing in at 33.2 ounces (950 g), including the battery pack, the FD97 is nearly identical to the previous FD95. Although that's a great deal more weight than many smaller digicams carry, it's still lighter than what your first assumption might be, mostly due to the tough plastic body. The camera's overall size is 5 x 5 x 7.25 inches (126 x 124 x 184mm). While the FD97 won't easily slip into your coat pocket, (the size must accommodate the required floppy disks and the very long-ratio zoom lens), the accompanying neck strap makes it easy to tote.



Now for our virtual tour around the camera. The top of the FD97 is fairly plain, holding the shutter button, pop-up flash, external flash mount, and external flash sync connection (marked "ACC" and covered by a rubber flap). In addition to hosting Sony's accessory F1000 flash unit, the external flash connector also works with a handful of other Sony flash-related accessories. You can also see the ridged manual focusing ring on the front of the lens in this view.



The rather large lens dominates 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.) Also on the front of the camera is the zoom control lever and microphone, in addition to a soft rubber finger pad on the front of the hand grip.



We like the bulky hand grip on the side of the camera, which gives you a nice, solid hold. Conveniently, the floppy disk and Memory Stick slots are also on this side, making it simple to change disks in and out when the camera is mounted on a tripod. An eyelet for attaching the neck strap protrudes from the top of the floppy disk slot.



The majority of the camera's controls are on the left side of the camera (when viewed from the back), which we're more accustomed to after working with other Mavica models. Focus, Steady Shot, white balance, Program AE, spot metering, and macro options are all controlled from this side. An audio/video out terminal also resides on this side of the camera (at the bottom), protected by a flexible rubber flap that conveniently slides out of the way when opened. There's also a dioptric adjustment dial on the side of the optical viewfinder, to accommodate near and farsighted users, and an eyelet for attaching the neck strap.



Some controls do remain on the back panel, namely power, capture mode, flash, volume, the menu button, LCD on/off button, and the display button. The optical viewfinder and LCD panel also live back here (this LCD display is stationary, unlike some Mavica models where the LCD panel actually flips upward or has swiveling capability). We like the idea of having an information display in the optical viewfinder as with the FD95, but it's really only useful as a status readout: It's a little awkward navigating through menus with your face pressed against the back of the camera. Also on the back panel is the Memory Stick slot, covered by a hinged, sliding door. An adjustment switch above the compartment, labeled "MS" and "FD," determines whether the camera records images to the floppy disk or Memory Stick. The USB digital port rests beneath the Memory Stick compartment and is covered by a flexible rubber flap. Just above the Memory Stick compartment is the floppy disk ejector switch, a speaker, and a red LED that indicates when the camera is accessing the memory card or floppy disk.



We greatly appreciated the placement of the tripod mount and the battery compartment. They're just barely far enough away from each other to allow battery changes while the camera is attached to a tripod bracket. The metal threads of the tripod mount also gave us a bit more confidence that we wouldn't strip them when we tightened down the tripod screw. Our only complaint with the tripod mount was that the socket doesn't have a lot of flat area around it, particularly toward the front of the camera. This makes it more prone to front-to-back rocking when mounted on the tripod. Also visible from the bottom side of the camera is the DC In jack, beneath a rubber flap on the bottom of the lens barrel.


Viewfinder
The MVC-FD97 offers both a rear-panel LCD screen and "optical" or eyelevel viewfinder. The "optical" viewfinder actually uses a tiny (and lower-power) LCD screen to show you what the camera is seeing. Sort of an "electronic SLR" (single-lens reflex), identical to the design of the MVC-FD95 model. What makes the optical viewfinder interesting is the internal information display, which is the same as that of the LCD monitor (complete with navigable menus). The information display includes the shutter speed and aperture settings when shooting in Aperture or Shutter Priority exposure modes. The idea of being able to see the exposure settings in the viewfinder is a good one, but navigating the menus through the optical viewfinder is a bit of a trick (one we weren't able to easily do). We found it much easier to simply switch on the LCD monitor when we needed to change menu options. The optical viewfinder does feature a dioptric adjustment dial for eyeglass wearers, which is always a nice bonus. The 2.5 inch LCD monitor is turned on and off by the LCD On/Off button directly to its left, and the information display is controlled by the Display button just beneath the monitor.

We like eyelevel viewfinders because they promote a more secure camera grip (arms clamped to your sides, camera body braced against your face) that helps with long telephoto and low-light shots. They also provide a more natural "look & shoot" operation than when you're forced to rely on a rear-panel LCD display. The downside of having the "optical" viewfinder be electronically driven though, is that you're left with no usable viewfinder option when the light levels get really low: The FD97 has excellent low-light capability, and in fact can shoot in conditions about as dark as you're likely to be able to see in. However, the electronic viewfinder system needs much more light to operate, meaning that you'll have to either look at the finished shot and readjust the framing as needed, or just shoot at a wider angle setting than otherwise, and hope to get all of the subject in the frame.

For all our general bellyaching about electronic viewfinders though, we do recognize that they're a necessary evil on cameras with long ratio zoom lenses, since there's almost no way a conventional optical viewfinder could be made to zoom across a similarly wide range with accurate framing, and not add enormously to the cost of the camera.

In Playback mode, the LCD monitor offers a six image index display mode and a playback zoom that enlarges captured images up to 5x. Once a captured image is enlarged, the arrow keys of the rocker toggle button scroll around the image, allowing you to check on fine details. The image information display in Playback mode reports the date and time the image was captured, filename, resolution size, and the number of images saved on the memory card or floppy disk.


Optics
The MVC-FD97 features a 10x, 6 to 60mm lens (equivalent to a 39 to 390mm lens on a 35mm camera). The FD97 also boasts the surprisingly effective "Steady Shot" anti-vibration system, which increases your chances of being able to handhold exposures with such a long telephoto. (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 400mm lens, you should normally use a shutter speed of at least 1/400 of a second to avoid motion blur in your photos.) As we found with the earlier FD91 and FD95, the Steady Shot system really does an excellent job of steadying the image in the viewfinder when working at the maximum telephoto setting. While we don't have any objective way to measure how effective the Steady Shot system is, our distinct impression was that it provides an amazing reduction in the amount of camera shake that makes it through to the CCD. (Our rough estimate is that it relaxes the shutter speed rule of thumb by at least a factor of four, meaning that 1/100 of a second is a fast enough shutter speed to capture sharp images with the FD97's zoom at maximum telephoto.)

With a maximum aperture of f/2.8, the FD97's lens is quite "fast," great 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, which allow you to attach specialty filters and auxiliary lenses. The 2x digital telephoto can be turned on and off through the record menu, and effectively extends the camera's zoom range to 20x. However, quality is always an issue with digital telephoto, as the camera is simply enlarging the central portion of the image and thereby decreasing the image quality (resulting in higher noise levels and lower resolution). Focus ranges from 9.8 inches (25 cm) to infinity in normal mode and from 0.8 to 9.8 inches (2.0 to 25 cm) in macro mode. Macro mode is controlled by the Macro button on the left side of the camera (when looking at the back).

Focus control offers manual or automatic options, accessed by sliding the Focus switch, also on the same side of the camera (next to the Macro button). Once in manual focus mode, you control focus by turning the ridged focus ring at the end of the lens. When you do so, the LCD viewfinder immediately switches to a 2x enlarged view, which helps you determine whether you've achieved proper focus or not. When in autofocus mode, the camera continuously sets the focus. 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.

One of the quirks of the FD95 that we also observed in the FD97 is that the camera momentarily "freezes" the viewfinder display whenever the shutter button is halfway pressed, or when the manual focus bezel is initially turned. This is a significant issue when shooting action subjects, as a lot can happen in the few tenths of a second while the display is either frozen or transitioning between modes. Without special handling, this makes the camera decidedly less valuable in shooting sports action and other fast-changing subjects. There is somewhat of a workaround to this problem though: It turns out if you just hold the shutter button half-pressed in manual focus mode, the display will revert to normal size, yet you can continue to operate the focus ring manually to follow the action. The on-screen distance display continues to show the distance in real-time, which can help you get the right focus in spite of the smaller screen display. This is still a trifle inconvenient (you have to keep your finger gently pressing the shutter button), but it does seem workable. Similarly, if you're shooting in autofocus mode, you can half-press and hold the shutter button prior to the action you want to capture, then fire the shutter when the moment arrives. Focus and exposure are locked at the moment the shutter button is initially depressed, but the response time is much faster when you actually take the picture. As a note to the Sony engineers, it'd be nice to have a setup menu option to disable the jump to 2x size when you twiddle with the manual focus adjustment. Likewise, why must the display freeze when you push the shutter button? Perhaps not a fatal flaw, but one we'd very much like to see corrected.

The camera's Aperture Priority mode allows you to manually select the lens aperture from f/2.8 to f/11 in 1/2-stop increments, while the camera selects the appropriate corresponding shutter speed. Two quick focus modes, Landscape and Panfocus, allow you to preset specific focusing distances for fast shooting situations. Landscape sets focus at infinity for far away subjects, while Panfocus apparently sets the lens to a smaller aperture and the focal distance to the lens' "hyperfocal" distance, where everything beyond a given distance is in focus. (The Sony manuals haven't been too clear on exactly what "Panfocus" does: This is the best interpretation we've been able to come up with.) We can see how these modes would be helpful at kids' soccer games and other sporting events, when the fast paced action doesn't give you much time to fool with focus.


Exposure
With its variety of Program AE modes, the MVC-FD97 gives you a fair amount of exposure control, although it still doesn't offer the full manual control that we'd like to see on a high end camera of this sort. In addition to the standard Program AE automatic exposure mode which controls both aperture and shutter speed, the MVC-FD97 offers Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Twilight, Twilight Plus, Landscape, and Panfocus 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/2.8 to f/11 and shutter speed spans from eight to 1/500 seconds. Manually selected aperture values are in 1/2 f-stop increments, while the shutter speed step size varies as a function of the speed range you're working in. At very long shutter times, the steps are in full-stop (2x) increments, while at very high speeds, they're in half-stop increments. In the critical midrange, speeds of 1/60, 1/90, 1/100, 1/125, and 1/180 are offered, giving approximately third-stop increments. The Twilight modes simply adjust the aperture and shutter speed for dark settings like night skylines and fireworks. Normal Twilight mode sets the exposure system to somewhat underexpose the image, so bright lights, the sunset, neon signs, etc. won't wash out, but instead retain their full color. Twilight Plus makes less exposure adjustment, but boosts light sensitivity for taking pictures under darker conditions. As mentioned above, Landscape and Panfocus modes apparently only affect the lens focus, although Panfocus apparently also chooses a smaller lens aperture for greater depth of field.

When shooting in Program AE, you do have control over the exposure compensation through the display menu. You can adjust the exposure from -2.0 to +2.0 EV in 1/3 EV increments. (Each full EV unit corresponds to a doubling of halving of the exposure.) White balance is also easily controlled, by a button on the side of the camera, 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. We liked the inclusion of the spot metering mode, which takes the exposure values from the very center of the composition, as opposed to averaging values from 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. When spot metering is enabled, a target crosshair appears in the center of the LCD display. A self-timer (accessible through the on-screen menu) gives you a 10 second countdown on the LCD monitor, complete with an audible beep, after the shutter button is fully pressed. There's also a sharpness setting through the capture menu, which allows you to vary the image sharpness from -2 to +2 in arbitrary units, although we found differences between sharpness settings to be very subtle.


Flash
The MVC-FD97 is equipped with a handy pop-up flash that Sony rates as effective from 2.7 to 8.3 feet (0.6 to 2.5m). A flash button on the back panel of the camera cycles through Automatic, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, and Suppressed flash modes. 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. An external flash sync connection and an accessory shoe mount on top of the camera (without flash contacts) give you even more control over flash exposures - a benefit we always appreciate.

Movie Mode
Sony once again included the popular Movie mode on the FD97, which allows you to record both images and sound. You can record up to 60 seconds at the 160 x 112 resolution 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, 10, or 15 seconds, as determined by the Record Time setting of the File menu. The amount of time recorded is shown on the LCD display, just below the number of captured files. Movies are recorded as MPEG files and you have the same amount of exposure control as with still images, with the exception of the flash. Another nice feature is that you can operate the zoom control while recording movies, for more cinematic effects.

Special Recording Modes
Like the FD95, the FD97 offers a number of special recording modes, as well as a few new ones of its own. 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 e-mail to share with others. Somewhat the converse of E-Mail mode, the TIFF option saves a 1600x1200 uncompressed TIFF version of each image, in addition to the standard JPEG version at whatever image size you've selected. TIFF mode is only available when using a Memory Stick for storage, since each file is larger than the capacity of a floppy disk. (The TIFF menu option simply disappears when you switch to a floppy disk for image storage.)

The Voice option lets you record a sound clip to accompany a still image (up to 40 seconds). It may be used in either Memory Stick or floppy disk storage modes. The Text mode records a black and white GIF-formatted image file, perfect for recording meeting notes or whiteboards. The GIF format records a high-resolution black and white image with a great deal of compression (that is, the resulting images take up very little memory space), but the penalty paid is the very long processing time required to reduce the full-color image captured by the CCD to the GIF format. (Twenty-five seconds or more for a full-resolution image.)

Clip Motion
New to the Mavica series is the Clip Motion capture mode, first seen last year in Sony's CyberShot line. Enabled through the record menu, this feature turns the FD97 into an animation camera, recording up to 10 frames of still images to be played back in succession as an animated GIF. Frames can be captured at any 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 rocker control button to tell the camera to finish the sequence. Available image sizes are Normal (160 x 120) and Mobile (80 x 72), and the number of actual captured frames may vary with image size and available Memory Stick space. (You have a maximum of 10, but could be constrained to fewer if your memory was very full.) Files are saved in the GIF format, and are played back with approximate 0.5 second intervals between frames. Unlike Movie mode, the flash is available with Clip Motion.

Picture Effects
A playful feature that Sony continues to include with their digicams, the Picture Effect option in the capture menu lets you get a little creative when composing images. Negative Art reverses the color and brightness of the image. Sepia and Black & White change the image into monochromatic tones. Solarize divides colors and tones in the image into discrete levels, making it look more like an illustration. Note that these options are "live" in record mode, so you get a preview of the effect on the LCD monitor before you snap the image.


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.


Sony Mavica MVC-FD97 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
3.1/7.9
Time is delay until first shot captured. (Shorter time is with Memory Stick enabled: Camera needs to check floppy first, to see if there's space available.)
Shutdown
~0 - 21
No lens retraction to wait for, meaning zero shutdown normally. Max time is time until floppy may be removed if Text-mode image is being processed.
Play to Record, first shot
~0
Time is delay until first shot captured. Almost instant in manual focus mode.
Record to play (max/min res)
1.4, 3.2, 8.8, 21.0
Shortest time is for image already processed to floppy or Memory Stick. Next is for high res JPEG image just captured, using Memory Stick. 8.8 seconds is for JPEG to floppy. Longest is for text-mode image just captured, to floppy.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
0.60
Very fast.
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.4
A bit faster than average.
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.1
Faster than average.
Cycle time, max/min res
2.7/2.7
8.0/5.5
Shorter times are for Memory Stick, longer for floppy disk storage. (Memory Stick times are quite fast.)

 

Although the FD97 appears to use the same lens as the earlier FD95, we found it's shutter lag to be quite a bit less, and cycle times to Memory Stick are quite fast indeed. It appears Sony has used the intervening time since they introduced the FD95 to further improve basic camera performance. (All in all, a very good set of timing numbers.)


Operation and User Interface
Like the preceding FD95, the FD97 features a lot of external control buttons and switches, but its user interface is quite easy to use once you get used to it. Despite the plethora of external buttons and controls though, the user interface still relies heavily on the LCD display or the optical viewfinder color display. Lacking a small black & white data readout, you must use one or the other of the color LCD displays when altering settings. However, both the capture and playback menus are relatively simple to navigate. Overall, the layout of the external 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: Encircling the end of the lens, this ring adjusts the focus when shooting in manual focus mode.


Zoom Lever: Positioned on the front of the hand grip, this lever controls the 10x optical zoom and the 2x digital zoom (when enabled). In Playback mode, this lever controls the amount of image enlargement, up to 5x.


Dioptric Adjustment Dial: Resting on the left side of the optical viewfinder, this dial adjusts the viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers.


Pop-up Flash Button: Residing on the left side of the camera, just beneath the pop-up flash, this button releases the flash from its compartment.


Spot Meter Button: The top button in a series on the lens side of the camera, this button turns the spot metering function on and off in all capture modes.


White Balance Button: Just beneath the Spot Meter button, this button selects the white balance mode (Automatic, Indoors, Outdoors, or One-Push) to match a variety of light sources.


One-Push Button: Directly to the left of the White Balance button, this button sets the white value when in One-Push white balance mode.


Program AE Button: Located directly beneath the White Balance button, this button controls the camera's exposure mode, with the following options:



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


Macro Button: Marked with the traditional macro flower symbol on the lens barrel side of the camera, this button places the camera in Macro mode. Pressing the button a second time disables the mode.


Focus Switch: To the right of the Macro button, this switch shifts between Auto and Manual focus modes.


Steady Shot Switch: Resting alongside the Focus switch, this switch turns the Steady Shot function on and off.


Play/Still/Movie Switch: Dominating the top right corner of the back control panel, this switch selects between Playback, Still, and Movie capture modes.


LCD On/Off Button: Located at the top of the curve on the left side of the LCD panel, this button turns both the LCD monitor on and off.


Volume Buttons: Lined up beneath the LCD button, these buttons control the camera's volume level and are marked with plus and minus symbols.


Flash Button: Situated at the bottom left corner of the LCD monitor, this button controls the flash mode:



Power Switch: Just beneath the LCD monitor, this sliding switch turns the camera on and off. The small green pushbutton in the center of the power switch is a safety interlock that insures the switch will only actuate when your finger is on it. When the camera is switched on, the green LED next to this switch lights solid.


Display Button: Directly to the right of the power switch, this button turns the information display of the LCD monitor and optical viewfinder on or off.


Rocker Toggle Control: Located below the LCD monitor, this control has four arrows that navigate through menu screens in both playback and capture modes. Pressing the center of the button confirms menu selections. In any camera mode, pressing the up arrow displays the settings menu on the LCD, while pressing the down arrow dismisses it. In Playback mode, the left and right arrows actuate the scroll bar on the LCD display that scrolls through captured images. Also in Playback mode, when a captured image has been enlarged, the arrow keys move the display to show various regions of the image.


MS / FD Switch: Positioned just above the Memory Stick compartment, this sliding switch determines which media the camera will record images to, with "MS" referring to Memory Stick and "FD" referring to the floppy disk.


Disk Eject Lever: Also just above the Memory Stick compartment, on the very edge of the back panel, this sliding lever ejects the 3.5 inch diskette.


Open Batt Switch: Tucked in the center of the battery compartment cover, this switch unlocks and opens the battery compartment.


Camera Modes and Menus

The MVC-FD97 has a number of operating modes, selected via the Program AE button mentioned above. Because the LCD screen displays for them are virtually identical, we won't show the different displays separately here.

Automatic Exposure (no icon): In this mode, the camera controls both aperture and shutter speed, basing the exposure on existing light levels. The user has control over all other exposure variables, including exposure compensation (EV), flash, white balance, and metering.

Aperture Priority: This mode allows you to select the desired aperture setting (from f/2.8 to f/11) while the camera selects the most appropriate corresponding shutter speed. As in Program AE, you still maintain control over the remaining exposure options.

Shutter Priority: Similar to Aperture Priority mode, you control the shutter speed (from eight to 1/500 seconds) while the camera chooses the best aperture setting to achieve a good exposure. Note that this mode is the best to use under very dim lighting conditions, as it lets you select very long shutter times.

Twilight: In this mode, the camera selects the best aperture and shutter speed settings for dark scenes like city scapes and fireworks. It's main action is to prevent bright objects against dark backgrounds from washing out, preserving color in neon signs, sunsets, etc.

Twilight Plus: This mode performs the same function as standard Twilight mode, but also increases the camera's light sensitivity, allowing higher shutter speeds under dim conditions.

Landscape: This mode sets the camera focus to infinity for shooting far away subjects such as scenery and broad vistas.

Panfocus: In this mode, the camera's focus is set to quickly shift from close-up to far away subjects, good for action photography.

Movie Mode: Unlike the above exposure modes, Movie mode is accessed by turning the mode switch on the back panel. Movie mode allows you to capture up to 60 second 160 x 112 or 15 second 320 x 240 movies with sound. You have all the above exposure capabilities, including the ability to change from Automatic Exposure to any of the Program AE modes.

Playback Mode: Also accessed through the mode switch on the back panel, Playback 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, and a playback zoom function enlarges images up to 5x for closer viewing. Images can be deleted, set up for printing on DPOF devices, write protected, copied, or resized.


Capture Mode Menu: Pressing the up arrow on the rocker toggle button calls up the capture menu when in Still or Movie capture modes. From there, you have the following submenus:


Playback Mode Menu: Activating the Playback menu pulls up the following submenus:



Image Storage and Interface
The MVC-FD97 records still images and movies to a 3.5 inch, 2HD, DOS formatted diskette or a Sony Memory Stick (available in sizes ranging from 4 to 64 megabytes). A switch on the back panel determines which media the camera records to. Both types of media can be inserted at the same time, but cannot be recorded to simultaneously. As with the rest of the Mavica series, the FD97's floppy disk eliminates a good deal of the hassle of downloading files from the camera to your computer, and is a primary reason for the line's huge popularity. Instead of dealing with cables and driver software, you just take the disk from the camera and put it in your computer. Sony offers an accessory floppy adapter for use with the Memory Stick, that makes image downloading easy with that medium as well.

A small disk or Memory Stick icon on the camera's LCD display lets you know how much of the disk is full and how many images have been shot. Both floppy disks and Memory Sticks feature sliding write protection locks, which prevent either media from being formatted, recorded to, or altered in any way. The MVC-FD97 also allows you to protect individual images on either media from accidental erasure or alteration. All the standard rules for floppy usage apply here, such as keeping diskettes away from heavy magnetic fields and not getting them wet.

You get a nice selection of image sizes with the MVC-FD97, including 1600 x 1200, 1600 x 1200 (3:2 ratio), 1024 x 768, and 640 x 480. All images are recorded at the Fine JPEG compression level when a Memory Stick is inserted in the camera. When the camera is set to record to a floppy disk, default image quality is set to "normal" (no on-screen indication), and the size and resolution options change to include a 1600 x 1200 ECM setting, which is a lower quality JPEG compression level. New on the FD97 is an uncompressed TIFF recording mode, which wasn't previously available on the FD95, and is only available on the FD97 when saving files to a Memory Stick (the setting disappears from the menu when a floppy disk is in use). With the TIFF setting, the camera records one uncompressed image at the large resolution size, in addition to a standard JPEG image at whatever resolution size was already established in the record menu.

The table below shows the approximate number of images and compression ratios for a standard four megabyte Memory Stick:


Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
(16 MB Memory Card)
TIFF
Fine (Memory Sticks Only)
Normal (Floppy Disks Only)
High Resolution 1600x1200 Images 0 4 4
Approx.
Compression
N/A 6:1 16:1
Standard Resolution 1024x768 Images N/A 10 10
Approx.
Compression
N/A 6:1 16:1
Low Resolution 640x480 Images
N/A
25
30
Approx.
Compression
N/A
6:1
16:1

 

New on the FD97 is a USB computer interface. The camera ships with a USB cable for quick connection to a PC or Macintosh, as well as a software CD containing interface software and USB drivers. We timed the camera transferring a 5,627K TIFF file to our now somewhat aged PC (350 MHz Pentium II), and found it took 14.4 seconds. This corresponds to a data transfer rate of 390 KBytes/second, about average among USB-equipped cameras we've tested.


Video Out
An audio/video output jack on the lens barrel side of the camera allows you to connect the camera to a television set. Through the capture menu, you can select NTSC or PAL formats, depending on where you live. US and Japanese models come with the necessary NTSC cables, while European models come with PAL connectors. All the same image playback capabilities are available when connected to the TV, and you have the added ability to record images to video tape. Unlike most digicams, the FD97 can record still images, movies, and sound. Thus, the signal output jack actually accommodates an "A/V" cable, with both video and audio connectors on the other end.


Power
The MVC-FD97 comes with a Sony InfoLITHIUM, NP-F330 rechargeable battery. (It can also use the higher-capacity NP-F530 and NP-F550 batteries.) InfoLITHIUM technology means that the battery communicates with the camera to let you know how much power is left (displayed on the LCD panel in minutes remaining as well as via a battery icon). If you need to run the camera for longer periods than the battery pack will allow, the 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. The AC adapter also acts as the battery charger. You simply leave the battery in the camera and plug in the AC adapter. If the camera is switched off, the "Charge" LED will light up (located directly over the power switch).

We love the InfoLITHIUM battery technology, because 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 exceptional operating life. Finally, the Li-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. Sony estimates that a fully charged NP-F330 will provide approximately 65 minutes of continuous recording time and about 80 minutes of continuous playback. These numbers agree well with our own measurements, and in fact seemed a bit conservative, as we measured 87 and 115 minutes respectively, with a freshly charged, new battery pack. (As with other Sony cameras, the InfoLITHIUM system prevented us from making our normal power-consumption measurements, so the record/playback times above are the extent of what we can tell you about the FD-97's power consumption.)


Included Software
Included with the FD97 is a USB cable for quick connection to a PC or Macintosh and a software CD loaded with MGI PhotoSuite SE and MGI VideoWave III SE. Two versions of MGI PhotoSuite are included on the CD. The first, version 8.1, is compatible with Windows 95/98/98Se/Me/2000/NT4.0. The second, version 1.1, is compatible with Macintosh OS 7.6.1 to 9.0. Unfortunately for Mac users, VideoWave III SE is compatible with Windows systems only (the same versions as PhotoSuite). MGI PhotoSuite SE retrieves images from the camera in a very organized manner, allowing you to view them through a slide show or an album and then set them up for printing. 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. Combined with the camera's own internal picture effects menu, MGI PhotoSuite SE allows you to really get creative with your images.

MGI's VideoWave III SE provides minor video editing and enhancement tools, allowing you to cut out frames, add music, and apply creative effects.


In the Box
The following items ship standard with the FD97 in the US:



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-FD97'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 FD97 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Overall, the FD97 produced very good images, with excellent color and good detail. Color accuracy was great throughout our testing, although the large cyan, magenta, and yellow blocks on our Davebox target appeared just slightly undersaturated. The camera's white balance system handled most of our lighting situations well, though it had some trouble with the difficult indoor portrait. (The manual balance worked quite well for that test though.) The FD97 picked up the subtle tonal variations of the Q60 chart, up to the "B" range, and also caught the difference between the red and magenta color blocks on the horizontal color chart of the Davebox. Despite the occasional color casts and the occasional slight undersaturation, the FD97's color performance was quite good.

In the resolution department, the FD97 performed about in the middle of the pack among 2 megapixel cameras we've tested, and virtually identically to the earlier FD95. (No surprise there, since as far as we know, it's the same lens and CCD.) We "called" the visual resolution at about 800 lines horizontally, 650 vertically. We saw more color moire patterns and artifacts in the vertical axis, but they weren't too severe in either direction. Overall, a good performance. (The biggest benefit of the FD97 relative to the FD95 is that the lower image compression available when operating using Memory Sticks for image storage significantly reduces JPEG artifacts.)

Optical distortion on the FD97 is moderate at the wide angle end, as we measured an approximate 0.76 percent barrel distortion. The telephoto end fared much better, as we couldn't find even a pixel of pincushion distortion. Chromatic aberration is also relatively low, showing about one or two pixels of coloration on each side of the black target lines. (This distortion is visible as a very slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

The FD97 offers good exposure control, with a variety of Program AE modes that include Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Twilight, Twilight Plus, Landscape, Panfocus and Automatic exposure modes (although there's still no full manual mode, which is something we like to see on a higher end camera like this one). There's also a choice between spot and matrix metering. We found great highlight detail in many of our tests, particularly noticeable in the white gauze section of the Davebox target and in the strong highlights of the model's shirt and the white flowers in our outdoor portrait test.

The FD97 did a good job in the low-light category, as we were able to obtain very bright, clear images at light levels as low as one foot-candle (11 lux), in both the Shutter Priority and Twilight Plus exposure modes. In Twilight Plus mode, images were still usable at the 1/2 of a foot-candle light level (5.5 lux), but progressively darkened at the lower light levels. In the Shutter Priority exposure mode, images were still usable as low as the 1/8 and 1/16 of a foot-candle light levels (1.3 and 0.67 lux). (That's really dark!) In both the Twilight Plus and Shutter Priority exposure modes, we noticed a very cool color cast in the darker images that shifted to warmer one at the one foot-candle (11 lux) and higher light levels. Noise remained minimal in both exposure modes. To put the FD97's low-light performance into perspective, an average city night scene under modern street lighting corresponds to a light level of about one foot-candle, so the camera should be able to handle well-lit night scenes in Twilight Plus mode, and is able to go very dark when using Shutter Priority metering.

Given that the FD97 has an electronic optical viewfinder, which is essentially a smaller version of the LCD monitor, we expected to find the exact same frame accuracy for both. Instead, we found that the frame accuracy differed slightly at the wide angle setting, though the telephoto setting produced identical results for both viewfinders. In both cases, the LCD monitor and optical viewfinder were just a little tight. The optical viewfinder showed about 90.8 percent of the final image area at wide angle, and about 91.4 percent at telephoto, at all three image sizes. The LCD monitor showed approximately 89.5 percent accuracy at wide angle, and about 91.4 percent at telephoto, again at all three image sizes. We generally like to see LCD monitors as close to 100 percent accuracy as possible, so the FD97 falls a little short. (We do make our usual complaint about electronic viewfinders though, namely that they don't work in very dim lighting situations. This is not a particular fault of Sony or the FD97, but rather of electronic viewfinders in general.) Flash distribution looks dim but even at the telephoto setting, and much brighter at the wide angle setting with just a little falloff in the corners.

The FD97 does an excellent job in the macro category, capturing a minimum area of just 0.73 x 0.55 inches (18.57 x 13.93mm). Detail and resolution both look great, though the brooch and coins came out slightly soft (doubtless due to the limited depth of field when working that close). Even the tiny details of the dollar bill paper and gray backboard were visible, with just a little noise in the gray background. Color balance also looks good throughout the image. The FD97's built-in flash is blocked by the very long lens barrel, and is ineffective at this close range. Still, the FD97 gives an outstanding performance.

Overall, the MVC-FD97 performed very well in our testing, with very good color accuracy, low-light and macro results. Though we'd like to see a full manual exposure mode, the FD97 provides enough exposure control to take good images at very low light levels, and under otherwise challenging lighting conditions. Image quality is also very good, with low to moderate noise levels throughout most our testing. Given that we were already quite pleased with the performance of the MVC-FD95, we were very impressed with that of the MVC-FD97.


Conclusion
If you liked the MVC-FD95, you're going to love the MVC-FD97! Adding a Memory Stick slot in addition to the floppy disk drive eliminated one of the few complaints we had about the FD95: It's too-aggressive image compression. The 10x lens and Steady Shot optical stabilization system let you really reach out and grab distant subjects, and at shutter speeds way slower than you'd normally be able to get away with. Add in flexible exposure control, and a price cut of $100, and we think Sony will have a real winner here. This camera is really about being able to have your cake and eat it too: All the convenience of the floppy interface when you want it, and none of the limitations when you don't. Best of all, as of its introduction, the FD97 is actually the value leader in the marketplace, among 10x zoom-equipped digicams. A tough combination to beat!


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