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Sony MVC-CD400

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

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 2/20/2002

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

The CD400 doesn't offer an optical viewfinder, only a large, color LCD monitor for image composition. (Although Sony does offer an optional clip-on eyelevel finder attachment that shields the LCD from ambient light and lets you view it through an eyepiece.) When the LCD monitor is active, an information display reports the remaining battery power, CD capacity, flash status, and the number of available images, plus various exposure settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, image size, and quality. A "Solar Assist" feature includes a small translucent window above the LCD that directs additional light behind the panel in bright conditions. This added illumination boosts the effective brightness of the LCD's backlight, making the display much more usable in direct sunlight and other very bright shooting conditions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like most of the Sony Mavica line, the CD400 offers a variety of still image recording modes, including a TIFF mode for saving uncompressed images. Voice mode records sound clips to accompany captured images (great for "labeling" or annotating shots you've taken). An E-mail record mode captures a smaller, 320 x 240-pixel image size that's easier for e-mail transmission, in addition to an image at the selected resolution size. An Exposure Bracketing mode captures three images at different EV levels, to help ensure the best possible exposure. Finally, a Burst 3 mode captures three images in rapid succession (0.5-second intervals) with one press of the Shutter button.

Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF, JPEGs, GIFs, or MPEGs depending on the Record mode, and are stored on the 80mm CD-R or CD-RW included with the camera. An NTSC video cable connects the camera to a television set, for reviewing images or recording them to video tape. (European models come equipped for PAL, but the camera itself can switch between the two standards via a Setup menu option.) A USB cable provides high-speed connection to PC computers, although Macs appear to not be supported directly. (You can read the "finalized" CDs on Macs with the aid of a software "init" provided by Roxio (formerly Adaptec Corporation). The included software bundle looks rather sparse, apparently consisting only of "Pixela ImageMixer", a new (and apparently PC-only) software package. (A shame that no Mac software is included. :-(

The CD400 uses an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series), and comes with an AC adapter that doubles as a battery charger. InfoLITHIUM batteries communicate with the camera, showing exactly how much battery power has been consumed, and reporting remaining battery capacity via a small readout on the LCD screen. This is really valuable in avoiding lost shots when your batteries die unexpectedly. Battery life is also excellent, among the best I've found. That said, my standard recommendation of keeping a second battery pack charged and ready to go still stands, especially when the AC adapter isn't convenient.

Like Sony's other Mavica cameras, the CD400 is enjoyable to use, and its user interface and function set have something for everyone. The full-featured exposure control options will satisfy the most advanced user, while its auto-everything "Program" exposure mode will meet the needs of the least-experienced novice. Best of all, you get excellent image capacity with the CD-RW recording media, and a long enough movie recording time to rival some digital video cameras. Great optics, a four-megapixel CCD, and CD-RW image storage give the CD400 a strong edge in the digicam marketplace, and the addition of the Hologram AF focus tool makes the camera an excellent followup to the very well received CD300. (And the inclusion of a generic hot shoe flash connector really put the camera squarely in the "enthusiast" category, when it comes to features.)

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