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Sony MVC-CD500

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

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 06/09/2003

Executive Overview
Improving on the already excellent line of Mavica digicams, Sony has introduced the CD500, which boasts all of the great features of last year's CD400 model plus a few key extras. The CD500 has a larger, five-megapixel CCD for capturing higher resolution images (a maximum resolution of 2,592 x 1,944 pixels) and continues the CD400's large buffer memory, which reduces the camera's shot-to-shot cycle times in still-picture mode, allows "review before save" operation, and greatly extends the camera's movie recording times. (You can actually record continuously, up to the capacity of the CD-R(W) disc!) Sony has also included its innovative Hologram AF feature, which precisely focuses the camera even in complete darkness (more on that later). The CD500 once again includes an external flash hot shoe for mounting more powerful flash units, but this year's shoe includes additional contacts to support Sony's new (and very versatile) HVL-F32X external flash unit. The user interface has also been updated somewhat, moving more frequently-accessed camera functions from the LCD menu system to external buttons on the case.. What remains the same on the CD500 is the convenience and capacity of the CD-R recording media introduced with the CD1000 and continued in the CD250, CD300 and CD400 models. Similar in size to the CD400, the CD500 is by no means a "pocket" camera, but nonetheless easy enough to tote in a small camera bag. An accompanying neck strap lets you carry the CD500 ready to shoot.

The CD500 doesn't offer an optical viewfinder, only a large, color LCD monitor for image composition. (Sony does offer an optional clip-on eye level finder attachment that shields the LCD from ambient light and lets you view it through an eyepiece.) An information display on the LCD monitor reports the remaining battery power, CD capacity, flash status, and the number of available images, plus various exposure settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, image size, and quality. A "Solar Assist" feature includes a small translucent window above the LCD that directs additional light behind the panel in bright conditions. This added illumination boosts the effective brightness of the LCD's backlight, making the display much more usable in direct sunlight and other very bright shooting conditions.

The CD500 is equipped with a 3x, 7- 21mm Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens (equivalent to a 34-102mm lens on a 35mm camera). Zeiss optics are noted for their quality and sharpness, making the lens a significant feature of the camera. My assessment is that it performs better than the lenses on most digicams I've tested. The aperture can be manually or automatically adjusted from f/2.0-2.5 (depending on the focal length setting of the lens) to f/8.0, and focus is automatically or manually controlled, with a distance readout display on the LCD monitor to assist with manual focus. The CD500 also offers Sony's Smart Zoom at image sizes less than 4.5M (3:2). Smart Zoom provides magnification levels as high as 3.8x for 3.1M, 6.1x for 1.3M and 12x for VGA image sizes by cropping CCD data without resampling, to maintain quality. Macro performance is good, with macro focusing distances ranging from 1.62 to 8.0 inches (4 to 20 centimeters). One of the coolest innovations in low-light focusing I've seen recently is Sony's Hologram AF option, which uses a laser diode and tiny holographic diffraction grating to produce a crosshatched pattern of bright red lines on the subject. This projected pattern stays more or less "in focus" almost irrespective of subject distance, so there's always a sharp pattern for the camera to focus on. Hologram AF isn't just for low light, you'll sometimes see the camera using it in fairly normal lighting if there's not enough contrast in the subject to focus effectively with the contrast-detection AF system. (Hologram AF was first introduced on Sony's high-end DSC-F707 Cyber-shot model, and it looks like we're going to see it spreading to more and more of Sony's high-end models.)

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

In addition to the full Manual exposure mode, the CD500 provides Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program AE, and Scene exposure modes. Available "scenes" in the Scene exposure mode are Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Snow, and Beach, each designed to obtain the best exposure for specific shooting situations. Shutter speeds are adjustable in Manual mode from 1/1,000 to eight seconds, and a Noise Reduction feature automatically engages for shutter times longer than 1/25 second.

A Spot Metering option switches the exposure metering system to take readings from the very center of the image for difficult subjects like those with strong backlighting. (A crosshair target appears in the center of the LCD monitor.) The CD500's White Balance options include Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, and One-Push (manual setting), to accommodate a broad range of lighting conditions. Exposure Compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. The camera's ISO setting offers Auto, 100, 200, or 400 equivalents, increasing performance in low-light shooting situations. The built-in, pop-up flash features Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced, and Suppressed operating modes, with a variable flash intensity setting. As an added bonus, the CD500 offers a single contact external flash hot shoe, for connecting a more powerful flash to the camera, including the new Sony HVL-F32X and their older HVL-F1000 model. A Setup menu option turns the hot shoe on or off. Similar to other Sony digicams, the CD500 also features a Picture Effects, which captures images in Solarized, Sepia, and Negative Art tones. Sharpness, Saturation, and Contrast can also be adjusted from Normal to Plus or Minus settings.

The CD500 uses Sony's "MPEG EX" technology to provide greatly extended MPEG movie recording directly to the CD-R. One of the real breakthroughs of the CD400 (and its little brother the CD250) was breaking the arbitrary limit to how long you can record a movie. You can use the entire capacity of the CD-R disc, letting you record movies of up to 5 minutes, 52 seconds in the highest-quality mode (640 x 480 VGA mode), and as long as 89 minutes in "email" movie mode (low-quality,160 x 112 pixel images). This is pretty impressive, as only a very few digicams currently on the market support full VGA-resolution movie recording.. (Sony is very careful to not bill the CD Mavicas as "camcorders," and for good reason when you compare their capabilities with "real" camcorder models. Still, this enormously extended recording capability is pretty unique.)

Besides its movie recording modes, a Clip Motion option (available through the Setup menu) works like an animation sequence camera, allowing you to capture a series of up to 10 still images to be played back sequentially. The captured images are assembled inside the camera into a single animated GIF file. The camera also offers a Multi Burst mode, which captures an extremely rapid burst of 16 frames (7.5, 15 or 30 frames per second intervals can be set from the Menu in Movie mode), saved as a single 1.2M image. The frames play back at a slower frame rate, giving the effect of slow-motion footage.

Like most of the Sony Mavica line, the CD500 offers a variety of still image recording modes, including a TIFF mode for saving uncompressed images. Voice mode records sound clips to accompany captured images (great for "labeling" or annotating shots you've taken). An E-mail Record mode captures a smaller, 320 x 240-pixel image size that's perfect for e-mail transmission, in addition to an image at the selected resolution size. An Exposure Bracketing mode captures three images at different EV levels, to help ensure the best possible exposure. Finally, a Burst 3 mode captures three images in rapid succession (0.5-second intervals) with one press of the Shutter button.

Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF, JPEGs, GIFs, or MPEGs depending on the Record mode, and are stored on the 80mm CD-R or CD-RW included with the camera. An NTSC video cable connects the camera to a television set, for reviewing images or recording them to video tape. (European models come equipped for PAL, but the camera itself can switch between the two standards via a Setup menu option.) A USB cable provides high-speed connection to PC computers. Macs running OS X can import images via the USB connection into either Image Capture or iPhoto, although I wasn't able to get my G4 PowerMac running OS X 10.2 to properly recognize the camera when using iPhoto 2.0 - Only Image Capture 2.0 worked properly. Mac users running under OS 9 or earlier can read the "finalized" CDs on Macs with the aid of the UDF Volume Access "init" provided by Roxio (formerly Adaptec Corporation). The UDF access init isn't compatible with OS X though, so the only ongoing support is for reading the CDs through the camera and its USB connection, not in a Mac CD-ROM drive directly. The included software bundle looks rather sparse, apparently consisting only of "Pixela ImageMixer", a new (and apparently PC-only) software package. (A shame that no Mac software is included. :-(

The CD500 uses an NP-FM50 InfoLITHIUM battery pack (M series), and comes with an AC adapter that doubles as a battery charger. InfoLITHIUM batteries communicate with the camera, showing exactly how much battery power has been consumed, and reporting remaining battery capacity via a small readout on the LCD screen. This is really valuable in avoiding lost shots when your batteries die unexpectedly. Battery life is also excellent, among the best I've found. That said, my standard recommendation of keeping a second battery pack charged and ready to go still stands, especially when the AC adapter isn't convenient.

Like Sony's other Mavica cameras, the CD500 is enjoyable to use, and its user interface and function set have something for everyone. The full-featured exposure control options will satisfy the most advanced user, while its auto-everything "Program" exposure mode will meet the needs of the least-experienced novice. Best of all, you get excellent image capacity with the CD-RW recording media, and a long enough movie recording time to rival some digital video cameras. Great optics, a 5-megapixel CCD, and CD-RW image storage give the CD500 a strong edge in the digicam marketplace, and the inclusion of the Hologram AF focus tool makes the camera an excellent followup to the very well received CD300. (And the inclusion of a generic hot shoe flash connector really put the camera squarely in the "enthusiast" category, when it comes to features.)

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