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Sony MVC-FD97

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

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 2/9/2001

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!

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