Sony DSC-M2 Review
The Cyber-Shot DSC-M2 is Sony's 2006 entry in the hybrid still/movie digicam market.
While most consumer digicams are capable of recording both stills and movies,
with few exceptions they have been limited to one mode of operation at a time,
a mode switch selecting movie or still mode with separate menus for each.
The M2 integrates still and moving image operation in three ways:
When closed, The M2's body looks more like a cell phone than a camera; flip out and rotate the LCD and some (including security guards at sporting events and concerts) will mistake the M2 for a video camera. While the body design is unusual, I found it comfortable to use. Most of its controls fell within easy reach of my right thumb, enabling single-handed operation. The large 2 1/2-inch LCD was an effective (and only) viewfinder, its brightness and anti-glare coating proving useful in outdoor sunlight while its "gain-up" in dim lighting helped with shot composition indoors. It can be swiveled to allow overhead and waist/ground-level viewfinding, and its 180-degree rotation provided a mirror-image view for self-portraits. I also enjoyed using the Shuttle dial to scroll through images in review mode. My only complaint with the M2's body is its poorly-positioned tripod mount; it is located at edge of the camera's base, making it difficult to securely mount even with over tightening. The menu system is logically organized, clearly indicating the parameters applicable to still mode, movie mode, or both.
Sony equipped the M2 with a high-quality Carl Zeiss 3x zoom lens. It offers a fairly standard zoom range of 38-114mm in 35mm-equivalence, providing a moderately-wide field of view for interiors and outdoor scenics and enough telephoto magnification to bring your distant subjects noticeably closer. The lens produced sharp results from corner to corner throughout its zoom range, with moderate amounts of barrel distortion at wide angle and pin cushioning at telephoto. Chromatic aberrations were well controlled, with nearly imperceptible purple fringing present even in very high contrast areas.
Shooting performance was good. Power up to first image captured measured just under 2 seconds. Shutter lag, the time between depressing the shutter release and capturing an image, was 1/10 second when pre-focused and 3/10 second including autofocus time; both times account for the approx. 1/10 second delay in the LCD viewfinder's live image. The shot to shot delay measured 1.2 seconds without the flash and between 3 and 5 seconds using the flash, depending on subject distance. Shutter lag when using red eye reduction flash mode measured 9/10 second, during which the LCD viewfinder goes blank. The M2 offers two sequential shooting modes (Burst, Multi Burst.) In Burst mode, I was able to capture 4 frames in one second (3fps), with buffer clearing to the Memory Stick PRO Duo taking about 6 seconds; the LCD briefly displays the last captured image between shots, allowing you to follow a moving subject. Using Multi Burst with the interval set at 1/30, I captured 16 frames in 4/10 second; these frames are then saved as a single 1-megapixel animated image. Our tests were done using a SanDisk Ultra II 1GB Memory Stick PRO Duo, Large/Fine quality, Program mode, flash off, review off, and all other settings at default (unless noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
I was pleased with the image quality of the M2's 5M Fine mode. Outdoor images were well-exposed and sharp with true to life colors. Our indoor shots were also sharp well-exposed, although the M2's limited (8 feet) flash range restricts subjects to small rooms and portraits of very small groups. Portraits had realistic skin tones, but red eye reduction flash mode proved ineffective in dim ambient lighting. Autofocus worked quite well in dim lighting, helped by the focus assist lamp which also brightens the LCD viewfinder during autofocus. Flash power was well controlled at close range, making the M2 a good candidate for capturing images of small objects for online auction listings.
Image quality was good at low sensitivity settings, with an almost undetectable amount of noise in shadow areas at ISO 64. Shadow noise grows to a detectable amount at ISO 100, and at ISO 200 it becomes detectable in highlight areas. ISO 400 produces noticeable noise throughout the image along with some loss of detail, although the images are usable.
The M2's 640x480 30fps movie quality was disappointing, a result of aggressive compression; at only about 400k bytes per second of recording, the M2's movies are memory efficient, but the trade-off is poor quality. The M2's hybrid movie recording is also sub par, its recording limited to 320x240 at 15fps. I found normal hybrid movie recording to be of limited value because of the approx. 3 second interruption during still image capture, complete with the beep and shutter sound on the audio track. Sony failed to include a movie editing feature in the M2, so you can't split the movie at its point of interruption and save only what's of value. Pre Rec, which records only the 5 seconds before still capture, seems a more useful mode, but movie recording stops when the still is taken, so you will not capture the height of action in both the still and movie.
The M2 is powered by a proprietary NP-FT1 infoLITHIUM battery. It yielded about 100 images per charge during our testing, a good result for a battery of its diminutive size, but surely not enough capacity for all day shooting. M2 users should get at least one additional battery to avoid disappointment during a unique photo op. The battery is charged in-camera on the included cradle.
The Sony Cyber-shot M2 is a bit of an enigma. It's capable of producing high-quality 5-megapixel stills, but its indoor results are limited by its underpowered flash. Although billed as a hybrid still/movie camera, Sony failed to endow the M2 with high-quality movie features. The standard movies suffer from the graininess of over compression, and its hybrid movies are low resolution, low frame rate, and interrupted by still image capture. For a first attempt, the M2 hybrid is an interesting exercise, but it falls short of expectations. With an MSRP of $499, the M2 is a fairly poor value; if you're in the market for a hybrid, you'd be well-served to wait for Sony's next, and hopefully more refined, effort. In the meantime take a look at the Sanyo Xacti HD1, it also offers 5MP still images as well as superior video capture up to 720p HDTV resolution.
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