Sony Mavica CD350 Review
The Mavica CD350 is a 3.2-megapixel digicam that features a Sony 3x optical zoom lens and
stores its images and movie clips on 3.5-inch mini-CD discs. The CD350 is the entry-level
of Sony's CD Mavica series for 2003 and has a suggested list price of $500. Sony is also
offering the Mavica CD500, an advanced 5.0-megapixel model with a Carl Zeiss Vario Sonar 3x
optical zoom lens for $700. The CD350 incorporates many of the Mavica CD500's features,
while omitting some of interest to advanced users.
Sony is the only manufacturer that integrates an optical CD burner into a digicam. You can use either the write-once CD-R or the rewritable CD-RW discs. With the CD-R discs there's no way to accidentally erase your images, they become the digital equivalent of film negatives. These discs are relatively inexpensive and allow you to transfer image data to most any computer with a CD-ROM drive. The CD-RW type discs can be re-used over and over again and can be quite cost effective. The use of CD media also provides implicit archival storage of your photos, a feature appreciated by everyone who has suffered a hard-disk failure on their computer.
This optical storage technology is not without its disadvantages however. At power-up the disc must spin up to speed and be read to locate where to write the next image file. This took as long as 20 seconds when I had a disc that was almost full. The time it takes to write an image to disc is considerably longer than flash cards, 6 seconds on a fresh disc. The shot-to-shot time is about average at about 1.5 seconds in single mode (all shot in 3.2M Fine mode - no flash.) To read these discs in a computer CD-ROM drive requires that they be finalized first. This consumes about 15MB, a bit wasteful when you consider the disc's capacity is only 156MB total. Some computers with CD-RW drives and Adaptec's DirectCD drivers may be able to read the CD-RW or CD-R unfinalized discs. You can also connect the USB cable and transfer data from the camera without finalizing the disc.
The CD350 is essentially a point-and-shoot camera, offering limited ability to exercise control of its automatic features. In Program AE mode, the camera selects the best combination of shutter speed and aperture automatically. The advanced user will notice the absence of shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and manual exposure modes. There are also seven Scene modes: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Snow, Beach and High-speed shutter. High-speed shutter mode is useful for shooting moving subjects outdoors but if the available light is not sufficient, the camera will increase the ISO without any indication on the LCD; this may result in undesirable graininess or noise. When the shutter speed is low, an automatic NR (Noise Reduction) function removes noise from the recorded image.
In Program AE or Scene image recording mode you can select the White Balance (color temperature) option from the usual presets. We found that the Automatic white balance did a very good job in all but the most difficult of lighting situations. The ISO sensitivity by default is Auto, the user can manually lock it at 100, 200 or 400 ISO equivalents. You have your choice of image sizes from 3.2Megapixels for large prints down to VGA size for web or email use and inbetween is 1.2M and 2M as well as a 2:3 ratio sized 2.8M image for "perfect" photo prints without cropping. For most people the compressed JPEG images will be all they'll ever need. For the ultimate image quality you can select the TIFF uncompressed mode but it consumes a lot of space, only 11 pictures fit on a disc! The user can apply Picture Effects to add color effects like Solarize, B & W, Sepia or Negative Art. You can individually adjust the Sharpness, Saturation or Contrast levels at Normal, "plus", or "minus" to suit your specific needs.
The CD350 autofocus offers your choice of Multipoint AF, which calculates the distance in three places, or Center AF, which calculates distance only in the center of the image. An AF Range Finder Frame is visible on the viewfinder to indicate the area of autofocus, and changes color from white to green when focus is locked. There is an AF assist lamp which provides fill light for the camera to focus more easily on a subject in dark surroundings. Its useful distance is approximately 7 feet 6 inches, and it can be disabled in the camera setup menu.
Dominating the back is a huge 2.5-inch 123K pixel color LCD, these are found on all of the Mavica cameras. There is no optical viewfinder, both framing and previewing is done on the color LCD. Sony has an optional clip-on eyelevel type of viewfinder for around $79, you can see it on page two of our review. As a viewfinder the LCD shows about 99% of the final captured image so it rates right up there as being extremely accurate. It has a non-glare surface which improves its visibility in full sun viewing. All information overlays and menus are highly visible on the big LCD without losing your preview image. During playback you can zoom-in up to 5X on your images to check for critical focus or color and it's really nice to view a movie on that big screen. The color LCD is illuminated by the usual backlight. Brightness can be increased for usability outdoors in bright sunlight at the expense of battery life.
Like the CD500, the CD350 is powered by an InfoLITHIUM rechargeable battery pack. The NP-FM50 battery gives you enough power for about 110 minutes of recording time or about 160 minutes of playback time. The remaining runtime of the battery pack is continuously displayed on the LCD screen in minutes so you never have to wonder when the battery is going to run out. Extra batteries aren't cheap, Sony gets about $60.00 for them. The battery is charged in-camera or you can purchase an optional external rapid charger or one of several small, portable chargers. The AC-L15 charger that comes with the camera also serves as an AC power supply for extended indoor use or during downloads to the computer.
The CD350 also records motion video with sound in 640 x 480 or 160 x 112 pixel resolution. The maximum recording length is limited only by the remaining capacity of the CD, a fresh CD will give you about 5:54 of VGA resolution video. The 640 VX mode capture rate is 16 frames per second and the playback is fullscreen. The non-VX 160 x 112 size movies play back in a smaller window. You can also make mini animation sequences using the Clip Motion recording mode that lets you capture up to ten images in either 160 x 120 or 80 x 72 pixels that is combined and turned into an animated GIF image in-camera. Another Movie mode option is MultiBurst which captures up to sixteen 320x240 continuous frames and records them as a single 1280x960 image.
Although smaller than the CD500, the CD350 is not a "pocket size" camera. Because of their CD drives these cameras will never be able to be made very much smaller, but you can tote one around for hours without too much fatigue. The built in flash handles most indoor picture taking tasks, but does have its limitations. The flash range is limited to a bit over 8 feet. Because of this and the widest lens focal length of 42mm, you'll be more satisfied with portraits of small groups than shots of the entire dance floor at your niece's wedding reception. The CD350 flash is offset from the lens, not directly above it. This results in a shadow of the subject being cast onto the background as shown in the elephant shot.
The bottom line is image quality and thanks to a very good lens and well-refined image processing hardware, the CD350 delivers sharp, colorful and properly exposed images. The cost per picture is minimal thanks to the CD disc storage and the battery life is very good so we rate the CD350 as a very good 3-megapixel camera value. With the CD-350's lower initial price than it's predecessor CD300($500 as of April 2003), inexpensive recording media, huge color LCD and impressive image quality, this camera is sure to please. If you need greater image resolution and more advanced features, consider the 5-megapixel Sony CD500 for about $200 more.
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