Sony Mavica CD400 Review
The Sony MVC-CD400 is a fully featured 4.0-megapixel digicam that delivers very good images.
It's the big brother of the 2.0-megapixel MVC-CD250,
a Program AE point-n-shoot. Both cameras employ an 8cm (3-1/2 inch) mini-CD disc for
image storage whereas other digicams use flash memory cards. The CD400 has a full range of
exposure modes (Program AE, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and full Manual), a Carl Zeiss
Vario Sonar 3x optical zoom with a 5-area AF system. The $799 CD400 has the ability to record
still images up to 2272 x 1704 size in JPEG or TIFF format and movie clips with sound. If
printing 4x6" or 8x12" prints, you can select the 2272 x 1525(3:2) format which is the perfect
ratio for non-cropped prints. When you want a smaller image select from a range of space-saving
sizes down to 640 x 480.
The MVC-CD400 is the current (as of July 2002) flagship of the Sony "CD Mavica" line, the 10x super-zoom CD1000 was discontinued last year and so far there has been no word of a replacement. The CD400 builds on the feature set of the CD300 and adds the new Hologram AF focus system and the HQX movie mode, more on both of these features later in the conclusion.
The most unique feature of all of the CD Mavicas is the mini-CD recorder drive. Sony is the first and only camera maker to integrate an optical CD burner into a digicam. When I first heard about them I imagined all sorts of in the field failures were bound to happen but amazingly over the last two years I have heard of only a few problems. This type of media has an advantage in the fact that when you use the CD-R type discs there is virtually no way to accidentally erase your images, CD-R is a write-once technology. Even with the rapidly dropping prices of flash memory, using the CD-R discs costs only about two cents per image ($2 for disc that holds about 100 images). And using the CD-RW (re-writeable) discs it is possible to get the cost as close to nothing as possible the longer you use and re-use them. Sony of course recommends the use of only their brand of CD-R and CD-RW discs. There are 3rd-party vendors selling mini-CD discs but their quality is not assured so use at your own risk.
The mini-CD technology does have its disadvantages. 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, 10 seconds on a fresh disc. The shot-to-shot time is a little above average at about 3 seconds in single mode (all shot in 2272 x 1704 Fine mode - no flash.) To take the disc out and play in your computer's CD drive you must finalize the disc first in the Setup mode. This uses up about 15MB, a bit wasteful when you consider the disc only holds 156MB. Some computers with CD-RW drives and Adaptec's DirectCD drivers may be able to read the unfinalized discs.
The CD400 offers extensive real camera control of exposure via Program AE, Shutter speed priority, Aperture priority and full Manual mode, the CD250 only has Program AE . In addition there are four Scene modes: Twilight, Twilight - Portrait, Landscape, Portrait) selectable through Setup menu options (three in the CD250). Program AE is the fully automatic "Point-n- Shoot" mode where the camera selects the best combination of shutter speed and aperture to produce the best possible picture given the lighting conditions. Shutter speed priority is used when you need to stop fast-moving subjects or to intentionally blur them. In shutter speed priority you select the shutter speed (1 sec. to 1/1000) and the camera will match the necessary aperture value. Aperture priority is used when you need to control the depth of field (range of focus), aperture values from F2.0 to F8 can be selected in 13 steps. The larger the "F" number the greater the depth of field. The camera will select the appropriate shutter speed. For total control the Manual mode lets you select both the shutter speed (8 sec's to 1/1000) and the aperture value (F2.0-F8) with automatic NR(Noise Reduction) in any mode when the exposure time reaches or exceeds 1/2 second.
In any of the still image record modes you can select the White Balance from the pop-up menu of complete options including manual measured white balance. The ISO sensitivity by default is Auto or the user can lock in the equivalent of ISO 100, 200 or 400. The image size is 2272 x 1704, 2272 x 1525(3:2 for printing), 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960 or 640 x 480 and you can select Fine or Standard quality. Recording mode can be TIFF(in all size images), Voice (capture up to 40 sec sound clips to go along with still images), Email (captures the selected image size PLUS a 320 x 240 size image), Exposure Bracketing (captures 3 images varying the exposure for each), Exposure Bracketing (3 frame auto bracket), Burst 3 (record up to 3 frames at the fastest possible speed) or Normal. The user can also set the flash output strength at Low, Normal or High. The Picture Effects menu lets you select a creative mode such as Solarize, B& W, Sepia or Negative Art. You can also set the Sharpness level at Normal, +1, +2, -1 or -2.
The CD400 features high-speed scan autofocus and a new laser "hologram" focusing assist device to insure properly focused pictures no matter what the light levels are. This new autofocus system was first seen on the Sony F707 and uses a Class 1 laser to paint a grid pattern on the subject and is perfectly safe, even when aimed directly at someone's eyes. I found it nearly impossible to "fool" the AF, the only out of focus pictures I ever got were when I was too close (not in Macro) or was using the manual focus mode. Sony deserves applause for addressing what so many manufacturers are still ignoring - The CD400 focuses in low contrast / low light conditions!
Dominating the back of the CD400 is a huge 2.5-inch 123K pixel color LCD that is found on all of the Mavica cameras. There is no optical viewfinder so all framing and previewing is done on the color LCD. When used as a viewfinder it shows about 99% of the final captured image so it rates right up there as being extremely accurate and its non-glare surface 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 to your images to check for critical focus or color and it's really nice to review a movie on that big screen. The color LCD can be illuminated by a back light but it can also be illuminated by ambient light when outdoors thanks to the solar window across the top of the display. Using the solar window and manually switching off the backlight whenever possible will extend the runtime of the battery as those backlights consume a lot of power.
And speaking of batteries, the CD400 is powered by an InfoLITHIUM rechargeable battery pack. The CD250 and CD400 use the "M" series NP-FM50 battery which gives it enough power for about 120 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 as Sony gets about $60.00 for them. The battery is charged in-camera or you can purchase an optional external rapid charger like the Sony AC-VQ800. The AC-L10 charger that comes with the camera also serves as an AC power supply for extended indoor use or during downloads to the computer.
The CD400 can record motion video with sound in 320HQX, 320 x 240 or 160 x 112 pixel mode. The maximum recording length in the HQX mode is limited only by the remaining capacity of the CD. The 320HQX mode capture rate is 16 frames per second. The 320HQ movies play back in full screen on the color LCD or to a connected TV set. The non-HQX (320 x240 and 160 x 112) 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 1280x960 image.
The CD250 and CD400 are far from "pocket size" cameras, with a physical size and weight comparable to a 35mm SLR. Because of their CD drives these cameras will never be able to be made much smaller but you can have one hanging around your neck for many hours without fatigue. The overall image quality is good to very good and the white balance does a respectable job in most lighting conditions. The built in flash handles most indoor picture taking tasks with ease and pops up automatically when needed. Sony has overcome a problem found in previous models, tending to overexpose close-ups shots. The CD400 does a very well with close up flash of even white subjects as is shown in our Sample Photos page with the shot of the white dog.
The bottom line is image quality and thanks to an excellent lens and state of the art camera hardware, the CD400 delivers sharp, colorful and properly exposed images. The size is not an attribute to most but the huge LCD, in comparison to other digicams, is a plus to me. It's very easy to use in bright daylight and I haven't been able to say that about many LCD's. The cost per picture is minimal thanks to the CD discs and the battery life is excellent so we'd have to rate the CD400 as an excellent 4-megapixel camera that's priced right at $799.99 (as of July, 2002) which is $200 less than the preceding model. With the CD-400's lower price, inexpensive recording media and impressive image quality, this camera is sure to please.
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