Sony Mavica FD97 Review

Steve's Digicams

Sony MVC-FD97

Steve's Conclusion

The MVC-FD97 is the year 2001 update to Sony's incredibly popular MVC-FD95 and shares all of its features including the 10x (39-390mm 35mm equiv) optical zoom lens with the patented Sony SteadyShot image stabilization system. It used to be the only camera with such a powerful zoom but this year it is joined by the Olympus C-2100UZ and the Canon Pro90 IS . All three feature 10x optical zooms with image stabilization and all three feature electronic viewfinders (EVF) which are small color LC displays.

The EVF has the advantage of being able to display the same image and menus as the larger color LCD on the back of the camera. It is shielded so it can be used outdoors in the bright light and because it is small, it's power requirements are much less than the big LCD. The EVF also gives you true TTL (through the lens) viewing although it is not as clear and bright as a real SLR viewfinder. The biggest complaint from most users is that the EVF image isn't as colorful as "real life" or that it is a little grainy looking. The viewfinder image is effectively frozen while the camera stores the image and when using floppy diskettes this can be as long as five seconds for a high quality JPEG. This delay is reduced to only about 1.5 seconds when using a Memory Stick however.

The hallmark of all the Mavica cameras is and always has been the 3-1/2" floppy diskette drive. This gives these cameras the ability to store images on regular floppy diskettes that can be read on PC or Macintosh computers without the need of any special cables or software. The original Mavica cameras only had VGA (640x480) resolution and there was no problem storing a fair number of pictures on a 1.44MB diskette. That has all changed now that there are 1.3- and 2.1-megapixel Mavicas that capture much larger sized images, especially if you use the uncompressed TIFF option. In 2000 the FD95 was able to use the higher capacity Memory Sticks by way of the MSAC-FD2M floppy adapter but it was slow and cost the user an additional $85 or so. Now in 2001 Sony has built a Memory Stick drive into the FD97 and FD92 Mavicas.

Thanks to the built in Memory Stick drive you can now use a 64MB (and soon a 128MB) Memory Stick instead of a floppy diskette. Recognizing that limited storage was no longer a problem, the Sony folks have throttled-up the image processing alogrythms and are now using much less JPEG compression. The FD95's 1600x1200 high quality images averaged about 340KB, the FD97's 1600x1200 high quality images now average close to a megabyte. Another thing I immediately noticed was an overall performance boost in the area of read/write speed to the Memory Stick due to the dedicated drive. The FD95 with the MSAC-FD2M adapter took a good 5 seconds to write those 340KB images, the FD97 writes a 950KB image to the Memory Stick in about 1.5 seconds. This makes the FD97 much more useable as a sports camera now that it has expanded storage and a more robust recording cycle. It also means less power consumption as the image processing is accelerated and you're not powering a mechanical diskette drive.

The user can copy images back and forth between the floppy diskette and the Memory Stick drive so you still maintain the portability of the 1.44MB floppy diskette. Along with larger capacity storage comes a need to move larger amounts of data into the host computer and Sony has solved that problem by adding a high speed USB interface in the FD97. A software driver is included for Windows and Macintosh computers that lets you mount the Memory Stick drive or the floppy diskette drive like any other removeable drive resource. You swap back and forth between them as easily as moving the MS/FD switch on the back of the camera.

That covers the new features so now we'll get back to the FD97's other features. Most people buy the FD97 (or the FD95) because of the tremendous focal range covered by that huge 10x zoom lens. This is a bird watcher's dream camera!  The 10x zoom is further enhanced by a 20x precision digital zoom that actually works. On most other digicams the digital zoom is a useless (marketing?) feature that simply enlarges the central portion of the image to fill the entire frame and results in a pixelly looking image. On the Sony FD95, the CD-1000 and the FD97 the digital zoom does not produce a degraded image, I don't know what Sony's secret is but whatever it is, it works. And to make sure that your pictures are as sharp as possible even when shooting at maximum telephoto and slower shutter speeds there is that wonderful SteadyShot image stabilizer. It also aids in framing at extreme telephoto too. Anyone that has used high power binoculars or a spotting scope knows that a little movement at the camera equates into an enormous amount of movement about a distant target.

To help you focus when making large focal length or distance changes the FD97 is equipped with continuous auto focus. It can still "hunt" from time to time unless there is sufficient light for the contrast detect focusing system to work. Thankfully the lens is quite fast with a F2.8 maximum aperture which means it works well even in dim lighting conditions. For a large zoom the focal distance range is nothing short of amazing with coverage from about 9.5 inches to infinity in normal mode and from less than an inch to about 10 inches in the dedicated macro mode. You can disable the auto focus and manually focus with a ring at the end of the lens barrel. To help you critically focus, the display in the EVF or the color LCD is magnified while you are turning the focus ring and goes back to normal when you stop moving the ring. It is not real mechanical focus, it is "fly by wire" electronic but it gives you very fine adjustment control and works quite well. Filters or add-on lenses can be easily attached to the lens via the 52mm filter threads.

The FD97 has the usual fully automatic AE mode for effortless "point and shoot" type of operation so even the unskilled user can take pictures easily. For those that want more creative control there is shutter speed priority (8 secs to 1/500) and aperture priority (F2.8 to F11) AE modes so you can freeze fast-moving subjects or adjust the depth of field. The Twilight and Twighlight Plus modes assist you in taking better night shots, the Landscape mode is for outdoor scenics and the Panfocus is for rapid changes from short to distant subjects. The camera has a 10-second selftimer for blur-free pictures when using the long shutter speeds and a tripod or when you want to get into the picture yourself.

Exposure metering can be matrix by default or to compensate for strong backlighting you can enable the spot metering option. The automatic white balance does a good job for most normal lighting or when you are using the built in flash. It also has an indoor (incandescent) and outdoors (daylight) preset as well as a one-push custom setting to set the white point precisely. These controls are conveniently located on the side of the camera. Use the on-screen popup menu system to set the exposure compensation (+/- 2EV) or adjust the amount of in-camera sharpening or apply one of the picture effects such as sepia, black and white, negative art or solarized.

Using the menu system you can choose from a myriad of image sizes (1600 x 1200, 1600 x 1027 [3:2 ratio], 1024 x 768 or 640 x 480) for still images. When using the Memory Stick you get the option of saving in compressed JPEG (standard or economy) or uncompressed TIFF, if using the floppy diskette the TIFF option is not available as the image is about 5.7MB in size. There is also a Text mode where the image is stored as a monochrome GIF file. The Email option gives you a small (320 x 240) and highly compressed image that is good for attaching to your Internet email messages. The FD97 has borrowed the ClipMotion mode from the Cyber-shot and allows you to sequence up to ten 160 x 120 or 80 x 72 images into a GIF animation. And you can create mini-movies in MPEG format with audio - 5, 10 or 15-second clips at 320 x 240 or up to 60 seconds in the smaller 160 x 112 format.

Other features common to the entire Mavica FD series is the long-life InfoLITHIUM rechargeable battery, it comes with the NP-F330 but can also use the NP-F530 and NP-F550 packs. The battery is charged in the camera with the supplied charger that also serves as an AC power supply. You never have to wonder when the battery is going to give out as the charge level is constantly displayed on the screen in both a graphical icon of a battery and in minutes remaining. And all Mavicas are equipped with large 2.5-inch color LCD displays which makes reviewing your pictures a snap. This large display can also be used as the viewfinder or to extend your battery life switch it off and use the EVF instead. The EVF is automatically enabled whenever you put the camera up to your eye and turns itself off when it is taken away - very cool. The one unfortunate quality of being a Mavica camera is the size, these cameras are big and heavy, the FD97 weighs in at just over two pounds without the battery -- it isn't going to fit in your pocket!

So there you have it, last year's FD95 just got even better and the best news of all is that the MSRP of the FD97 is $899. This is $100 less than the FD95 sold for so it appears that Sony is sending a clear message to Olympus, Canon and the others that it fully intends to dominate the market. I'm sure we will see some price cutting on the other 10x zoom cameras and this is always good news for the consumers.


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