Sony Mavica CD500 Review
The Mavica CD500 is a 5.0-megapixel digicam that features a Carl Zeiss Vario Sonar 3x
optical zoom lens and stores its images and movie clips on 3.5-inch mini-CD discs.
The CD500 is the flagship of Sony's CD Mavica series for 2003 and has a suggested
list price of $700 ($200 less than the CD400 last year.) Sony will also be offering
the Mavica CD350, a slimmer 3.2-megapixel model with a Sony 3x zoom for $500. The
CD500 incorporates all of the Mavica CD400's
features and adds a higher resolution imager, MPEG VX movie mode, Auto Fill
Flash, digital Smart Zoom (in VGA resolution) and TTL hot shoe contacts for the
Sony's new HVL-F32X programmable flash unit.
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. My only suggestion for improvement would be to add a Memory Stick card slot. It would be ideal for those times when you only want to take a couple of pictures but don't want to "waste" a new CD.
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, 10 seconds on a fresh disc. The shot-to-shot time is about average at about 3 seconds in single mode (all shot in 5M 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 CD500 offers the same exposure modes found on advanced film cameras; Program AE with Shift, Shutter speed priority, Aperture priority and full Manual as well as AE Bracketing. There are also six Scene modes: Twilight, Twilight Portrait, Landscape, Portrait, Snow and Beach. Program AE is the "Point-n-Shoot" mode where the camera selects the best combination of shutter speed and aperture automatically. 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 still image recording mode you can select the White Balance (color temperature) option from the usual presets or the one-push manual set. 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 5Megapixels for large prints down to VGA size for web or email use and inbetween is 1.2M and 3M as well as a 2:3 ratio sized 4.5M 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 8 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 CD500 features a 5-area high-speed scan autofocus and a new laser "hologram" focusing assist device to insure accurately focused pictures. This autofocus system was first seen on the Sony Cyber-shot F707 and uses a Class 1 laser to paint a grid pattern on the subject to improve the contrast. It's perfectly safe, even when aimed directly at someone's eyes. I found it nearly impossible to "fool" the AF system. Sony has addressed what so many other manufacturers are still ignoring, the CD500 focuses accurately in low contrast/low light conditions. The "Cool Factor" for this feature alone is a definite ten!
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 and it can also be illuminated by ambient outdoor light via the solar window across the top of the display. Using the solar backlight can save some battery power but we really didn't find it all the useable in the real world.
And speaking of batteries, the CD500 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-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 CD500 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.
These CD Mavica cameras 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 any smaller but you can tote one around for hours without too much fatigue. The built in flash handles most indoor picture taking tasks with ease and pops up automatically when needed. The new Auto Fill Flash does a good job of detecting when it's needed and then provides extra illumination for that special "sparkle in the eye" as well as eliminating shadows. The CD500 easily handles close up flash of difficult subjects as is shown in our Sample Photos page with the shot of the highly reflective candy dish. It can be used with either the HVL-F1000 flash or the new HVL-F32X programmable flash. We haven't seen or used the HVL-F32X flash yet but it should be an excellent performer with its true through the lens exposure control.
The bottom line is image quality and thanks to an excellent lens and well-refined image processing hardware, the CD500 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 CD500 as an excellent 5-megapixel camera value. With the CD-500's lower initial price ($700 as of April 2003), inexpensive recording media, huge color LCD and impressive image quality, this camera is sure to please. If you don't need 5 megapixels of resolution then look at the 3.2-megapixel Sony CD350 for about $200 less, we should have a review of it soon.
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