The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M2 ($500) is the latest "hybrid" digital camera from the Japanese electronics giant. The DSC-M1 is a more refined version of the DSC-M1 (introduced in 2004), which was an interesting but awkward mix of camera and camcorder. The new features on the M2 include a less boxy design (though I still find it clumsy to hold and operate), a built-in photo album, and an enhanced slideshow feature. Most everything else is about the same: both cameras share a 5.1 Megapixel CCD, 3X optical zoom lens, rotating 2.5" LCD display, and a nice movie mode with stereo sound recording.
How does this one-of-a-kind camera perform? Find out in our review, which starts now!
What's in the Box?
The DSC-M2 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:
- The 5.1 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-M2 digital camera
- NP-FT1 rechargeable lithium-ion battery
- AC adapter / battery charger
- Cyber-shot Station camera dock
- Wrist strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring Sony Picture Package, Music Transfer, and Nero Vision Express 3
- Fold-out "Read This FIrst" guide + 107 page camera manual (both printed)
The Cyber-shot DSC-M2 has a rather unusual memory situation. While there is built-in memory for the album feature (I'm guessing it's around 64MB), this memory cannot be used for regular picture storage. For that you'll need to buy a memory card, since the camera does not include one. The M2 uses Sony's Memory Stick Duo cards, which currently top out at 2GB. If you only have a regular Memory Stick card in your PC or card reader, don't fret: an adapter is included. I'd recommend getting a 512MB memory card as a good place to start. If you plan on taking a lot of movies then you may want to buy an even larger card.
The DSC-M2 uses the now familiar NP-FT1 lithium-ion battery. This battery packs just 2.4 Wh of energy, which is as low as you'll find. So, while battery life is improved over the M1, don't expect miracles with the M2: it can take 210 shots per charge when the LCD backlight is on. Turning off the backlight (which you can only do outdoors) increases battery life by about 20%.
The usual caveats about proprietary batteries apply here. They're expensive ($50 a pop) and you can't use "regular batteries" to get you throw the day in an emergency. Unfortunately these batteries are standard features on ultra thin cameras like the M2. One thing I do like about Sony's InfoLithium batteries is that they tell you exactly how many minutes you have left before you run out of juice.
Front of the dock
The I/O ports on the back of the dock include A/V, USB, and DC-in
The DSC-M2 includes a dock, which you can see above. The dock is what you'll use to charge the battery, transfer photos to a computer, and view photos on a TV. The dock also doubles as a stand for when you're viewing photos on the LCD.
While you can plug the AC adapter directly into the camera, the only way to use USB or A/V out is with the dock. It takes around 150 minutes to fully charge the battery. The dock supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard for fast file transfer to your Mac or PC.
The DSC-M2 has a built-in lens cover, so there are no lens caps to worry about.
There are very few accessories available for the DSC-M2. In fact, the only ones I could find were an external battery charger ($45) and extra batteries ($50).
Picture Package viewer (Windows only)
Sony includes Picture Package v1.2.1 for Windows as the main image viewing application. This is actually an older version that what's included with other Sony cameras, but it seems to have most of the same features. Picture Package is probably the worst of the bundled software products these days, with a clunky interface, poor integration, and minimal features. For example, the Viewer can't actually show the movies recorded by the M2. Instead, you must open a separate program to do that.
Picture Package Editing (Windows only)
This latest version of Picture Package adds basic editing capabilities. You can remove redeye, adjusting brightness and contrast, and crop/resize your photos. You can also e-mail them at the click of your mouse.
Other features include Video CD burning and music video and slideshow production tools.
Music Transfer software (Mac version)
This software is also what you'll use to transfer your own music to the camera for use in the slideshow feature. While I didn't try the Windows Music Transfer software, the Mac version was pretty basic, but it worked. As you can see, up to four tracks can be stored on the camera, and the software can grab them from MP3 files (which didn't work for me) or from an audio CD. This is the only Mac compatible software included with the camera.
Nero Vision Express 3 (Windows only)
Also included is Nero Vision Express 3, a Windows-only application for making DVDs and Video CDs. This is much nicer than anything in the Picture Package bundle, and it reads the MPEG-4 videos recorded by the DSC-M2 without a hitch.
The DSC-M2's documentation is split into two parts. For the basics there's a fold-out "Read This First" guide, which covers things like charging the battery and simple camera operation. For more details you'll want to crack open the User's Guide, which covers just about everything. While the "Read This First" guide is okay, the full manual isn't as user friendly.
Look and Feel
The Cyber-shot DSC-M2 is an unusual looking product that is a cross between a camera, cell phone, and camcorder. The camera is actually two pieces: one with the LCD and a few buttons, and the other with the lens, flash, and even more buttons. The M2's body is made of metal and plastic, and its well put together.
The M2 is actually larger than the camera which it replaces, though it's much better looking. The dimensions of the M2 are 2.1 x 4.9 x 1.3 inches (W x H x D, excluding protrusions), and it weighs 180 grams empty. The numbers for the DSC-M1 are 2.0 x 4.5 x 1.1 inches and 185 grams, respectively.
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
One thing that certainly hasn't changed since the M1 is the clunky design of the camera. It's an ergonomic nightmare, in my opinion. The camera is hard to keep steady, buttons are all over the place (and poorly sized in some cases), and the new "shuttle dial" tested my patience. I can't stress this enough: try the camera in person before you buy it: you may like the design.
When shooting you'll typically hold the camera as shown in the photo above. In playback mode the camera can also be held like this:
Image courtesy of Sony Electronics
I'll tell you more about all the buttons and dials on the camera in our tour, which starts right now!
Just a note before we go on: you may notice that there's a tripod mount in most of the product photos below, and that's because the M2 can't "stand up" like other cameras -- it just tips over.
The DSC-M2 appears to use the same F3.5-4.4 Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens as its predecessor. The focal range of the lens is 6.3 - 19.0 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 114 mm. The lens is not threaded.
Directly above the lens is the built-in flash, which is been relocated since the M1. The flash strength has been bumped up as well, though the range still leaves something to be desired: 0.1 - 2.6 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 2.1 m at telephoto. You cannot attach an external flash to the M2.
To the lower-left of the lens is the camera's AF-assist lamp, which also serves as a visual self-timer countdown. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations.
The last thing to see here is the stereo microphone, which its on the back side of the LCD panel. Very few cameras record sound in stereo, and most of them are also camera/camcorder hybrids like the DSC-M2.
Above is how the DSC-M2 looks while you're taking pictures. Since there's no optical viewfinder on the camera you'll be using that large 2.5" LCD display for composing your photos. The resolution of the screen isn't terribly high, with just 123,200 pixels, but it didn't bother me when I used the camera. The screen is the "hybrid" type, which allows for excellent outdoor visibility. I wasn't terribly impressed with how viewable the screen was in low light conditions: it didn't "gain up" as much as I would've liked.
The LCD can rotate a total of 270 degrees, from pointing at your subject to pointing at the ceiling.
The three buttons just to the left of the LCD are borrowed from Sony's camcorders. The top one takes a still photo (or starts the slideshow in playback mode), the middle one toggles what's on the LCD, and the bottom one records a movie clip (or opens the photo album in playback mode).
Jumping to the right side of the LCD we find three more buttons, the four-way controller, and the shuttle dial. First, the buttons:
- Thumbnail view
- Image quality + Delete photo
The four-way controller is used for menu navigation, and also:
- Up - Self-timer (on/off)
- Down - Flash setting (Auto, forced flash, slow synchro, flash off)
- Left - Macro (on/off)
- Right - Spot metering (on/off)
Watch out for that spot metering button -- I accidentally pressed it once and got a batch of really lousy pictures as a result.
The "shuttle" dial is new to the M2, and I'm not a huge fan of it. The dial can be used to adjust exposure compensation, move between photos in playback mode, or to quickly "jog" through your videos while they're being played back. The problem that I have with the shuttle dial is that it's too sensitive. When viewing photos I often sped right past the one I wanted to see (just use the four-way controller instead), and while reviewing movies it jumped ahead a little too quickly.
Moving over to the other half of the camera now, the first thing we encounter is the zoom controller. I can't say that I like this either (sorry Sony), as it's too flush with the body and isn't in the best location either. Still, it does what it's supposed to, moving the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.1 seconds. I counted twelve steps throughout the 3X zoom range.
Below the zoom controller are three buttons and two switches. The buttons should be self-explanatory: photo takes a still picture, mode switches between record and playback mode, and movie records a video clip. The two switches below the buttons can modify how those buttons work, with one unlocking a very unique feature.
When you change the photo mode to "hybrid", the camera takes a 5 second movie clip, then a still photo, and then 3 more seconds of video. When played back (it's one movie file plus a separate photo) you'll see the first clip, then a pause, then the still image at full resolution, and then the rest of the video. It's worth mentioning that the video quality is much lower than what the M2 is capable of, with a resolution of 320 x 240 and a frame rate of 15 fps.
The other switch isn't nearly as exciting: it limits movie recording time to 5 seconds per clip.
Nothing to see here.
On the other side of the camera you'll find the power button, status lights, speaker, and DC-in port (for included AC adapter).
Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the M2. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount, the battery and memory card slots, and the dock connector.
As I said earlier in the review, no memory card is included with the camera, so you'll need to supply your own. The NP-FT1 battery (shown at right) is included, of course. The door that covers these two slots is of average quality. Do note that you won't be able to swap memory cards while the camera is on a tripod.
Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M2
It takes about 1.6 seconds for the DSC-M2 to "warm up" before you can starting taking pictures. The M2 can be turned on either by flipping open the screen half of the body, or by pressing the power button on the side of the camera.
A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode
The DSC-M2's focus speeds were very good. In good lighting the camera typically took between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds to lock focus. In lower light conditions (when the AF-assist lamp is used) the M2 took longer, but still locked focus most of the time.
As with Sony's other recent cameras, shutter lag was not noticeable, even at the slower shutter speeds where it sometimes crops up.
Shot-to-shot speed was excellent, with a delay of a little over a second before you can take another shot.
You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must enter playback mode.
Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the DSC-M2:
||# images on 512MB memory card (optional)
2592 x 1944
2592 x 1728
2048 x 1536
1280 x 960
640 x 480
The DSC-M2 does not support the RAW or TIFF image formats, nor would I expect it to.
The file numbering system used by Sony is quite simple. Files are named DSC0####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The numbering is maintained as you erase and swap Memory Sticks.
The DSC-M2 has the standard overlay-style Sony menu system. Here's the complete record menu (some of these options may not be available in all modes):
- Camera mode (Auto, program, magnifying glass, twilight, twilight portrait, landscape, snow, beach, high-speed shutter, fireworks, candle) - see below
- Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV in 1/3EV increments)
- Focus mode (Multi, center, spot AF, 0.5, 1, 3, 7 meters, infinity)
- White balance (Auto, daylight, cloudy, fluorescent, incandescent, flash) - no custom option to be found
- ISO (Auto, 64, 100, 200, 400)
- Photo Quality (Fine, standard)
- Rec Mode
- Normal - regular shooting
- Speed Burst - took four shots in a row at 2.9 frames/second at the highest JPEG quality (based on my tests using a MS Pro Duo card)
- Exposure bracketing - camera takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value; choose the interval between shots in the record menu (±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, or ±1.0EV)
- Multi burst - takes 16 shots in a row (at interval selected in menu) and compiles them into one 1 Megapixel image
- Bracket step (±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, ±1.0EV) - for the exposure bracketing feature described above
- Multi-burst interval (1/30, 1/15, 1/7.5 sec) - for the multi-burst feature described above
- Flash Level (Low, normal, high)
- Photo Effects (Off, black & white, sepia)
- Saturation (Low, normal, high)
- Contrast (Low, normal, high)
- Sharpness (Low, normal, high)
- Setup - see below
As you can see, the DSC-M2 is a 100% point-and-shoot camera, with no manual controls to be found (the pseudo manual focus feature doesn't count). The magnifying glass scene mode is essentially a "super macro mode", which lets you get just 1 cm from your subject.
It's worth mentioning that there's no LCD blackout while using the speed burst mode described above.
Now let's take a look at the items in the setup menu:
- Hybrid pre rec (Normal, pre record) - if the post-shot movie clip is on or off
- Digital zoom (on/off)
- Date/Time (Off, date, day & time) - whether date/time is printed on your photos
- Redeye reduction (on/off)
- AF illuminator (on/off) - turns the AF-assist lamp on and off
- Auto Review (on/off) - shows images on LCD after it is taken
- Memory Stick Tool
- Change/create rec folder - manage folders on the memory card
- Copy - copies the photos in the album to a MS Duo card
- Write in album (on/off) - whether images are automatically sent to the album
- Setup 1
- Beep (Shutter only, on, off)
- Format music - erases the music memory
- LCD backlight (Normal, bright)
- Setup 2
- File number (Series, reset)
- USB connect (Auto, Mass Storage, PTP, PictBridge)
- Video out (NTSC, PAL)
- Clock set
Enough menus, let's talk about photo quality now!
The DSC-M2 suffered from the same white balance problem in our macro test as Sony's other point-and-shoot cameras. Since there's no "custom" white balance feature, I had to use the closest preset (tungsten), which didn't handle my studio lamps very well. If it wasn't for that color cast then the macro shot would be great -- the subject is nice and sharp, with a smooth look to it.
This color cast issue will only be a problem if you shoot under unusual lighting conditions. For regular shots you won't have to worry about any of this, but if you have a weird mix of lights (or studio lamps) you may want to find a camera with custom white balance. I ran the image through the Auto Color function in Photoshop which produced a much more accurate result:
That's a whole lot better!
There are two macro modes on the M2. The normal one lets you get as close to your subject as 8 cm at wide-angle and 25 cm at telephoto -- pretty average. But if you want to get really close, turn on that magnifying glass mode which I just mentioned, which reduces the minimum distance to just 1 cm. Do note that the lens is locked at the wide-angle position in this mode.
The night shot turned out well, though a longer exposure would've been nice. Since there's no manual control over shutter speed you'll need to use the twilights scene mode for shots like this. The slowest shutter speed available on the M2 appears to be 2 seconds, which isn't very slow compared to other what other cameras offer.
The buildings in the photo are nice and sharp, noise levels are low, and purple fringing was not a problem. Nice reflections on that night, too.
Since I can't control the shutter speed on the M2 I am unable to do the night ISO tests.
There's mild to moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the DSC-M2's 3X zoom lens. I did not find vignetting (dark corners) to be a problem. You may encounter some blurriness in the corners of some of your photos, though.
As you can see, the M2 is a redeye machine. This isn't surprising, since the flash is literally on top of the lens. While your results may vary, more than likely you'll be dealing with this annoyance frequently.
Overall the DSC-M2's photo quality is very good. Images were well-exposed with accurate color and low noise and purple fringing levels. The only issue I have is that photos seem a little "muddy" at times, with details looking more smudged than sharp (you'll especially notice this on things like grass, shrubs, and trees). But, for most purposes that won't be a problem, but if you're a stickler for detail you may want to take a closer look at the M2's photos.
That said, you need to be the final judge of the DSC-M2's photo quality. Have a look at our photo gallery, print the photos if you'd like, and then decide if the M2's photo quality meets your expectations.
The Cyber-shot DSC-M2 has the same high quality movie mode as the M1 before it. That means unlimited recording at 640 x 480, 30 frames/second, with stereo sound. While the resolution is the same as on Sony's other cameras, the quality is noticeably better. And, since the camera uses the MPEG-4 codec you'll be able to take longer movies than you can on a camera that uses something like M-JPEG. On a 1GB MS Duo card you can fit a whopping 45 minutes of video -- wow!
For longer movies you can cut the resolution down to 320 x 240, at your choice of 30 or 15 frames/second.
If that's not enough, you can even use the zoom lens during filming.
Here's a short sample movie for you:
Click to play movie (3.4 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, MPEG-4 format)
Can't view them? Download QuickTime.
The DSC-M2's playback mode is quite a bit nicer than the one on the DSC-M1. Some features haven't changed, including DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail view (9 or 16 images per screen), and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge your photo up to five times and then move around in the zoomed-in area. This is great for checking to make sure that your subject is properly focused.
Images can also be rotated, resized, and cropped. Strangely enough there are no movie editing functions on this hybrid camera.
The slideshow feature has been enhanced, though it's not quite as nice as the one on the DSC-N1. You can select from four different music tracks (which you can supply) and three transition speeds, then off you go. There aren't "styles" like on the N1, but the slideshows are still nicer than what you'll get on most cameras.
The M2 also features an album feature like the DSC-N1, except now it holds 1100 images instead of 500. Each time you take a photo a VGA version is saved into the camera's internal memory. Your movies go to the album as well, but at a very slow frame rate of 2 frames/second. Once there you can easily browse your photos and videos by date, as you can see above. Photos can be deleted from the album if you'd like, and they can also be copied to a Memory Stick Duo card.
By default, the M2 doesn't tell you much about your photos. But press the Display button and you'll see a lot more, including a histogram (shown above).
The camera moves between images quickly in playback mode. If you go one image at a time, the next one appears instantly, without any low resolution placeholder. If you really start flipping through them, you'll see a low res placeholder followed by the high res image a half second later. You can use either the four-way controller or the shuttle dial to move from image to image.
How Does it Compare
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M2 is Sony's latest hybrid camera/camcorder, which takes 5 Megapixel photos and high quality videos while doubling as a portable photo album. It's also expensive and, in my opinion, difficult to hold and operate.
The DSC-M2 is a uniquely styled camera that is a mix of camera, camcorder, and cell phone. The body is made of a mix of metal and plastic, and it feels quite solid. The body is actually two parts, with the LCD on one side and the lens, flash, and controls on the other. While the camera does fit well in your hand, I found it harder to keep still than other cameras. There are buttons and switches all over the place, and many of them are poorly placed. I was not a fan of the new shuttle dial, and the poorly located zoom controller is uncomfortable to use. The camera's 2.5" LCD display can rotate 270 degrees, and its outdoor visibility is outstanding. Low light visibility left something to be desired, though.
The M2 is a point-and-shoot camera with a few nice extras. Those extras include an enhanced slideshow feature and an 1100 shot album that fills automatically as you take pictures. The album uses a memory bank that's built into the camera. Oddly, there's no internal memory for regular shooting, and Sony doesn't included a memory card either, so that $500 camera just got more expensive. The M2 could use some manual controls as well, with white balance and shutter speed being the most desirable. One thing that the DSC-M2 does very well is movie recording. It records movies at 640 x 480 (30 fps) with stereo sound until the memory card is full. Since the camera uses the MPEG-4 codec it takes a while to fill up. The camera even lets you use the zoom lens during filming! Again, Sony surprised me by leaving out even the most basic movie editing features on the M2.
Camera performance was very good for the most part. The M2 starts up quickly, focuses without delay, and shutter lag was not a problem. The burst mode was impressive, though only four photos are taken. Battery life, while better than on the original M1, is still not great.
Photo quality was very good. Images were well exposed with nice color, low noise, and minimal purple fringing. Details seemed a bit soft to me, just like they are on the T-series cameras on which the M2 is based. The M2's video quality was excellent.
There are a few other negatives worth mentioning. The M2's flash is quite weak, and redeye was a major problem. When you want to connect to a computer or television you'll need to bring along the camera dock, as there are no USB or A/V ports on the camera itself. Finally, the included Picture Package software is quite poor -- and Windows only.
If you can put up with the DSC-M2's awkward design (again, just my opinion) and high price, you'll likely be pleased with the results you get from it. It does what it's supposed to do, and it does it well. Still, it is $500, which is awfully pricey for a 5 Megapixel camera with a nice movie mode -- and that doesn't even factor in the cost of the memory card that you're required to buy.
For $100 less you can buy the Canon PowerShot S2 IS, which offers a 12X zoom lens (with image stabilization) and a nice movie mode (though it doesn't use MPEG-4). For even less money there's the Pentax Optio S6, which has 3X zoom and 2.5" LCD like the M2, and it uses the DivX codec for even better movie quality. In other words, there are better values out there than the DSC-M2.
What I liked:
- Successfully combines camera and camcorder features
- Very good photo and movie quality
- Snappy performance
- Large, high resolution rotating LCD display with great outdoor visibility
- AF-assist lamp
- Zoom lens can be used during filming
- Built-in 1100 shot photo album
- Support for USB 2.0 High Speed protocol (via camera dock)
What I didn't care for:
- Expensive; better values exist
- Awkward design with poor control layout
- No internal memory or memory card included, so the real price of the camera is even higher
- Weak flash; redeye a problem
- Lacks movie editing features (surprising given the fancy movie mode)
- No manual controls; custom white balance and long shutter speed modes needed
- USB and A/V ports require camera dock
- Bundled software isn't the greatest
Some other cameras with large LCDs and nice movie modes include the Canon PowerShot S2 IS and SD550 Digital ELPH, Casio Exilim EX-P505, Fuji FinePix V10, Kodak EasyShare V550, Pentax Optio S6, Samsung Digimax i6 and L50, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-N1. These are just the first cameras that came to mind -- there are others out there that may fit the bill, so do your homework!
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-M2 and its competitors before you buy!
Want to see how the photo quality turned out? Then have a look at our gallery!
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