DCRP Review: Sony Mavica MVC-CD400
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002
Last Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2002

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The review of this camera is now complete. Photos have been re-shot where needed, and all sample photos were taken with a production-level camera.

In the beginning, Sony created the Mavica. And it was popular. The original Mavicas used floppy disks to store photos on, and they flew off the shelves. People loved the convenience and low cost of the floppy disk media.

But then, SmartMedia and CompactFlash (especially) really started to pull away in capacity and speed. So Sony created the Memory Stick format. But what about people who wanted the floppy convenience?

Well, Sony still makes the floppy Mavicas, but they've started to transition to CD-R and CD-RW-based cameras instead. The first CD Mavica, the CD1000 was bulky, slow, used write-once media, and my camera at least was unreliable. But Sony been improving the CD Mavicas -- and the new MVC-CD250 ($599, 2 Megapixel) and the MVC-CD400 ($899, 4 Megapixel) are living proof. You can read about the CD250 in a separate review.

The CD400 uses CD-R and CD-RW discs, has full manual controls, and even has the Hologram AF focusing system found on the excellent Cyber-shot DSC-F707 camera. I'll mention some other new features later in this review.

What's in the Box?

The MVC-CD400 has an excellent bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 4.0 (effective) Mpixel Mavica MVC-CD400 camera
  • Six 156MB CD-R discs
  • One 156MB CD-RW disc
  • 8 cm CD adapter
  • NP-FM50 InfoLithium rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger / AC adapter
  • Lens cap w/strap
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Pixela ImageMixer software and drivers
  • 129 page manual (printed)

With the new CD Mavicas, Sony is really pushing the CD-R/RW format as the value leader in digital photography. The CD250 and CD400 include over 1 gigabyte worth of storage -- 6 CD-R discs plus 1 CD-RW disc, in the box.

There are two types of CDs you can use with the CD Mavicas. CD-R discs are write-once discs -- there's no deleting photos (well, you can, but you don't get the space back). Using CD-R discs is a lot like using film -- you take your pictures and when you run out, it's time to buy another CD-R disc. Sony sells 5 packs of CD-R media for $15.

What you'll probably want to do, however, is use CD-RW discs instead. Here, you can reuse the discs, really delete pictures, and save money at the same time. The CD-RW discs will cost you more up front (3 pack for $20), but in the end, it may be worth it.

Here's the deal with using discs. When you're ready to pop your CD-R or CD-RW disc into your CD-ROM drive, you must first "finalize" it. This adds some 13MB to the disc and can take a minute or two. When you're done, theoretically, it will work in your computer. If you have a CD-RW drive, you often do not have to finalize the disc to use it (it really depends on what equipment you have). If you want to add more photos to the disc, you will need to initialize the disc. This won't erase anything, but it will take up more space on the CD-R disc. For CD-RW, you can "unfinalize" which will get some of that 13MB back.

If this sounds confusing, take a look at this flow chart in the camera manual:

For us Mac users, it's not quite so easy. In Mac OS X, I was unable to get my CD-ROM or CD-RW drive to read the discs, regardless of if they were finalized or not. If you're using Mac OS 9.2 or earlier, download the UDF Volume Reader software from Roxio -- then you can read finalized discs. They worked fine in my Windows PC. Mac users can still connect the camera via USB and download photos that way.

Speaking of USB, the new CD Mavicas handle the USB connection differently. They use the new PTP standard (I'm not sure what the old standard was called), and Sony includes the necessary drivers.

Hopefully all that CD stuff makes sense. Now let's talk about batteries. The CD400 uses the familiar M series InfoLithium battery. The good news is that its rechargeable and should last for a while (about 110 minutes per charge), and they tell you exactly how much power they have left (in minutes). The bad news is the same with all proprietary batteries: they are expensive and you cannot easily find them when you're in a bind. In other words, Disneyland doesn't sell them. Sony includes an AC adapter which charges the battery while it's in the camera. That takes 2.5 hours.

The CD400's lens is threaded, though you'll need a step up ring. The camera uses 52mm attachments and Sony sells a number of lenses and filters. Sony includes a lens cap (with retaining strip) to protect that Zeiss lens.

On a related note, the CD400 has a real, honest to goodness hot shoe! You should be able to use most flashes with it!


The CD400 with DSAC-MVC clip-on viewfinder

Above is another useful accessory: a clip-on viewfinder ($80)! Since the CD250 and CD400 only have LCD's, some folks will definitely want this! I finally got to try one of these, and it's pretty neat. You can look through the optical viewfinder (which is just showing you the LCD), or flip that door down and view the LCD directly.

I did not try the Pixela ImageMixer software, so I cannot comment on that. The manual, while still confusing (you saw that flowchart), is better than those included with older Sony cameras.

Look and Feel

The new CD Mavicas are looking more and more like SLR-style cameras. In fact, some people might not even notice that it uses CDs, as the big "bulge" that used to be on the top of the camera is gone. There's a larger right hand grip, and a new-style popup flash as well. The camera is made of the high grade plastic that is typical of Sony's cameras.

While the CD400 is smaller than its predecessors, it's still a big camera. I'd compare it to a regular SLR camera, though lighter. This is one camera that will not find its way into your pocket. The official dimensions of the CD400 are 5.5 x 3.75 x 4.13 inches, and it weighs 638 grams (about the same as the Sony F707) with battery and disc installed.

Let's start our tour of the CD400 now.

The CD400 uses the now familiar F2.0 Carl Zeiss lens, that's been seen on many other high-end Sony cameras. The focal range of the lens is 7 - 21 mm, which is equivalent to 34 - 102 mm. The lens, as I mentioned, is threaded, though you'll need a conversion ring to use any filters (52 mm).

Moving up, you can see the popup flash, which has a focal range of 0.5 - 5.0 m. I'll talk more about flashes in a bit.

There's one other item of note here -- and it's a big one in my opinion. The MVC-CD400 is only the second camera to use Sony's Hologram AF laser focusing system!


Hologram AF pattern

The camera projects the laser grid shown above onto the subject, and then uses that to focus. As a result, you can focus in the dark! It's pretty impressive and apparently doesn't harm people's eyes (if they're the subject) either. The CD250 doesn't have Hologram AF, but has an AF illuminator to assist in focusing.

Here is the back of the CD400. The main event here is the huge 2.5" LCD screen, which is the only way to preview pictures (I already mentioned the optional viewfinder attachment). The LCD's quality is excellent -- it's big, bright, and fluid. Like the other Mavica cameras, you can turn off the backlight and let the sun do the job, but you'll need a lot of direct light to actually make it useable. Since you've only got the LCD to work with, it can be hard to use outdoors in bright light. This is typical of all digicam LCDs, not just this one.

Below the LCD are five buttons:

  • Display / LCD backlight (on/off) - toggles the info shown on LCD, and then the LCD backlight
  • Metering (multi-area, center-weighted, spot)
  • Focus (focus point, manual focus) - more below
  • Exposure compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • AE lock (on/off) - locks exposure settings

Pressing the focus button once brings up a new feature on Sony cameras -- manual focus point selection. Using the thumb wheel (seen at the far right of the above photo), you can scroll through the various subjects and the camera will focus on the one you've chosen. Press the button again and you're in manual focus mode. You can scroll (again, using the wheel) between 0.1 m - 15 m, or choose infinite focus.

Continuing with our tour now: on the right side of the LCD you'll find the zoom controls, the four-way switch, and the menu button. The zoom controls are well-placed, and move the lens smoothly. The four-way switch is used for menu navigation, plus changing these settings:

  • Flash (up)
  • Macro (right)
  • Self-timer (down)
  • Quick review (left) - quickly shows the last photo taken

To the lower right of the menu button is the CD400's speaker. I already mentioned the thumb wheel (which can also be pressed like a button) on the far right.

Here's the top of the camera. One of the other big new features on the CD400 is Sony's first real hot shoe! On some of the other Sony models, there's a "cold shoe", which only worked with Sony's proprietary flash. But the CD400 has a genuine hot shoe, which will work with most flashes out there! You can still use the Sony HVL-F1000 flash, if you want (it plugs into the accessory port -- it doesn't use the hot shoe). Just in front of the hot shoe is the popup flash (which pops up automatically, by the way).

Moving to the right, you can see the microphone, mode wheel, and shutter release button.

The mode wheel (which has the power switch below it) has a very "notchy" feeling (that's a good thing) and has the following options:

  • Setup
  • Scene Mode
  • Full Manual
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Auto Record
  • Playback
  • Movie Mode

Some further explanation on these (I'll get the rest in the next section):

  • Scene Mode: Choose between Twilight, Twilight Portrait (flash slow sync), Landscape, and Pan Focus mode. The camera picks the best settings for these situations.
  • Aperture Priority: You pick the aperture, the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed. The choices range from F2 - F8 and will vary a bit depending on the focal range used.
  • Shutter Priority: exactly the opposite, you choose the shutter speed and the camera picks the correct aperture. You can choose from a number of speeds ranging from 8 sec - 1/1000 sec.
  • Full Manual: You choose both the shutter speed and aperture. The values available are the same as above.

Let's continue, with the sides of the camera.

On this side, you'll find most of the I/O ports, as well as the release for the CD-R/RW drive's door. Let's take a closer look at those I/O ports.

From top to bottom:

  • CD-R/RW drive door release
  • Accessory port (for the Sony HVL-F1000 flash)
  • USB
  • A/V

On the other side, the only thing you'll find is the port for the AC adapter (which is included with the camera). As you can see, there's a plastic cover for it.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. Here's where that M-series battery (shown here) goes, and there's also a metal tripod mount here as well.

Using the Sony MVC-CD400

Record Mode

Startup times for the CD400 can really vary. Sometimes it's quick (4 secs), other times it can take much longer to read the CD. Once things get started, though, the camera is responsive. When you depress the shutter release button halfway, the CD400 locks focus in about a second. It may take slightly longer if Hologram AF is used. There is no noticeable shutter lag when you press the shutter release button fully.

Sony has obviously put a lot of buffer memory in the CD400, to alleviate the slowness associated with the CD-R/RW format. As such, the delay between shots is minimal -- about a second or so, until the buffer is full (which takes some work). If you take a TIFF image, the story is different -- expect the camera to be inoperable for over a minute while the file is saved to the CD.

The newest Sony cameras have three noise reduction systems to make your pictures better. There's one for chrominance (Clear Color NR), another for luminance, and finally, one for noise (Slow Shutter NR). When shutter speeds drop below 1/2 sec, the "Slow Shutter NR" noise reduction mode kicks in. This results in a longer wait for the image to be recorded, but you'll be rewarded with a less noisy image.

Here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the CD400:

Image Size # photos on 156MB CD (approx.)
Fine Quality Standard Quality
2272 x 1704 66 119
2272 (3:2 aspect ratio) 66 119
1600 x 1200 131 235
1280 x 960 195 347
640 x 480 658 1291

As you can see, those little CD's can hold quite a lot of pictures. Sony gives you seven of them in the box (including one CD-RW) so you'll be set for a while.

The CD Mavicas use the familiar Sony "overlay-style" menu. It's easy enough to figure out. Here's what you'll find in the menus:

  • White Balance (Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Manual) - more below
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
  • Image Size (2272 x 1704, 2272 (3:2), 1600 x 1200, 1280 x 960, 640 x 480)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, Standard)
  • Rec Mode (TIFF, Voice, E-Mail, Exposure Bracketing, Burst 3, Normal)
  • Flash Level (High, Normal, Low)
  • Photo Effects (Solarize, Black & White, Sepia, Negative Art, Off)
  • Sharpness (-2 to +2)

The white balance mode has been expanded on the new CD Mavicas. No more indoor, outdoor, or hold choices. There's also a manual WB mode which will let you shoot a piece of white or gray paper -- very handy in situations where the other WB modes just won't work.

Here's more details on those Rec Mode choices:

  • TIFF: uncompressed large image
  • Voice: Records an audio file along with a still image
  • E-mail: Records a 320 x 240 image in addition to the recorded image
  • Bracketing: Records three images continuously with exposure compensation values shifted (at interval selected in setup menu).
  • Burst3: Records three images continuously at 2 frames/sec

In Setup Mode, there are a number of other options available. Here are the interesting ones:

  • Disc Tool (finalize, format, initialize, unfinalize) - handles all those CD functions I described earlier.
  • Moving Image (MPEG Movie, ClipMotion, Multi-Burst) - explained below
  • Date/Time (Day & Time, Date, Off) - whether date/time is printed on your photos
  • Bracket step (1EV, 0.7EV, 0.3EV) - for auto bracketing
  • Digital Zoom (on/off)
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Hologram AF (on/off)
  • File numbering (series, reset)
  • Conversion lens (on/off)
  • Hot shoe (on/off)
  • Confirm before write (on/off) - this is new! Review a picture (and delete it if necessary) before it's saved to the CD.

The Moving Image feature has a new addition: Multi-Burst mode. This is similar to a feature found on the Nikon Coolpix cameras. It will take 16 shots in a row and put it into one 1280 x 960. I guess it's good for analyzing your golf swing. You get to choose from several between-frame intervals -- 1/7.5 sec, 1/15 sec, and 1/30 sec. There is also a movie-like feature called ClipMotion which will take 10 images and put them into an animated GIF for you.

Speaking of photos, let's take a look at our standard tests now to see how the CD400 fared.

With the exception of some purple fringing around the highlights, the CD400 did a fine job with our night shot. The Slow Shutter NR feature did a nice job of eliminating the noise that you'd normally get on long exposures such as this. Since the camera has full control over the aperture and shutter speed, you can get really creative.

The CD400 also produced a sharp image of our macro subject (which is about 3 inches tall), with accurate color. The minimum focus distance in macro mode is 4 cm (1.625 inches) at wide-angle, and 20 cm (7.875 inches) at telephoto.

Above is our red-eye test. The camera's red-eye reduction system didn't totally eliminate this phenomenon. It's visible, but not horrible. Many software products can remove red-eye. (Note that this image was blown up 200% so you can see the details.)

I was quite pleased with the photo quality on the CD400. After all, it is based on their excellent DSC-S85 camera. Images were properly exposed and the colors look good. Don't take my word for it, though, look at our photo gallery and make your own decision about the photo quality. This gallery is a little smaller than usual due to the large number of cameras I have at the moment.

Movie Mode

The CD400 uses Sony's new MPEGMovie HQX mode and that's great news. First, some history. A few years ago, Sony came out with the MPEGMovie HQ mode, which was higher quality (though still 320 x 240) than most digital camera movie modes. Then came MPEGMovie EX, which got rid of time limits on video (until your memory card filled up), though not at the HQ setting. MPEGMovie HQX allows you to do it -- direct writing of HQ video until you run out of space. You can get over 5 minutes of video (with sound) on each CD.

The only downside is that the zoom lens cannot be used during filming, but this shouldn't be news, as very few cameras with sound can actually do this.

Movies are saved in MPEG format, as you might guess by the name.

Instead of a stupid movie panning down the street, I actually have a sample that real people might actually take! This was taken during a triathlon here in San Francisco. You will see that even a "HQ" movie mode still isn't that great.


Click to play movie (3.0MB, MPEG format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The MVC-CD400's playback mode goes beyond the basic features found on most point-and-shoot cameras. The basic features include slide shows, DPOF print marking, protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll".

In addition to those, you can also resize, trim, and rotate photos in-camera. Do note that when you trim a photo, if you choose a high resolution, the resulting image will not look good!

The zoom and scroll mode lets you zoom in as much as 5X, and then move around in it. This is handy for checking focus.

You can get more information about photos by zooming out twice. You'll get a scrollable list of information that you can see above.

I would have liked a delete button on the camera itself, rather than having to invoke the menu every time I want to remove a photo, but that's a minor gripe. You can, however, delete a group of photos. Put the camera into thumbnail mode (zoom out once), invoke the menu, and choose Delete, then Select and you'll see what I mean.

 

The CD400 moves between images fairly quickly in playback mode, though there's disc accessing for five seconds or so when you do move. I believe the camera caches the photos on each side of the current one for quicker viewing. Things get much slower when you zoom out to thumbnail mode - it took about 12 seconds to read the 9 thumbnails off the CD. It's also slow if you start moving quickly through your photos one at a time.

How Does it Compare?

My conclusion about the Sony Mavica MVC-CD400 is very similar to the floppy-based cameras that I've reviewed. If you're sold on the CD-R/RW format, then the CD400 is a fabulous camera. It's got excellent photo quality, full manual controls, a very nice movie mode, a hot shoe, and a inexpensive media format. On the other hand, you've got a bulky, slow (in terms in read/write speed), and expensive digital camera with lots of moving parts. A CD-RW drive is a delicate instrument, so I've got to wonder how long these things last in real world use. Also, the camera isn't what I call "Mac compatible", as the CDs cannot be read in your CD-ROM drive. If you like the CD format though, the CD400 (or the less expensive CD250) are great choices. If you don't care about the CD format, I'd look at some other 4 Megapixel cameras instead.

What I liked:

  • Excellent photo quality
  • CD-R/RW format is excellent value
  • Full manual controls
  • Hot shoe for external flash
  • Huge 2.5" LCD
  • Great movie mode
  • Hologram AF - the best AF assist system out there

What I didn't care for:

  • No optical viewfinder
  • No optical zoom in movie mode
  • Poor Mac compatibility
  • Concerns about durability of CD-RW drive
  • Sluggish read/write times, esp. in playback mode

When it comes to CD-based cameras, the CD400 and CD250 are the only game in town. If you're interested in other 4 Megapixel cameras, please visit our Reviews & Info section.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the MVC-CD400 before you buy!

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion? How about a third?

Nobody has reviewed production-level CD400's yet. But if you want pre-production camera reviews, Steve's Digicams and Imaging Resource both have them.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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