DCRP Review: Panasonic PV-SD4090
by Jeff Keller [DCRP Creator/Webmaster]
Last revised: Friday, December 17, 1999

The most popular digital camera models this year are the various cameras in the Sony Mavica line. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for (in my opinion) floppy disk storage, while sacrificing photo quality and manual controls. But most people don't seem to mind, and the Mavica is a huge hit. Strangely, there hasn't been any competition from any other manufacturer -- until now. Using Imation's SuperDisk format, as well as existing floppy disks, Panasonic is trying to overtake Sony -- will they succeed with the PV-SD4090?

The camera is plastered with stickers that yell out the cameras high points --

  • 120MB SuperDisk
  • Floppy Disk compatible
  • Up to 1500 shot storage (you read that correct, 1500)
  • 1.3 Megapixel
  • USB port
  • 2.5" color monitor
  • Motion record/audio

Let's find out how it all adds up...

What's in the Box

Panasonic has included all the necessities with the camera. In fact, they give you the largest storage card available -- the 120MB SuperDisk! Forget those puny 4MB memory cards, or worse, 1.4MB floppies!

Inside the box for the camera, you'll find:

  • The 1.3 Mpixel PV-SD4090 camera
  • A 120MB SuperDisk
  • Lithium-ion battery
  • AC adapter / battery charger
  • USB cable
  • Video out cable
  • Camera strap
  • CD-ROM containing USB drivers, PhotoDeluxe, and Quicktime software
  • 75 page manual

I have no complaints about anything Panasonic included with the SD4090. The battery charger doubles as an AC adapter -- you can take the battery out of the camera, and snap it into the charger, or plug in another cord right into the camera (but not both at the same time).

Above: For some reason, this just screams "camcorder". Not that it's a bad thing.

The manual was well-written, and the software a breeze to install (but isn't it always on the Mac?)

Look and Feel

Veteran DCRP readers are probably wondering why I didn't make my usual comment about a lens cap in the last section. Well, I'm saving it for now. While I'm pleased to say that the camera has a built-in lens cover, I can't figure out why you have to manually flip it open.

See that switch on the side of the lens? When you turn on the camera, you've got to remember to flip this switch before you can take any photos. The LCD display will make sure you do, too. For $1000, this thing should be automatic!

The thing that really makes the SD4090 stand out is its bulk. In the picture above, you can see how it towers over the Ricoh RDC-5000, and can fit 2 or 3 AstraCam's inside it! The thing is very large, bulky, and heavy. Then again, so is the Mavica. The camera does fit in your hands quite well, though, with a big grip for your right hand on the front of the camera (see above), and some room for your left hand as well. Since there's no optical viewfinder, there is no need to worry about nose smudging (fingers are another story).

Let's move to the back of the camera now...

I've never tested a camera with a speaker before! Besides that, the other biggest feature on the back of the camera is the huge LCD -- at 2.5" inches, it's the biggest one I've ever seen on digital camera. No doubt thanks to Panasonic's years of experience with camcorder LCD's, this one is of excellent quality -- no flickering, no grain, and nice and bright!

The four way switch on the lower left is for navigating menus, as well as changing the volume level while playing back movies or photos with audio. Rec Mode lets you switch between a number of modes:

  • Super Fine Mode (450 photos per disk)
  • Fine Mode (900/disk)
  • Normal (1500/disk!)
  • Zoom mode (2X digital zoom)
  • Motion image capture (10fps, 320x240, up to 10 secs, with audio; Quicktime format; 90 fit on one card)
  • Burst mode (2fps, up to 8 secs)

The menu button works as you'd expect -- bring up simple menus like the one below:

Navigating the menus is fairly easy, though occasionally you have to work a bit to do what you want. For some reason, exposure compensation is called "iris" on this camera, and is adjustable between -3.0EV and 3.0EV.

The only other button of interest on the back is the flash button. An annoyance with the flash feature is that you can't turn the flash off unless you're in manual record mode (more on that in a bit).

The power and access lights on the back of the camera need no explanation. On the left side of the camera (not pictured), under a rubber cover, are the three I/O ports for USB, power, and video output.

Up on the top of the camera, you'll find tons of stickers, a mode wheel, and the shutter release. The mode wheel switches between PC connect, Play, Off, Record, and Manual record modes. More about these in the next section.

Here's the bottom of the SD4090. As you can see, the tripod mount is right under the lens. When you're on a tripod, you can pop out the battery, or change disks without worry. The battery, by the way, is firmly latched down under than cover on the left.

And here is the fabled SuperDisk and the slot where it goes in. This camera is basically a USB SuperDisk drive! I was able to hook it up to my PowerMac G3 (which lacks a floppy drive), and stick a regular floppy disk in it, and it worked just like you'd expect! It's a camera... no wait, it's a floppy drive...

Using the Panasonic PV-SD4090

There are only three modes on this camera: auto record, manual record, and play. I'll cover them in that order.

When you first power the camera up in record mode, it takes about 15 seconds (!) before it's ready to take pictures. And that's if you open the lens cover before you turn it on! If you don't, the LCD display will tell you to open it. If there's one advantage of solid state memory (like SmartMedia) is that the camera responds much faster than with a floppy-based camera.

Auto record mode is fairly point and shoot -- the only options are force flash/red eye reduction, self-timer, audio record, and shooting mode (see previous section). When you take a picture, the camera plays a "shutter" sound to let you know what just happened. While there's no noticeable shutter lag, there is a 3-5 second delay before you can take another photo (unless you use burst mode, of course).

The camera can record up to 5 seconds of audio with each photo you take (though it reduces the total number of photos you can store on the card-- not a big deal on a 120MB disk), by switching on the Audio setting in the menu.

You can also record video in 10 second increments, complete with sound. This is a pretty cool feature, though the frame rate (10fps) is a bit low. Movies are 320x240, and saved in Quicktime format.

Like many other cameras I've tested, using the term 'manual' on this camera is a bit misleading -- this camera has little to no manual control. Here's what it does give you:

  • "Iris" - exposure compensation -- already mentioned earlier in review
  • White balance - auto/halogen/sunlight/manual. The manual mode lets you shoot something white to use as your basis for white balance
  • Metering - Auto (matrix) or spot metering
  • Slow shutter
  • Time lapse - take a photo every 1/5/10/30/60 minutes, or 1/6/12/24 hours -- neat! You are strongly advised to use your AC adapter if you're doing this!

One thing that you may have noticed that this camera lacks is a macro mode. If you take closeups, this is not your camera. See the gallery to see what I mean.

Play mode has the usual features that most cameras have, including slide show, zoom, DPOF print marking, and thumbnail mode. Since the camera uses a disk instead of flash memory, things are bit slow here. It takes about 5 seconds to switch into thumbnail mode, and 2-3 seconds between full size photos.

When you hook into your PC or Mac (via USB), the camera essentially becomes a floppy drive. As a result, downloading photos takes a bit longer than traditional USB connections. On the Mac at least, the camera mounts like a floppy disk.

One area where the SD4090 falls behind other 1-2 Mpixel cameras is in photo quality. Since there's no macro mode, closeup shots don't come out well. Low light shots are terribly grainy, even in slow shutter mode -- though the flash helps a bit. Even in sunlight, colors seemed washed out. I'm going to take the camera with me this coming weekend for some more outdoor shots, and will update this review if anything changes.

How does it compare?

I'm surprised it took so long for another company to enter the floppy camera market. Sure, there's the Flashpath floppy disk adapter for cameras that use SmartMedia, but that doesn't count. I was impressed with the storage capacity of SuperDisk, but the price seems high for a camera that lacks the features that an amateur photographer would want in a camera.

What I liked:

  • 1500 photos per disk!
  • Captures Quicktime video AND audio
  • Impressive, large LCD display
  • USB support
  • Good battery and recharger

What I didn't like:

  • Lackluster photo quality
  • Large, heavy camera (so is the Mavica though)
  • Slow access times
  • Manual lens cover
  • No manual control or macro mode

In the end, I was left a bit underwhelmed. If this camera had better photo quality, I would recommend it. But I took so many bad pictures with it, I was starting to wonder if it was me, or the camera. The only other cameras to use floppy disks are, as I've mentioned the Sony Mavica line, but those can hold no more than 40 photos per disk. I'd take a look at a camera that uses CompactFlash or SmartMedia, which offer faster access, and usually, better photos.

As always, we encourage you to head to your local retailer to try this camera out (and the others I just mentioned) before you purchase!

Photo Gallery

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

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com.

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