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DCRP Review: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M1  

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 8, 2004
Last Updated: May 3, 2012

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While it looks a heck of a lot like a camera phone, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M1 ($600) can't make or receive calls. Rather, it's a unique combination of camera and camcorder, though that's not necessarily how Sony wants you to see it. The M1 combines a 5 Megapixel camera (mostly parts from the DSC-T1), enhances its movie recording functionality by using the MPEG4 format, and throwing it into a body unlike anything else on the market.

People probably won't buy the M1 for its picture-taking abilities: they can get that elsewhere for less money. Instead, it's for people who want to take higher quality movie clips with less of a hit on their memory cards. Since the M1 uses MPEG4, you don't need a fast Memory Stick Pro card to record video at the highest quality -- any regular Memory Stick Duo card will work. This new movie feature is called MPEGMovie4TV (versus MPEGMovie VX on other recent Sony cameras).

Does the M1 take great pictures AND videos too? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

The DSC-M1 has a good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.1 effective Megapixel Cyber-shot DSC-M1 camera
  • 32MB Memory Stick Duo w/adapter
  • NP-FT1 rechargeable lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger / AC adapter
  • Cyber-shot Station camera dock
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Sony Picture Package software, ImageMixer VCD2, USB drivers, and Cyber-shot Life tutorial
  • 128 page camera manual (printed)

The DSC-M1 uses the tiny Memory Stick Duo card, which is another expensive and proprietary memory card format from Sony. Duo cards come in sizes as large as 1GB, and you'll find a 32MB one in the box. I highly recommend buying a larger one, with 256MB being a good starting size, as the included card doesn't hold that many 5MP photos. You'll also want a large card for recording long movies. Sony includes an adapter which allows you to use the Duo cards in devices that have regular Memory Stick slots.

The M1 uses the same NP-FT1 battery as Sony's popular DSC-T1 camera. It doesn't pack a lot of juice (just 2.4 Wh of energy) but you can only fit so large a battery in a camera this small. That translates into 160 photos per charge, using the CIPA battery life standard. Turning off the LCD backlight will improve battery life by about 20%, though this only works when you're outdoors.

As you know, I'm not a huge fan of proprietary batteries like this, but they're unavoidable on a camera this small. Be warned that they're expensive ($50 a pop) and you can't use "regular batteries" to get you throw the day in an emergency. One thing I do like about the InfoLithium battery used by the M1 is that it tells you exactly how many minutes you have left before you run out of juice.

When it's time to charge the battery, just plug in the included AC adapter. It will probably take about 2.5 hours to fully charge the battery. You can also use the adapter to power the camera and save your batteries for when you're on the road.

I/O ports on the back of the dock

Sony includes their Cyber-shot Station camera dock along with the DSC-M1. You can use this for battery charging, connecting to your PC (USB 2.0 High Speed is supported), or viewing images on your television.

Unlike on some cameras where the dock is optional, it's required on the M1 for everything except power. If you want to use your A/V or USB cable, you must use the dock!

There aren't too many accessories available for the DSC-M1. You can get an external battery charger ($50), a car charger, or a carrying case ($27).

Picture Package viewer (Windows only)

Sony includes Picture Package for Windows as the main image viewing application. And "viewing" is about all it does -- you can print and rotate your images and watch movies, but that's about it. The software can also create slideshows with music or burn your photos to a CD-R disc.

ImageMixer VCD2 (Mac only)

Mac users don't get to use PicturePackage (you can use the camera with iPhoto without issue). Instead, they get ImageMixer VCD2 and the Image Data Converter. ImageMixer is used to create a Video CD from your images. Video CDs are kind of like a poor man's DVD -- not as good, but usable.

Cyber-shot Life (Windows only)

The best part of the software package is the Cyber-shot Life tutorial, which is Windows only. Here, a girl and her dog show you how to use your camera. While it's a little cheesy, the tutorial is far more useful for learning the ins and outs of your camera than the manual. Do note that it's not camera-specific, but that shouldn't matter since Sony's cameras have a lot in common with each other.

The manual included with the camera is just like all of Sony's other manuals: not great. The information is there, but the presentation leaves much to be desired.

Look and Feel

The Cyber-shot DSC-M1 is unlike any digital camera you've ever seen. It looks more like a camera phone crossed with a camcorder than your typical digital camera. With the LCD in the closed position, it looks more like a camera, but most people will hold it like so:

Image courtesy of Sony Electronics

What you can't see in this picture is where the person's fingers are located on the other side of the camera. You need to be very careful about hand placement on this camera! It's all too easy to block the flash and/or AF-assist lamp, so watch those fingers! Holding and especially operating the camera is awkward, in this reviewers' opinion.

The DSC-M1 is made almost entirely of metal, giving it a solid feel. The exceptions here are the cheesy plastic doors that cover the battery slot and power/dock connector.

The dimensions of the camera are 51 x 114 x 28 mm / 2.0 x 4.5 x 1.1 inches (W x H x D, body in closed position) and it weighs 185 grams / 6.5 ounces empty. That's the size of the camera when it's in your pocket -- it'll be larger when everything's flipped open!

Let's begin our tour of this crazy camera now!

The M1 uses the same Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens as the popular DSC-T1. This lens works differently than most: the majority of the lens elements go down the body (via a prism), instead of going from the front to the back of the camera. The lens is on the slow side, with a maximum aperture of F3.5 - F4.4. The focal range of the lens is 6.7 - 20.1 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 114 mm. You cannot attach lens accessories to the M1 (obviously).

There's a built-in cover to protect the lens when the camera is not in use.

To the lower-left of the lens is the M1's built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.3 - 1.8 m at wide-angle and 0.5 - 1.7 m at telephoto. As you can see, that's pretty weak, so this camera may not be the best choice if you take a lot of flash photos. You cannot add an external flash, either.

Below the flash is the AF-assist lamp, which helps the camera focus in low lighting conditions. Sony has been great about putting these on all of their cameras.

On the LCD panel you can see the stereo microphone. I can't think of any other digicams with a stereo mic.

Here's where you really see just how unusual the DSC-M1 is. The quick and easy way to turn on the camera is to rotate the LCD portion of the body away from the button/lens portion. You then flip the LCD around to face you (if that's what you're after).

As you can tell, the screen can rotate -- 270 degrees to be exact. The range of rotation goes from pointing at the subject all the way around to pointing at the ceiling. The screen itself is a hybrid type which means that it's easy to see, even in bright outdoor light. It's 2.5" inches in size and has 123k pixels, which sounds low but in reality the screen is plenty sharp. In low light situations, the screen "gains up" a little (so you can see your subject), but not as much as I would've liked. You can turn the screen backlight off when outdoors to help conserve battery life.

To the left of the screen are three buttons which have different functions depending on the camera mode. In record mode, you can use the top and bottom buttons for taking a still picture and movie, respectively. In playback mode these buttons substitute for the left/right/center buttons on the four way switch -- you'll use these when you have the body in the "closed" position.

Okay now it's time to talk about all those buttons on the main part of the camera body. I should mention that I really didn't care for the majority of the buttons: they're set into the body too much making them difficult to press. They're also very small. I'm going to work my way from top to bottom, left to right.

Those lights on the top right show the current camera mode: battery charging, record, or playback. To switch the mode, press the button beneath it.

The photo button does just as it sounds: it takes a still picture. Press it halfway to lock focus and then fully to take the picture -- just as you would on a more "normal" digital camera.

But there's a twist: that switch below the photo button puts the camera into Hybrid mode, which is one of the unique features on the M1. In Hybrid mode, the camera records a still image and gives it "context" by wrapping a movie around it. In Hybrid mode the camera is constantly storing 5 seconds of video in the memory buffer. When you press the Photo button, the 5 seconds of video preceding that moment are saved, then the still is taken (at full resolution), and then 3 more seconds of movie are added to the end. The result: a 320 x 240 / 15 fps movie and a still image. There is a noticeable pause at the moment when the still is taken so it's not perfect. Click here to see what the movie portion of this looks like.

To the right of the photo button is the zoom controller, which moves the lens silently from wide-angle to telephoto in 2.2 seconds. By quickly pressing the button you can make precise adjustments to the zoom.

The next button over is the movie button, which as you may imagine, records movies. I'll discuss this in detail in the movie section later in the review. The switch below the movie button allows you to take 5 second movie clips (instead of filming continuous).

At the bottom of things are the menu, image size / delete photo, and display buttons as well as the four-way controller. The display button is used to toggle what's shown on the LCD, and it can also turn off the screen backlight. The four-way controller is used for menu navigation as well as:

  • Up - Flash setting (Auto, forced flash, slow synchro, flash off)
  • Down - Self-timer (on/off)
  • Left - Macro (on/off)
  • Right - Metering (Multi-pattern, spot)

There really isn't a "top" of the DSC-M1 (the only thing there is the loop for the neck strap), so I'll show you this view instead. I've already told you about the LCD and the buttons beside it. With the camera in this position, you can review photos without having to flip the LCD out to the side.

Also seen here is the Memory Stick Duo slot and the speaker. The M1 can use regular Duo or Pro Duo cards. The included 32MB card is shown above.

Over here you'll find the sole I/O port on the DSC-M1. This one does double duty: it's the dock connector and the DC-in port (for the included AC adapter). It's protected by a plastic door of average quality.

On the other side of things you'll find the power button.

Here's what I would call the bottom of the camera. As you can see, the M1 has a metal tripod mount. Also seen here is the battery compartment, shown here with the flimsy plastic cover on. The whole battery compartment is poorly designed: getting the battery in and out is difficult, and the darn door doesn't like to close easily.

Using the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M1

Record Mode

It takes just 1.5 seconds for the camera to "warm up" before you can start taking pictures. You can turn the camera on by flipping the LCD half of the camera away from the body, or by pressing the power button.

A histogram is shown on the LCD in record mode

The M1 focuses very quickly when you halfway-press the shutter release button, taking about 0.4-0.6 seconds to lock focus. The AF-assist lamp helped the camera focus well in low light conditions.

Shutter lag was very low, even at slower shutter speeds.

Shot-to-shot speed was excellent, with a delay of a little over one second between shots, assuming the post-shot review feature is turned off.

You cannot delete a photo right after it's taken -- you must use the Quick Review feature.

Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the M1:

Resolution Quality # images on 32MB card
2592 x 1944
Fine 12
Standard 23
3:2 ratio
2592 x 1728
Fine 12
Normal 23
2048 x 1536
Fine 20
Normal 36
1280 x 960
Fine 50
Normal 93
640 x 480
Fine 196
Normal 490

There is no RAW or TIFF mode on the DSC-M1.

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 M1 uses the same menu system that is used on Sony's other recent cameras. The menu is overlay-style, meaning that its shown on top of the image you're preparing to shoot. Here are the menu options on the M1:

  • Camera (Auto, program, magnifying glass, night scene, night portrait, landscape, snow, beach, high-speed shutter, fireworks, candle) - see below
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • Focus (Multi, center, spot AF, 0.5, 1.0, 3.0, 7.0 m, infinity) - three autofocus modes plus a pseudo-manual mode
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten, flash) - no custom mode
  • ISO (Auto, 100, 200, 400)
  • Photo Quality (Fine, standard)
  • Rec Mode
    • Normal - regular shooting
    • Speed burst - takes 4 shots in a row at about 3 frames/second at the highest JPEG quality
    • Exposure bracketing - takes 3 shots in a row, each with a different exposure value; set the bracket step in the next menu item
    • Multi burst - takes 16 shots in a row (at interval selected in menu) and compiles them into one 1 Megapixel image (like a collage)
  • Bracket step (±0.3EV, ±0.7EV, ±1.0EV) - for exposure bracketing
  • 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 - opens setup menu, described below

I want to briefly mention the Camera submenu. Most of the items here are scene modes. The magnifying glass mode is a sort of super macro mode that lets you get as close to your subject as 1 cm. You'll want to use the high-speed shutter option for action shots, and be sure to remember your tripod for the night scene and fireworks modes. Auto and program mode are both automatic, with the latter giving you access to all menu items. There's no way to manually set the shutter speed or aperture on the M1.

There's also a setup menu, which has the following options:

  • Camera
    • Hybrid mode (Normal, pre rec) - normal mode records a movie before and after the still image, while pre rec only has a movie before the still
    • Digital zoom (on/off) - this is the old school digital zoom, not smart zoom; don't use it.
    • Date/Time (Off, date, day & time) - whether date/time is printed on your photos
    • Redeye reduction (on/off)
    • AF illuminator (on/off)
    • Auto Review (on/off) - shows images on LCD after it is taken
  • Memory Stick Tool
    • Card format
    • Change/create rec folder - manage folders on the memory card
  • Setup 1
    • Beep (Shutter only, on, off)
    • LCD backlight (Dark, normal, bright)
    • Language (English, Japanese))
  • Setup 2
    • File number (Series, reset)
    • USB connect (Normal, PTP, PictBridge)
    • Video out (NTSC, PAL)
    • Clock set

Let's move on to our photo tests now, shall we?

Our macro test shot came out fairly well, though there's a bit of a color cast (which is why I like custom white balance, which the M1 lacks) and the subject seems a little fuzzy.

There are two ways to get close to your subject on the M1. Normal macro mode lets you get as close to your subject as 8 cm at wide-angle and 25 cm at telephoto. The magnifying glass mode locks the lens at wide-angle in exchange for reducing the minimum focus distance to just 1 cm -- nice.

Our night shot is decent, though a longer exposure would've been nice. Unfortunately there's no way to set the shutter speed manually on this point-and-shoot camera (using the twilight scene mode is the best option). The image is again a little fuzzy, and I did spot a few instances of purple fringing around some lights.

There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the DSC-M1's lens. There's no vignetting (dark corners) in this test shot or in any of the real world photos that I took.

The DSC-M1 seems to have a bit of a redeye problem. We've got full-on Terminator 2 demon eyes here, folks. While your results may vary, it's probably a safe assumption that you'll be dealing with it to a degree.

Image quality on the M1 is just fair. Images are well-exposed with good color, low noise, and very little purple fringing. However, most of my photos were very soft and fuzzy -- have a look at almost anything in the gallery to see what I mean. You will still get pretty nice smaller prints out of the M1, but for large sizes and full-size viewing on your computer, you may be disappointed like I was.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery and decide if the photo quality meets your expectations. I also encourage you to print the photos, just like you would if they were your own.

Movie Mode

Aside from its design, the other "big deal" about the DSC-M1 is its movie mode. I already mentioned the Hybrid mode feature back when I was discussing the back of the camera, so if you skipped down to here, you may want to go back and read about it.

Some general information about the M1's movie mode (called MPEGMovie4TV): the resolution is still 640 x 480, 30 frames/second, like Sony's MPEGMovie VX Fine mode, but with higher quality and less memory card consumption. The M1 uses MPEG4 instead of MPEG1, which reduces the bit rate by a factor of 4 (down to 2.5 Mbps) while increasing horizontal resolution by 50%. No longer do you need to reach for the Pro cards, you can use a regular Duo card with this camera and still get the highest quality movie. Recording is unlimited: you can keep going until the memory card is full. With the included 32MB you can store about 90 seconds of video at the high quality setting. Get a 1GB Pro Duo card and that number jumps to 45 minutes.

Two lower resolution modes are also available, both of which use the 320 x 240 resolution. You can choose a frame rate of 15 or 30 frames/second. The 32MB card holds about 4.5 minutes at 320 x 240 / 30 fps and 15.5 minutes at 320 x 240 / 15 fps.

Other nice things about the movie mode: sound is recorded in stereo, and you can use the zoom during filming.

And here's a sample movie for you. Note just how small the file size is for this large movie. As far as the quality goes, I don't think you should throw away your camcorder just yet.

Click to play movie (2.7 MB, 640 x 480, 30 fps, MPEG4 format)
Can't view it? Download QuickTime

Playback Mode

The Cyber-shot DSC-M1 has a pretty standard (though well-implemented) playback mode. Basic features include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and "zoom & scroll". The M1 is PictBridge-enabled (as you'd expect these days), allowing direct printing to compatible photo printers.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom up to 5X into your photo, and then scroll around in it. This is useful for checking the focus in a photograph.

Some of the more advanced playback features include:

  • Resize - change an image's size. The original image is not deleted.
  • Trimming - crop an image
  • Rotate
  • Divide - cut sections of movies

I do appreciate how the M1 lets you delete a group of photos, instead of just one or all of them. (To do this, you must be in thumbnail mode.)

The M1 gives you quite a bit of information about your photos, including a histogram.

The camera moves between images very quickly -- it's basically instantaneous, and there's no low res placeholder either.

How Does it Compare

While it's an interesting concept, I don't think the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M1 is good enough at taking pictures and videos to justify its hefty $600 price tag. For less money you could get a better designed camera that takes better pictures and videos of nearly the same quality -- heck, Sony makes just such a camera. Let's talk first about the M1's design -- you either love it or you don't, and I don't. I found it awkward to hold and use, with poorly placed controls and microscopic buttons. The placement of the flash and AF-assist lamp aren't good either, as your fingers can easily block them. The 2.5" LCD display is nice, though, and it's viewable even in bright outdoor light. In low light things can be hard to see, as the screen doesn't "gain up" very much. The DSC-M1's photo quality didn't impress me very much. While photos are well-exposed with accurate color, they just seemed too soft and fuzzy to me. Redeye was also a problem, and the flash is weak to begin with.

The video features are cool, but the quality doesn't seem any better than other cameras with VGA movie modes, and camcorder manufacturers certainly shouldn't be worried. The nice things about the movie feature on the M1 are that you can take really long movies (thanks to the MPEG4 codec), zoom during filming, and sound is in stereo. The M1 is a point-and-shoot camera, with no manual controls to be found, which is a little disappointing given its price. Beginners will appreciate the numerous scene modes, however. And finally, while it does support USB 2.0, the only way to get to the port (as well as the video out port) is to use the included camera dock.

All-in-all, I can see how gadget lovers would find the DSC-M1 appealing. But for the average person, you could get a nicer camera (in all respects except for total movie recording time) for less money -- so my advice is to pass on the M1.

What I liked:

  • "Interesting" design - you love it or hate it
  • Excellent movie mode: long recording times, small file sizes, zoom during filming, stereo sound
  • Robust performance
  • Large, rotating 2.5" LCD visible even in bright outdoor light
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Magnifying glass mode reduces macro focus distance to 1 cm
  • Live histogram in record mode
  • USB 2.0 High Speed supported, though only via dock

What I didn't care for:

  • Expensive for what it does
  • Clumsy design: poorly placed controls, flash, AF-assist lamp; buttons are too small; poorly-designed battery compartment
  • Picture quality is disappointing: images seem soft and fuzzy
  • Redeye a problem
  • Weak flash
  • LCD doesn't "gain up" as much as I'd like
  • Manual controls would've been nice
  • USB and A/V ports require use of the dock

There's really nothing else on the market like the DSC-M1. Check out our Reviews & Info page to search for other cameras.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the DSC-M1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery.

Want a second opinion?

Read more reviews at Steve's Digicams and Imaging Resource.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.