DCRP Review: Sony Mavica MVC-CD500
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: May 12, 2003
Last Updated: May 12, 2003

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For those who want the convenience of floppy storage, but with more capacity, Sony offers their CD Mavica line. Instead of a measly 1.4MB floppy, the CD Mavicas can store 156MB of photos and videos on a single 8 cm disc.

There are two 2003 CD Mavicas: the smaller, 3.2 Megapixel MVC-CD350 ($499), and the top-of-the-line 5 Megapixel MVC-CD500 ($699) reviewed here. The CD500 has all of the features of Sony's high-end cameras, including Hologram AF, MPEGMovie VX, full manual controls, and a Carl Zeiss lens.

The CD Mavicas are the only camera of their type in existence. How well does the CD500 perform? Find out now...

Oh, and since the CD500 is so similar to its predecessor (the CD400), I will be reusing sections of that review here.

What's in the Box?

The MVC-CD500 has an excellent bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 5.0 (effective) Mpixel Mavica MVC-CD500 camera
  • One 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
  • 131 page manual (printed)

Sony doesn't give you as many free CD-R's as on last years models. With the CD500, you get one CD-R and one CD-RW disc. That's equivalent to 312MB of storage in the box, which is most impressive. What's the difference between those two types of disc?

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 10 packs of CD-R media for $20.

What you'll probably want to do, however, is use CD-RW discs instead. Here, you can reuse the discs, actually 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, it will work in your computer, assuming you are running Windows. 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:

The CD Mavicas are not Mac friendly cameras. 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 OS X users can still connect the camera via USB and download photos that way, but only by using iPhoto or Image Capture (the camera does not mont on the desktop). The camera uses the PTP standard (rather than Mass Storage) for USB transfer.

Now let's talk about batteries. The CD500 uses the powerful (8.5 Wh) M-series InfoLithium battery. The good news is that its rechargeable, lasts for a decent amount of time (about 110 minutes per charge), and that it tells you exactly how much power they have left (in minutes). The bad news is the same with all proprietary batteries: they are expensive ($60), and you cannot just stuff in a regular battery to get you through the day. Sony includes an AC adapter which charges the battery while it's in the camera. That takes 2.5 hours.

The CD500 supports a wide-angle lens attachment as well as 52 mm filters (neutral density and polarizing). But first, you'll need to buy the VAD-S70 conversion lens adapter ($35). If you want to use an external flash, the CD500 supports the Sony HVL-F1000 ($120) and many third-party flashes as well. If you want a remote shutter release, Sony sells a wired remote control for $50.

The old CD400 with DSAC-MVC clip-on viewfinder

Above is another useful accessory: a clip-on viewfinder ($70). Since the CD Mavicas only have LCDs, some folks will definitely want this. You can look through the optical viewfinder (which is just showing you the LCD), or flip that door down and view the LCD directly.

First-time buyers may also want to check out Sony's CD Mavica Starter Kit ($99). It includes a spare battery, 3 CD-RW discs, and a carrying case.

The included Pixela ImageMixer 1.5 software is decent, but is no substitute for Photoshop Elements. You can view and organize your photos as you can see above.

You can also do basic editing, like adjusting color, brightness and contrast, and redeye. The Windows version of ImageMixer can also be used to produce a Video CD (VCD).

ImageMixer is not Mac OS X native -- you have to run it in classic mode. Once there, you're kind of stuck in it until you quit, because Pixela chose not to follow Apple's interface guidelines (this seems fairly common with these kinds of products).

The manual included with the P8 is decent, but still has that "VCR manual" feel typical of Sony consumer electronics.

Look and Feel

While the CD350 lost some bulk compared to the CD250, the CD500 shares the same body as the CD400. It's a stylish camera, but it's also quite large (gotta fit that CD-RW drive in there somewhere). This is a camera which travels best around your neck or in a camera bag.

The black body is a nice mix of metal and high-grade plastic. It feels very solid, and is easy to hold, thanks to a big grip for your right hand. The official dimensions of the CD500 are 5.5 x 3.9 x 4.1 inches (W x H x D), and it weighs a hefty 606 grams with CD, battery, and lens cap installed.

The CD500 uses the now familiar F2.0-F2.5 Carl Zeiss lens that's been seen on several 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 adapter to use any filters (52 mm).

Moving up, you can see the popup flash, which has a working range of 0.5 - 5.0 m. You can also use an external flash -- I'll get to that in a minute.

To the upper-left of the lens is the laser for Sony's exclusive 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 either. This system is a step above the typical AF-assist lamp.

The only other item on the front is the self-timer lamp, which is located to the lower-left of the laser.

Here is the back of the CD500. The main event here is the huge 2.5" LCD screen, which is the only way to shoot and review pictures, since there is no optical viewfinder. The LCD's quality is excellent -- it's big, bright, and fluid. The smoothness starts to wane when you are using a slower shutter speed, with the ISO not set to Auto.

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 shoot 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
  • AE Lock - lock the exposure until photo is taken or button is pressed again
  • Focus (focus point, focus preset) - more below
  • Exposure compensation (-2.0EV to +2.0EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Image size / Delete photo

Pressing the focus button once brings up a new feature on Sony cameras -- manual focus point selection. Using the jog dial (seen at the far right of the above photo), you can scroll through five focus points (top/bottom/left/right/center), 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 jog dial) 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 and quietly from wide-angle to telephoto in about 2.3 seconds. The four-way switch is used for menu navigation, plus changing these settings:

  • Up - Flash setting (Auto, forced flash, slow synchro, no flash)
  • Right - Macro
  • Down - Self-timer
  • Left - Quick review - quickly shows the last photo taken

To the lower right of the menu button is the CD500's speaker. I already mentioned the jog dial (which can also be pressed inward, like a button) on the far right.

Here's the top of the camera. The CD400 introduced the hot shoe to the Mavica line, and the CD500 continues the tradition. You can use the Sony HVL-F1000 or upcoming HVL-F32X flashes), or your own third-party flash. Note that you'll probably have to manually choose the settings on a non-Sony flash. Just in front of the hot shoe is the popup flash, which pops up automatically.

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 nice "notchy" feeling, and has the following options:

  • Setup
  • Scene Mode - camera picks the best settings for these situations. The CD500 has several new scenes compared to the CD400.
    • Twilight
    • Twilight Portrait
    • Landscape
    • Portrait
    • Snow
    • Beach
  • Full Manual - you choose both the shutter speed and aperture. The values available are the same as below.
  • 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 - 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.
  • Program Mode - point-and-shoot, with access to all settings
  • Auto Record - very point-and-shoot, settings locked up
  • Playback
  • Movie Mode

Everything up there should be self-explanatory, but I want to cover one feature found in program mode: program shift. This allows you to scroll through several aperture/shutter speed combinations by using the jog dial. So if you want a slower shutter speed to reduce camera shake, or a higher F-value to increase depth-of-field, here's an easy way to do it.

Let's continue, looking at 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.

The I/O ports are stored under a plastic cover (opened here). They are (top to bottom):

  • ACC port (for HVL-F1000 flash and wired remote control)
  • USB (2.0 or 1.1)
  • A/V out

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 over it.

Finally, here is the bottom of the camera. Down here you'll find the metal tripod mount (inline with the lens) as well as the battery compartment. The plastic door over the battery compartment is quite sturdy, as well.

The included FM50 battery is shown at right.

Using the Sony MVC-CD500

Record Mode

Like with the CD400, the startup times on the CD500 are all over the map. Sometimes it's quick (less than 4 secs), other times it can take much longer to read the CD. Once things get started, though, the camera is fairly responsive. When you depress the shutter release button halfway, the CD400 locks focus in under a second. It will take a bit longer if the Hologram AF laser is used. There is no noticeable shutter lag when you press the shutter release button fully.

A live histogram is shown in record mode. The yellow aperture/shutter speed on the right can be adjusted via the program shift feature.

As with the CD400, Sony has obviously put a lot of buffer memory into the CD500, 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 nearly 70 seconds while the image is written on the CD.

Now, here's a look at the image size/quality choices on the CD500. Sony no longer lists the image size in terms of horizontal x vertical resolution -- now it's just Megapixels. Have a look:

Image Size # photos on 156MB CD
Fine Quality Standard Quality
(2592 x 1944)
51 95
4.5M/3:2 ratio
(2592 x 1728)
51 95
(2048 x 1536)
81 145
(1280 x 960)
194 345
(640 x 480)
655 1285

Now that's what I call storage!

The CD500 has a TIFF mode, which is found in the Rec Mode section of the menu. Be warned, though: the camera will be locked up for over a minute while the image is written to the CD.

The file numbering system used by Sony is quite simple. Files are named DSC0####.JPG, where #### = 0001 - 9999. The numbering is maintained as you continue to take pictures.

Let's move on to the menu system now.

The CD Mavicas use the familiar Sony "overlay-style" menu, which are easy to use. Note that only the Rec Mode options are available in Auto Record mode. Here is what you'll find in the menus:

  • Metering mode (Spot, center-weighted, multi)
  • White Balance (Auto, Preset, Flash, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Cloudy, Daylight)
  • 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, Sepia, Negative Art, Off)
  • Sharpness (High, Normal, Low)
  • Saturation (High, Normal, Low)
  • Contrast (High, Normal, Low)

As you can see, the CD500 has manual (preset) white balance. This allows you to shoot a white or gray card/paper to be used as white, giving you perfect white balance every time.

The Rec Mode submenu has additional image resolutions. TIFF will record an uncompressed image at the 5.0MP resolution (with a long write time). Voice mode will let you record up to 40 seconds of audio with each picture. E-mail will save a 320 x 240 image, along with an image at the resolution you've chosen. Exposure bracketing takes three shots in a row, with the exposure value shifted for each shot. You can choose the bracketing steps in the setup menu. Finally, Burst 3 mode will take three shots in a row, with an interval between shots of 0.5 seconds.

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

  • Moving Image (MPEG Movie, ClipMotion, Multi-Burst) - explained later
  • AF Mode (Single, monitor, continuous) - see below
  • SmartZoom (on/off) - see below
  • Date/Time (Day & Time, Date, Off) - whether date/time is printed on your photos
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Hologram AF (on/off)
  • Bracket step (±0.3, ±0.7, ±1.0) - for auto bracketing
  • Conversion lens (on/off)
  • Hot shoe (on/off)
  • Disc Tool (Finalize, format, initialize, uninitialize) - I discussed these back in the beginning of the review
  • File numbering (series, reset)
  • Create/Change Rec. folder - for managing folders on the CD
  • Confirm before write (on/off) - review a picture (and delete it if necessary) before it's saved to the CD.
  • LCD brightness/backlight
  • Language (English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese)
  • Video out (NTSC, PAL)

The AF mode choices are new features on Sony's 2003 digital cameras. Single AF is just like you're used to: press the shutter release halfway and the camera locks focus. Monitor AF (called continuous on other cameras) lets the camera focus constantly, even without the shutter release pressed. This helps reduce the time required to take a picture. Continuous AF (I'd call this one tracking AF myself) will focus before you press the shutter release button, and will continue to focus even with it halfway pressed. Confusing names aside, these features are handy. Continuous AF is especially good for action shots where the subject is moving.

In the old days, digital zoom on cameras just enlarged the center of the image, regardless of the resolution. Quality suffered as a result. Sony has changed things around with their Smart Zoom system. The amount of smart zoom that can be used depends on the chosen resolution.

Resolution Max Smart Zoom Max Total Zoom
3.1M 1.3X 3.8X
1.2M 2.0X 6.1X
VGA 4X 12X

Note that you cannot use the Smart Zoom at the highest resolutions (4.5/5.0M). The Smart Zoom system allows you to take pictures using digital zoom with much better results than with the previous system.

Speaking of photos, let's take a look at our test photos to see how the CD500 fared.

I took the night shot a little earlier in the evening than normal (I was waiting for fireworks to begin). The CD500 did a nice job with this 1 second exposure, though I'm wondering why the left side is so blurry, when the rest of the image is fine. The CD500, like all Sony cameras, employs a slow shutter noise reduction system, which is why this shot is noise free! With full manual controls, low light shooting is easy with this camera (just remember your tripod).

No complaints about the macro test shot. Colors are accurate and the subject is sharp. I suppose I could've cranked up the exposure compensation another notch, though. You can get as close as 4 cm to the subject with the lens at wide-angle, or 20 cm at telephoto.

The CD500 wasn't so hot in the redeye department. In fact it's pretty nasty, even with the redeye reduction turned on. I was surprised, because the flash isn't very close to the lens. You can remove redeye fairly easy in software.

The distortion test does a good job of showing the moderate amount of barrel distortion created by the CD500's lens (at wide-angle). I don't see any vignetting (darkened corners) here, which is a good thing.

I was very impressed with the CD500's photo quality: it was excellent. Exposures were good, colors accurate, and images were sharp. There was a tiny bit of noise, but nothing worth worrying about in my opinion. Purple fringing was not a problem in my test shots. Have a look at the gallery and see for yourself!

Movie Mode

The 2003 Sony cameras have the brand new MPEG Movie VX system, which is one of the best movie modes out there.

You can record at VGA resolution (that's 640 x 480), with sound, until the CD fills up. You can store nearly 6 minutes of VGA video on one CD, or 90 minutes at the smaller 160 x 120 resolution.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming. The 16 fps frame rate is also on the slow side.

Here's a VGA-size sample movie for you. It starts off a little dark but quickly brightens:

Click to play movie (7.5MB, MPEG format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

There are two other movie-like features on the CD500. Multi Burst mode takes 16 frames in a row, at the interval of your choosing (1/30, 1/15, 1/7.5 sec). The frames are compiled into one 1.2 Megapixel image. Clip Motion lets you take up to ten shots, and then combine them into an animated GIF file.

Playback Mode

The MVC-CD500'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 resolution equal or higher than the original 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. It's not terribly fast, but it works well enough. This feature 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.

Deleting a photo is now easier on the CD500. Instead of having to use the menu, you can now use the button on the back of the camera. You can delete one, several, or all photos.

A histogram is shown in playback mode

Browsing photos in playback mode can be fast or slow, depending on the situation. The camera appears to cache the photos before and after the current one, so those load quickly. If you jump ahead a few photos, expect to wait about five seconds before you see the high resolution photo. Loading another set of nine thumbnails takes around nine seconds.

How Does it Compare?

If you're sold on the CD-R/RW format, then the CD500 is a great camera. It's got excellent photo quality, full manual controls, a very nice movie mode, a hot shoe, and a dirt cheap media format. On the other hand, you've got a bulky, fairly slow (in terms in read/write speed), and expensive digital camera with lots of moving parts. CD-RW drives are a delicate instruments, so you need to be gentle with them. I have heard from several owners of earlier CD Mavicas who now have expensive paperweights. In addition, the camera isn't exactly what I call "Mac compatible", as the CDs cannot be read in your CD-ROM drive and USB only works in Mac OS X. If you like the convenience of the CD format, the CD500 (or the less expensive CD350) is a great choice. If you don't care about the CD format, I'd definitely look at a "regular" camera that uses memory cards 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
  • Redeye a problem
  • 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 CD500 and CD350 are the only game in town. If you're interested in other 4/5 Megapixel cameras, please visit our Reviews & Info section.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the MVC-CD500 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?

Check out the review of the CD500 at Steve's Digicams!


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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