Sony wasnâ€™t the first to market with a DVD camcorderâ€“Both Panasonic and Hitachi have released camcorders that can burn to either DVD-R or DVD-RAM. But neither of those formats is perfect for home users, as DVD-R doesnâ€™t allow editing and DVD-RAM canâ€™t be played in a home DVD player. Sony is first out of the gate with a camcorder that allows standard DVD-RW media that can be both edited and played directly on a home playerâ€“a huge advantage for typical consumers.
As with most Sony products, the camera seems substantial and high quality. Few manufacturers can compete with Sony when it comes to ergonomics and functional design, and this camera shows why. Itâ€™s quite simple to useâ€“anyone familiar with a video camera wonâ€™t need to read the manual even though the media format has changed from tape to DVD-RW. The camera is exceptionally solid, performs well, and fits hands from small to large with no problems. Buttons are all where you would expect them to be and clearly labeled.
The only annoyance is that to eject the DVD media, you have to press the eject button, wait about 30 seconds for a green light, and then press it again. This gives the camera time to finalize the DVD, but itâ€™s not what users expect and can be annoying until you get used to it. I also didnâ€™t like the common style of having port covers hang from flimsy plastic tether that seems like it wonâ€™t last as long as the rest of the camera.
Using the camcorder is point-and-shoot, just like all the major brands of Mini-DV or Compact-VHS cameras on the market, although there is longer to wait at power-up as the camera reads the inserted DVD. The upside is that unlike tape, you donâ€™t have to worry about accidentally taping over anythingâ€“all recording starts at the end of the DVD, which is a major advantage over the tape models.
The full suite of normal play, record, seek, and edit functions are available, as well as Sonyâ€™s hallmark low-level night-shot and color nigh-shot modes that allow recording in very low-light situations, albeit with either a loss of color or a very slow shutter. The camera functions well with any light that you can see in though, so these modes are only necessary for doing things that otherwise wouldnâ€™t be possible.
Thereâ€™s not much difference between the useability of this camera and a typical Mini-DV camcorder except that the DVD-RW media holds only 40 minutes of video rather than the 60 or 90 minutes youâ€™ll get with tape. (The blanks say 30 minutes, but they hold 40). The LCD display is large (2.5″) on the model 300 and easy to see even in bright sun.
Video data is compressed in real-time and recorded to the DVD media in MPEG-2 (DVD) format. The recorder doesnâ€™t actually run all the timeâ€“video is bufffered and compressed in memory and then burned about once every ten seconds. The nice thing about this is that bumps and shocks typically wonâ€™t affect the recording and battery life is extended. We noticed no adverse affects like skipping from normal use, which has been a complaint with the DVD-RAM competitors.
The included battery lasts about 70 minutes, which will allow you to burn a single blank with extra time for setting up the shot. The system uses the standard Sony InforLithium batteries used in other cameras, which are available everywhere the cameras are sold in durations up to six hours. Sony has included a sensor that detects genuine Sony batteriesâ€“cheaper competing brands like Lenmark will not work in this camera, which is a bummer considering that they cost about half as much. The charger is built into the camera, but external chargers are available and are a must for anyone doing serious work with the camera, as you wonâ€™t want to stop for a few hours to charge the battery in the middle of a shoot.
The camera also functions as a 1.1 megapixel still camera that writes the still images to the DVD in standard JPEG format. You could literally store thousands of still images on a single DVD if you wanted to, but 1.1 Megapixels isnâ€™t really enough for anything but vacation snapshots that will only be seen on a computer or television screen. Youâ€™ll want at least 2.0 megapixels for anything you intend to print. This feature is nice, but like all video camera still image modes, itâ€™s not ready for prime time and is not a serious replacement for a digital still camera.
The camera uses USB2.0 rather than firewire, primarily because the data is stored in an already compressed format that isnâ€™t compatible with firewire video mode. The nice part about this is that the video takes far less time to download (about 5 minutes for the entire 40 minute disk) than the full-time download that video takes over firewire from Mini-DV camcorders. But a better way to download is to simply take the disc out of the camera and put it in your computerâ€™s DVD drive and copy the files to your hard disk. This wonâ€™t require hooking up any cables or burning off battery power, and itâ€™s just as fast.
The DCR-DVD300 records video in compressed MPEG-2 format, unlike Mini-DV camcorders which do not compress the video at all. This is necessary because a 3″ DVD blank only holds about 1.5 gigabyte of data whereas a Mini-DV cartridge holds about 25 gigabytes. The built-in compressor does a reasonable job in real time, but fast action shots or shots where the camera is moving or being jostled seriously suffer from MPEG compression artifacts like lines through the image and blockyness. Once the image stops moving or steadies up, the compression artifacts go away. Itâ€™s not bad, but it is quite noticeable. On the plus side, this camera has about the best steadyshot feature Iâ€™ve ever seenâ€“itâ€™s rock solid on shots when hand held unless you actually intend to move it.
Sony markets three versions of this camera:
- DCR-DVD100, which has an 800k pixel CCD and a 1.5″ LCD and retails for $899.
- DCR-DVD200, which has a 1.1M pixel CCD and a 1.5″ LCD and retails for $999.
- DCR-DVD300, which has a 1.1M pixel CCD and a 2.5″ LCD and retails for $1099.
The 800k pixel CCD isnâ€™t worth the $100 savings, but the 2.5″ LCD probably isnâ€™t worth the $100 in extra cost for the model 300, making the DCR-DVD200 the best bang for the buck in amongst the three models. Otherwise, the models are the same.
If the Sony DCR-DVD300 is any indicator, DVD is the format of the future for video cameras. Itâ€™s so much easier to use than tape for recording reliably without taping over, for skipping the lengthy compression process that requires a computer, for editing and post-processing the video, and for playing back in standard DVD players, that Mini-DV tape systems simply wonâ€™t be able to compete for long. But the convenience comes at a cost: The compressed video quality is not as good as you could get with a professional video compression system. Itâ€™s about as good or better than what most consumer software products under $500 will give you though, so if you intend to shoot home movies that will go to DVD, this is the only system on the market for you right now.