A Picture Perfect Digital Camera

Three years ago, Sony revolutionized the digital camera business with its digital Mavica. Compared with other sleek, brushed-metal models that could readily slip into a shirt pocket, the Mavica was more like a vintage Brownie. It was a big, ugly, plastic box, ungainly to hold and tote. But it boasted one convenience that none of the others had: It stored pictures on ordinary 3 1/2-in. floppy disks that could be read by any computer.

Back then, I tactfully called the Mavica "a bit bulky." That didn't matter to the legions of consumers who raced out to buy the Mavica. They were interested in digital photography but unwilling to put up with the hassles of loading special software and running cables from camera to computer just to look at snapshots. U.S. consumers will buy more than 4 million digital cameras costing more than $50 this year, and 40% will be Mavicas--double the market share of No. 2 Olympus.

Now, Sony has surprised me again. I thought the Mavica would be left behind by technology because today's 2- and 3-megapixel image sensors produce pictures so detailed that only three or four will fit on a 1.44-megabyte floppy disk. But the new MVC-CD1000, which lists for $1,299, is a stunning update that retains the universal appeal of the original. Sony has integrated a CD-recordable (CD-R) drive into the body of its top-of-the-line Mavica, a 2.1-megapixel camera. The three-inch disks are smaller than what you're accustomed to, but they're designed around the industry standard. That means they will run in any computer with a CD- or DVD-ROM drive. Almost all new computers feature such drives. (In order to record images larger than 1Mb, Sony went with a higher level of the industry CD standard, one that is not yet supported by Apple computers. It requires a disk format extension to the Mac operating system, which comes with software shipped with the camera.) Each write-once disk, about $4, will store 160 high-resolution photos. That's cheaper than the equivalent of four rolls of 35mm film, and you don't have to pay for processing.

NICE TOUCHES. The new model won't hit dealers' shelves until shortly after Labor Day, but I've been carrying an early production model around for a few weeks now. Sure, it's a bit bulky. But I was surprised at how lightweight it is. At a tad over two pounds, the Mavica is a third lighter and much easier to handle than my conventional 35mm Olympus OM-2 with a 35mm-to-200mm zoom lens attached that I carried for comparison. And the Mavica includes a 10X zoom lens that can be the equivalent of a 400mm telephoto lens. The CD Mavica fetches a $300 premium over the floppy-disk version.

Like virtually all digital cameras, Sony's new Mavica is designed for fully automatic point-and-shoot operation. But there are loads of features for the photo enthusiast, too. The most common ones, such as flash controls, manual focus, and a macro mode for extreme closeups, can be operated with buttons and switches on the left side and back of the camera. Others require changes in settings using an easily mastered menu, accessible both on the 2 1/2-in. LCD viewer and in the through-the-lens viewfinder.

There is no full-manual mode, but you can fix the aperture to control the depth of the focus field, or set the shutter speed to freeze fast-moving subjects. Especially nice touches: There's a position sensor so that photos snapped when the camera is held vertically are recorded in that position, and there's an image stabilizer of the type found on camcorders that corrects for accidental camera shake. The Mavica can also record audio, and as many as 85 15-second movies, on the disks.

This isn't the camera for you if you're looking for something to carry around in your pocket--even your coat pocket. But if you're serious about photography, this new Mavica will do a lot more than most digital cameras. And, hey, you can always hang it around your neck.

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