Review: Sony Mavica FD7
Copyright © March 1998 to Bruce Simpson
Aardvark's Review Policies
|The Sony brand...||
I must admit that I like Sony products. My TV and VCR both carry
the Sony label, as does my mini-system and the small cassette player I
use to record interviews. This doesn't mean that I'm one of those people
who have a blind allegiance to a brand-name. Each of these have been
considered purchases made on the basis of the value and performance
they offer. For instance, I don't have any Sony monitors on my PCs
(much as I'd love to) because my work doesn't justify the extra
cost over the more modest, but adequate, ViewSonic I'm looking at right now.
Still, this review isn't about monitors, stereos or VCRs, it's about digital cameras, and the Sony Mavica MVC FD7 in particular, so read on...
|Quality and convenience||
The first thing you'll notice when you unpack your Mavica is
that it's quite dense. By that I mean it's heavier than it
looks and it has a feeling of quality engineering about it.
This is no cheap "free with every 5 rolls of film" budget
camera, it's very nicely constructed and all the little latches
and buttons have a very positive feel to them.
The next thing you'll notice is that it doesn't seem to have any really natural hand-holds. It looks like a little box and you have to hold it like one - but you get used to it.
The form-factor of the Mavica is dictated, at least in part, by the fact that it uses good old 1.44MB floppy disks rather than expensive memory cards for image storage. This is in fact one of the Mavica's most significant features. Whereas most other digital cameras store their images in RAM and then allow you to download them onto your computer using a cable or infra-red link, the Sony is a whole lot easier. You get the added bonus that the number of pictures you can take at one setting is not going to be limited by anything other than the number of blank disks and freshly charged batteries you've got. Most other digital cameras seem to have enough RAM for only 30-40 images, the Sony gets around 16-18 on a disk in its "quality" mode. A box of 10 floppies will give you enough storage for over 160 pictures for around $9.95 - that's cheaper than film!
Let's make it quite plain that the Mavica isn't cheap, you could buy a nice functional little 35mm SLR plus a lot of film, developing and printing for the price of an FD7 or even its lesser featured brother the FD5. Not only that, a traditional film-based camera is going to give you much higher quality results than the Mavica, even if you're scanning the prints using a low-cost scanner. But... the reason you buy a Mavica isn't image quality or low-cost, it's convenience.
If I were a freelance reporter/photographer chasing "breaking news" stories, I'd buy one of these in an instant. The ability to fire off a few pictures then deliver them along with your copy by modem to an editor a minute or two later would be worth it. Click, click, drop the disk into your portable, dial the Net, tap up an email, attach the JPEGs and you're done. No fiddly camera cables or transfer programs to slow you down - brilliant!
What's more, the Mavica uses Sony's latest battery technology so it'll run for about 2.5 hours on a single charge. No worries about running out of ergs just as some earth-shattering event takes place.
|Too good to be true?||
So is this the perfect camera? Will it replace the old box brownie
that grandma gave you when you were a kid?
For all its strengths and the power of the Sony brand, the Mavica, like most affordable digital cameras, does have some limitations.
Firstly it's not the highest resolution digital camera in its class. At 640x480 (interpolated from 640x240), the images are sharp enough for viewing on a computer monitor but you won't want to print them out as 8x12 glossies. This is a great camera for capturing images that you want to use on your Web page but you're not going to want to replace your existing film-based camera with it.
Secondly, I suspect that most professionals will be disappointed by the lack of "power controls". Most noticeable of these, even for a rank amateur like me, is the very limited range of exposure control. It's sometimes hard to get a good image when you're snapping a scene that has a very bright spot in it. Even with the exposure manually cranked up to maximum, the dark area will be too dark. Likewise a predominantly light scene with a dark section - the range of adjustment just isn't adequate - although you can do a lot with post-processing using photoshop or equivalent software.
Having said that I should point out that the FD7 comes with some pretty smart firmware that makes most picture-taking a no-brainer. Point and click usually does it with FD7 offering a range of pre-programmed settings for things such as portraits, action scenes, outdoor scenes, etc. When set to the appropriate mode the microprocessor in the camera takes care of exposure, balance and a range of other settings that would otherwise confuse the average punter.
Another thing you won't do with this camera is emulate those fashion photographers with their motorised cameras that chew through a roll of film in about 2 seconds. The Mavica takes about 6-7 seconds to process and save a single image. Most of the time this isn't a problem but if you're trying to take a picture of some rapidly unfolding action, the delay can be irritating.
The only method of seeing what the camera sees when lining up a shot is the LCD display on the back. That's fine for indoor shots or when you're working in shade but I found it very hard to see when taking images in bright sunlight. It would be nice if there was also a purely optical viewfinder as offered on the good old 35mm SLR or even an eye-piece option for the display as used on some video cameras.
|Perhaps I'm over-critical||
As most regular
Aardvark readers will realise, I tend to be very critical
when reviewing products. After all, you can always get a list
of the great features a product offers simply by browsing the brochures.
What I try to do is discover and report the stuff the brochures
won't tell you (see the Aardvark Review Policies).
Many of the points I've raised above are common to all digital cameras and not peculiar to Sony. To put it simply, digital cameras aren't suitable for every task. Indeed, for some jobs you'd have to be completely stupid to even consider a digital camera. However, for those jobs which require instant viewing of the results, unlimited capacity, a very long-life battery and pretty idiot-proof operation then the Sony is a perfect fit.
I should also point out that I'm no photographer. What I know about f-stops and exposures you could write on the head of a pin - this fact becomes particularly noticeable when comparing the sample images I took and those taken by others using the same camera.
Also, for this review I had few frames of reference, the Sony being the first digital camera that I've used for any length of time. If there are other digital camera vendors out there who would risk submitting their products for an Aardvark review and comparison to the Sony then please contact me.
And what digital camera review would be worth its salt without some samples of what the results look like? Just click on any of the thumbnails below for a full-size image. Please note that these images are the full 640x480 resolution offered by the Mavica and have not been retouched in any way. When they're scaled to a size more suitable for use on a Web page they look a whole lot better! Before you download them I should also point out that they're around 60Kbytes in size.
These pictures would almost certainly probably benefit from a certain amount of image processing including some degree of gamma adjustment. They are more an indicator of why I'll never be a professional photographer than an example of the Mavica's true potential. You'll find some much better images here
|The bottom line||
I like the Sony Mavica! Apart from those drawbacks which are
common to almost all digital cameras there's really very little
wrong with this machine.
If I Sony hadn't needed it back in a hurry I might even have been tempted to keep it and send them a cheque, it's just that good.
The question is - do you need one?
Chances are that most people have something better to spend $1,300 on, but then again there are some who have built an entire business on the humble digital camera.
The (in)famous Danny De Hek has, after a somewhat rocky start, found a niche as a mobile Web designer thanks to the power of the digital camera and this is one role where I know it would be very easy to recover your investment in the Sony.
In fact, as the number of businesses looking to gain a presence on the Web increases, a digital camera will probably become a essential part of all serious Web designer's toolkits. The Mavica, thanks to its use of conventional floppy disks, would appear to be an excellent option for this kind of role, its unique ability to save directly to disk allowing you spend an entire day taking pictures without having to lug around a portable PC or return to base regularly to download the images.
So.. here's the bottom line:
To adapt a quote from the movie Crazy People: Sony Mavica "it's boxy but it's good!".
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