Sony positions the controls in logical and comfortable locations. Unlike many recent Sony camcorders, this one doesn't bury common functions in a touch-screen menu system. A few dedicated buttons sit on the exterior; the rest, including the playback controls, hide behind the LCD screen. The latter buttons have a soft, almost flat design that on other cameras can be awfully frustrating when you are trying to make a quick adjustment while shooting; here, though, the buttons feature raised outlines that make pressing the right spot fairly easy. Additional buttons mounted next to the LCD display let you toggle the backlight and start and stop recording--handy when you're holding the camcorder high or low.
The DVD101 includes manual exposure and focus options along with six auto-exposure presets. Sony often loads its camcorders with an abundance of special effects, but here they're limited to luminance keying, the ever-cheesy Old Movie mode, and the Sepia, Pastel, B&W, and Mosaic effects. The DVD101 offers Sony's trademark NightShot and Super NightShot infrared modes and a fader setting for scene transitions. It also features Sony's Intelligent accessory shoe for adding lights and other accessories.
The DVD101 records to write-once DVD-R or rewriteable DVD-RW discs. Using the latter discs, you gain some basic editing capabilities, including the ability to split, reorder, and delete scenes. When you finalize the disc, the DVD101 creates a DVD menu that you can use to navigate your clips on a set-top player. It can also create a video slideshow of any images on the disc. The camera lacks a Memory Stick slot, instead storing still images on DVD.
If your computer can read DVD-ROMs, file transfer is a snap--just drop the finalized disc in the drive. Otherwise, you can use the included USB cable to move video and stills to your PC; the camcorder mounts as a drive for easy transfer. Mac users are out of luck: Sony doesn't include any Mac software, and the DVD101 lacks a FireWire (or as Sony calls it, iLink) port.
The supplied composite/S-Video cable lets you connect to a television for playback or to another source to transfer video from analog devices to DVD. The bundled infrared remote is handy for controlling the camcorder in either application. The DVD101's biggest performance drawback--as with all DVD-recordable camcorders--is the time it takes the camcorder to spin up a disc and read its contents. We've clocked it at close to 30 seconds before the camcorder was ready to shoot.
Otherwise, the camcorder performed well. The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD101's comfortably placed zoom switch offers precise control, allowing you to zoom smoothly at a languid or zippy pace. Electronic image stabilization proved effective at wide angles and at up to medium zoom, but camera shake became evident at the 10X end of the camcorder's zoom range.
The DVD101's automatic focus performed quickly and accurately in both bright and dim light. The 2.5-inch LCD is viewable even in direct sunlight, but its small size makes it difficult to use for manually focusing. The color viewfinder provides very good resolution and can tilt upwards to give more flexibility in shooting angles.
The stereo microphone does a good job picking up narration, dialogue, and ambient sound. Its position on the front of the camera, however, puts it close to the DVD drive, where in very quiet shooting situations it picked up the sound of the drive spinning up and down. Furthermore, the DVD101 lacks a wind filter, so on several occasions our test footage recorded noticeable wind noise from a slight breeze. We'd consider the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD101's image quality only borderline acceptable on a camera half as expensive; at this model's price, it doesn't cross the border. You can spot the effects of its low resolution in its lack of sharpness and noticeable pixelation, even in footage shot under optimal light. Color reproduction looks good for videos shot under bright light, but footage shot in a dimly lit hallway looks almost monochromatic. Ditto for stills: the DVD101's 640x480-pixel still images are grainy and pixelated, even when shot outdoors in bright light.
Sony's Super NightShot mode lets you film under conditions too dark for traditional shooting, but the infrared lighting makes your footage look like a view through night-vision goggles. In ambient light, colors are a bit more evident than with some earlier iterations of this technology, but most of the image is overwhelmed by a strong light-green cast.