When you look at the tiny buttons of this sturdy 1-pound, 12-ounce camcorder, they seem imposing and perhaps disheartening. But in reality, Sony managed to put all the important keys, dials, and knobs in exactly the right places--practically under the fingers that will operate them.
|For such a big camcorder, the DVD300 has some mighty tiny controls.|
The highest and lowest recording-quality modes will get you 20 and 60 minutes of video, respectively, on one mini DVD-R/RW.
In most ways, the DVD300 operates similarly to a typical Sony MiniDV camcorder. When you unlock and fold out the 3.5-inch color LCD, it can tilt 90 degrees backward and 180 degrees forward. To save your battery, you can turn instead to the color electronic viewfinder, which slides out of the camera top and angles upward. Both displays provide the same information, so the only difference between them is that you have to squint a bit into the viewfinder. Working with the minuscule, recessed diopter control is a little hard, but you shouldn't need to play with it too often. You navigate the menus with traditional four-way buttons rather than Sony's more recent touch-screen technology, which people tend to either love or hate.
One design benefit of using DVD media is that its hatch sits on the right-hand side, so a tripod won't interfere with disc swapping. However, merely opening the drive annoyingly requires you to slide the Open switch twice: once to start the process and again after the appearance of an indicator light.
You definitely pay a premium for the relative convenience of optical media. Except for its use of mini DVDs instead of MiniDV cassettes, the $1,100 DVD300 is essentially the same as the $900 TRV38. Their feature sets are similar, and both camcorders offer a 690,000-pixel effective video resolution, a 1-megapixel effective resolution for stills, and a 10X zoom lens.
The DVD300 records videos and still images on 3-inch, 1.4GB DVD-R/RWs. That format does have some advantages over MiniDV: greater playback convenience in compatible DVD players and drives, more durability, recordings that are less prone to degradation, and random access to disc contents. But DVD-R/RW captures footage in compressed MPEG-2, whose quality isn't always as good as that of MiniDV's less-compressed DV. Compared with rewritable DVD-RWs, MiniDV tapes can be up to 50 percent cheaper and hold three times as much high-quality video. And though DVD-Rs are relatively inexpensive, you can use each disc only once.
In all other respects, the DVD300 is fairly standard. The point-and-shoot crowd gets a variety of preprogrammed scene modes and fully automatic operation. Exposure shift, manual white balance, and the ability to focus manually via a jog dial are among the handful of features targeted at the more experienced videographer. Fade, wipe, and overlap transitions and some special effects round out the in-camera editing tools. Thanks to the MPEG-2 format, you can magnify video during playback and review clips by selecting them from an automatically generated index page of thumbnails. Many recent DVD players will treat a finalized disc's index page as its menu.
As you'd expect, the low-light modes that make Sony camcorders so flexible are present in the DVD300. Though it doesn't have the rated 5-lux capability of many of its consumer family members, Sony rates it for environments with illumination levels as low as 7 lux. It can record at 0 lux in the infrared NightShot and Super NightShot modes. A 10-second burst mode and automatic exposure bracketing for still images are welcome extras.
We really dislike the bundled Pixela ImageWriter software, however. Its editing features are very rudimentary but not nearly as easy to use as they should be. The program does a reasonable job of getting digital video and stills off the camera via the USB 2.0 port. But though you can pass through analog video to burn it to mini DVDs, ImageWriter can't recognize it and send it to your computer, so you don't get a FireWire connection. For analog capture, you're better off using any camcorder capable of full analog pass-through and a PC-based DVD burner. Given the huge price difference between mini 1.4GB and standard 4.7GB discs, you could cover the hardware cost after just 16 DVDs.
Watch your battery life: operations such as disc finalizing can use up to several minutes of precious power.
Overall, the DVD300 performs quite well. The lens's zoom speed depends on how far you've nudged the zoom slider, and the autofocus matches the pace almost perfectly. We experienced a focus delay only when making a wildly fast swing between full wide-angle and a tight shot. And even then, the focus caught up almost as soon as the lens had stopped.
Via a front-mounted microphone, the DVD300 records Dolby Digital AC3 stereo audio; its overall quality ranges from good to excellent, depending on your distance from the source. The microphone is very sensitive and in near silence may pick up the rumble of the spinning disc; many tape-based camcorders with audible tape transports have the same problem. We heard no significant hissing or whining during our tests, however. More important is the absence of a wind filter; on windy days, outdoor footage can be very noisy. And though having a large 3.5-inch LCD is nice for framing, we found the DVD300's screen a bit coarse and high-contrast.
The discs cause the only real performance holdup. The camcorder needs time to spin them, access their indexes, and finalize them. But all these processes are ultimately less time-consuming and more convenient than searching through a MiniDV tape for specific scenes or downloading its video to a PC. Decide for yourself whether you want to wait when you're itching to shoot or when you want to play back a clip.
The DVD300's video-recording modes are the 20-minute HQ, the 30-minute SP, and the 60-minute LP. All three produce acceptable quality, but only HQ's results can compare to the DV footage of a low-end MiniDV camcorder. Be aware that MPEG-2 is a lossy format; if you plan to edit your material on a PC, start with the least compressed files possible. Like the video of many competing models, the DVD300's looks acceptable though a bit flat and unsaturated on a video monitor or a TV. When we set the lens to its maximum zoom, the camcorder captured our test scene with nice, sharp details.
This frame capture gives you an idea of how the DVD300's video looks when it's scaled down.
The DVD300's highest-quality stills are typical for a 1-megapixel camcorder. That is, when they're smaller than their actual size, they have washed-out colors but are still usable for onscreen viewing. Full-size versions reveal a variety of artifacts produced by the sensor's low resolution and poor color-capture capabilities.
|Like most camcorder stills, the DVD300's look passable at small sizes but suffer severe color noise at actual size.|