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Sony DCR-DVD203 Review

DT Editor's Choice

Highs

  • Compact camcorder that records multiple DVD formats; Dolby Digital surround-ready

Rating

Our Score 8.5
User Score 6

Lows

  • Expensive; poor still quality
Convenience with a touch of 21st Century home entertainment technology is the message here.

Summary

Sony came a little late to the DVD camcorder party. In its inimitable fashion when it did arrive the company decided to take over the business from early leaders Hitachi and Panasonic. Surprise! They did just that thanks to marketing muscle and now have five models ranging from $599 to $999 along with the lion’s share of sales. Rather than demand the world follow its own format like Hitachi/Panasonic with DVD-RAM, Sony decided to be a bit more agnostic so more DVD players–and PlayStations–could be compatible with its discs. Instead of DVD-RAM as a rewritable  and –R as a write-once format, Sony’s DVD Handycams record in –RW and +RW (dash and plus RW) as well as -R. What this means to you is that it’s far more likely you can record a disc that will play in your mother’s DVD player so she can see the kids romping around. And make no mistake, the vast majority of camcorders are purchased right around the time a new baby is born–or some other major event such as a graduation or the vacation of a lifetime. No matter if you’re expectant parents or have the urge to create your own cinema verite classic, the Sony DCR-DVD203 with its 1.07-megapixel CCD will do a reasonable job saving your memories. Naturally there are issues to lament but that’s what reviews are for.

Features and Design

It’s been a real joy handling this current generation of DVD camcorders since they are so much smaller than earlier editions. Along with Hitachi, Panasonic and Sony models, we recently got a sneak peek of the new Canons that are even smaller than the competition and have a cool Millennium Falcon look (DC10, DC20). That said, the DCR-DVD203 is very compact and fits neatly in one hand (it weighs 1.1 pounds with the battery). A strap with a Velcro strip makes it very simple to adjust. Once you do that, your fingers fit neatly on the key controls–your index finger lies on the wide-tele zoom switch and your thumb rests on the main control key. By moving it you change from video, still and playback. Slightly lower is the record button. This is a very nice ergonomic fit and Sony designers should be commended for it.

The front of the camcorder is dominated by the lens; it’s a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 12x optical zoom that can be boosted to a pixilated 480x. A built-in lens cover protects it when you power down. There’s also a stereo speaker and a covered A/V output to connect the camcorder to a TV or A/V receiver. The top has a switch for Super NightShot Plus recording in zero light (it does not have a color enhancement light or flash). There’s also the disc tray open key as well as the zoom and Photo key so you can record 1MP stills to disc (whoopee); there is no slot for a memory card since everything is saved to disc. Of note is the hot accessory shoe that accepts an optional Dolby Digital 5.1 Creator microphone (ECM-HQP1 for $149). This lets you record 5.1-channel sound, so your cinema verite really is verite.

The right side is dominated by the disc tray while the left has a swing-out 2.7-inch widescreen touch screen LCD monitor. More camcorders than ever have widescreen LCDs to mirror the widescreen TVs popping up in America’s living rooms. Now you frame your video as they will appear on screen…very cool. Flip open the screen and you’ll find handy wide-tele controls and a record button on the edge of the screen itself. Since so many people frame their subjects with the LCD, you can easily make adjustments with your thumb. On the inside of the camcorder is a USB2.0 output, a Wide Select button to change aspect ratio and a Display/Battery Info key.

We’ve always loved Sony’s AccuPower Meter that tells you to the minute how much juice you have left in your battery. There’s no guesswork involved compared to others that simply show a bar graph. Above the LCD when it’s in the closed position is a Back Light key to handle those tricky lighting situations (someone standing in a window) and an Easy button. Sony realizes most people simply want to point-and-shoot although others like to play with manual adjustments. Any casual user who simply picks up the camcorder presses the Easy key and all main settings return to auto plus you cannot make certain adjustments to avoid mistakes. The font size for the onscreen menus even gets larger. Let’s just call this the Baby Boomer button!

The back of the camera is the slot for the lithium ion battery slot that’s rated around 35 minutes with the LCD on, the typical way most people shoot. There’s also a pullout electronic viewfinder with diopter control. Unfortunately it only pulls straight out rather than on an angle. The bottom of the camcorder has two mounts–one for a tripod and other for accessories.

The camcorder comes with everything you need to get started including a remote control but there are no rewritable discs just a single 1.4GB DVD-R, good for around 30 minutes of video. Rewritable discs (-RW/+RW) cost around $8 each but with web searches you should find them for less. And as noted, you’ll need to spend $149 for the mic to record multichannel sound. The DCR-DVD203 doesn’t have a Quick Start page unfortunately and comes with one of those Owner’s Manuals that’s for 14 different versions  of the same camcorder. Actually it’s eight but no matter how many it is, the 120-page book is confusing as a FEMA manual. Another negative is the supplied software because it’s very rudimentary (Picture Package V1.8 for DVD Handycam using Pixela’s Image Mixer EasyStep DVD). However, there’s no shortage of good video editing programs out there like Ulead Video Studio or even Sony’s own Vegas Movie Studio+DVD but expect to pay another $75 or more for them.

In a slightly unusual design, the DCR-DVD203’s battery is charged while it’s attached to rear of the camcorder. This is no big deal; just different. Setting the basic parameters is very simple using the touch screen LCD. I found it a bit weird tapping on glass but the LCD seemed no worse for wear unlike iPod Nanos. There are tons of manual adjustments, Program Auto Exposure (AE) settings, fade options (I chose black fade). Before diving into that pool, it was time to start shooting in plain old Auto with and without the optional mic.

Sony DCR-DVD203
Image Courtesy of Sony Electronics

Performance

Camcorders are not digital cameras so don’t expect an “instant on” experience. This can be a problem for grabbing spontaneous action so it’s recommended you keep in it Standby when you’re planning to shoot. It’s still not instantaneous but it’s a bit faster than a cold start. In the case of the DCR-DVD203, it was ready to go in about six seconds from off to on. Using a DVD-R disc I took a variety of clips including a baseball game, sight-seeing images in Manhattan and motion video. I also took a number of stills.

As noted, the camcorder was initially set in the Auto Easy Handycam position; a cool blue light lets you know you’re in that setting as well as onscreen displays. With this setting you simply point and hit the Record button and off you go.

When a camcorder is Auto, it truly is point-and-record. You simply frame your subjects and record away. The 2.7-inch LCD makes this a breeze, no matter if you’re in 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. The screen, although only 123K pixels, held up very well in direct sunlight. With the optional mic on, I recorded a 360-degree view of NY’s Columbus Circle. Getting tired of such simplicity, I left the Big Easy behind and used the various Program AE settings where appropriate such as Sports for speeding taxis, Sunset and Landscape. In between I’d move into the Still mode and grab a few images. Then it came time for the true test–playing back the disc after a finalization process that lasted about five minutes (this for a DVD-R disc). This is a process you must do or else the disc won’t work in a DVD player. When you finalize there are options for playback menus. We kept it in default with thumbnails for each scene. Note: It’s not necessary for +RW but you won’t get the thumbnails.

Once done, I checked out the video via a DVD player on a 42-inch Pioneer plasma TV connected to a surround sound system. In general the video was a mixed bag. Shooting outdoors in good light, the color was lifelike and accurate, much better than the Hitachi reviewed earlier. The scenes shot in widescreen looked very nice. In other instances, the color lacked contrast and deep blacks so it was disappointing. The scenes shot indoor with NightShot Plus were OK but a bit on the noisy side yet that’s to be expected. However, those recorded indoors using Color Slow Shutter were much better. The surround sound added a very nice depth and dimension to the video although it was a bit disconcerting to hear my voice coming from the rear speakers as I narrated the footage. Although an option, I recommend it for anyone who wants to go beyond the traditional home video fare. I didn’t get to a NASCAR race but I’d imagine it would be great to truly immerse yourself–and record–the experience.

The one-megapixel stills were as you’d expect: not good enough for anything beyond a 3×5–and that’s stretching it. The still mode functions very smoothly with an amusing clicking sound and shutter closing to simulate a camera. Quality was far better than the Hitachi but still nothing to stand up and cheer for. It worked best on stationery objects; anything in motion was blurry.

Sony DCR-DVD203
Image Courtesy of Sony Electronics

Conclusion

Convenience with a touch of 21st Century home entertainment technology is the message here. The DCR-DVD203 is a very good, easy-to-use camcorder that lets you record in a variety of DVD formats so you can easily playback videos and stills on your TV or computer. It has very good battery life, is very compact and easy to tote around. And I will say this again–videos shot on DVD are not as good as those shot with a high-quality MiniDV camcorder. Still the convenience of taking out the disc and popping it into your DVD player is terrific and the reason close to 20 percent of all camcorders bought in 2005 will be DVD-based. Having those thumbnails and easily jumping to your favorite scene is great and something no tape-based camcorder can do. And I’d highly recommend the optional mic for the more adventurous. Saying that, if surround sound really is appealing you should really consider Sony’s DCR-DVD403 with a built-in Dolby Digital surround mic. It costs $999 compared to $948 for the tricked out DVD203. It also has a much better CCD for improved stills, a built-in flash and higher quality optics. However, for those looking for ease of use and DVD convenience, the DCR-DVD203 will fill the bill.

Pros:

  • Very compact, excellent ergonomics
  • Records in –RW/+RW/-R formats
  • Dolby Digital Creator ready
  • Decent 2.7-inch widescreen touch LCD screen

Cons:

  • Pricey compared to the competition
  • LCD screen could be better
  • Weak supplied software
  • Poor 1MP stills
  • No enhancement light or flash