At the unveiling of the eye-catching Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M1 in the fall of 2004, it promised hybrid still and video performance to accompany its futuristic, quirky design. We found that the M1 delivers on most counts, delivering decent 5-megapixel images, a solid snapshot feature set with some novel additions, and a video mode that's impressive as long as you can afford the high-capacity Memory Stick Duo Pro media. Indeed, the Sony M1 has two major pluses that separate it from the hybrid pack: superior performance for a point-and-shoot camera and MPEG-4 movie quality that tops any we've seen from a competitor. On the minus side, Sony burdens the device with subpar software.
The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M1 dispenses with the tried-and-true, rectangular box shape of most point-and-shoot digital cameras, going instead with a twist-and-turn design that evokes the aesthetics of mid-1980s Transformers. The M1's brushed-black-metal surface feels good in your hand, and at 7.5 ounces with battery and media installed, the camera is hefty enough to not feel cheap but light enough that it won't tire you out during longer shoots. One of the M1's quirky charms is its one-handed grip design, a configuration that borrows from compact MiniDV camcorders and allows for some novel shooting angles. Though there's no optical viewfinder, the big, bright 2.5-inch LCD screen rotates 360 degrees, allowing you to compose everything from self-portraits to upside-down macro shots.
Sony has given movie capture equal footing with photo capture on the device's main control area, so there are separate shutter buttons for each function, both within reach of your thumb; two additional shutters can be found to the left of the LCD screen, for convenient snapping when the screen is facing away from the main buttons.
We're glad that Sony avoided the confusing 3D menu that comes with its camcorders, instead going with a simple lineup of settings that you can deftly tweak using the four-way selector at the bottom of the camera's grip. Unfortunately, the bundled Picture Package software is underpowered and amateurish, making downloading and working with movies and stills a chore.
Though it lacks manual aperture and shutter-priority modes, the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M1 does offer a respectable array of consumer-targeted features. In addition to taking straight 30fps, VGA-quality (640x480) MPEG-4 videos, the M1 also incorporates a hybrid video mode that uses the camera's recording buffer to store five seconds of video before and three seconds after any image you take, giving you additional context for particularly important shots. You can play the MPEG-4 movies using QuickTime (we couldn't get it to work with Windows Media Player), and the nature of the MPEG-4 format--highly compressed with keyframes and differential frames--makes editing the movies both difficult and ill advised.