The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M2 is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of some. Thanks to good image quality and a big, bright LCD that's usable in sunlight, this hybrid still camera/camcorder update to the remains a surprisingly good point-and-click 5-megapixel snapshooter--assuming you're willing to pay a premium for a camera with a 3X zoom, no manual controls, and no bundled memory card. Besides some aesthetic and interface changes, the DSC-M2 isn't very different from the DSC-M1. Both cameras have the same 5-megapixel sensor, the same MPEG-4 movie support, the same 3X zoom lens, and the same good image quality for photos and videos. The DSC-M2 is sleeker than its predecessor and has a few new functions, but under the case, it's basically the same hardware as the DSC-M1. Regardless of its flaws, though, anyone who needs a pocketable camcorder and doesn't want to sacrifice photo quality should consider this quirky shooter. There aren't enough improvements in this model to justify replacing your old DSC-M1, though. You'll either love or tolerate the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M2's design. When folded for transport, the 8-ounce camera is about the size and shape of a 2002-era cell phone. When in use, the back panel swivels 90 degrees and the LCD flips around to face you. The screen rotates 270 degrees, so you can use it for self-portraits, waist-level shots, and overhead viewing, all with equal ease; it also fits comfortably into the left or right hand--a plus for southpaws.
Unfortunately, only the most basic controls--still-photo shutter release, movie-record button, shooting/playback mode key, and zoom rocker--are readily accessible with one hand. The back panel of the main body of the camera has just two other controls: a switch to toggle between normal recording and the movie/still/hybrid mode, and a switch that limits video recording to five seconds. On the right side of the camera is a power switch, though the camera powers on automatically when unfolded.
All the other controls reside on the LCD side of the camera and thus require two hands to operate. To the left of the LCD is a flat panel with three stacked icons. The top icon serves as an alternate shutter release in record mode and, in play mode, runs a musical slide show. The middle icon cycles among LCD info-display options. The bottom icon shoots video clips in record mode and displays the photo album in play mode.
Another cluster of controls sits to the right of the LCD. These include a menu button for accessing the DSC-M2's multipage shooting and setup screens, a button that controls image size and acts as a delete key, an index button for changing the number of images displayed during playback (1-, 9-, or 16-up), and a four-way cursor control pad with central OK button. A useful but overly sensitive shuttle dial surrounds the control pad, which adjusts EV in photo mode (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV steps) or regulates rewind and fast-forward speeds during movie playback. Each of the cursor-pad keys performs a secondary function, too, including self-timer (up), macro (left), metering mode (right), and flash options (down.) The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M2 provides several practical and entertaining features, if you can get past its lack of manual controls. I especially like the built-in photo album, which organizes and displays VGA versions of your photos (you can turn this feature off if you like) and stores them in the camera's 57MB of internal memory or on a Memory Stick Duo. The internal memory is dedicated solely to the slide-show function, so you'll need a big memory card to take photos and videos. The slide show, which can include both stills and movies, is accompanied by any of four supplied music tracks. If you don't like the canned tunes, you can swap them for four of your own audio clips of up to 3 minutes with the bundled software. Sound quality from the monaural speaker is surprisingly good.
Unfortunately, the camera's photography features are pretty ho-hum. The 38mm-to-114mm (35mm-camera equivalent) Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar zoom lens provides neither a very wide view nor very much of a telephoto reach, but it focuses down to just 0.4 inch in supermacro mode. There's no manual focus beyond five fixed presets, but you can select from spot, center, or multipoint autofocus with four zones. In every AF mode, the camera indicates the active zones on the LCD screen.
The only available exposure tweaking is exposure compensation or choosing a sensitivity of ISO 64, 100, 200, or 400. The camera automatically picks a shutter speed between 1/8 to 1/1,000 second at an aperture of either f/3.5 or f/4.4. You can choose automatic or programmed exposure, as well as among the camera's sparse selection of scene presets--Twilight Portrait, Snow, Sports, Candle, Nighttime, Landscape, Beach, and Fireworks--and from automatic or preset white-balance settings. Special effects include the standard black-and-white and sepia filters, plus saturation, contrast, and sharpness adjustments.
Movie mode delivers only the basics--movie clips at up to 640x480 resolution and 30fps with stereo sound and the ability to use the optical zoom while shooting (a feature many cameras still lack). There's no electronic image stabilization or in-camera movie-editing features. The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M2's performance ranged from decent to stellar. The 123,000-pixel backlit LCD looks great; even under the full glare of daylight, I could compose images with no difficulty and saw little ghosting when the camera or subject moved. While viewing was not quite as good in dim light, it was more than acceptable.
The underpowered electronic flash located a scant 0.25 inch from the camera lens is the DSC-M2's weakest link. It extends to about 8 feet at best--with the lens at its widest and ISO set to Auto--and reached to less than 7 feet when zoomed to telephoto end. I also found the flash controls inconveniently located; you access the auto, off, on, and slow-sync settings via the down cursor, but Sony buries the red-eye-reduction setting in the camera's menu system. Worse, it doesn't actually prevent red-eye.
As for shooting speed, the DSC-M2 woke up and captured its first shot in just 1.6 seconds but slowed to 2.8 seconds between shots (3.6 seconds with flash). The lightning-fast burst mode captured 4 full-resolution pictures in 1.2 seconds (3.3 shots per second) and approached an even 4fps rate when resolution was reduced to 640x480.
Shutter lag under high-contrast lighting was an outstanding 0.2 second but slowed to 0.9 second under low-contrast light when the focus-assist light became necessary. This camera produced attractive photos and movies. Colors look neutral and pleasing, especially in the flesh tones. However, exposures tend to favor the shadows, which means lots of blown highlights. As with the previous model, details tend to be masked by excessive compression artifacts. Backlit subjects produce chromatic aberration, which appears as moderate purple fringing.
The Sony Cyber Shot DSC-M2's biggest issue is excessive noise, which is visible even at lower ISO speeds. While not too bad at ISO 64, by ISO 160 it became objectionable, and at ISO 400, the multicolored flecks took on a life of their own. Since this camera's slowest shutter speed is 1/8 second and the electronic flash is so anemic, the DSC-M2 is probably not the best choice for nighttime or party shooters.