The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403 leaves its underachieving predecessors in the dust, offering superior video quality, improved performance, above-average photos, and a no-compromise feature set. With its 1/3-inch 3-megapixel CCD (2 megapixels used for video) and Dolby 5.1 surround recording, the DVD403 is a healthy competitor to MiniDV cameras in its price range, and it tosses in straight-to-player convenience to boot.
At a casual glance, the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403 looks like a typical midrange camcorder. Its silver, black, and gray plastic shell lacks the flashiness of some of Sony's earlier DVD camcorders, which sported colors such as metallic blue. The only indications that this isn't just another MiniDV camcorder are the rounded right side (to make room for the 3-inch DVD+RW/-R disc) and the hefty 1-pound, 5-ounce weight. It's a very solid-feeling design--all that weight is crammed into a package that's the same size as a typical horizontal-format MiniDV camcorder. At least the somewhat generic looks don't call out to those who might be enamored enough of this camcorder to borrow it permanently.
Additional buttons next to the LCD let you start and stop recording, as well as adjust the zoom; there's also a traditional zoom rocker on top of the camera. While these touch-sensitive buttons are convenient, they require such a firm press that they're difficult to use without shaking the camera.
As is typical for Sony camcorders, most functions are accessed via menus on the LCD touch screen. This configuration is less intimidating than the button-festooned designs of competing camcorders, but it can take longer to page through onscreen menus to find the setting you want to adjust. The menu is programmable, so you can put your most-used functions on the first screen. For casual shooters, a press of the Easy button puts the camera in fully automatic mode.
The DVD drive sits on the right side of the unit and opens to the top, and the battery clips onto the rear, so you can easily swap discs and batteries while the camera is mounted on a tripod.
Earlier generations of Sony DVD camcorders, such as the DCR-DVD101, often lacked features found in MiniDV models of the same price class. Sony has definitely closed the gap here; the DCR-DVD403 is very full featured, with a high-resolution CCD, surround-sound recording, and excellent still-photo capabilities. In fact, the only feature that fails to impress is the mere 10X zoom reach of the Carl Zeiss lens.
The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403 records to 3-inch write-once DVD-R/+R or rewriteable DVD-RW/+RW discs. With the latter, you gain some basic editing capabilities, including the ability to split, reorder, and delete scenes. When you finalize the disc, the DVD403 creates a DVD menu, complete with thumbnails that you can use to navigate your clips on a standalone player. It can also create a video slide show of any images on the disc. The camera lacks a Memory Stick slot, instead storing still photos on the disc. Unique to Sony, the DVD403 supports Dolby Digital 5.1 audio recording using its built-in directional microphone. You can also connect an external surround microphone.
The DVD403 supports both normal (4:3) and wide-screen (16:9) aspect ratios. In fact, the wide-screen LCD makes it easier to see what you're shooting in 16:9 mode, since there are no black letterboxing bars using valuable screen space. On the downside, during playback, neither TVs nor PCs seem to be able to autodetect which aspect ratio you used.
The camcorder includes manual exposure and focus options along with six autoexposure 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 Sepia, Pastel, Black And White, and Mosaic effects. There's also a fader setting for scene transitions. The DVD403 offers Sony's trademark NightShot and Super NightShot infrared modes for low-light shooting as well as a color slow-shutter mode for when you want to maintain the original colors and avoid the greenish cast found in infrared shots. There's no video light, but there is a flash for shooting stills. The DVD403 features Sony's Active Interface Shoe for adding lights and other accessories.
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 bundled USB cable to move video and stills to your PC; the camcorder mounts as a drive for easy transfer. Some Mac users are out of luck: Sony doesn't include any Mac software, and the DVD403 lacks a FireWire port. Also, keep in mind that some video-editing packages don't support the compressed MPEG-2 format used on DVDs; you'll have fewer editing choices than with a MiniDV camcorder.