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.
The supplied composite/S-Video cable lets you connect to a television for playback or for passing through an analog source to burn a DVD. The bundled infrared remote is handy for controlling the camcorder in either application.
With the DCR-DVD403, Sony addresses most of the performance complaints we had about DVD camcorders. Start-up, for instance, takes only a few seconds--much better than the shot-missing 30 seconds on older devices. Waiting for the drive became frustrating only when shooting stills; the camcorder delays a few seconds between shots while writing photos to the disc. Battery life is good, lasting about two hours with the LCD in use. That's longer than you can record on the 3-inch DVDs, which hold only about 20 minutes of best-quality video.
Whether you're zooming quickly or gradually, the comfortably placed zoom switch offers precise control. The secondary controls on the LCD bezel zoom at a fixed, slightly sluggish rate. Sony's Super SteadyShot image stabilization proved effective at wide angles and through most of the zoom range; camera shake became evident only near the 10X end of the zoom range.
The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403's automatic focus performed quickly and accurately in both bright and dim light. The 2.7-inch wide-screen LCD is viewable even in direct sunlight, though its smallish size makes it difficult to use for manual focus. The color viewfinder provides very good resolution, but its 4:3 aspect ratio makes for a tiny image when you're shooting in wide-screen mode.
The surround-sound microphone did a great job picking up narration, dialog, and ambient sound. Despite its sensitivity, we didn't notice it recording any camcorder noises. Though it lacks a wind-filter feature, its placement on top of the camera means it's not as susceptible to wind noise as front-mounted microphones.
The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403's video quality is very good, with no graininess evident in well-lit indoor and outdoor shooting. Low-light performance is above average, with good color and a fairly low amount of noise in more dimly lit rooms. The camcorder's automatic-exposure feature works well, even when quickly panning from bright to dark subjects. Dynamic range is reasonable, though the camcorder tends to blow out highlights too frequently.
Color depiction is very good; colors are saturated without being overblown. The high-resolution CCD makes for fairly sharp video, but the camcorder's compression algorithms cause a very slight fuzziness. Overall, the video looked very good but was slightly softer than comparable MiniDV footage.
The DVD403's still-image quality is among the best we've seen from a single-CCD, single-lens camcorder. Color is excellent in the 3-megapixel stills, and exposure was right on in our test shots. Upon close examination, images are a bit noisier than with dedicated still cameras, and they suffer from severe JPEG compression artifacts, but the quality is definitely good enough for casual shots that you want to view or print relatively small.