The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD203 has many of the features that made the DCR-DVD403 one of our top choices in DVD camcorders, including solid video quality, speedy start-up, and DVD convenience. It's not quite as good at low-light shooting and doesn't cut it for still photos, but otherwise it makes a reasonable budget alternative to the . The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD203 is very compact, similar to a midsize MiniDV camcorder. It's lighter than the , weighing a bit more than a pound.
The DVD203 takes a minimalist approach to controls, with just a few buttons for common operations. Additional buttons next to the LCD let you start and stop recording and adjust the zoom; there's a traditional zoom rocker as well. While these touch-sensitive buttons are convenient, they require such a firm press that they're difficult to use without shaking the camera.
You access most functions via menus on the LCD touch screen. 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. The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD203 uses a 1/5.5-inch CCD, slightly smaller than the 1/3-inch CCD used on the , with a lower 690,000-pixel resolution for video and 1 megapixel for stills. Its 12X optical zoom is slightly stronger than that model's 10X zoom. As with many of Sony's recent camcorders, the DVD203 supports both normal (4:3) and wide-screen (16:9) aspect ratios. The camera's LCD has a wide screen, which provides a better view of wide-screen footage--no letterboxing necessary.
The DVD203 includes manual exposure and focus options along with six autoexposure presets. You'll also find special effects such as luminance keying, Old Movie, Sepia, Pastel, Black And White, and Mosaic. There's also a fader setting for scene transitions. The DVD203 offers Sony's trademark Super NightShot Plus infrared mode 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. The DVD203 lacks the flash found on the DVD403, but it features Sony's Active Interface Shoe for adding lights and other accessories.
The camcorder has a stereo audio microphone rather than the surround recording supported by the DVD403. It supports Sony's optional ECM-HQP1 surround-sound microphone, however, for Dolby 5.1 recording.
The DVD203 records to write-once DVD-R/+R or rewritable DVD-RW/+RW discs. Using the latter discs, you gain some basic editing capabilities, including the ability to split, reorder, and delete scenes. The camera lacks a Memory Stick slot, instead storing still images on DVD.
Sony includes a USB cable for video transfer; you can also simply drop the DVD into a PC's DVD-ROM drive. The DVD203 lacks a FireWire port, and the included editing software supports only Windows PCs. The supplied composite/S-Video cable lets you connect to a television for playback or to another source for transferring video from analog devices to DVD. The bundled infrared remote is handy for controlling the camcorder in either application. The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD203's overall performance is excellent. It starts up very quickly, and the only delays you'll encounter are waiting for the camcorder to write still images to disc.
The zoom rocker delivers precise control whether you zoom quickly or gradually. The secondary zoom controls on the LCD screen zoom at a fixed rate that's on the slow side. Electronic image stabilization works well, with camera shake evident near only the 12X end of the zoom range.
The DVD203's automatic focus and exposure adjusted 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 focusing manually.
The built-in microphone works well, though it lacks a wind filter. Sound was OK, though voices sounded clearer with the optional external surround microphone.
Battery life is good, though at about 85 minutes with the LCD on the whole time, it can't match the DVD403's two-hour recording capacity. Though the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD203 uses a smaller CCD than the DVD403, its image quality in outdoor and brightly lit settings is almost as impressive, with no evident graininess. The smaller CCD isn't as sensitive to light, however, so the DVD203's low-light performance falls short of the DVD403's. Color saturation and accuracy in dimly lit rooms are good, but the video has more color noise than the DVD403's.
Color renders very well, appearing saturated but not too vivid. Video looks relatively sharp, though the DVD format's MPEG-2 compression causes some fuzziness. Overall, in our outdoor tests, the video looked as good as the more expensive DVD403's, but the quality of both was slightly softer than that of comparable MiniDV footage.
If still-photo quality is important to you, consider the DVD403, which offers excellent 3-megapixel stills. The DVD203's 1-megapixel stills lack detail and sharpness and are noticeably noisy.