Weighing not even half a pound, the sharp-looking Sony M1 performs double duty for people who want freedom to move effortlessly from taking still photos to shooting short video clips.
Sony’s unique new digital camera is the smallest product I’ve seen that records both excellent still photos and respectable video.
The 7.5-ounce DSC-M1 (www.sony.com/m1), the size and shape of a somewhat chubby cellphone, isn’t perfect. But at $599, it’s a major step toward one of my dream products: a svelte, inexpensive digital camera/camcorder that does both of its tasks equally well.
Many of today’s camcorders already shoot poor-quality still pictures. One exception is the Samsung SC-D6040, at about $699 (www.samsungusa.com), which has a separate lens and sensor for shooting high-resolution stills — although the D6040 is still relatively heavy at 1.1 pounds.
Many of today’s digital still cameras already shoot poor-quality short video clips. Some newer digital cameras have moved beyond the jerky motion of earlier models, but still record low-resolution images that look grainy when shown on a regular television screen.
The M1, in contrast, records what Sony calls “TV quality” video at 30 frames a second. Not quite as good as Sony’s digital camcorders, the company says, but comparable to what you’d get from a high-end analog camcorder.
My informal testing at home showed Sony is right — the video quality is good enough that most people watching M1 clips on TV wouldn’t realize you weren’t using a regular camcorder.
The M1 also stands apart for its unique design. The grayish-black metal exterior hides a big, 2.5-inch color LCD screen that pivots out at a right angle from the camera body and rotates. The LCD screen can face away from the lens when you’re shooting someone else, or flip around so you can see yourself.
The backside of the main camera body, revealed when the screen is open, has two big buttons labeled “Photo” and “Movie.” Push the Photo button and you take a still picture. Push the Movie button and you start recording video, until you hit the button again to stop.
The M1 has a 3X optical zoom lens that you can operate while recording a video — unlike digital still cameras, where in video mode the zoom is locked.
Still pictures are shot at 5 megapixels, more than enough for crisp 8-by-10-inch prints.
Photos and video are recorded on memory cards rather than tape; the M1 uses Sony’s Memory Stick Duo format, although you get only a paltry 32-megabyte card in the box.
With a 256-MB Memory Stick, which costs about $50 before any rebates, the M1 holds up to 90 full-resolution stills or 11 minutes of full-quality video. For about $100 to $125, you can get a 1-gigabyte Memory Stick that holds 360 stills or 45 minutes of video.
This may not sound like much video recording time, but many of the moments in life worth capturing are brief — a baby’s first step, the family dog chasing a squirrel, a panorama of the Grand Canyon.
Camcorders are still too bulky to conveniently carry everywhere, while the M1 is light enough to be there for moments you’d otherwise miss.
Less than a camcorder
Of course, the M1 doesn’t fit every occasion. You’ll still want a conventional camcorder for recording longer events, such as weddings, Little League games and school plays.
Sony has also heavily advertised a gimmicky M1 feature called “hybrid shooting.” When you put the M1 in hybrid mode, it continuously stores the most recent few seconds of video. When you hit the Photo button, the M1 grabs a high-resolution still image and also creates a 10-second video clip.
That clip shows what happened for the five seconds before you hit the Photo button, then a two-second freeze frame of the still image you shot, and then what happened for three seconds afterward.
These hybrid clips are shot in a low-resolution video mode, however, that looks grainy and jerky on TV. What’s more, you can’t vary recording time. This makes the hybrid clips more of a curiosity than a useful innovation.
Quality and simplicity
Overall, however, I came away from several days of testing the M1 impressed with the quality of both stills and video. I also appreciated the simplicity of choosing between the Photo and Movie buttons, unlike other digital still cameras where you have to turn a tiny dial or slide a tiny switch to change modes.
I do have a few gripes. The M1 lacks an optical viewfinder, which is handy in certain situations such as shooting fast-action scenes; you can frame shots only with the LCD screen.
I also wish Sony would stop clinging to its proprietary Memory Stick format, because Memory Stick cards are harder to find and more expensive than more widely established formats such as Compact Flash and Secure Digital.
Sony also fails to provide any instructions for what to do with the video files created by the M1. The files are stored in the MPEG4 format, while most computer software for playing and editing video requires the MPEG2 or AVI formats.
It took quite a bit of poking around on my part to figure out the answer: Sony provides a poorly designed and documented program with the M1 called Picture Package 1.2 (www.ppackage.com). There’s a hard-to-find feature in Picture Package that will convert MPEG4 files to AVI.
I also discovered that Apple Computer’s free QuickTime Player (www.apple.com/quicktime) will play the M1’s MPEG4 files, but only after you click “OK” twice to dismiss two QuickTime error messages warning you the files may be incompatible.
I wouldn’t recommend the M1 to anyone primarily interested in shooting stills; Sony makes several excellent 5-megapixel cameras that are smaller and several hundred dollars less expensive.
But the M1 could be a good choice for those who want the freedom to move effortlessly from stills to shooting short video clips.