Sony Digital Mavica: 1997 Floppy Disk Camera Experience


Greetings and welcome to an LGR thing!
And this thing right here is the Sony Mavica MVC-FD5, released in 1997 at a
suggested retail price of $599. This was not only the first of Sony’s FD Mavica
line of digital cameras but it was the first digital camera to use 3.5″ diskettes as its storage medium of choice. Sony ad guy: “Take a look at the Sony
Digital Mavica! High resolution and VGA images on a full-featured digital camera,
all of the convenience of a floppy disk! Imagine that!” LGR: Oh yes, no need for any
bizarre formatting or disk types, all you needed was a standard 1.44 megabyte
floppy disk like you’d use with most any PC of the time period. This was a big
deal since most competing digital cameras were using internal flash memory
and often required serial cables and proprietary software. So these cameras
may have had an advantage in terms of read/write times while taking photos, but
retrieving said photos was objectively slower and more cumbersome. And while
removable flash media like CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards were gaining
traction, those were still more expensive than floppy disks and also required
adapters to plug them into your computer. Heck, even Sony’s first consumer digital
camera, the DSC-F1, stored its images onto non removable internal memory and cost a
lot more as a result at $850. But three and a half inch floppy disks, mm, they
were positively ubiquitous! And combined with the pricing of the cameras that
continued to drop as the tech improved, FD Mavicas accounted for up to 40% of
the entire digital camera market in the U.S. at their peak. Though it is worth
noting that this was not the first time Sony used disks in their cameras. This
wasn’t even the first Mavica camera! The earliest prototypes appeared all the way
back in 1981 and began hitting the market in 1987, with the name Mavica
representing these first two letters of the words: Magnetic Video Camera. These
early Mavicas used 2 inch Video Floppy or VF disks, but despite that they were
not digital cameras. Rather, these were known as “still video cameras.” This is a
topic for another LGR video entirely but the basic idea is that you’ve got an
analog video camera that recorded a moment of video and played it back
repeatedly so as to provide a still image to a video output device like a TV.
But this changed in 1997 with the release of the FD Mavica series, namely
the MVC-FD5 and FD7. Each of these were fully digital still
cameras with a quarter-inch 640×480 CCD, the biggest difference between the
two introductory models here was that the $599 FD5 had a fixed 4.8 millimeter
lens and the $799 FD7 had a 4.2 – 42mm lens providing a 10 times
optical zoom. Of the original two models I only have the FD5 here to show in
this video, but over the years I’ve stumbled across plenty of these things
while thrifting. And two of those that I want to show are the FD75 from 2001 and
the FD87, also from 2001. I find these models fascinating since, even though
they come from the same year, the 75 feels notably older than the 87 in terms
of capabilities. So it’s amusing to compare them side-by-side.
While they do differ a bit here and there what’s common across all models of the
FD Mavica line are their usage of 3.5 inch high-density floppy
discs so no matter which one of the 18 or so models you choose from you can
still use the same exact storage media. Although Sony did attempt to bridge the
gap between old and new storage tech around the year 2000 with the Memory
Stick/Floppy Disk Adapter. This allowed you to use Sony Memory Sticks with
certain later compatible Mavicas to provide potentially hundreds of
megabytes of storage using the same old floppy disk mechanism. And amusingly
required to CR-2016 batteries of its own to pull off the job. Man, I love funky
media adapters like this. And for the most part you can also use these same
rechargeable lithium ion batteries across FD Mavicas, these being the
InfoLithium NP-F300 and F500 series. Rather annoyingly though there are
certain models like the FD75 that only accept original Sony InfoLithium
batteries, so modern third-party ones you can find online today won’t work without
some modification. Seeing as most of the original batteries have long since
stopped holding a charge and can be rather expensive when they do, this can
be super annoying so look out for it! Another commonality between these models is their inclusion of an illuminated 2.5 inch color TFT LCD screen
on the back that acts as a viewfinder as well as a way to manage camera settings
and saved images. Several competing cameras were doing this as well, but
looking at a screen instead of through an optical viewfinder was still a pretty
fresh way of taking photographs in 1997. But as much as these models have in
common let’s take a closer look at the FD5, which I really appreciate for how
straightforward it is. On the front of the camera past the shutter release
button and the flash you get a 4.8 millimeter fixed focal
length lens with an aperture of 2.0, the equivalent of a 47 millimeter
lens on a 35 mil camera. And while the focal length was fixed you have this
macro mode switch which allowed you to shift the focus much closer to
photograph objects three to nine inches away. And all your photos were captured
with an ISO of 100 with a shutter speed between 1/60th and 1/4000th of a second. And at a 0.31 megapixel 640×480 resolution,
compressed in the JPEG file format at one of two levels, which meant that you
could store around 40 standard quality images or 20 fine quality images on a
single floppy disk. Around the left side here you get the floppy disk mechanism
itself which is pretty straightforward. It’s a lot like a laptop floppy disk
drive of the time. On the top and on the right there’s nothing really of note.
Along the bottom you have the battery compartment and there’s also another
battery compartment on the bottom right of the rear of the camera. This takes a
CR-2025 button cell battery to save your settings. There’s also a nice little
circular d-pad here that works surprisingly well, a button for turning
on and off the display, the flash, some brightness up and down options for the
LCD screen, a switch for switching between playback and taking photos, and of course
the on and off switch. And you get a nice little sound when you
do that. *nice little beep sound plays* And once it’s powered on you have some on screen options and display
notification thingies which are navigated using that
directional pad. So you can turn on and off the timer, adjust the exposure value
if you’re not happy with what the camera automatically does, and a menu for
adjusting the clock, turning on and off the beeping, switching the quality of the
JPEG compression, and something called “field / frame.” And this demands a bit of
a closer look. Many of the imaging components inside
the FD5 and the FD7 were shared with Sony’s own NTSC video cameras, capturing
images by digitizing either a single field or a full frame of the video feed
that it was recording. Taking a picture in field mode captures an interlaced
video image and interpolates it, filling in the missing lines to give you a 640×480 JPEG. And while taking a photo in frame mode you’re provided a full 640×480 JPEG image off the bat, produced by combining two fields captured a split
second apart with “unique” results. More on that later. Anyway taking photos takes
about 6 seconds to save an image to disk, at least on the original slower speed
disk drive models, and for the most part it seems to be quite reliable as long as
you keep the drives clean. If you don’t or if the disks themselves are of the
cheaper variety you’ll probably see the dreaded and rather unhelpful “DISK ERROR”
message. ugh. When you do get a successful shot though, retrieving the photos could
not be easier, at least for the time period. Just put the disk in a floppy
drive and bam: you’ve got JPEGs! No software needed, in fact the Mavica
manual recommended just using Internet Explorer. Although Sony originally included ArcSoft PhotoStudio in the package as
well. Well, I don’t know about you but I’m ready to take a look at some photos
taken with each of these cameras! I’m just going to show you the same scene
here on the highest possible settings for each camera, which in the case of the
first one, the FD5 here, is 640×480 in frame mode and fine detail. And really
it’s not that bad, the colors are pretty good compared to some of the other
cameras that I’ve looked at from the mid-1990s. Although its
fixed lens is a bit zoomed in, the field of view is not very high. And it’s
notable when you compare it directly to this shot from the FD75 when I was
standing in the exact same location. And as you might expect you get even better colors with the FD75 as well. It is still 640×480, but even though it is
the same resolution the overall result is much more cleaner and vibrant. Then we
get to the FD87 and this just has a much better sensor all around. You get a
greater dynamic range for everything, the colors are still pretty darn good, it’s a
little bit brighter, and of course the resolution is higher: you get 1280×960.
And it also includes a timestamp in the bottom right by default, I did not know
that was there until I got the pictures onto my computer. But I think it’s fun to
see the march of progress through the lenses of the different FD Mavicas
like this. And of course for an even greater march of progress: compared it to the
camera on my Galaxy Note 8 phone, which is to be expected but yeah. You can
really see how the colors and everything should look in this particular scene. And
then if we go back to, say, the FD75 you can see that it really isn’t terribly
far off in terms of the color reproduction for a digital camera from
the time period. And the 75 also has another mode that it can shoot in which
is bitmap instead of saving in compressed JPEG files. It’s kind of hard
to see the difference just like this, so let’s zoom in here. This is the JPEG
under the 75, you get that classic JPEG compression. And then here is the bitmap.
These are both at the same 640×480 resolution so it’s still not great, but
it is a little bit better. Of course the downside here is that you can only save
*ONE* bitmap per floppy disk. However, what makes this model even more attractive in
my opinion is the 10x optical zoom. So check this out: this is just JPEG 640×480 still but zoomed in 10 times with that nice lens on the front. I mean it’s
pretty awesome and quite sharp. I’m impressed,
especially compared to the three times optical zoom of the later FD87. Again,
I’m just not as big of a fan of the color that it picks up here. Maybe it’s
just this particular lighting but the tiger looks more yellow than it should,
in reality it’s more of a golden orange. On the plus side the 87 is just way speedier to use since it has a 4-speed floppy drive: four times faster than the
original FD5 and twice that of the FD75. So you got a trade-off of
different features going on for these different models and I really like that.
Makes it fun to collect them. And another thing that makes it fun is the FD87 has
these different filters, such as black and white mode, the classic sepia toned
mode, a negative color mode, and the most confusing one to me is this one: solarize
mode. I’m not sure what this effect is supposed to be doing, it just sort of
washes everything out and lowers the color depth. Personally if I had to pick
just one of these cameras to take out and take pictures with it would be the
FD5, the very earliest one. And it is the one that I ended up using the most
simply because it is so simple! The further away that it is from a modern
digital camera, even like the FD87, the better. Because I like taking photos of
environments and objects that would be era appropriate for the camera itself:
electronics, vehicles, buildings. And with something like the FD87 I just don’t
get that because it just feels like a crappier modern digital camera. Whereas
the FD5, or even the FD75 to a degree, that is trying *so hard* to make
believable photographs! And across the board I am just impressed with the way
that the sensor picks up color. Granted, it is very sensitive to the type of
lighting that you have. It can be hard to get different exposure settings correct
or the flash, especially in indoor settings. Taking a selfie with the flash
is not recommended. But just under some evening lighting it’s not bad at all. In
fact, I was also impressed with the lower light situations of these cameras.
I haven’t even showed it on certain other ones that I’ve made videos about
because it really just couldn’t do anything with lower light. But the FD5
on up did pretty well with lower light situations. And there’s something about
the artifacts that you get around certain types of light that makes it
fascinating to take photos with in my opinion. And with how easy it is to look
at what you’ve taken and then go back and delete it from the floppy disk if
you don’t like it, then that’s just awesome and gives me more freedom to experiment
with exposures and such. And here’s another thing that I really like about
the FD5 and that is its built-in macro lens. That little switch on the front
lets you get really really close to certain objects and
get a nice clear photo. It can be kind of hard to actually see if the photo you’re
getting is really clear or not on that tiny little blurry LCD, but when you get
it right it looks pretty good for a digital camera from this time period. Another fascinating feature — ha, “feature.” — is that frame and field mode option that
you can shoot with that I was talking about earlier in the video. You can
really see how it works more akin to a still video camera with its different
interlaced images mixing together. You see the people right there walking by,
there’s the little lines going in there because those parts of them are moving.
It looks very much like a paused frame of video, like what I would see on my
MiniDV camera tapes back in the day. It just depends on how fast something is
moving, but it is especially noticeable on like this photo right here: just look
at the wheel, it looks like there’s two shots going on. And really there are
because the frame mode is mixing two fields into one. And the whole idea is to
get a more detailed image, so for instance this shot of an AdLib sound
card right here is taken in the field mode. And then this one is taken in the
frame mode. And it’s not a huge difference, but it is there. Let’s zoom in
here a little bit again: we’ve got field mode right here, just kind of look at the
text on the card. And then we have frame mode. It’s not a massive difference for
most situations so I just kept it in frame mode like, all the time, and made
sure not to move the camera around too much. I’d rather just pay attention to
the things moving around and have higher quality. And yeah that’s about it for the
Sony FD Mavica line of cameras for this video! Personally, I find something wildly charming about the floppy disk Digital
Mavica series. Using old digital cameras is enjoyable enough to me but having my
pictures saved onto a floppy disk in real time, it takes it to another geeky
level! Yes, there were later Mavicas that saved to eight centimeter mini
CDs that were much more capable all around. But those don’t appeal to me the
same way as the less capable floppy disk cameras. There’s nothing quite like
hearing floppy drive noises and feeling the whirr of a disk drive mechanism
after you take a photo. There’s also the fact that FD Mavicas are so chunky and
heavy, like you’d expect a whole lot from them, yet they do so relatively little!
Especially the simplest model, the FD5. It’s the slowest, it
takes the worst pictures, it doesn’t even have a zoom lens. It’s the model that’s
farthest away from modern digital cameras and I love it for that. I can use
any number of modern cameras without thinking about it, but this is an event
to use without being too difficult to retrieve your photos. I can absolutely
see why the Mavicas were so popular from around 1998 to 2002 or so. They
really provided a great service to those that needed decent digital pictures as
quickly as possible. And I can also see why the line was discontinued by Sony in
2003 as there really wasn’t much reason to keep making them with the advent of
USB and cheaper flash storage media. And if you have any experience with the FD
Mavica line of cameras let me know in the comments! I know a ton of people used
these in their schools and small businesses and just all over the place,
so I always like hearing about that kind of stuff. And if you enjoyed this video
of me talking about them then thank you very much! Perhaps you’d like to see some
of my other episodes, there are new ones going up every Monday and Friday here on
LGR about digital cameras, old computer hardware, and software and just all sorts
of stuff. But anyway that’s all for this video and thank you very much for
watching!

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