Once, DVD-based video cameras were the poor cousin of tape-based cameras. That's not so anymore. In our tests, the Sony DCRDVD403 as had excellent overall quality, capturing strong, bright colours and smooth movement in both indoor and outdoor lighting.
The DCRDVD403 is a little heavier than most camcorders in this class, but it isn't much bulkier. The zoom, photo and record buttons fall comfortably under the fingers of the right hand. And it packs a lot of features into its case, including a surround-sound microphone, a 10X optical zoom and a wide-screen LCD.
The wide-screen LCD is a feature that makes the most of the wide-screen recording mode: when you record video in 16:9, you can see its full glory on the display without black stripes along the top and bottom of the screen.
Most of the controls are accessed through the LCD's touch-sensitive screen. This minimises the number of buttons on the camcorder, but it also means that you can't access most of the controls if you are using the viewfinder instead of the LCD. And some of the controls are buried a little deep; to change the recording-quality mode, for instance, you have to press buttons in the on-screen menu seven times. There's one nice detail, though: the zoom and record buttons are duplicated on the edge of the screen.
The unit's built-in microphone can record Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, which adds a lot to the viewing experience. The camera captured video with clear, bright audio, good separation and a strong surround-sound feel that would be great for, say, shooting video on a rollercoaster. However, like most camcorders where the microphone is located on the top of the body, it didn't pick up voices well from a distance--they often got lost in the ambient noise. The built-in microphone was also a little prone to picking up wind noise; even a slight breeze across the microphone produced a rumbling sound.
The DCRDVD403 has excellent battery life. In our tests recording to DVD using the LCD screen, the battery lasted two hours, 42 minutes--easily enough for a weekend trip.
The camcorder has two modes for shooting in near darkness: NightShot, which slows down the shutter speed, and Super NightShot, which turns on an infrared LED located below the lens. There are also a few basic digital video effects (such as an old-movie mode and a fader for fading in video from a black or white screen), but not as many as you'll find in some other models.
Unlike many other camcorders, the DCRDVD403 doesn't save still images to a memory card; instead, it writes 3-megapixel JPEG files to a DVD. The DCRDVD403's shots were well exposed and had good colour and reasonable detail. They would look fine up to a print size of 4" x 6".
While we liked a lot of things about the DCRDVD403, it still has the problems inherent to most DVD camcorders: you have to finalise the disc (so it can't record further) before you can play it back in a set-top DVD player (the process can take up to 15 minutes), and at the unit's highest-quality setting, you can squeeze only 20 minutes of video onto a DVD. However, you can finalise the disc on battery power, and you can also switch between the different quality settings and normal or wide-screen video without having to change discs.