The Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403 leaves its underachieving predecessors in the dust, offering superior video quality, improved performance, above-average photos and a no-compromise feature set. With its 3-megapixel CCD (2 megapixels used for video) and Dolby 5.1 surround recording, the DVD403 is a healthy competitor to MiniDV cameras in its price range, and it tosses in straight-to-player convenience to boot.
At a casual glance, the Sony Handycam DCR-DVD403 looks like a typical midrange camcorder. Its silver, black and grey plastic shell lacks the flashiness of some of Sony's earlier DVD camcorders, which sported colours such as metallic blue. The only indications that this isn't just another MiniDV camcorder are the rounded right side (to make room for the 3-inch DVD+RW/-R disc) and the hefty 595g weight. It's a very solid-feeling design -- all that weight is crammed into a package that's the same size as a typical horizontal-format MiniDV camcorder. At least the somewhat generic looks don't call out to those who might be enamoured enough of this camcorder to borrow it permanently.
Additional buttons next to the LCD let you start and stop recording, as well as adjust the zoom; there's also a traditional zoom rocker on top of the camera. While these touch-sensitive buttons are convenient, they require such a firm press that they're difficult to use without shaking the camera.
As is typical for Sony camcorders, most functions are accessed via menus on the LCD touch screen. This configuration is less intimidating than the button-festooned designs of competing camcorders, but it can take longer to page through onscreen menus to find the setting you want to adjust. 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 at 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.