Between the mid to late 90s, digital cameras had a storage problem: they used either expensive memory cards or built-in memory with limited capacity and cumbersome cables. Both held back the adoption of digital consumer photography. So in 1997 Sony came up with such a cunning alternative that by the end of the decade it had become the best-selling digital camera series in the United States. And like the best ideas, it was so simple: just save photos to standard 3.5-inch floppy disks.
Virtually every computer back then had a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive, and most offices, home or not, had a stack of floppy disks lying around. They were inexpensive media that could be used in a camera, then plugged into a computer and immediately accessible – no cables, no software, no card readers, no fuss. All Sony had to do was design a camera with a built-in 3.5 inch floppy disk drive.
The concept of a magnetic video camera, or Mavica for short, actually arrived 16 years earlier as a prototype that recorded still images from NTSC video onto two-inch video floppy disks. It was arguably the first electronic camera and later developed into a commercial format that sold between the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the Mavica in this story is the digital version, released in 1997 and exploiting the ubiquity of 3.5-inch floppy disk drives at the time.
The first two models were the MVC-FD5, with a fixed 47mm equivalent lens, and the MVC-FD7, with a 10x optical zoom equivalent to 40-400mm. Both used a CCD adapted from a video camera capturing images with 640 × 480 pixels, i.e. VGA resolution or about a third of a megapixel, but even at this modest image size Sony has had to increase the compression to accommodate a reasonable number of shots on each 1.44MB floppy disk. In a nice parallel with 35mm film cartridges, you were looking at 20 to 40 photos per disc, but that meant that even the best quality JPEGs ran at only around 60KB. The composition was with a 2.5 inch screen and both were pretty much fully automatic with the only exposure control being +/- 1.5 EV compensation.
Recording to physically rotating media, however, had a negative impact on overall handling, with images taking six to eight seconds to be recorded or played back. To be fair, it must be said that serial cable transfers from other cameras in the late 1990s weren’t particularly fast either.
I tested most of the digital Mavicas while I was working on Personal computer world magazine in the UK and even used it for pictures of paper-based commodities. No one had any illusions about the modest quality even then, but the low cost and sheer convenience were unparalleled. I had just handed a floppy disk to the art office and it was imported straight to the page – revolutionary stuff when we previously had products cycling in our photography studio, filmed, developed and digitized the film, then sent the files back to the production office on SyQuest disks.
The sheer convenience of the Digital Mavicas made them a hit with real estate listings, early online stores, schools, and publishers. In the following years, Sony increased the resolution to two megapixels, introduced a Memory Stick adapter in the form of a floppy disk to access more storage, and even made models with Memory Stick slots.
In the early 2000s, Sony took the concept one step further with the CD1000 which replaced 1.44MB floppy disks with 8cm recordable CDs that could store up to 156MB and be read again for roughly n any computer without cables or software. It also proved to be a great success with several successors with the series culminating with the CD500 in 2003 sporting five megapixels.
By this point, however, solid-state memory cards had become large enough and affordable enough to make floppy disks and CDs look very old-fashioned, while the adoption of standard USB ports made it easier to access images directly from them. cameras. Both marked the end of the Mavica series.
The uniqueness of the Mavicas makes them a staple of any vintage digital camera collection and their huge sales mean they’re easy to find at a good price. If your computer no longer has a floppy disk drive, external USB models are still available, while the Sony batteries used on most Mavicas have become standard in camcorders, video lights, and HDMI recorders, so replacements and chargers are also readily available.
I found an original used Mavica FD5 in good condition, so I took it to the streets of Brighton almost a quarter of a century later to see what the floppy experience looks like today. hui! Find out in my latest Dino Bytes video!
About the Author: Gordon laing is the editor of Camera labs where he presents material reviews and photography tutorials. He recently launched Dino bytes, a new channel to satisfy his love of vintage technology and retro games, with videos on classic cameras, computers, consoles, phones and more! He’s been a journalist for so long that he actually went through most of these things the first time around. Gordon also enjoys food, drink and travel, and is the author of “In camera,” a book that embraces the art of JPEG photography without post-processing.