Price When Reviewed: 850
Minolta’s DiMAGE 7 was one of the first cameras to boast five-megapixel resolution back in 2001. We were impressed by its controls, lens and image quality, but not the battery life. The design was updated a couple of times, but the A1 is a major redesign that turns it into one of the most sophisticated prosumer 5mp cameras on the market. Highlights are a high-tech image stabilizer, a new 3D autofocus system, and Minolta’s new CxProcess II 14-bit image processing technology. The battery life has been improved, and the camera has a tilting LCD monitor. The dedicated Minolta-only flashgun hot shoe remains, but there’s now a standard PC socket for third-party flashgun leads. The built-in pop-up flash is surprisingly effective for its type. The up-down tilting monitor is similar to those on the Olympus E-20 and 5050Z, and lets you view the camera from waist level or slightly above your head, but unlike some Canon and Nikon cameras, you can’t view it from the side or front. The secondary eye-level electronic viewfinder rotates through 90-degrees as before, and automatically switches on when you put the camera to your eye. Mine switched on when I didn’t want it to if I was wearing a dark shirt – easily fixed by tilting the unit to face the sky. The lens is still the excellent 7x zoom (equivalent to 28-200mm, apertured from f/2.8-f/11). This is the only prosumer camera with a manual twist zoom like a digital-SLR. This is quicker and more precise than powered zooms. The autofocus works well, but there’s a welcome manual-focusing ring. The macro switch works with the lens set to either the long or the short end of the zoom. The new autofocus can detect and compensate for moving objects, even if they are approaching head-on. You see a little target indicator moving around the screen as the focus compensates its lock-on (it is possible to manually steer the focus point around the screen). With a 1/16,000th second maximum shutter speed and 2 frames per second (JPEG) or 3fps (Raw) capture, the A1 ought to be suitable for sports and reaction shots. However, for all Minolta’s technology, the focus and shutter lag is enough to often miss the crucial moment. No more wobble Image stabilization is built into some lenses by Nikon and Canon, but Minolta’s anti-shake system moves the CCD itself to compensate for the wobble of hand-holding at slow shutter speeds. The control button lights up to remind you it’s on, because it uses more power. It certainly works – a telephoto shot that’s hopelessly blurred at 1/25th-sec is sharp enough to print with anti-shake switched on. You can get away without a tripod and flash in dim interiors. The movie feature works up the capacity on your card. It also captures sound and can play back internally. There’s a choice of internal colour models, including Natural and Vivid, sRGB, and the print-friendly Adobe RGB with an option to embed an Adobe ICC profile. You can also choose B&We or solarized colours. File formats include compressed JPEG, uncompressed TIFF, or a Raw file that has to be processed by Minolta’s DiMAGE Viewer software. The A1 takes a Compact Flash card, and pictures can download via the supplied USB cable. As with the earlier models, the A1 has dedicated dials and buttons for most major controls, so you don’t need to access the on-screen menus very often. An effects button lets you increase or decrease contrast and saturation, or add colour casts to both colour and B&W images. Four preset modes cover portraits, sports, backlit, and sunlit shots. The new lithum-ion battery has cracked the old DiMAGE 7’s Achilles heel, and ours lasted longer between charges than any other 5mp camera we’ve tried, other than the Sony F-707. Minolta also offers a screw-on base that takes two Li-ions or six AA batteries. Overall the Minolta A1 is a huge improvement even on its impressive predecessors. Image quality is excellent (though noise increases above ISO 200) and puts Minolta into the front row of 5mp prosumer compacts. If you don’t want a digital SLR, this is the next best thing.