Minolta Dimage 7

Digital imaging at over 5 megapixels, for really big prints

WHAT'S HOT: Topping this camera's long list of high-end features are 5.2-megapixel imaging and a 7X optical zoom. You also get over a dozen dials and buttons, for quickly accessing functions. You can zoom from 28mm to 200mm (35mm film camera equivalent) by twisting the large rubber grip on the lens barrel. Besides being far faster than the rocker-button zoom you find on most digital cameras, this approach is more precise. An efficient, tag-team combination of settings and selector dials handles many camera operations and exposure controls that are typically buried in menus on other cameras. For instance, when you set the selector dial to "PASM," you can switch from shutter priority to aperture priority by pressing a button and turning the selection dial. Release the button, and the selector dial lets you spin through aperture values. The camera displays all the information for these changes in the LED status panel on top of the camera, in the color LCD viewfinder, and in the electronic viewfinder (which replaces the optical viewfinder found in most digital cameras). Other dedicated buttons include an automatic/manual focus button, a macro switch, and a big square button that switches you instantly into Program mode.

The Dimage 7's electronic viewfinder has another handy feature: It rotates from the typical horizontal orientation to vertical, making it more comfortable to operate when shooting at almost any angle. To save power and allow you to review shots faster, the camera can automatically power up and power down either the viewfinder or the LCD panel, depending on which one you are using. How does it work? Sensors in the electronic viewfinder detect when your eye comes near it. The viewfinder has another advantage: It lists many of the camera's vital settings while you're composing a shot (something sorely missing in the optical finders of most digital cameras).

WHAT'S NOT: Handy though it may be, the Dimage 7's electronic viewfinder is still a poor substitute for a good optical (i.e., glass) viewfinder, because its low resolution is hard on the eyes and thus makes framing subjects more difficult. The photos our test model took were far from pleasing, as well: Images looked grainy, and test patterns were subject to marked moir? distortions. The overall graininess in the viewfinder also complicates working with the camera's manual focus. Using and adjusting the flash is somewhat trickier than on run-of-the-mill digital cameras. To take a flash shot, you have to pop up the flash head manually. Moreover, the Dimage 7 is one of the few cameras we've tested that makes you go into the menus to change the basic flash settings.

The auto-focus seems a bit sluggish, compared to other cameras, and when you try to lock in on an object, it tends to swim back and forth too much. For example, the camera was unable to focus automatically on a dark birdfeeder against a bright, sky background, forcing us to switch to manual focus. The Dimage 7's price--nearly $1300--may also give you pause.

You can shoot video clips with the Dimage 7, but no sound to go with it--surprising for a camera in this price range. It's also missing a panorama mode. Battery life is well below average, compared to other digital cameras we've tested. We managed only 169 shots on one charge of the camera's four rechargeable AA batteries.

WHAT ELSE: The Dimage 7 is not a compact camera by any measure. Its stylish shape vaguely recalls a single-lens reflex camera, with a large lens barrel and bulky body. Deleting shots on the fly is easy enough: A dedicated button lets you instantly review last shot taken. Press it twice, and you have the option of immediately deleting it.

The Dimage earned an overall image-quality score of Good in our lab tests. It earned top scores for indoor shots with flash; shots of our test mannequin, Gloria, had pleasing skin tones, accurate exposures, and sharp details. On the other hand, it tended to mute bright colors, like the reds in Gloria's scarf. Our still-life shot yielded sharp details, accurate gray-scale tones, and few distortions such as color banding or moire. The still life and outdoor images tended to look a bit too dark, however.

Among the camera's more interesting features are support for Epson's Print Image Management format, auto-bracketing (a setting that lets you shoot multiple shots in succession, each with different exposure settings), the capability to store user-defined settings, and support for IBM's high-capacity Microdrives. Exposure options include spot, center-weighted, and multipoint metering.

UPSHOT: The Dimage 7 is a powerful and versatile digital camera that should interest serious digital hobbyists who can live with the electronic viewfinder and the high price, but we've found far-less-expensive cameras that take better pictures.

By Carla Thornton

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