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Minolta Dimage S404

Dimage technology and optics in a compact, stylish four megapixel design

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Page 12:Test Results & Conclusion

Review First Posted: 1/30/2002

Test Results
In keeping with our standard policy, our comments here are rather condensed, summarizing our key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Dimage S404's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource camera tests, we encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the devices performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how well the S404 performed, and how its images compare to other cameras you may be considering buying.

Like their other higher-end digicams (the S304 and Dimage 5 and 7), Minolta's Dimage S404 captures images in a color space with a broader color gamut than the conventional sRGB used by most digicams, and standardized on by most of the PC industry. The advantage of this is that the S404 can capture colors outside the range that most cameras can handle, by avoiding some of the limitations of the sRGB space, particularly in highly saturated reds and greens. The downside of this approach is that you need to process the camera's image files through Minolta's Dimage Viewer application to convert the color space to sRGB in order to get the best color rendering on most computer monitors and printers. This added step is an inconvenience that many serious photographers will gladly accept, but that most casual users won't want to be bothered with. On the other hand, casual users may find the S404's unaltered color perfectly acceptable. To help you decide what the impact of this issue might be in your own photography, I've taken the rather extreme step of converting all the images from the S404 to sRGB, and showing both sets of images on the pictures page. (I say this is a rather extreme step because it means that the S404 review takes up over 500 megabytes of disk space on our server, not something I can afford to do for every camera that happens along.) Looking at the thumbnails and sample images on the pictures page, it's clear that the sRGB conversion makes a difference, although the magnitude of that difference depends a fair bit on the color content of the particular subject. In at least one case (the outdoor portrait shot) I felt that the raw color from the camera was actually preferable. Overall though, you should plan on routinely running the S404's pictures through the Dimage Image Viewer utility, in order to get the best color. (Fortunately, the Image Viewer program can process files in batches, making it easier to run everything you shoot through it.)

Overall, the S404 produced good color throughout my testing, with generally appropriate saturation. The camera's White Balance system handled most of the test lighting well, and I usually chose the Manual setting as the most accurate, despite a slight yellow cast in some shots. In the tough Indoor Portrait (without flash), the S404's Manual white balance came out a little cool, while the Incandescent setting resulted in a slightly red image. Both were within an acceptable range though, and I ended up selecting the Incandescent version as the most natural-looking. The S404 performed nicely on the Davebox test target, accurately distinguishing between the tough tonal variations of the Q60 target and reproducing the large color blocks very well (though the exposure was a little bright). Skin tones were accurate in both Outdoor portraits, though the blue flowers in both the Indoor and Outdoor portraits were dark and quite purplish, a problem greatly aggravated when I converted these files to the sRGB space. (These blues seem to be a real problem for many digicams.).

The S404 performed well on the "laboratory" resolution test chart. It started showing artifacts in the test patterns at resolutions as low as 800 lines per picture height vertically and horizontally. Detail remained strong out to about 1,050 lines. "Extinction" of the target patterns occurred at about 1,250 lines.

The S404 had quite a bit of trouble with noise during the low-light test shooting, as images captured with the 200 and 400 ISO settings showed very high noise levels, and all of the shots taken with long exposure times showed quite a bit of "hot pixel" noise. I noticed that Minolta doesn't recommend shooting with the camera's Bulb exposure setting at 200 and 400 ISO, warning that image noise will be very high, and I can see why. Certainly, a noise-reduction system seems to be called for here. The camera did capture bright images at light levels as low as 1/16 foot-candle (0.067 lux) at the 200 and 400 ISO settings, but only as low as 1/4 foot-candle (2.7 lux) at the ISO 64 setting. (ISO 100 captured a bright image at 1/8 foot-candle, or 1.3 lux.) Color was slightly pinkish in most shots from the Auto white balance. The camera will do well at light levels equivalent to typical city night scenes, but you may want to consider software solutions to reduce the hot-pixel noise. (See Mike Chaney's Qimage Pro for a program that does a great job of removing hot pixels without disturbing the underlying picture information.)

The S404's optical viewfinder was rather tight, covering approximately 81 percent of the final frame area, at both wide angle and telephoto zoom settings. By contrast, the LD viewfinder was pretty accurate, showing between 95 and 99 percent of the final frame.

The S404's macro capabilities were average to slightly below average, as it captured a slightly large macro area of 4.3 x 3.2 inches (109 x 82 millimeters). Resolution was great, with a lot of fine detail in the coins, dollar bill, and brooch, and details were reasonably sharp (though I noticed some corner softness). Color balance was slightly warm, from the Auto white balance setting. The camera's flash throttled down very well for the macro area, producing just a tiny hot spot on the brooch and slight falloff in three corners of the frame.

With the exception of the very high noise levels in the low-light shots, I was quite satisfied with the S404's performance throughout my testing. Color is generally accurate with good saturation in most cases (provided you're willing to process the files through the Dimage Viewer utility), and resolution is high. A good noise-reduction system would dramatically improve the S404's low-light performance, but with an application like Qimage Pro, you could get usable images even under pretty dark conditions. All in all, quite a good job, particularly in light of the S404's very aggressive pricing.


Conclusion
Minolta's Dimage S404 clearly represents one of the better values in digital cameras currently on the market. (This is being written in late April, 2002.) With its 4-megapixel CCD, optional full manual exposure control, and variety of shooting modes, it's a versatile camera well-suited to a wide range of users. Novices will appreciate its fully automatic exposure mode, as well as its modest assortment of preprogrammed "scene" modes. For more advanced users, the S404 provides an unusually wide range of exposure and even color adjustments. The 4x zoom lens offers a bit longer reach than the 3x zoom found on most of its competition, as well as unusually sharp, clear images. (The lenses on Minolta's high-end consumer digicams are really second to none, in my experience.) It's a little power hungry running with the LCD on in capture mode, so my recommendation of buying high-capacity NiMH batteries and a good charger goes double here, run time is actually quite respectable with the LCD off. All in all, one of the best bargains on the market for a full-featured four megapixel camera.

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