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Minolta DiMAGE S414

DiMAGE technology and optics in a compact, stylish four megapixel design.

Review First Posted: 07/31/2003




MSRP $400 US

 



*
4.0-megapixel CCD delivers uninterpolated images up to 2,272 x 1,704 pixels
*
High-resolution Minolta GT lens with 4x optical zoom (35-140mm equivalent focus range)
*
CxProcess image processing and Large Scale Integration image processing chip
*
12-bit Analog / Digital conversion for more than 4,000 levels per channel (Red, Green, Blue)
 


Manufacturer Overview
Minolta Corporation is a traditional camera manufacturer of long experience, that's made a very successful entry into the digital world. Their cameras have made themselves known for innovative design and advanced feature sets, superb optics, and very affordable pricing. In addition to conventional and digital cameras, Minolta ;also manufactures high-quality light meters, spectrophotometers, colorimeters, and an award-winning line of film scanners, including the amazing little DiMAGE Scan Dual III, arguably the best buy on the market today for a combined 35mm/APS film scanner.

One of Minolta's (and the industry's) longer-running success stories is their line of cameras that began with the DiMAGE S304, continued with the S404, and that is now represented by the DiMAGE S414. With 4.0 megapixels and a tack-sharp 4x optical zoom lens, the S414 carries on the tradition of excellent creative control at bargain prices that have made the line a success. The S414 is an evolution of the S404, rather than a revolutionary new product. The S414 has the same high speed CPU as the prestigious DiMAGE 7Hi, for faster processing, and an improved internal memory system enables faster cycle times. The S414 also features enhanced color and filter options, a new live histogram display, and Grid and Scale alignment LCD display modes. The minor improvements building on a solid base add up to a very nice digicam, with a price tag comfortably below that of most of its competition. If you're looking for a camera with all the exposure-related bells and whistles that won't break the bank, the S414 deserves serious consideration. Read on for all the details! Read on for all of the details.


High Points


Executive Overview
Updating the already well-respected DiMAGE S404 is the DiMAGE S414, featuring the same 4.0-megapixel CCD and excellent 4x Minolta GT lens. The S414 also offers the exceptional exposure, tone, and color-adjustment flexibility that are characteristic of the high end DiMAGE digicams. The S414 appears virtually identical to its predecessor, with an all-silver, slightly bulky (yet still reasonably compact) metallic body. The camera's dimensions of 4.47 x 2.54 x 2.30 inches (113.5 x 64.5 x 58.5 millimeters) prevent it from fitting into most shirt pockets, though most coat pockets and purses should easily hold the camera. Weighing 15.9 ounces (452.3 grams) with batteries and CompactFlash card, the S414 has a comfortable heft. It's not so light as to feel flimsy, nor so heavy as to be unwieldy. What's new on the S414 are enhanced Color Mode and Filter settings through the exposure menu, and a host of expanded LCD display options, including a live histogram. The S414 also features the super high-speed CPU found in the high-end DiMAGE 7Hi, and a quick 32-megabyte internal memory buffer. The end result is faster image processing and shot to shot cycle times, seemingly without any loss in battery life.

The S414 offers both a real-image optical viewfinder and a 1.8-inch color LCD monitor for composing images. A wide range of LCD display modes include the live histogram display, and Grid and Scale settings for easy subject alignment. (Playback mode also features an optional histogram display for checking exposure after the fact.) The S414 uses a Minolta GT 4x lens, with a focal range from 7.15-28.6mm lens, the equivalent of a 35-140mm lens on a 35mm camera. Featuring a telescoping design, the lens extends outward from the camera body about a half-inch whenever powered on, and likewise retracts when not in use. A plastic lens cap protects the lens surface from scratches, and includes a tether that attaches it to the camera body to prevent accidental loss. The S414 allows both automatic and manual focus control, with a five-point selectable focus area for the autofocus system. A Full-Time AF option causes the camera to continually adjust the focus, allowing you to "track" moving subjects.

Exposure control is virtually identical to that on the S404, with the S414 offering a full Auto mode, as well as Program AE, Aperture Priority, and Manual exposure modes. A handful of preset "scene" modes set up the camera for specific shooting situations, and include Macro, Portrait, Landscape, Night, Text, and Text with Macro modes. Available aperture settings range from f/3.0 to f/8.0, depending on the lens zoom setting, while shutter speeds range from 1/1,000 to four seconds. A Bulb mode is available for longer exposures, as long as 15 seconds. The S414 has two metering modes, Spot and Multi-Segment (the latter of which divides the image into 270 sections). Exposure compensation is adjustable from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third step increments. There's also an Auto Exposure Bracketing mode, which captures three images at different exposure settings, useful when determining the best exposure is difficult.

The camera's ISO setting offers an Auto adjustment mode that varies the ISO as needed to suit the shooting conditions, as well as manually-set ISO equivalent settings of 64, 100, 200, and 400. White Balance can be set to any of six modes, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Custom. The S414 also offers a wide range of image adjustment settings for Sharpness, Color, and Contrast, and a new Filter setting includes Warm and Cool color balance adjustments. A Self-Timer mode provides a 10-second countdown before the shutter fires, and also enables operation via the optional remote control accessory. There's also a Continuous Shooting mode, for capturing a rapid succession of images. The S414's Movie mode captures moving images with sound, at a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. Additionally, the S414's audio capabilities include a Voice Memo mode, which records five- or 15-second sound clips to accompany images.

Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF files, or as JPEG files at one of three different compression levels. All images and movies are saved to CompactFlash Type I memory cards, and still images can be recorded at 2,272 x 1,704; 1,600 x 1,200; 1,280 x 960; or 640 x 480-pixel resolution sizes. A USB cable accompanies the camera, as well as a software CD loaded with DiMAGE Image Viewer and USB drivers for both PC and Mac platforms. The S414 connects to a television set for image viewing and composition via the AV cable packaged with the camera. Four AA alkaline or NiMH batteries power the camera, and Minolta offers an AC adapter as a separate accessory. (Minolta's External High-Power Battery Pack Kit is also available, which uses a lithium-ion battery pack to power the camera.)

The S414's four-megapixel CCD, full manual exposure control, tack-sharp 4x optical zoom, and flexible, creative image adjustment features provide the flexibility demanded by many enthusiasts, while its full auto mode and several scene presets make it accessible for novices. From novices who want to start out with full automatic control and gradually step into more manual control to more advanced consumers looking for high quality in a portable digicam, the S414 is a viable option for a wide range of users. (About the only true "enthusiast" feature it lacks is provision for an external flash unit.) The S404 was a huge success before it, so with its handful of useful improvements, the S414 should likewise be well-received.


Design
With its all-silver, slightly bulky body design, the Minolta DiMAGE S414 looks very similar to the preceding DiMAGE S404. The camera is reasonably compact despite its thick body, similar in size to many point-and-shoot film cameras (though quite a bit too large to fit into a shirt pocket). Still, the S414 can be carried in a large coat pocket or purse, although I'd recommend picking up a small camera bag for better protection. A neck strap comes with the camera, allowing you more freedom when carrying it outside of a bag. The S414 measures 4.47 x 2.54 x 2.30 inches (113.5 x 64.5 x 58.5 millimeters), and weighs approximately 15.9 ounces (452.3 grams with batteries and CompactFlash card). (The exact same measurements as the S404 model.)

The S414 features a 4.0-megapixel CCD for capturing higher resolution images. The S414 also offers the same 4x optical zoom and high-quality Minolta GT lens that I liked so much on the S304 and S404 models. Control layout remains similar to the S404, with a large Mode dial on top of the camera and a very informative status display panel that reports most camera settings.

The front of the S414 features the lens barrel, flash, optical viewfinder window, remote-control receiver window (diagonally down to the left from the optical viewfinder window), and self-timer LED lamp. A small finger grip runs vertically along the inside edge of the hefty handgrip (which also houses the battery compartment), with a textured pad for your fingers to cling to as they wrap around the camera. The lens barrel protrudes from the camera body just slightly beyond the hand grip. When the camera is powered on, the lens telescopes out from the body about another three-quarters of an inch, into its operating position. Just below the flash window, a small series of raised bumps provide a grip surface for your left middle finger when holding the camera two-handed, but be careful not to block the flash window with your finger.

The CompactFlash slot takes up a large portion of the camera's right side (when looking from the back), leaving just enough room for the DC In slot and one of the neck strap attachment eyelets. The memory card slot door is released by a sliding latch on the back panel. Once released, the door pops open and reveals the card slot. Also inside the card slot are the A/V Out and USB connector jacks. One minor design gripe here is that, without the neck strap attached, the neck strap eyelet constantly dropped down in the way of either closing the compartment door or connecting the A/V cable. While not a a major concern, it was enough of a nuisance that I thought to briefly mention it. Just below the compartment is the DC In connector jack, protected by a flexible, rubbery flap that folds out of the way when the AC adapter cable is attached.

The opposite side of the S414 is fairly plain, featuring only the small speaker grille and the other neck strap eyelet.

On top of the camera is a large status display panel, as well as the camera's microphone, Subject Program button, Shutter button, Mode dial, and a series of function buttons (angled down slightly, toward the back panel). The inclusion of the status display panel is very welcome, as it reports enough of the camera's basic settings to allow you to shoot without the LCD monitor active much of the time (thereby nearly doubling battery life).

The remaining camera controls share the back panel with the 1.8-inch LCD monitor and optical viewfinder eyepiece. Just beside the viewfinder eyepiece are two LEDs which report a variety of camera information, such as when focus is set or the flash is charging. A series of raised bumps in the top right corner provides a grip for your right thumb as you hold the camera. Just below this small grip pad is a red LED that lights whenever the camera is accessing the memory card, warning you not to eject the card until it's finished. A large Multi-Controller navigates through LCD menus and other camera settings, with the Menu, QuickView / Erase, and Display buttons arrayed below it.

The S414's bottom panel is relatively smooth and flat. The battery compartment opens from beneath the camera, with a door that must be slid forward before opening. A small latch keeps the battery compartment from opening accidentally. The threaded metal tripod mount is opposite the battery compartment, in almost the extreme right hand corner of the camera's bottom panel. This placement of the tripod mount makes the camera rather lopsided when it's mounted on a tripod, and horizontal alignment can sometimes be awkward as a result. The off-center tripod mount is also less than ideal for shooting images to be stitched into panoramas. Depending on the design of your particular tripod's mounting plate though, the off-center position of the tripod socket could provide enough room between it and the battery compartment hatch for you to change batteries without removing the camera from the tripod. (A handy feature I'm partial to, but that I'll admit is probably of little consequence to the average user.)


Viewfinder
The S414 offers both a real-image optical viewfinder and a 1.8-inch TFT color LCD monitor for composing images. The real-image optical viewfinder zooms along with the lens, but doesn't show any digital enlargement when the digital zoom function is engaged. (This requires the LCD monitor to be active.) The optical viewfinder doesn't include a diopter adjustment, but does have a high enough viewpoint to be reasonably usable when wearing eyeglasses. A pair of focus brackets appears in the center of the optical viewfinder display, delineating the autofocus area. Two LED lamps on the right side of the viewfinder eyepiece report the camera's current status. For example, the top LED glows orange when the flash is charged and ready to fire, or blinks when the flash is still charging. The bottom LED glows green when focus is set, or flashes to indicate a focusing problem.

Occupying the majority of the left side of the camera's back panel is the 1.8-inch LCD monitor. The LCD monitor automatically turns on whenever the camera is powered on, but can be disabled via the Display button just to the right of the panel itself. One press of the Display button disables the on-screen information overlay display except for the focus brackets, while a second press recalls the information display with a live histogram. (A histogram graphs the tonal distribution of the image, showing the complete tonal range captured and making it easy to see any over- or underexposure.) A third press deactivates the information display entirely, and a fourth disables the LCD altogether. Included in the information overlay display is the current camera mode, flash mode, file size and quality settings, the number of available images, and a set of focus brackets in the center of the display. When shooting in Auto mode, the current shutter speed and aperture settings appear in the lower portion of the LCD monitor whenever the Shutter button is halfway pressed. (This information is present at all times in any of the Manual modes.) Through the Setup menu, you can control which display options are available by pressing the Display button. You can also enable two additional display modes, Grid and Scale. Grid mode displays a grid over the image area to help you line up shots. Scale mode displays a crosshair over the image with evenly-spaced distance marks on each axis.

In Playback mode, the Display button also controls the information display, turning it on or off. In addition, the Display button allows you to access the nine-image index display mode. Pressing the Up arrow key enables a histogram display, complete with exposure information. Also in Playback mode, you can digitally enlarge the image as much as 3.5x, by repeatedly pressing the Flash/Playback Zoom button and then using the up/down arrow keys to enlarge or shrink the image.


Optics

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Built into the S414 is a 4x Minolta GT, 7.15-28.6mm lens, the equivalent of a 35-140mm lens on a 35mm camera. A plastic lens cap protects the lens when not in use, and features a small tether to attach it to the camera and prevent it from being lost. When the camera powers on, the lens telescopes outwards about three quarters of an inch, into its operating position. (A nice touch is that the lens cap rides on the lens threads, rather than attaching to the body, so there's no strain placed on the lens mechanism if you turn the camera on with the lens cap still in place.) Two aperture settings are available, with values of f/3.0 and f/6.7 when the lens is in its wide angle position, and f/3.6 and f/8.0 when the lens is zoomed to its full telephoto setting. (As is the case with essentially all digicam lenses, the effective aperture gets smaller as the lens is zoomed towards its telephoto end.) The aperture settings can be either automatically or manually controlled. Personally, I'd like to see a range of aperture options rather than just two, but I realize that when I'm worrying about aperture (apart from when working with an external, fixed-output strobe system), I generally only care about selecting the largest or smallest possible aperture, for controlling depth of field or motion blur. - A full range of aperture settings is therefore probably not all that important for most users. The biggest impact is that it makes shutter-priority metering impossible, as the aperture can't adjust precisely enough to set exposure on its own.

Lens focus also features either manual and automatic control, and ranges from 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) to infinity in normal focusing mode. A distance readout appears on the LCD monitor in manual focus mode, with the actual focus distance controlled by the up and down arrows of the Four Way Arrow pad (pressing the center of the pad switches the operation of the up and down arrows back to the optical zoom). The manual focus control seems to have about 13 discrete focus positions associated with it (judging by the sound of the focus motor in response to actuations of the arrow keys), but the numeric readout shows only 5 different settings (0.5, 0.7, 1.0, 2.0 meters and infinity). Manual focus is also somewhat difficult to determine from the LCD screen, as there's no enlargement of the image to help you see whether you're in focus or not. - Overall, I'd really like to see much finer-grained manual focus control, as well as some sort of an enlarged or otherwise enhanced view on the LCD to help you judge focus. Macro mode alters the focus range for closer, smaller objects, focusing from 6.2 to 23 inches (0.16 to 0.6 meters). Through the Setup menu, you can activate a Full-time AF mode, which adjusts the focus continuously instead of only when the Shutter button is halfway pressed. Continuous AF mode may be helpful with moving subjects, but has little impact on shutter delay with stationary ones.

The S414's user interface shares the up and down arrow keys rather nicely between manual focusing and lens zoom control. In normal operation, the up/down positions of the rear-panel rocker control actuate the lens zoom mechanism. When you switch to manual focus mode though, the same controls actuate the focusing mechanism. Simply pressing the center of the rocker control toggles the function of the up/down arrows between the zoom and focus functions. Normally I'm not keen on camera functions sharing controls in this fashion, but it seems to work pretty well in the case of the S414. This does mean though, that focus and zoom adjustments will end up being even slower and more deliberate than their already somewhat leisurely pace. (Neither focus nor zoom operation is blazingly fast on the S414.)

In autofocus mode, the S414 lets you change the AF area by pressing and holding the center of the Four Way Arrow pad. The AF Area Selection screen appears on the LCD monitor, with five available AF areas to choose from. The arrow keys navigate the area selections, and a half-press of the Shutter button (or a full press of the center of the Four Way Arrow pad confirms the area selection. Once chosen, the selected AF Area sensor position will be highlighted as an overlay on the LCD screen. Pressing and holding the center of the Four Way pad again returns you to the default wider-area focusing mode. (A minor design quibble here: The five spot-AF targets are all clustered rather closely in the center of the frame. A wider spacing would have been more useful in accommodating off-center subjects.)

In addition to the 4x optical zoom, the S414 also features a 2.2x digital zoom option (enabled through the settings menu). I always remind readers that digital zoom significantly compromises image quality because all it does is crop and enlarge the central portion of the CCD image. Digital zoom always results in decreased resolution, and therefore doesn't offer the same sharpness or clarity found with true optical zoom. It can be quite useful though, if you're only interested in shooting lower-resolution images for use in email or web applications.

A series of filter threads inside the lip of the lens barrel accommodates lens conversion kits, which are available as separate accessories. Thus, you can extend the wide-angle, telephoto, or macro shooting capabilities of the S414 through the use of add-on lenses. The filter threads are a rather odd size, 35.5mm according to the labeling on the front of the lens itself. You'll therefore most likely be constrained to using Minolta's own accessory lenses. I have to say that I'm also pretty surprised to find filter threads incorporated directly into the front element of a telescoping lens design. While nice for avoiding problems with the lens cap, you should exercise extreme caution when using them for auxiliary lenses, so as to not over-torque the delicate telescoping mechanism, nor overstress it by mounting a too-heavy accessory lens in this fashion.

 

Exposure

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The S414 offers very flexible exposure control, with a range of exposure options and special shooting modes available to choose from. The Mode dial sets the camera's main operating mode, and includes both Auto and Manual record mode settings, referring to the amount of exposure control available. In Auto mode, for example, the camera remains in control of shutter speed and aperture settings, as well as the White Balance, Color, Sharpness, Light Sensitivity (ISO), etc. The Manual record mode setting provides the full range of exposure features, plus allows you to select from Program, Aperture Priority, and Manual exposure control options. In Program AE, the camera controls both shutter speed and aperture settings, while you maintain control over Exposure Compensation, White Balance, Metering Mode, Contrast, etc. Aperture Priority mode means that you control the lens aperture setting, while the camera chooses the best corresponding shutter speed. Finally, Manual exposure mode puts the user in charge of the exposure completely. Shutter speeds on the S414 range from 1/1,000 to four seconds, with a Bulb setting allowing exposures as long as 15 seconds.

Two exposure metering options are available through the settings menu in Manual record mode, Spot and Multi-Segment. Spot metering mode takes the exposure reading from a very small area in the center of the frame, and is useful with subjects that are much brighter or darker than the background. Alternatively, Multi-Segment metering divides the image into 270 areas which are measured separately for both brightness and color. The resulting information is then combined with the distance reading from the camera's autofocus system to determine the best overall exposure. An Exposure Compensation button on top of the camera allows you to adjust the automatically-determined exposure from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third step increments. In situations where you're not sure what the best exposure is, the Auto Exposure Bracketing mode takes three images at different exposure settings in rapid succession. Activated by pressing the Drive Mode button until the Bracketing icon appears on the LCD monitor, this mode snaps one image at the normal exposure, one image overexposed slightly, and one underexposed slightly. Through the settings menu, you can set the exposure step between frames to 0.3, 0.5, or 1.0 EV units.

White Balance can be set to Auto, Cloudy, Daylight, Tungsten, Fluorescent, or Custom to adjust the color response of the camera to match the ambient lighting. The Custom option bases the color balance on a white card held in front of the camera, and accommodates the widest range of lighting conditions at some cost of convenience. The S414 also provides an extensive array of image adjustment controls, including Sharpness, Contrast, and Color (which offers Vivid Color, Natural Color, Sepia, Solarization, and Black and White options). Additionally, the S414 also offers a Filter setting, with Warm and Cool options for adjusting the overall color. An adjustable light-sensitivity setting offers an Auto mode as well as 64,100, 200, and 400 ISO equivalents.

 

Flash
The S414 is equipped with a built-in flash unit, which operates in any of five available modes: Auto, Fill, Flash Cancel, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, and Fill with Red-Eye Reduction. The Flash button on top of the camera controls the flash mode, and the corresponding icon appears in the LCD monitor. Auto mode lets the camera choose when to fire the flash, based on existing light levels, while Fill mode fires the flash with every exposure (regardless of lighting conditions). Flash Cancel simply disables the flash. The two Red-Eye Reduction modes fire two small pre-flashes before the full flash, making the pupils of your subjects' eyes contract, reducing the red reflection from their eyes (known as the Red-Eye Effect). Minolta estimates the S414's flash as effective from 1.6 to 11.5 feet (0.5 to 3.5 meters).

Self-Timer / Remote Control Mode
The Drive Mode button on top of the camera accesses the Self-Timer / Remote Control mode, as well as the Continuous Shooting and Auto Exposure Bracketing modes, when pressed sequentially. When set to the Self-Timer mode, the S414 provides a 10-second delay between the time the Shutter button is fully pressed and when the shutter actually opens. A small LED lamp on the front of the camera lights to indicate that the timer has started, and then blinks a couple of seconds before the shutter fires. This mode also works with the optional infrared remote control accessory, which allows you to control the camera from as far away as 16 feet (5 meters).

Continuous Shooting
Also accessed through the Drive Mode button, Continuous Shooting mode captures a rapid succession of images for as long as the Shutter button is held down (or as long as the memory card has available space). While shot-to-shot cycle times will vary with the image resolution and quality settings chosen, the maximum speed is approximately 1.57 frames per second. (Oddly, the continuous-mode shooting is faster at maximum resolution than it is with smaller image sizes.) The S414 has a generous buffer memory as it can capture up to 7 large/fine images in continuous mode before having to wait for the memory card to catch up. (At its lowest size/quality setting, the 414 can capture over 100 frames without pausing.)

Recording Movies and Sound
Through the Movie record mode (set via the Mode dial), the S414 records moving images with sound. Movies are recorded at a 320 x 240 frame size, although the actual "live" area is 284 x 211 pixels. Recording times will vary depending on the amount of memory card space available. Movie mode also works with the accessory remote control. Macro mode and Exposure Compensation are the only functions available in Movie mode. White balance and sensitivity default to automatic, and both flash and digital zoom are disabled. As with most cameras that record sound with their movies, you can zoom the lens before you start recording, but once a movie is in progress, no further zoom adjustment is permitted. (The lens motor noise would swamp the audio track.)

Through the record settings menu, the S414 also allows you to record short clips of sound to accompany each image as you capture it. Voice Memo mode records either five or 15 seconds of audio per image, although you can stop recording before the time limit is up, simply by pressing the shutter button again..

Preset Scene Modes
The Subject Program button on top of the camera (adjacent to the status display panel) selects between a range of preset "Scene" shooting modes, including Macro, Portrait, Landscape, Night, Text, and Text with Macro. These modes optimize the camera for a range of common shooting conditions. As we discussed in the Optics section, Macro mode alters the focus range of the lens for closer, smaller subjects. In Macro mode, focus ranges from 6.2 to 23 inches (0.16 to 0.6 meters). Portrait mode employs a larger lens aperture setting, which reduces the depth of field, throwing the background out of focus to increase the prominence of the main subject. Alternatively, Landscape mode uses a smaller aperture setting, which keeps both the foreground and background in clear focus. The Night setting shifts the autoexposure system to prefer longer shutter speeds, producing brighter pictures. Night mode also combines the flash with longer shutter times, for more natural night portraits with the exposure of the subject and the background better balanced. In Text mode, the S414 increases the contrast and adjusts the exposure to accurately capture black text on top of a white background. Text with Macro mode works along similar lines, though it changes the focus range for the macro shooting distances.


Shutter Lag/Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a delay or lag time before the shutter actually fires. This time is required for the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work, and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this number is rarely reported on, and can significantly affect the picture taking experience, I now routinely measure it with a custom test system of my own design, crystal-controlled, and accurate to 0.001 second.

NOTE: My qualitative characterizations of camera performance below (that is, "reasonably fast," "about average," etc.) are meant to be relative to other cameras of similar price and general capabilities. Thus, the same shutter lag that's "very fast" for a low-end consumer camera might be characterized as "quite slow" if I encountered it on a professional model. The comments are also intended as only a quick reference: If performance specs are critical for you, rely on the absolute numbers to compare cameras, rather than my purely qualitative comments.

DiMAGE S414 Timings
Operation
Time (secs)
Notes
Power On -> First shot
4.5  
Time for lens to extend and snap the first picture. Average to a bit slower than average.
Shutdown
4.2
Lens retracts. Average to a bit slower than average.
Play to Record, first shot
 1.1
Time between switching from play to record mode and capture of first image. Fairly fast.
Record to play
1.45
Time to display maximum res/quality image when switching from record to play mode. About average.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
0.83/1.67 
Faster than average at wide-angle, very slow at telephoto.
Shutter lag, continuous autofocus
1.5 
Quite slow. (This mode might help with moving objects, but I have no way of testing that. Obviously, it's no help at all with stationary subjects.)
Shutter lag, manual focus
0.160
Quite fast.
Shutter lag, prefocus
0.100
Very fast.
Cycle Time, normal mode
~1.33/1.44
Quite fast. Buffer memory holds ~9 large/fine shots, then cycle time stretches to ~8-9 seconds between shots. Buffer holds large number of small/economy shots. (I didn't fully test, but it's more than 15.) Oddly, the camera is faster shooting full-res images than smaller ones. Also, the interval between the first two large/fine shots is 2.05 seconds, 1.48 for the next two, then the following 7 shots occur at intervals of 1.33 seconds.
Cycle Time, continuous mode
0.63 / 0.77
(1.6 / 1.3 fps)
Quite fast. The buffer is quite large, holding 7 large/fine images, then cycle time stretches to ~6-7 seconds. Buffer takes 43 seconds to clear completely. Buffer holds 100+ small/economy shots, takes 17 seconds to clear. As in single-shot mode, camera is faster shooting full-res images than small/economy ones. All shots are at the same interval in large/fine mode, first shot in small/basic mode has interval of 0.63 seconds, then is very consistent at 0.77 thereafter.


The S414 is a bit of mixed bag in terms of speed. It starts up and shuts down a little slowly, and its manual focusing and zoom lens operation are a little on the slow side. It's shot to shot cycle times are very good for a four megapixel camera though, and continuous mode cycle times are very good as well, with a deep buffer than can hold 7 large/fine shots in continuos mode or 8-9 frames in single-shot mode. Shutter response in manual focus and autofocus modes is very fast too. Autofocus delay with the lens at the wide-angle position is on the fast side of average as well. Its Achilles' heel is full-autofocus performance with the lens at the telephoto end of its range though, where shutter delays stretch to 1.6 seconds, very slow by any standard.


Operation and User Interface
Though the combination of record modes, drive modes, and exposure modes may seem complicated at first, the S414's user interface is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. I liked the fact that most exposure options are controlled externally (that is, without resorting to the LCD menu system), via the Mode dial, Drive Mode button, and Subject Program button. You can also control the flash and Exposure Compensation externally, as well as the shutter speed and aperture when in Manual mode. The availability of the QuickView button makes checking just-captured images a snap, without having to change camera modes. Special exposure features are all adjustable through the LCD menu system, which is extensive but uncomplicated. Menu screens are set up as subject tabs, and are quickly navigated via the Four Way Arrow pad. The top status display panel is a definite plus, as it reports a lot of camera settings, making it easier to operate the camera with the LCD monitor disabled. (This saves a great deal of battery power.) You'll spend some time flipping through the instruction manual to understand the camera settings, but I don't think it'll take most users too long to get up and running. (And in full-auto mode, the S414 is as easy to operate as the most basic point & shoot model.)


Control Enumeration


Shutter Button
: Located on top of the camera, this chrome button sets focus and exposure when halfway pressed. When fully pressed, this button fires the shutter.


Subject Program Button
: Nestled next to the status display panel in a small recess, this button controls the Scene modes of the camera. Pressing it repeatedly cycles through the following modes:


Mode Dial
: This notched dial rests on top of the camera, on the right side. Turning the dial selects the camera's operating mode, with the following options available:



Flash Mode / Playback Zoom Button
: The first button in a series on the angled portion of the top panel, this button controls the flash mode in any record mode (except for Movie), cycling between Auto, Fill, Flash Cancel, Auto Red-Eye Reduction, and Fill Red-Eye Reduction.

In Playback mode, this button controls the playback zoom feature, which magnifies the image as much as 3.5x. Pressing the button repeatedly cycles through 2x, 2.5x, 3.5x, and normal image displays.


Drive Mode Button
: Directly to the right of the Flash Mode / Playback Zoom button, this button controls the camera's drive mode, cycling through the following:


Exposure Compensation Button
: Directly to the left of the Mode dial, this button activates the Exposure Compensation feature in any record mode (except Manual exposure mode). In Manual exposure mode, pressing this button toggles the function of the Four Way Arrow Pad (see below) between setting shutter time or aperture.


Four Way Arrow Pad
: The dominant control on the camera's back panel, this button features four arrows (one pointing in each cardinal direction). In any settings menu, these arrows navigate through menu options and screens. Pressing the center of the button confirms menu selections.

In any record mode, the up and down arrows control the optical and digital zoom. When manual focus is activated, the up and down arrows can control either the focus or the zoom. Pressing the center of the pad alternates between the optical zoom and manual focus options. In Manual and Aperture Priority exposure modes, the right and left buttons control exposure settings. (In Manual mode, press the +/- button to switch between controlling shutter and aperture settings.) Pressing and holding the center of the pad activates the AF Area Selection screen, allowing you to choose the autofocus area using the arrow keys.

In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images. Pressing the up arrow switches to a histogram display that also shows several exposure parameters for the image being viewed. Pressing the down arrow returns to normal playback display. When an image has been enlarged in playback mode, the four arrows let you scroll around the enlarged image. Pressing the up arrow in normal playback mode displays a thumbnail of the image with a histogram and the exposure information.


Menu Button
: Just beneath the Four Way Arrow pad, the Menu button activates the settings menu in any camera mode. Pressing this button also dismisses the menu screen.


Quick View / Erase Button
: Below the Menu button, this button activates the Quick View image review mode when pressed in any record mode.

In Playback mode, this button activates the Erase menu, allowing you to erase the currently displayed image or selected images from the memory card.


Display Button
: Adjacent to the lower right corner of the LCD monitor, this button controls the image and information display in any record mode as well as in Playback mode. In Record mode, pressing the button once removes the information display, while a second press enables the information display with a histogram. A third press displays the image only, while a fourth press disables the LCD entirely. A fifth press activates the LCD monitor with the information display.

In Playback mode, this button also turns the information display on and off. This button also activates the nine-image index display.


Card Slot Release Latch
: Situated in the top right corner of the back panel, just beside the CompactFlash compartment door, this latch releases and opens the compartment door.


Battery Latch
: Hidden on the bottom panel of the camera, in the center of the battery compartment door, this latch locks and unlocks the battery compartment door.


Camera Modes and Menus

Auto: The first setting on the Mode dial (after the Off position), this mode allows the camera to capture still images. Exposure is controlled by the camera, as are white balance, color, metering, and ISO. The settings menu offers the following adjustment options:

Manual: Enables still image capture, though now with increased exposure options. Pressing the Menu button pulls up three screens of options.

Playback Mode: Reviews all captured images and movies on the CompactFlash card. Users can view a histogram of each image, enlarge images as much as 3.5x, or view several images at a time in the nine-image index display mode. Pressing the Menu button offers the following options:

Movie Mode: Indicated by the movie camera icon on the Mode dial, this mode sets the camera for capturing moving images with sound. Movies are captured at the 320 x 240 resolution size, for approximately 60 seconds per movie. There is no settings menu available in this mode.

Setup Mode: Automatically displays the following Setup menu:

PC Mode: The final option on the Mode dial (marked with a crooked arrow), this mode allows you to connect the camera to a computer and download images via the USB cable.

 

Image Storage and Interface
The S414 stores its images on CompactFlash Type I memory cards, and a 16-megabyte card ships with the unit. Accessory CompactFlash cards are available from a variety of third parties with capacities of a gigabyte or more, and will doubtless continue their upward climb to even larger sizes as time goes on. While CompactFlash cards cannot themselves be write-protected, the S414 offers a "Lock" function through the Playback menu. Locked images cannot be erased or manipulated, but formatting a CompactFlash card erases all files, even locked ones.

Four image sizes are available on the S414, including 2,272 x 1,704, 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, or 640 x 480-pixel sizes. (Movies are captured at the 320 x 240-pixel resolution.) Images can be saved as uncompressed TIFF files, or as compressed JPEG files (Fine, Normal, or Economy compression levels).

The table below shows the approximate number of images that can be stored on a 16-megabyte CompactFlash card at various size and quality levels, as well as their approximate compression levels.


Image Capacity vs
Resolution/Quality
16MB Memory Card
Hi
Fine
Normal
Basic
Full
Resolution
2,272 x 1,704
Images
(Avg size)
1
11.6MB
7
2.15MB
12
1.26MB
20
780KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1
5:1
9:1
13:1
High
Resolution
1,600 x 1,200
Images
(Avg size)
2
5.9MB
13
1.1MB
20
780KB
28
554KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1
5:1
7:1
10:1
Standard Resolution
1,280 x 960
Images
(Avg size)
4
3.8MB
18
845KB
27
587KB
34
458KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1
4:1
6:1
8:1
Low
Resolution
640 x 480
Images
(Avg size)
13
1.15MB
36
442KB
44
362KB
50
317KB
Approx.
Compression
1:1
2:1
3:1
3:1

 

The S414 comes with a USB cable and interface software for downloading images to a computer. The camera is a storage-class USB device, automatically appearing on the computer's desktop under Mac OS 8.6 and later, and Windows Me, 2000, and XP. It's a little slow when it comes to image downloading, as I clocked it at 306.8 KBytes/second on my 2.4 GHz Sony VAIO PC, running Windows XP. (Most cameras I test fall into a range from 300-600 KBytes/second, so the S414 is at the bottom end of that range.)


Video Out
The S414 includes an AV video cable for connecting to a television set. A setting under the Setup menu sets the timing of the video signal as NTSC or PAL. All images that would normally appear on the LCD are routed to the external video display so that the television screen becomes an enlarged version of the LCD monitor and can be used both for image playback and composition.


Power
The S414 uses four AA batteries for power, either alkaline or NiMH types. As always, I suggest picking up a couple of sets of rechargeable NiMH batteries, and keeping a spare set freshly charged at all times. A battery indicator in the status display panel reports the current charge level of the batteries. When battery power gets too low, a red battery icon flashes in the LCD monitor and the camera eventually shuts itself off. The S414 offers an Auto Power Save option through the Setup menu, which lets you specify how long the camera will wait without user input before shutting itself off. Additionally, the inclusion of the status display panel on top of the camera means that you can easily operate the camera with the LCD monitor switched off, as several camera settings are reported there. Working without the LCD monitor active greatly increases the operating time for a set of batteries. An AC adapter is available as a separate accessory, a useful addition for time-consuming tasks such as reviewing images or downloading them to a computer. Minolta also offers the External High-Power Battery Pack Kit (EBP-100) as a separate accessory. The kit contains a high-power lithium-ion batter pack and charger. (The lithium-ion battery should significantly increase the amount of operating time over AA batteries.)

As usual, I measured actual power consumption in various operating modes, and projected run times based on a set of 1600 mAh rechargeable NiMH batteries. (This is the standard battery capacity I've used for AA-equipped digicams since I started tracking power consumption. Modern high-capacity cells are available with true (not claimed) capacities of 2000 mAh or higher. Using such cells would boost the run times shown here by about 25%.) The results of my testing appear in the table below:

Operating Mode
Power Drain
(@ 6 v)
Estimated Minutes
(1600mAh, 4.8v
4 NiMH Cells)
Capture Mode, w/LCD
868 mA
88
Capture Mode, no LCD
398 mA
193
Half-pressed shutter w/LCD
870 mA
88
Half-pressed w/o LCD
613 mA
125
Memory Write (transient)
569 mA
n/a
Flash Recharge (transient)
1,345 mA
n/a
Image Playback
639 mA
120

The S414 is a relatively power-hungry camera, although the latest high-capacity NiMH AA cells can potentially provide worst-case run times approaching two hours, not a bad number at all. Running with the LCD off cuts power more than in half, but the optical viewfinder is only average in its accuracy, meaning you'll have to resort to the LCD for critical framing.

Definitely plan on purchasing at least two sets of high-capacity NiMH cells and a good-quality charger along with your S414. See my Battery Shootout page for the latest info on how various brands and models of rechargeable AA cell batteries perform, and read my review of the Maha C-204F charger to learn why it's my longtime favorite.


Included Software
Packaged with the S414 is a software CD containing the DiMAGE Image Viewer Utility and USB drivers, for both Windows and Macintosh platforms. The DiMAGE Image Viewer Utility allows you to download images from the camera, view them, and organize them.


Included Hardware
Included in the box are the following items:

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...


Test Results
In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the DiMAGE S414's "pictures" page.

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the S414's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

 

Conclusion

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Minolta's DiMAGE line of digicams includes some of the better values in digital cameras currently on the market. The S414, just like the S404 before it, is no exception to the rule. With its 4.0-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 S414 provides an unusually wide range of exposure and 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. (In my experience, the lenses on Minolta's high-end consumer digicams are really second to none.) The improved image processing and shooting speed are excellent enhancements, and the new live histogram display is a bonus as well. The most important bottom line is image quality though, and the S414 delivers some of the best-looking images I've yet seen from a Minolta digicam. Overall, the DiMAGE S414 is one of the best bargains in the market, an excellent choice for anyone looking for a solid performer with good image quality and plenty of options. Highly recommended.

<<S414 Sample Images | Additional Resources and Other Links>>

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