PMA 2001 Show
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Minolta's logo. Click here to visit the Minolta website! Most Interesting CAMERAS of the show!
By Dave Etchells, The Imaging Resource
(Thursday, February 15, 2001 - 18:53 EST)

Continuing Dave's "most interesting" series, here are some further comments on the Minolta Dimage S5/7. (And a brief note on the Nikon D1X, for the pro category...)

Since we'd posted "most interesting" stories on scanners and printers earlier, we thought we should also follow up with a similar piece on the camera front.

The overall "most interesting" camera award probably goes to the Nikon D1X, which looks to be pretty revolutionary (well, maybe strongly evolutionary at least) in the professional market. We reported on that prior to the show, tracking rumors, the actual release itself, and following up with a few items other reporters seemed to be missing.

In the consumer/prosumer category though, Minolta walked away with the honors, for their new EVF (electronic viewfinder) SLRs with 7x optical zoom lenses, in 3.3 and 5.2 megapixel resolutions. (They literally walked away with the honors, scoring a "Most Innovative" award from DIMA.) See our report from last Sunday for details and numerous photos of the new Minolta cameras.

The new models doubtless come as a welcome relief to the Minolta sales organization, arriving after a rather long dry spell with few exciting products.

And exciting they are! The 7x optical zoom lens is interesting in that its wide angle range extends all the way down to 28mm, wider than almost any other consumer camera on the market. (Great for those real estate interior shots and other photos in cramped quarters.) The combination of 7x zoom and 5.2 megapixels (in the S7) represents the greatest zoom-resolution product on the market. We'll have to wait for our test results to form any firm conclusions on resolution and image quality, but the A3-sized sample prints Minolta showed us in a private meeting looked very impressive indeed.

The S5 and S7 incorporate two technologies that were mentioned only in passing in the press release and published specs, but which appear to hold great promise: Phase-detect autofocus and Minolta's new "hyper" EVF electronic viewfinder.

It's no secret that one of the banes of prosumer digital photography is the often lengthy delay between pressing the shutter and the camera's actually snapping the picture. Much of this delay is due to the time required for the autofocus system to lock onto the subject. Most digicams use a contrast-detect autofocus system, which basically tries to increase the abruptness of tonal transitions across the surface of the image. This works and is usually quite accurate, but it can take an appreciable amount of time for the lens to "hunt" back and forth to find the optimum focusing distance. Phase-detect autofocus is a much more advanced method that looks at on the CCD array contrast transitions are being imaged. Combined with a knowledge of the lens geometry, a phase-detect system can know not only whether the lens is in focus or not, but roughly how far it is out of focus, and in what direction (near or far). Properly executed, the result can be much faster focus times, and correspondingly shorter shutter delays. We'll have to see how the S5 and S7 do in our shutter lag tests, but the Minolta engineers and technical marketing people we had dinner with Tuesday evening seemed very excited by this technology.

Another important area of new technology in the S5/7 appears to be the electronic viewfinder. Other than it's way-cool tilting eyepiece, the EVF in these units apparently incorporates some innovation that will enhance its performance. We commented to the Minolta engineers that, while we recognized the need for them in digicams with very long-ratio zoom lenses (for which optical viewfinders would become very bulky), we really weren't crazy about electronic viewfinders. (Brief explanation: Some digicams have "electronic viewfinders" instead of optical ones, consisting of a tiny LCD and a magnifying eyepiece to show a "real time" view of what the camera's seeing through the lens.) The problems we always encounter with electronic viewfinders is that (a) they're generally fairly low resolution, giving a pretty rough view of the subject, and (b) (much more seriously), the need for rapid refresh in the viewfinder display means that they can't work at anywhere near the low light limit of the camera itself. (In low light situations, the camera is free to use exposures extending to multiple seconds, while the viewfinder must update several times a second in order to be useful for framing.)

While they wouldn't share any details with us, it looks like Minolta has possibly addressed both of our objections to EVFs. Apparently, their use of the term "hyper" for the EVF on the S5 and S7 is because it is both significantly higher resolution than has previously been seen on consumer-level digicams, as well as dramatically more sensitive to light. Again, we'll withhold judgement until we have a chance to test the new cameras, but based on the level of excitement amongst Minolta's engineering and marketing staff, it sounds like they have something really special in this area.

We confess that we had expected to see more 5.2 megapixel cameras at PMA this year, given that Sony announced the availability of engineering samples of their 5.2 megapixel CCD several months back. We heard a rumor from one manufacturer that Sony had been having problems with their 5.2 megapixel chip, but Minolta told us that any rumors of Sony chip problems must have arisen from other products, and that the 5.2 MP units were solid. Hard to tell what the reality is, but we'll know a lot more in a few months when sample units of the Minolta S7 are made available.

Only our testing will tell how well Minolta has executed their new SLR design, but there's no question the cameras are loaded with just the sort of features needed to set high-end prosumer digicam fanatics drooling in anticipation. Kudos to Minolta for a most impressive announcement, and best wishes on getting them to market. To all our readers, stay tuned...

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