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Minolta DiMAGE A1

Minolta updates their revolutionary five-megapixel electronic SLR with faster shutter speeds, an Anti-Shake mode, 14-bit A/D, and a tilting LCD monitor, among other improvements.

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Page 3:Design

Review First Posted: 08/08/2003, Updated: 11/10/03

Released as an update to last year's Dimage 7Hi model, the Dimage A1 shares a similar external design, with the same all-black body and general styling. The Dimage A1 features a true 5.0-megapixel (effective) CCD, sharp 7x optical zoom lens, fine-grained image controls, and optional fully manual exposure control, with a few minor improvements over the previous models. Updates include 14-bit A/D conversion, a faster maximum shutter speed (1/16,000 second), a grip sensor that controls Full-time AF, and a tilting LCD monitor, among others.

The Dimage A1 is similar in design to a traditional 35mm SLR, but an elongated lens barrel on the left side of the camera gives the camera more of a "T" shape, extending behind and in front of the body slightly, with a hand grip on the right. Control layout is slightly different from the Dimage 7Hi, but still logical and intuitive (once you get gist of things). The Dimage A1's rather bulky body measures a substantial 4.61 x 3.34 x 4.46 inches (117 x 85.0 x 113.5 millimeters) with the lens at its shortest position, but the combination of magnesium alloy chassis and (mostly) plastic body panels make it lightweight for its size (approximately 23.4 ounces, or 663 grams with an NP-400 battery and CompactFlash card loaded), but nonetheless a substantial handful. An accessory camera bag would certainly be the preferred method of carrying and storing the Dimage A1, but the positions of the eyelets for the included neck strap at least let the camera hang level when it's suspended from them. (This last being a detail I wish more camera manufacturers would pay attention to.)

The camera's front panel houses the Minolta GT 7x Zoom lens, Self-Timer light, and the front of the pop-up flash compartment. Encircling the lens are two adjustment rings: a rubberized grip on the front end for actuating the zoom lens, and a ribbed Manual Focus ring at the base of the lens. A set of 49mm filter threads on the inside lip of the zoom lens accommodates filters and conversion kit accessories, but I'd caution readers to be careful how heavy a lens they attach there. Because the threads are on the lens barrel itself, the zoom mechanism must support any weight attached there. A pair of tabs on the outside edge of the lens serve as a mount for the accessory lens hood. Also visible from the front of the camera are the Shutter button and Front Control dial, located at the top of the hand grip. An indentation near the top of the hand grip comfortably cradles your middle finger as it curls around the grip. One of the more interesting features of the Dimage A1 is the grip sensor on the front of the hand grip, visible in this shot as a set of vertical metallic bars. When activated, the grip sensor actually senses the presence of your hand and only triggers the Full-time AF function (or optionally, the electronic viewfinder) whenever the camera is held, saving some battery power. (You can turn this feature off through the setup menu, for working on a tripod or when wearing gloves, which Minolta states may decrease the effectiveness of the sensor. - It's evidently a skin-resistance sensor.)

The right side of the camera holds the CompactFlash memory card slot, covered by a hinged plastic door. The A1 accommodates Type I or II CF memory cards, including IBM MicroDrives. Just above the compartment door is the shared-use A/V Out / USB jack for direct connection to a computer or television set. At the very top of the right panel is one of the two neck strap attachment eyelets.

The left side of the camera features a host of controls, including the Function dial, flash sync terminal, Digital Effects dial, Auto/Manual Focus switch, Custom White Balance button, speaker, and Macro switch (on the side of the lens). The Function dial, located at the top of the panel, controls the Memory settings, Custom Function settings, Metering mode, Drive mode (Self-Timer, Continuous Shooting, etc.), White Balance, and ISO. The Effects button lets you adjust Contrast, Color Saturation, and effects Filters in conveniently small increments. Both dials have buttons in the center that activate whatever function you've selected with that dial. The Focus button simply switches back and forth between Single AF, Continuous AF, and Manual focus modes. The Custom White Balance button manually adjusts the white balance setting, while the Macro switch on the lens barrel activates the Macro shooting mode. The second neck strap attachment eyelet is at the top, next to the Function dial. Also visible on this side, at the edge of the electronic viewfinder eyepiece, is the diopter adjustment dial, which adjusts the viewfinder display to accommodate eyeglass wearers.

The top panel accommodates the pop-up flash compartment, with two small tabs on either side to hook a fingernail under to open the flash, and an external flash hot shoe on top, protected by a sliding plastic cover that is completely removable from the camera body. The hot shoe employs a custom electrode setup and mounting bracket for Minolta accessory flash units, and so isn't compatible with standard hot-shoe flashes. In addition, there are a number of controls that access various camera functions, including the Mode Dial, a Shutter button, a Selector wheel, and a small Data Panel display that shows battery status, camera settings, and the number of images remaining. The Information and Magnification buttons are just below the status display panel, and angle down toward the rear of the camera. A tiny microphone in front of the Mode dial records sound when shooting movies or recording voice memos.

The remaining controls are on the camera's rear panel, along with the electronic viewfinder eyepiece, LCD monitor, and battery compartment. The Dimage A1's electronic viewfinder (EVF) now features a high resolution TFT LCD, rather than the reflective, ferroelectric display used on earlier models in the line. The new display seems very sharp and clear, with none of the motion-induced artifacts seen in previous models. The viewfinder also tilts upward almost 90 degrees, offering a variety of viewing angles. When the camera is set to the Auto Display mode, an infrared sensor on the right side of the viewfinder eyepiece senses when your eye is near the viewfinder and automatically activates the EVF display. Control buttons on the back panel include the Display Mode switch (tucked in a corner beside the LCD monitor), which lets you choose between EVF and LCD display, or Auto switching between the two. Also on the rear panel are the Power button, Mode switch, Rear Control dial, Menu button, Four-Way controller, Quickview / Delete button, Anti-Shake button, and AE lock button. At the bottom of the rear panel, a connector compartment houses the DC In and Remote connector terminals, and is protected by a flexible flap.

The camera's bottom panel is fairly flat, with a slightly textured grip pad surrounding the metal tripod mount. Also on the bottom panel is the camera's battery compartment, which features a locking, hinged door. The battery compartment is just far enough from the tripod mount to allow quick battery changes while working with a tripod, something I always look for in a digicam, given the amount of studio shooting I do.

An optional power/grip unit is available for the A1, adding a vertical grip handy for portrait-format shots, and allowing the camera to be powered by either two NP-400 batteries, or by conventional rechargeable AA cells. I really liked the increased battery life the NP-400 provided for the base unit, but the power grip lets you have your cake and eat it too, powering the camera from more inexpensive and widely available NiMH AA cells.

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