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Minolta DiMAGE 7i

Minolta updates their revolutionary 5 megapixel electronic SLR with numerous enhancements, keeps the excellent lens.

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Page 2:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 6/15/2002

Executive Overview
Building on the success of last year's Dimage 7 digicam (this is being written in early June, 2002), Minolta has introduced the updated Dimage 7i with a host of new features that improve an already exceptional camera. The 7i continues with the 4.95-megapixel CCD, ultra-sharp 7x optical zoom lens, and a variety of features that were "firsts" in a consumer digicam when they debuted last year. Updates include an optional real-time histogram display, a new UHS Continuous Advance mode for ultra high speed image sequences, a Night Movie mode, audio recording capability, and a dozen more improvements. (See the full list on the previous page of this review.) Extensive creative controls, sophisticated camera functions, and a user-friendly interface make the Dimage 7i appealing to advanced users, but you can put it in full "auto" mode and hand it to a novice with confidence. The improved ergonomic design looks and feels a lot like a conventional 35mm SLR, with an elongated lens barrel and a lightweight magnesium alloy body with plastic outer panels hosting the numerous dials, switches, and buttons. Although the profusion of controls makes the camera seem complex, the controls are all logically set up and actually fairly easy to learn. Minolta has packed a lot of functions into a very workable layout, with a range of features normally found only on more expensive pro-digital cameras.

A 2/3-inch interline-transfer CCD with five million pixels (4.95 million effective), provides a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,920 pixels, among the highest currently available in a consumer digital camera. The 12-bit A/D converter and relatively large pixel size provide a wide dynamic range (detailed highlights and shadows) and fine tonal gradation, with as many as 4,096 levels captured in each RGB channel. The CCD's light sensitivity ranges from ISO100 to 200, 400, and 800 equivalency and may be automatically controlled by the camera or manually selected by the user.

One significant change from the original Dimage 7 is the 7i's color space: It's now much closer to standard sRGB, meaning that images taken directly from the camera are much more vibrant and usable than those from its predecessor. You still need to run them through the Dimage Viewer utility to get the best color possible, but for many users, just bumping the color saturation control a notch or so will be acceptable for routine use.

All that sensor resolution would be useless, however, if the lens wasn't capable of resolving fine detail. The Dimage 7i features an advanced apochromat 7x zoom GT Lens, based on the same technology used in Minolta's popular Maxxum series SLR lenses. Comprised of 16 glass elements in 13 groups, the GT lens has two anomalous dispersion (AD) and two aspheric glass elements for sharp, detailed images with minimal distortion and glare. (I was unusually impressed with the lens on the original Dimage 7, and this appears to be the same design. - It has about the best corner to corner sharpness of any I've seen on a prosumer-level digicam, particularly impressive given the long 7x zoom ratio.) The 7.2-50.8mm focal range (equivalent to a 28-200mm zoom in 35mm format) provides the flexibility for wide-angle interior and landscape shots, as well as close-up portraits and distant action in sports photography. The manual zoom ring is a pleasure to use, with a wide rubberized grip and smooth, mechanically-coupled lens action. The Macro capability lets you capture subjects as close as 9.8 inches from the lens, which translates to a very small 1.5 x 2.0 inch minimum capture area. A host of focus controls provide a lot of flexibility, and a new on-demand manual focus option lets you tweak the autofocus setting without switching from auto to manual focus mode.

One of the most impressive features, however, is the Digital Hyper Viewfinder, which debuted on the Dimage 7 model. While technically an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) -- a miniature version of the larger rear LCD display (complete with information overlays) -- Minolta's implementation incorporates an advanced "reflective ferroelectric" LCD design, that produces full-color pixels, rather than the separate red, green, and blue ones of conventional displays. The result is an apparent resolution much higher than its 122,000 pixels would indicate. Display quality is much better than I'm accustomed to seeing in EVFs, with a remarkably smooth, sharp, and clear image, even in low light, where most EVFs fail miserably. In addition to better quality, the Digital Hyper Viewfinder offers unique flexibility, with a variable position eyepiece that tilts up as much as 90 degrees.

The Dimage 7i's exposure system offers three metering options: 300-segment Multi-Segment, Center-Weighted, and Spot. Multi-Segment divides the image into 300 separate areas, placing emphasis on the main subject, but integrating luminance values, color, and autofocus information from across the image to accurately calculate exposure. Like other AE metering systems, the Center-Weighted and Spot metering options reduce the emphasis to the central portion of the frame, or a small spot at the very center of the frame, respectively. Exposure modes include Programmed AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual, plus five Digital Subject Programs specifically set up for Portrait, Sports, Night Portrait, Sunset, and Text exposures. These presets use not only aperture and shutter speed settings to best capture the subjects, but also Minolta's exclusive CxProcess image processing to optimize color balance and skin tones.

On top of all these features, the Dimage 7i also provides a Digital Effects Control that can be used to adjust Exposure Compensation (-2 to +2 EV in one-third-step increments) as well as Color Saturation, Contrast, and Filter (hue) adjustments. A Color Mode option offers special color effects and a black and white shooting mode, which can be adjusted with the Filter Effects setting. The Record menu features a separate Digital Enhanced Bracketing option for taking three bracketed exposures of an image, with three different values adjustable from one-third, to one-half, to full-stop increments (this can also bracket any of the Effects options). A customizable AE / AF Lock button can be set to lock only exposure, or both exposure and focus. White Balance is adjustable to one of four preset options (Daylight, Tungsten, Cloudy, and Fluorescent), along with Auto and Manual options. Shutter speeds range from 1/2,000 to four seconds (as high as 1/4,000 second in Programmed and Aperture Priority exposure modes, with small lens apertures), with a Bulb setting that permits exposures up to 30 seconds long. Maximum lens apertures are f/2.8 at the wide-angle end and f/3.5 at telephoto. A new real-time histogram display mode lets you verify exposure before capturing the image. (There's still a histogram display option in Playback mode as well.)

Autofocus performance is a key area where the Dimage 7i shines over its predecessor, with AF speeds almost twice as fast. The Dimage 7i's Autofocus is powered by a Large Scale Integration (LSI) chip that rapidly processes image data through a high-speed 32-bit RISC processor. The autofocus information can be measured in one of three ways: Wide Focus Area averages readings from a large area across the middle of the image area (indicated on the LCD by a set of widely spaced brackets); Spot Focus Point reads information from the very center of the LCD (indicated by a target cross-hair), and Flex Focus Point lets you move a target cross-hair to any position within the viewfinder, so you can focus on off-center subjects without having to aim, lock focus, and then recompose the shot.

The built-in, pop-up flash offers two methods of flash metering: Advanced Distance Integration (ADI), which bases its exposure on the lens aperture, feedback from the autofocus system (how far the subject is from the camera), as well as on a separate metering flash, and Pre-Flash TTL (through the lens), which uses only the small metering flash prior to the main exposure to gauge how much light is reflected by the scene. The Dimage 7i also includes a top-mounted hot shoe for attaching Minolta external flash units (and any compatible third-party units). Flash modes include Fill-Flash, Red-Eye Reduction, and Rear Flash Sync, with Flash Compensation available from -2 to +2 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-third-step increments. A Wireless flash mode enables the camera to work with certain Minolta-brand wireless flash units. New to the 7i is a manual flash mode that fires the onboard flash at full, 1/4, or 1/16 power. Since manual flash mode doesn't use a pre-flash, it's perfect for driving studio slave strobes.

Additional Dimage 7i features include a Movie (with sound) mode with Night exposure option, Voice Memo mode, Standard and UHS Continuous Advance modes (up to 7.5 frames/second at 1280x960 resolution), 2x Digital Zoom, Interval Recording of two to 99 frames in one- to 60-minute intervals, 10-second Self-Timer, and three Sharpness settings. Five image quality levels include RAW uncompressed files, and Super Fine (TIFF), Fine, Standard, and Economy compression settings. Resolution options for still images include 2,560 x 1920, 1,600 x 1,200, 1,280 x 960, and 640 x 480 pixels. Movie resolution is 320 x 240 pixels. (Though a UHS Movie option records a 640 x 480 movie simultaneously with the continuous image sequence.)

Not to be outdone on the output phase of digital imaging, Minolta incorporated Epson's PRINT Image Matching technology, which ensures that Dimage 7i images captured in autoexposure mode and output on compatible Epson printers will be automatically color balanced to provide true-to-life hues and saturation. (PRINT Image Matching really represents a breakthrough in print quality, allowing faithful reproduction of colors well outside the normal color gamut of CRT-based color spaces.)

Powered by four AA alkaline or NiMH rechargeable batteries (an optional AC power adapter is available), the Dimage 7i delivers an amazingly versatile package for the serious amateur or prosumer photographer. It looks to me like Minolta has really listened to users of the original Dimage 7, and implemented a surprising range of meaningful upgrades and enhancements.

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