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Minolta Dimage S404

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

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Review First Posted: 1/30/2002

Executive Overview
Improving on the already well-respected Dimage S304, Minolta has introduced the Dimage S404, featuring a larger, 4-megapixel CCD. The S404 incorporates the same great 4x optical zoom lens I was so impressed with in the S304 (Minolta has really distinguished itself with its digicam optics), and offers the exceptional exposure, tone, and color-adjustment flexibility that's the hallmark of the high end Dimage digicams. The S404 appears virtually identical to its predecessor, with an all-silver, slightly bulky (yet still fairly compact) metallic body. The camera's dimensions of 4.5 x 2.5 x 2.3 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 15.0 ounces (430 grams) with batteries and CompactFlash card, the S404 has a pleasant heft: Not so light as to feel flimsy, not so heavy as to be unwieldy.

The S404 offers both a real-image optical viewfinder and a 1.8-inch color LCD monitor for composing images. In Playback mode, the LCD features an optional histogram display for checking exposure. The S404 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 whenever powered on, and likewise retracts when not in use. In past reviews, I've found Minolta's GT lenses quite impressive, and the lens on the S404 seems to follow suit, with excellent sharpness, and unusually low distortion and chromatic aberration. 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 S404 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 S304, with the S404 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 4 seconds. A Bulb mode is available for longer exposures, as long as 15 seconds. The S404 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 one of six modes, including Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Custom. The S404 also offers a wide range of image adjustment settings for Sharpness, Saturation, Color, and Contrast. 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 at fast intervals (as fast as 1.3 frames per second, according to Minolta's specs, which agreed well with my own measurements of about 1.25 frames/second) Particularly notable is that the S404 can capture up to 11 high-res, high-quality shots in a single burst. The S404's Movie mode captures moving images with sound, at a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. Additionally, the S404'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, ArcSoft PhotoImpression, and USB drivers for both PC and Mac platforms. The S404 can be connected to a television set for image viewing and composition, via the NTSC video cable packaged with the camera (European models include a PAL cable instead). 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, and uses a lithium-ion battery pack to power the camera.)

The S404's four megapixel CCD extends the S304's technology and features to parity with other high-end "prosumer" digicams. Full manual exposure control, 4x optical zoom, and flexible, creative image adjustment features give the S404 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 S404 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.)

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