Minolta DiMAGE 7i Review
By Movable Type Admin
The DiMAGE 7 was the first 5-megapixel camera in the consumer market and became a big hit due to its big image size and big 7x optical zoom lens. For 2002 Minolta has taken this fine camera and added new features and fine-tuned others to produce the DiMAGE 7i. At first glance it's difficult to see any difference between these two cameras except for the name label on the left side and the "5.0 Megapixel" on the front (the DiMAGE 7 said "5.2 Megapixel"). Upon closer examination you will notice that the EFFECT switch now has a fourth position, the Function Dial has been changed a bit and the hand grip's black covering extends all the way around to the back. Other than that little has changed, nor did it need to change, the shape, ergonomics and build quality of the metal body were already excellent.
One of the reasons that you'd buy this camera has to be the zoom lens. Anybody that has used a digicam with a long focal length zoom knows that these lenses really add to the overall "fun factor" of using a camera. A zoom lens like the 28-200mm 7x Minolta GT zoom would be a very expensive purchase on a 35mm camera, it would also be quite large and heavy. Thanks to the CCD imager instead of a physically larger piece of 35mm film, the 7x lens does not need to large or heavy. It is an excellent set of optics that has been perfectly matched to the camera's imager. It's razor sharp from edge to edge and exhibits no chromatic aberration (purple fringing) problems.
Just like a 35mm SLR, the manual zoom ring on the lens barrel gives you an infinite number of focal length settings versus the preset and often jerky steps used with power zooms. This gives you much finer control over the zoom process and does not require any battery power. There is also a manual focus ring at the base of the lens, the D7i now features Direct MF which means you can make fine manual focus adjustments at any time without leaving auto focus mode. Manual focusing is done via fly-by-wire, the ring does not mechanically alter the focus but it is adjustable in very fine increments. Also located on the lens is the Macro button which can only be engaged when the lens is at full wide angle or full telephoto. The macro mode can focus as close as eight inches with a coverage area of slightly less than 2 x 1.5 inches. The lens has threads for easy attachment of 49mm filters or other add-on lenses without the need of any special adapter.
The D7 had a good autofocus system and that has been significantly improved on the DiMAGE 7i. Minolta claims that the new camera auto focuses twice as fast and in actual use I would have to agree with them, it is quite fast now. At the expense of some battery power you can use the Continuous-AF (focusing all the time) option to make it ultra-fast. The user can select from a Wide Focus Area, Spot Focus or Flex Focus. By default it uses Wide Focus and this is seen as a large rectangle in the center of the viewfinder frame. To select the Spot mode you press the center of the jog switch controller and the focus target becomes a "+" which can then be moved around. The D7i uses a phase-detection autofocus system which can find the proper focus point quicker than conventional contrast-detection systems. Under most normal lighting conditions I found that the D7i was capable of going from close to far targets quickly with very little "hunting" involved which was most impressive given its 28-200mm coverage. The D7i still lacks a focus illuminator which would greatly improve its low-light autofocusing capabilities.
As with most pseudo-SLR cameras the D7i employs an EVF (electronic viewfinder) which is a small, hi-resolution color LCD display. Minolta uses a ferroelectric 0.19-inch reflective type color LCD with a resolution of 220,000 pixels. This is two times greater than the number of pixels found in the EVFs used on the Canon, Olympus and Sony cameras. In low-light conditions the monitor signal is amplified and changes to b&w but the images are still captured in full color (except in Night Movie mode). Going from light to dark or dark to light it takes the EVF about 2 seconds to change display modes. Unlike all the other EVF-equipped cameras that we have used to date, the D7i is very useable in low-light to dark conditions. In fact there were several times that I could see things in the EVF that I couldn't see with the naked eye. The EVF can be flipped upward up to 90-degrees to become a waist-level viewfinder and has a dioptric adjustment. The field of view is rather narrow with the edges of the display appearing slightly blurry. The EVF needs a wider viewing angle and it would be more comfortable with a large, soft rubber eyecup around it. On the positive side let me say that the D7i's EVF (and color LCD) show approx. 98% of the final captured image so it rates as being very accurate. And speaking of color LCDs, the color LCD has been improved as well. The DiMAGE 7's color LCD had a very narrow viewing angle and many said that it looked unclear or hazy. The viewing angle is still narrow but that's due mostly to the anti-glare coating, otherwise it is much more colorful and realistic now.
The DiMAGE 7i (like the DiMAGE 7, 5, S304 and S404) saves image data in its own color space so you need to run them through the supplied DiMAGE Viewer Utility (DIVU) to properly reproduce the desired color space. Minolta uses a color space in the D7i that is close to sRGB but not identical. The D7i seems to be closer to sRGB than the previous D7 but the pictures may often come up a little short in color saturation if used directly from the camera. Once you process the images with the DIVU software they come out looking great. It does add an extra step in acquiring your images but it is well worth the time as you can adjust and correct colors as well as sharpen the pictures before saving. The DIVU software gives you a way to batch process entire directories full of images so you don't have to do each image individually unless desired. When shooting in RAW mode you must use DIVU to convert them to TIFF or JPEG for viewing or editing. The nice thing is that you can tweak the white balance, exposure value, saturation, sharpness and filter (cool to warm) values during this conversion process. Imagine shooting pictures that couldn't be taken again and then finding out later that you used the wrong white balance setting -- not a problem if you shot them in RAW mode...
The whole process of color space and color matching is probably new to most digicam users as most cameras just automatically map their images to the sRGB color space. Allowing the user to specify the desired color space may be seen as a burden to some but you must remember that the Dimage 7i is really a prosumer camera. I won't even try to explain color space or color matching here, Qimage Pro author Mike Chaney already has a full page of information about it on his web site. Click here to go to Mike's Color Management Information page, note that it will open a new browser window so just close it when you want to return back to this review.
Shooting in full resolution the TIFF images take about 30 seconds to process and store and the RAW mode is approx. 20 seconds. (This is about 35% faster than the DiMAGE 7) It's important to note that the EVF or LCD goes blank during this image processing, the camera cannot be used until it's done. In 2560x1920 Fine JPEG mode using the standard continuous advance you can fire off 4-5 shots at 2 fps and then you must wait as the cameras processes the images and starts to empty the buffer. You can shoot another frame in about 5 seconds or wait about twenty seconds for the camera to process and flush the entire buffer. In Single frame mode (JPEG) you can shoot one shot after another and never have to wait -- no matter what image size you have selected. There's a momentary blink of the display but no real delay and afterwards the card activity LED is lit for about 5 seconds as it writes out the data. Note that all of this timing was done using a new SanDisk 1.0GB CF card, slower or faster cards will produce varying results. Overall the image processing and capture speed of the D7i is most impressive for a 5-megapixel camera -- it makes the Olympus E-20 look really slow.
New on the D7i is the UHS (Ultra High Speed) capture mode with its blazing 7 frames per second frame rate. You are limited to 1280 x 960 size images but it is great for capturing a speeding bullet, your kid stealing home or analyzing your golf swing. You can rip off a sequence of approximately 15 frames in Fine quality in slightly over two seconds. The buffer takes about twenty seconds to write to the CF card during which time the EVF or LCD display is blanked out. The UHS mode can capture from approximately 15 frames in Fine quality up to 39 frames in Economy quality. See the chart on page 3 for the number of frames that can be captured in different quality settings or the stats for the Standard continuous advance mode. The only camera that I've used that's faster is the Olympus E-100RS with its 15 fps burst mode and slightly larger 1360x1024 size images.
Also new is the audio recording capability. The D7i can now capture up to 60 seconds of 320x240 motion video at 15 fps with monoraul audio. You can also attach 5 or 15 second audio memos to still images. The camera has a built in speaker for replay of the audio, it is also used for the various camera beeps and sound effects. In addition to the standard movie mode the D7i also features a Night Movie mode that records up to 60 seconds of B&W motion video at 15fps with or without audio. The camera will automatically switch between standard (color) and night movie (B&W) mode depending on the lighting conditions. And finally the Time-lapse Movie mode records 2560x1920, 1600x1200, 1280x960 or 640x480 sequences at 4fps without audio.
Ergonomically the D7i fits nicely in your hand and is about the same size as most compact 35mm SLR cameras. The user controls are well laid out and easy to access but you do need to use both hands when changing options with the Function Dial. You hold the center button down while rotating the Control Dial with your other hand. This is exactly the same scheme that we saw used on the Sony D700 and D770 cameras a couple of years ago. The monochrome data display on the top shows all the important settings at a glance and is illuminated. The lamp comes on for 5 seconds every time the shutter release is pressed. The data LCD also now lights up when you change camera settings with the Function Dial, something the original D7 did not do. With a preset and fixed 5-second timeout it would be nice to have setup options for control of the data LCD illumination time.
The build quality and "fit-n-finish" are excellent, all the seams match nicely and nothing feels flimsy while in use. Minolta did a little re-design work on the plastic covers for the DC IN and Audio-Video ports, they now stay firmly closed. When using the camera without the neck strap, the lug ring above the CompactFlash door hangs down and must be lifted up before closing the door or it gets caught in it. The camera still gets warm around the finger grip during use, this is obviously the heat sink area for the internal electronics. Using the 1850mAH NiMH batteries supplied I averaged about 90 to 100 shots using the flash about 40% of the time and keeping the use of the color LCD to a minimum. I would advise to always carry a spare set of freshly charged NiMH batteries, but of course I say this about every camera. To scientifically rate battery life in a digicam is an extremely difficult proposition as no two people use a camera the same way. Some people use the color LCD sparingly and others use it all the time. Some use Single-AF mode and others use the Continuous-AF mode. And of course a big factor in battery life is how many shots are taken with the flash. All things considered the DiMAGE 7i is a heavy power consumer when compared to other digicams. I'm happy that Minolta continues to employ AA batteries rather than a proprietary battery pack. AA type batteries are relatively inexpensive (approx. $15 per 4-pack) and have gotten more powerful, some have capacities of up to 2000mAh now.
The Minolta DiMAGE 7i is a very capable camera and captures some of the sharpest and
most resolute images we've seen from a non-professional digicam. This camera, like all
prosumer digital cameras, has a certain "learning curve" to get the best results.
However anyone regardless of their experience level should be able to get outstanding
results using the "P"rogram AE automatic mode. This year the D7i will see some
competition in the "big zoom" category from the 8x Nikon
Coolpix 5700 which is also a compact 5-megapixel camera. If you want a high
resolution digicam with all the features you'll ever need, a big zoom and excellent
image quality, the DiMAGE 7i should be at the top of your "A" list.
Minolta DiMAGE 7i Limited Recall
We just recv'd word that Minolta has a limited recall on some DiMAGE 7i cameras for a defective main power switch. Check your serial number and if it falls in the range of these two series of numbers you should contact Minolta immediately.
96201000 through 96226022
Note that this affects only DiMAGE 7i models, not DiMAGE 7. And these cameras were shipped during or after July 2002. Contact: DiMAGE Service Response Team, Phone # : 1-877-IMAGING
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