Minolta DiMAGE S404 Review
By Movable Type Admin
The DiMAGE S404 is Minolta's 4-megapixel update to its popular DiMAGE S304 compact digital camera. The S404 looks and operates exactly like a rangefinder camera. The "fit and finish" of this camera is excellent, it's housed in a light but highly durable aluminum body and has a very stable and comfortable feel in your hand thanks to a large, fat fingergrip. Currently (March 2002), the S404 is one of the best deals on the market for a 4-megapixel camera, the average street price is only $499 and its 4x optical zoom is more powerful than the 3x zooms found on other cameras in its class. What's really incredible is that the S304 sold for $699 only a year ago!
The S404 is equipped with a CompactFlash Type I card slot which means that it can't use a Microdrive but you can use up to a 512MB card and soon, one-gigabyte sized CF cards will be on the market. I like the fact that Minolta's cameras still use four AA type batteries versus the proprietary and often "whimpy" battery packs that seem to be all too popular these days. For what it costs for one of those proprietary packs you can buy two (or three) sets of high-capacity NiMH AA batteries and a rapid charger. And the NiMH battery technology continues to evolve, the capacity is now up to 1800mAH per cell with 2000mAH cells on the near horizon.
Ergonomically the S404 is well designed, with the exception of a really poorly located tripod socket that's quite near the edge of the body. This is really my only gripe about the camera other than the top data LCD not being illuminated - why don't they do this? On the positive side -- with your hand wrapped around the large fingergrip. your thumb falls naturally on the 4-way selector that controls the zoom. You can easily operate the mode dial with your thumb and the three buttons next to it. On top is a large and very readable monochrome LCD that displays all the important and frequently changed camera settings. Next to the LCD is a button that quickly selects Macro, Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene or Text mode when shooting in AUTO. These selections can be made without having to turn the color LCD on thanks to the data LCD. The shutter release is well designed with a nice "half- pressed" and "fully pressed" point that gives the user plenty of tactile feedback.
The S404 is a rangefinder camera, it has an eyelevel coupled viewfinder that zooms in and out with the lens. The optical viewfinder has a fairly narrow viewing angle and lacks any kind of dioptric adjustment. The coverage of the optical finder is about 85% which means that you always capture more than you see. The LCD when used as the viewfinder is much more accurate at about 96% coverage. The color LCD has a fast refresh rate of 30fps, it's smooth and clean except in low light conditions. The multi-step zoomed playback mode allows for checking the focus, color or composition of the shot. The color LCD is covered by a shiny, clear plastic protector and could benefit from a non-glare coating. When Macro mode is selected the color LCD comes on automatically to prevent parallax errors of the optical viewfinder at close range.
As with all cameras the most important part is the lens and Minolta has put a very good 4x optical zoom lens on the S404. It covers the 35mm equivalent of 35-140mm focal length with a maximum aperture of F3-F3.6. There is moderate barrel distortion at full wideangle which is normal for most zooms but there's virtually no pincushioning at full telephoto, all in all a very nice lens. The autofocus system covers from 19.7 inches to infinity in normal mode and its dedicated macro mode covers from 6.3 to 23.6 inches. Unusual is that the macro mode is fixed at 15.5mm, the zoom control is disabled until you leave macro mode. In the Multi record mode the AF point is user-selectable, any of the 5 AF points may be chosen using the 4-way controller. The flash does a very good job of "throttling down" when used in the macro mode and produces properly exposed pictures without having to use any exposure compensation.
There are two main still image recording modes on the S404, AUTO or MULTI. In AUTO mode you can select the image size and quality, enable voice memo or date imprint, enable digital zoom or instant playback from the menus or select Macro, Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene or Text mode from the top controls. Switching the camera to the MULTI position gives the user access to three full pages of menu options (outlined on page 3 of this review.) You can choose between Program AE, Aperture priority or Manual exposure modes. Aperture priority mode only lets you select either a fully open or fully closed aperture and automatically selects the proper shutter speed. Manual mode gives you access to the full range of shutter speeds from 1/1000 to four seconds, the Bulb setting can extend that to a maximum of 15 seconds.
Exposure metering can be set for Multi-segment (256 segments) or Spot and the white balance has five presets plus custom. Exposure compensation is available from +/- 2EV in 1/3EV steps and you can vary the color saturation and contrast level of the captured images. It also has Exposure Bracketing with selectable steps of 0.3EV, 0.5EV or 1.0EV. As with the DiMAGE 7 and 5, the S404 saves image data in its own color space so you need to either print with a PIM (Epson PRINT Image Matching) capable printer or post-process the images with the supplied DiMAGE Image Viewing Utility to get them into the sRGB color space. With the DIVU you can convert the S404's images into any one of the following color spaces: sRGB, AppleRGB, SMPTE-C, PAL/SECAM, ColorMatchRGB, AdobeRGB, Wide Range RGB, NTSC or CIE RGB. You can also achieve the same results by loading the images into PhotoShop and adjusting their levels. Without some sort of color adjustment the images are going to look somewhat "flat" when viewed on a properly adjusted monitor.
The actual operation of the S404 is quite robust, the average shot to shot speed is about two seconds when capturing Large/Fine images. If using the uncompressed SuperFine (TIF) mode be prepared to wait a good 45 seconds between shots as the "busy" light glows at you. This camera like most today is optimized for processing JPEG images and this isn't a bad thing as a Fine quality JPEG makes an excellent print. The only difference is that with a TIF image there are no compression artifacts to interfere with post-processing editing. In continuous mode you can grab up to 4 frames (Large/Fine) at 1.4fps and then it takes about 3-4 seconds before you capture another one. When shooting in Single exposure mode you have to make sure to lift your finger off of the shutter button before you take the next picture or else the shutter is locked. Autofocus is a mixed bag, for the most part it works quite well in adequate lighting but in less than perfect conditions the AF can "hunt" for several seconds before failing. The S404 like many digicams, could benefit greatly from some type of outboard focus assist illuminator.
Overall the S404's image quality is very good with well saturated colors and good dynamic range (after being processed by the DIVU) and I saw little to none of the usual chromatic abberation problems (purple fringing) experienced with other cameras. The GT lens produces images as sharp as the Nikon and better than many of the others. A properly matched lens and imager is key to avoiding the dreaded purple fringe effect and Minolta seems to have achieved this on the S404/S304 as well as the Dimage 7 and 5.
As I stated at the beginning, the S404 is currently an incredible deal at $499. Most of the competing 4-megapixel cameras are at least a hundred dollars or more expensive. Few of the competing cameras offer a durable aluminum body and none of them have a 4x optical zoom lens. This is an excellent choice for the beginner or advanced user that wants the ability to make photo-quality prints from 4x6" right up to 13x19" wall size prints.
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