Minolta DiMAGE S414 Review
The DiMAGE S414 is Minolta's 4-megapixel update to its popular DiMAGE S404 compact digital camera. The S414 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 (April 2003), the S414 is one of the best deals on the market for a 4-megapixel camera, the average street price is only $399 (often lower) 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 S404 sold for $499 only a year ago! The S404 was so popular that it literally sold out the entire production run and everybody thought that it had been discontinued.
The S414 is equipped with a CompactFlash Type I card slot which means that it can't use a Microdrive. That's not much of a problem these days with CF Type I cards ranging in size all the way up to one-gigabyte and reasonably priced to boot. I like the fact that the S414 uses 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 2100mAH per cell with even higher capacity cells on the horizon.
Ergonomically the S414 is well designed, with the exception of its tripod socket which is very near the edge of the body. My only other gripe about this camera is that the data LCD is not 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 (but not illuminated) 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. The shutter release is well designed with a nice "half-pressed" and "fully pressed" point that gives the user plenty of tactile feedback.
The S414 has an eyelevel coupled viewfinder that zooms in and out with the lens. The optical viewfinder is a bit narrow 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 real-time refresh rate so 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 S414. 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 the 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; 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 there's Exposure Bracketing with selectable steps of 0.3EV, 0.5EV or 1.0EV. I'm really happy to report that Minolta has decided to use sRGB as the output color space for the S414. The S404 used a non-standard color space and required post-processing in the Dimage Image Viewing Utility (DIVU) to get the images to sRGB. People that didn't know this (or were too lazy to process the images) ended up with rather "flat" looking colors and blamed the camera. Most digicams and computers use the sRGB color space by default so your pictures should look just dandy now. In Multi mode there are color options (Vivid, Natural, B&W, Sepia and Solarization), Sharpness settings, Contrast settings and Filter options (Warm or Cool) so you can do a LOT of image adjustment right in the camera. After capture you can massage the images with the supplied DIVU software.
The performance of the S414 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 S414 like many digicams, could benefit greatly from some type of outboard focus assist illuminator.
The DiMAGE S414 is an incredible deal (steal?) at just $399 (or less.) Most other 4-megapixel cameras are at least a hundred dollars more expensive. Few of the competing cameras offer a durable aluminum body and even less have 4x optical zooms. This is an excellent choice for the advanced user or the beginner who wants a camera they can grow into. It has plenty of image resolution to make photo-quality prints up to 13x19" size. They should sell as well as the S404 did last year so grab one now if you want one -- they could go very fast.
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