Minolta DiMAGE 7 Review
DiMAGE 7 Firmware Update
Christmas in August? Well... for some lucky D7 owners, it was.
Imagine getting a brand new camera without having to study an owner's manual or spending a fortune. Like most readers, I jumped at the first opportunity to order the upgrade as soon as its availability was posted on Steve's amazingly informative and friendly forum.
The upgrade can be ordered from Minolta's web site in three different packages:
The popularity of the offer was such that by the time Minolta had sent out their official e-Mail notice to the registered users, demand had exceeded supply and the ordering information and link was taken off their web site. I'm sure that Minolta learned a valuable lesson in damage control after that little fiasco as there were undoubtedly many, unhappy D7 owners trying to buy their advertised upgrade!
The upgrade came as promised a few days after the August 8th shipping date, and to my surprise, there were 3 CDs in the package:
Owners of Minolta 35mm cameras will be very familiar with how the upgrade content was packaged, it's the same as the personality modules for their SLR film cameras. As before, the English version of the installation instructions is buried in the middle of a large, double-sided printout that you must unfold across your coffee table.
The installation itself is pretty much straight forward and is performed just like the previous firmware updates. You copy the ram.bin, and the dsc.app from the CD to an empty 16MB or larger flashcard(*). This flash card is then inserted in the camera, with the power OFF of course. Minolta recommends that you use a fresh set of batteries or an AC adapter to preclude losing power during the upgrade which can turn your camera into a worthless doorstop. You now press and hold the shutter release while turning the camera ON, this initializes the upgrade procedure. The camera flashes its red LED for approximately 2 minutes and then finally stops. At this point you can safely turn the camera OFF, remove the flash card and the batteries (or unplug AC adapter). If you fail to remove the batteries the result is a fairly dead looking camera until you do follow the instructions and remove the batteries.
Voila, next time the camera is turned back ON, one has an entirely new camera!
(*) Several posters have reported with Window XP the CD files must be copied to the
hardisk first, before onto the flash card!
New Recording Mode Features
Improved Recording Mode Features
Data Transfer Mode
After the UpgradeThe first thing that you will notice is the more robust operation of the camera.
The menus now "wrap around" back to the top which eliminates a lot of pushing when changing selections. Some items in the menu have been shuffled around to make room for new features. I immediately jumped to the histogram, grid and scale features to enable them. Checking the tick marks alone is not sufficient to enable them, you have to push-in the center of the 4-way selector to store the setting. I would have gladly bought a new D7i just for the real-time histogram feature alone, but it can now be added for the price of a few stocking stuffers. Thank you Minolta! The live histogram, just like the grid and scale, are displayed by cycling through the six EVF screens with the "i+" button. The best use for the histogram is to quickly estimate if a flash fill, or reflectors are necessary. But I've also found that when used in conjunction with a polarizer, it's also a Godsend! A polarizer can shift the pixel density left and right while the contrast adjustment can heighten or lower the pixels density peaks.
The other change that everyone notices right away is the improved accuracy and the speed of the focus. There's a caveat though - what users perceived as camera hunting before is now replaced by a quick "frozen frame" and then the picture quickly snaps into sharpness. The camera now dedicates all of its processing power to auto focusing and then only shows the oustanding results at the end! It takes a while to get used to this. I would rather have been given the choice of selecting this new feature or not. Some users, like myself, did not have any problems with the way it originally worked. We would have rather keep the old autofocus method and make use of the new Direct Manual Focus (DMF) override instead. This DMF feature is a first for any digicam and should be adopted by all camera manufacturers going forward. There's really no need for a separate manual mode anymore, just spin the focus ring when one wants to highlight a different focusing area.
The improved speed also extends to the playback mode, especially for those using an IBM Microdrive. Scrolling between the 3x3 thumbnails is now much faster even when one jumps to the next page of the matrix. The short wait in the old firmware for the next set of thumbnails when using a Microdrive is now gone. The magnify button function now enlarges the image in 0.4x steps, up or down in conjunction with the 4-way controller. You can change from magnify to scroll mode by pressing the center of the controller. This functionality is extended to the QuickView (QV) function which almost renders the playback mode redundant. In record mode you can press the QV button and review not only the last picture, but any previous image, including its respective histogram! Also, all pictures reviewed with the QV button can now be magnified, panned, scrolled, or deleted the same as in playback mode. Pressing the i+ button in Quickview turns the info banner off and also recalls the by 4, or by 9 matrix, depending on the camera setup. There's really no need to switch the camera into the playback mode anymore except to do a slideshow.
The normal frame rate for the upgraded D7 has been increased from 1.1fps to 1.5fps and the upgrade also provides a UHS mode that increases the frame rate to 4fps, albeit @ 1280 rather than the normal 2560 mode. My guess is that this is a limit imposed by the camera's internal buffer before it's required to write to the flash card or Microdrive. One can fit 5 frames of 2560, hence 20 for 1280. One can also enable the UHS option in movie mode which allows the camera to capture 640x480-pixel Quicktime movies.
The upgrade changes the Quicktime movie files from .avi to .mov format. It also added a new Night Movie mode that captures only in black and white. By sacrificing color, Minolta actually achieves a better luminance and turns otherwise worthless, noisy clipping into useful night documentaries!
Other changes are subtle but highly useful. Manual focus during power save is a killer in the original D7. The focusing position, as well as the drive mode, reverted back to default when you took too long to compose a macro shot and the camera went into power save. Now with the upgrade, both the focusing distance and the drive mode is "remembered" if the zoom ring position isn't changed during power save - just press the shutter to wake up the camera. The functionality of the shutter release button is another subtle change. If the shutter button is held halfway after an exposure, the exposure value, the AF point, including the DMF override are locked in from the previous shot. Talk about speeding things up... this upgrade will fly in the studio with this one!
Studio Flash after the upgrade is also less of a challenge since the built-in flash
can now be set manually to 1/4 or 1/16 power to trigger a slave, and it won't
pre-flash either! The flash compensation was removed from the menu and placed on the
Digital Effect button: Pushing-in the Digital Effect button and the up/down
directional pad at the same time enables the flash compensation. The dreaded 'dark
viewfinder' for the hot-shoe mounted sync cable for studio flashes is also solved by
the upgrade: Pressing in the Function and the i+ button together turns the EVF auto
amplification ON. The manual mode M glows red as to warn the photographer not to trust
the EVF for it does not reflect the actual scene exposure anymore... Another nice touch
added here by Minolta is that if the DMF was used, selecting the 4x button immediately
activates it under all lighting conditions, even when it's too dark to see! There is
no need to go to the manual focus mode to enable the 4x anymore...Again more speed gains
here as well for the studio shooters.
UHS movie mode selection added to the list, while the flash bracketing is now moved to
the Digital Effect button and Directional keypad.
Set-Up screen menu with new Direct Manual Focusing options.
Set-Up screen menu with new Display Mode and check mark selection of the
newly added Histogram, Grid, & Scale functions.
Record mode - live histogram display while rotating a circular polarizing filter.
While the debate over the merit of optical viewfinder can rage on forever, I can't help but notice how well Minolta has weaned their current and former customers to the many benefits of their class-leading EVF design:
1. The color keyed head-up display of the icons (red=warning, blue=selected) in the EVF makes the data LCD superfluous (a potential cost saving target here for future models).
2. The grid and scale in the EVF solve the fragile relic of interchangeable screens, and dust problems left from the film eras.
3. The real-time histogram, along with the What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get feature that makes kids-play out of manual exposure control. Making this feature on an optical system will not only be expensive but heavy as well.
4. The instantaneous Direct Manual Focus override combined with the on-demand 4x magnification can make shooting portrait highly rewarding. For example, after the camera has locked on AF, a the touch of a button allows one to instaneously zoom-in, and perform manual fine tuning on the eyelashes with another twist of the focusing ring... Amazing!
Overall most owners, like myself, are quite happy with our early Christmas in August offer, and leads me to ponder wether the folks at Minolta may have a surprise in store for us this coming holiday seasons... Why else would Minolta sacrifice all their D7i sales to keep a few former customers loyal when the cost of such an upgrade would barely justify their effort or infrastructure cost required to implement this upgrade... My guess is, Shutterbugs that have gotten accustomed to theses innovative features from Minolta, will not accept anything less when they'll shop for their next mega- pixels camera... when that time come I think Minolta will finally reap their rightfully earned reward... In the meantime thank you Minolta!
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DiMAGE 7 review
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