The Z2, like the Z1 before it, has a unique love-it-or-hate-it Buck Rogers design that, despite looking rather odd, handles very well. Externally it is almost identical to the Z1, and shares a close family resemblance with the Z10 and Z3. Size-wise the Z2 is very similar to all it's main competitors (the Canon S1 IS, Panasonic FZ3 and Olympus C-765), but only the Canon comes in heavier. As with the Z1, the external control layout is fairly minimalist (with virually no silkscreened words or symbols), which makes the camera look nice and clean, but also means you have to use it for a little longer than usual to really get to grips with what everything does. The majority of Z2'a more advanced features can only be accessed via the (admittedly excellent) on-screen menu system, but you do get external controls for shooting mode, macro, flash mode, AE compensation and focus point selection. There is also the option to assign a different function to the flash key when the built-in flash isn't in use.
In your hand
There's no doubting where the inspiration for the shape of the Z2 came from - this is an SLR in miniature (albeit an SLR designed for the deck of the Battlestar Gallactica). The large grip that dominates the left side of the camera may not look too elegant, but it is remarkably practical, making carrying and shooting with the Z2 not just easy, but a real pleasure. The controls are perfectly positioned for single-handed shooting, though it feels a lot more stable if you use both - essential at longer zoom settings. Finally, it may be made of plastic, but the Z2 feels surprisingly sturdy with little or no flexing of the body, although as is common in big zoom cameras, you can wobble the lens a bit at full extension.
That large, flat grip is home to the four AA batteries that power the Z2. The camera ships with four alkaline batteries, so you'll need to budget for at least one set of NiMH AA's, plus a charger. In our extensive testing of the Z2 we were very impressed with the battery life, despite the fact that the LCD screen is on all the time. We'll publish our own battery test in due course, but the 250 shots/300 mins per charge Minolta quotes seems fair.
A sturdy sliding door on the rounded right hand side of the camera (looking from the front) covers the SD card slot. A single mini connector next to the slot acts as both USB port for transferring images and AV port (using the supplied cable) for video and audio connections. The Z2 can accept SD or MMC cards (though write times are slower with MMC) and Minolta supplies a 16MB SD to get you going.
The main power (on/off) button sits at the center of a three position mode switch, used to move from playback to record mode, and to flip between the 1.5 inch LCD on the rear of the camera, and the electronic viewfinder. As with the Z1 before it, the Z2 uses a unique 'switch finder' system, whereby mirrors redirect the LCD image into the viewfinder. Swapping from the rear screen to the viewfinder takes a fraction of a second, and is accompanied by a resounding 'clunk'.
The viewfinder itself therefore shows almost exactly the same image as the screen - it's the same LCD after all (acutally the LCD shows 100% of the frame, the viewfinder only 98%, but you'd never notice). The viewfinder is OK, but seems very small and can be difficult to use in very bright light. On the upside there is a dioptre adjustment, and the high refresh rate of the screen means there's no lag.
The Z2 is remarkably well-endowed in the flash department for a budget camera. Not only is the large pop-up flash powerful - it works perfectly up to about 20 feet at the wide end of the zoom - but it's nice and high too, which helps minimise red-eye. Unusually for a camera at this price point there is a hot shoe for use with Minolta Dynax/Maxxum flash units. In our tests the built-in flash did an excellent job - even flashing an 'OK' message on-screen after each correct exposure.
The 10x optical zoom gives a range equivalent to 38-380mm in 35mm terms, which is pretty standard. Of course we'd like to see a slightly wider short end of the zoom, but at least you can add an adaptor (the ZCW-100 0.75x giving 28mm equivalent). It's fast too - F2.8-3.7 (though the Z1 had a marginally wider aperture at the long end, F3.5).
The three chrome buttons ranged in a curve beside the LCD screen are concerned with the 'digital' part of the camera. From the top they are MENU (erm.. turn the menus on), QV (quick view), which displays the last image saved (and offers the option to delete it) and the 'i+' button, used to control the amount of on-screen information overlaid on the preview or playback images. In playback mode the QV button is used to quickly delete saved images.
The shutter release is perfectly positioned at the front of the handgrip, has a nice positive action, and feels very responsive.
The zoom rocker is tucked under the exposure mode dial on the rear of the hand grip. Again, it's perfectly positioned for your thumb when shooting (even with one hand), and again feel responsive and relatively smooth (no giant leaps from one zoom position to the next)
The main controller has - unusually - no markings at all to indicate the function of any of its buttons. For the most part they are used to navigate the on-screen menu system, but pressing and holding down the middle button allows you to change the focus point, whilst the left and right button give quick access to AE compensation. Nice buttons, simple operation.
Two further buttons, on top of the handgrip, offer quick access to the macro and super macro modes, as well as cycling through the various flash modes. The flash button can also be reassigned (as a 'custom key'), to control mode, drive mode, white balance, focus mode, or color mode. If you choose this option, however, you'll need to go back to the main menu system to change the flash mode.
Finally the exposure mode dial, which sits atop the rear of the handgrip. There are ten shooting modes; Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Portrait, Night Portait, Sports, Landscapes and Sunset - plus the movie mode. In the Auto mode an optional 'Auto DSP' feature dynamically selects the appropriate subject mode acccording to the focus distance and brightness of the scene (i.e it attempts to guess that you are shooting a portrait, landscape or whatever).