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Design

As you can see the DiMAGE S304 is far more traditional in its layout than the 5 and 7. What's surprising when you first see the camera is how deep (or 'thick') it is, the hand grip has a surprising girth. This, at least to me, is actually welcome, too many digital cameras have a narrow hand grip which doesn't fill your palm in the way the S304's does. The body is made from a slightly champagne coloured aluminium alloy which is cool to the touch. The only plastic portions are the compartment doors (CF compartment on side and battery compartment on the base) and a strip across the top which holds the status LCD.

The overall camera layout is very similar to other compacts, enough space on the right hand side back for the pad of your thumb, all other controls can be reached with your thumb. On the front the lens is mounted about one third in from the side with just enough 'fixed barrel' to cup with the forefinger and thumb of the left hand. The only thing I wasn't too keen on was the silver inlay strip on the inside of the grip, would have been nice as a rubber strip.

Build quality wise the S304 is pretty good, solid enough with no rattles or creaks, button finish was good with a nice solid click beneath each. My only note would be the same slightly loose and 'rubbery' feeling (in action, not surface) 4-way controller which was used on the DiMAGE 5 and 7.

Here's the S304 beside its major competition, the 3 megapixel 4x zoom Nikon Coolpix 995. As you can see there's a little size difference between the two, the S304 looking slightly smaller. Yet the S304 feels 'bulkier' than the 995, interestingly the S304 is actually slightly lighter (both cameras fully loaded).

I won't go over and over it but the S304 shares the same design 'boo-boo' as the DiMAGE 5 and 7 in regards to the strap eyelet over the Compact Flash compartment door. This eyelet hangs down and gets trapped in the door when closing (unless you hold it out of the way). It's a small detail but annoying none the less.

Again, despite it's 'visual bulk' (the way it looks and feels at first touch) I found the S304 a comfortable camera to hold, the grip filling my palm nicely and the shutter release button just falling under my finger without having to release the grip to press.


Top status LCD 'data panel'

The status LCD on the top of the S304 is smaller than we saw on the DiMAGE 5 / 7 but sitll provides plenty of information about current settings and exposure details. What's gone is a readout of the currently metered exposure. The status LCD is combined with the camera's SCENE exposure modes, when the small silver button is pressed the camera cycles through each SCENE mode (indicated by the arrow below the icon). This LCD has no backlight.


Rear LCD Monitor

The S304's 1.8" LCD is mounted behind a protective plastic cover. Unfortunately Minolta haven't carried over the very good anti-reflective coating used on the DiMAGE 5/7. This can make the screen somewhat difficult to see in bright sunlight. The screen, while high enough resolution did seem to provide a 'soft' live view image, this is the same effect I saw on the DiMAGE 5 / 7.


Viewfinder

The S304's viewfinder is the typical compact camera 'optical tunnel' with a fairly narrow view (doesn't fill the eye's field of view). Looking through the viewfinder you'll find two center of frame composition brackets (similar to the ones found on the LCD monitor). There are no parallax correction lines. There is no dioptre adjustment.

The lights beside the viewfinder indicate:

Green Steady Good AF Lock
Green Blinking Quickly Can not focus
Orange Blinking Slowly Shake warning (slow exposure)
Orange Steady Flash charged and will fire with exposure


Battery Compartment

The battery compartment can be found in the based of the cameras hand grip. The compartment has a small locking clip, once this is flipped to the open position the compartment can be opened by pulling it towards the front of the camera. As you can see the S304 takes four AA batteries. The camera is supplied with four Alkaline AA batteries (sadly), my recommendation is to get a decent set of NiMH rechargeable batteries (at least 1500 mAh) and a charger.

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