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The Z5, like the rest of the Z series, has a unique love-it-or-hate-it Buck Rogers design that, despite looking rather odd, handles very well. Externally it is very similar to the Z3, and shares a close family resemblance with the Z2. Size-wise the Z5 is slightly heavier, and slightly larger than its main competitors (the Panasonic FZ5 and Kodak Z740), but it still feels fairly compact. As with its predecessors, 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 Z5's 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 Z5 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 Z5 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.

Side by side

The DiMAGE Z5 may be compact, but sat next to Panasonic's new FZ5 it looks positively bulky. The Panasonic FZ20 is on the right.

Body elements

That large, flat grip is home to the four AA batteries that power the Z5. The camera ships with four alkaline batteries, so you'll need to budget for at least one set of NiMH AAs, plus a charger. In our extensive testing of the Z5 we were very impressed with the battery life - Konica Minolta quotes a figure of 240 shots (using alkaline batteries) or 420 shots if you switch to the 2500mAh NiMH batteries (CIPA standard tests) and this seems fair.
A hinged door on the base of the camera covers the SD/MMC slot (the positioning means you cannot change the card whilst the camera is mounted on a tripod unless you use a small ball and socket head).
The main power (on/off) button sits beside a three-position mode switch, used to move from playback to record mode, and to flip between the 2.0-inch LCD on the rear of the camera, and the electronic viewfinder.
Unlike the cheaper Z series cameras, the Z5 has a 'real' separate electronic viewfinder (as opposed to a 'hybrid' mirror-based system). The viewfinder isn't a patch on the one used in Konica Minolta's top end A2 model, and is rather dim, making it less than ideal in bright or low light. But it does have a decent refresh rate and virtually no lag, and is clear enough to be able to tell if the focus has found the right point in the frame.
The Z5 is pretty well-endowed in the flash department. Not only is the large pop-up flash powerful - it works perfectly up to about 12 feet at the wide end of the zoom - but it's nice and high too, which helps minimise red-eye. There is also 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 12x optical zoom gives a range equivalent to 35-420mm in 35mm terms, a very useful range (and one with a decent wideangle end). You can go even wider with a Konica Minolta converter that takes you down to 26mm (equiv.). The lens has a respectable F2.8 max aperture at the long end, dropping to a less impressive F4.5 at the tele end, which combined with the lack of a decent high ISO setting means the Anti-Shake system is an absolute essential.
The big zoom extends to around 30mm (1.2 inches) on power up, but therein all zooming is internal (the lens doesn't extend any farther).
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 feels responsive and relatively smooth (no giant leaps from one zoom position to the next)
The AC input and combined USB data/AV ports sit under a flexible plastic flap on the right side of the camera (viewed from the front).
Finally the exposure mode dial, which sits atop the rear of the handgrip. There are eleven 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 etc).