Minolta DiMAGE A1 Review
Minolta has clearly realized that black can make a camera look far more professional, and so the design of the A1 utilizes a black magnesium alloy body and soft black rubber hand grip. It's worth noting that the A1 feels considerably more solid (and thus professional) than the 7 series, I'm guessing that Minolta are using a heavier grade of metal in the body. The A1 is smaller than the 7Hi, this is primarily thanks to the move from four AA batteries (which used to be situated in the base of the camera) to a single Lithium-Ion pack which fits into the hand grip. The camera design is also cleaner with less seam lines and a more logical control layout.
The biggest difference from the front must be the slightly thinner hand grip with its grip sensor which activates AF in full-time AF mode. Around the back DiMAGE 7(Hi/i) owners will note the lack of the battery compartment and the new tilting LCD monitor. There are so many subtle control changes that this camera although visually similar to the 7 series is really quite different in use.
Side by side
Not a feature for feature comparison but an example of the difference between the five megapixel, seven times optical zoom DiMAGE A1 and Nikon's five megapixel four times zoom Coolpix 5400. One note of interest is that both of these cameras have a zoom range which starts at 28 mm.
Gone is the hollow feel of the early 7 series cameras, instead the A1 feels solid, weighty (but only a tiny bit heavier than the 7Hi) and robust. The metal used to make up the body seems to be thicker and this camera feels like it could go into battle and come out looking considerably better than the photographer. This has to be one of the most comfortable digital cameras to hold, the design of the hand grip is just perfect, depth, thickness and even the makeup of the rubber used are all perfect. At the back a small 'hook' is placed just so for your thumb. Kudos Minolta.
The layout of the data panel on the top of the camera has been rearranged for the A1. It provides plenty of detail about current camera settings, available storage and exposure. The LCD has a backlight which automatically comes on if you half-press the shutter release in a dark environment, the camera appears to use the metered light value to determine whether or not to use the backlight (which is logical - why don't others do this?).
A diagram indicating all possible status LCD settings is shown below.
Diagram reproduced from the DiMAGE A1 manual.
The most visible difference between the 7Hi and A1 must be the new tilting LCD monitor. This has a double hinge system which is very similar to the Olympus E-10/E-20, you can tilt the LCD downwards by approximately 20 degrees and upwards up to 90 degrees. The images below show the limits of movement apart from one more which would be to push the hinge flat against the body achieving a full up facing tilt of 90 degrees. The LCD itself is bright and sharp with a very good anti-reflective coating. As per the 7 series the A1's LCD live view switches into a black and white 'high gain' mode in very low light (although this can now be disabled if you prefer), I still wonder why other manufacturers haven't implemented this feature, it's really very useful.
|Locked flat against rear||Tilted down 20 degrees|
|Pulled away from back and tilted up||Pulled away and titled up further|
The DiMAGE A1 has done away with the 'Ferrorelectric LCD' seen on the 7 series, which while smooth and colorful it didn't have the resolution to be useful. The A1 has a 235,000 pixel 0.44" LCD electronic viewfinder (this spec sounds very similar to that used in other recently announced digital cameras). Also changed is the shape of the eyepiece lens, it's now a larger rectangle compared to the 7 series circular lens.
Electronic Viewfinders are a matter of taste, many other reviewers simply hate them. I personally recognize them as the only alternative to a true pentaprism TTL viewfinder on a digital camera such as this. This new EVF does appear to be one of the better ones with good resolution, good color and only a little softness towards the corners of the image. Thanks to the high gain black & white mode in low light you can still continue to use the A1's EVF in low light situations.
Just like the 7 series the A1's viewfinder also has two other unique features, firstly it can be tilted through 90 degrees, and so can be used easily from above. Secondly it has a proximity sensor which allows the camera to automatically switch from the LCD to the EVF (or just switch the EVF on or off) when your eye meets the viewfinder eyepiece. There is also some dioptre adjustment.
Unlike the 7 series the A1 is now powered by a single Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery (1500 mAh, 7.4 V) which fits inside the hand grip. This is likely to provide longer life, it is easier to carry and store and reduces the overall size of the camera. The battery compartment door is held closed by a small latch, once open the battery stays in place thanks to a second spring loaded latch.
Battery / Charger
As you can see from the image on the left below Minolta's new NP-400 Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery (1500 mAh, 7.4 V) appears to be based on the same OEM piece as Nikon used for the EN-EL3 (1400 mAh, 7.4V) and Canon used for the BP-511 (1100 mAh, 7.4V). The biggest difference is capacity (1500 vs. 1400 vs. 1100 mAh), this has probably come about simply through the progression of the makeup of this battery design in the last three years (we first saw the BP-511 in 2000)*. The supplied BC-400 battery charger can charge a flat battery to full capacity in approximately 150 minutes (2 hrs 30 mins).
* Wouldn't it have been nice if the big manufacturers had realized this two or three years ago, agreed on a standard specification for this type and size of Lithium-Ion and we could pick and choose where to buy our second or third packs? Nah, too logical.