Minolta Dimage 7

Digital cameraNew 5-megapixel digital cameras are shooting bigger and more colourful pictures than ever. With one of these shooters, your "photos can be detailed enough to display at even 8x10in print size. The latest cameras are a significant jump from the 2- and 3-million pixel models that, save for one expensive 4-megapixel camera, previously ruled the consumer market's top tier.

We looked at the first 5.24-megapixel consumer camera, Minolta's Dimage 7 ($2999). Several 5+-megapixel cameras should follow from other major vendors. Alternatively, consider the newest 4-megapixel cameras, which offer compelling value for people who need high-resolution images but are unwilling to pay the premium for a 5-megapixel model.

We tried out a shipping Dimage 7 unit. As expected, its higher resolution yielded sharper pictures than those from 2- and 3-megapixel cameras, especially with cropped and enlarged images. We saw mixed colour results, however.

The Dimage 7's strength is its sharpness, which lets you zoom in much closer and still retain details. An extra-long 7X optical zoom makes the super resolution even more flexible - you can get close with the zoom, then crop and enlarge with software to get even closer. A helpful viewfinder cue indicates which part of the image was used to set focus. Unlike competing cameras, such as the Olympus E-10 (a 4-megapixel unit priced at approximately $4000), the Dimage 7 shows your prospective shot only through its two LCDs (a standard one and the viewfinder).

We got mixed results with colour and contrast. Test shots taken beneath clouds looked brighter than ones from some other cameras. Bright sunlight shots had muddy colours and hidden shadow details.

Remember that the commonly accepted standard for high-quality printing is 300dpi; the Dimage 7's best setting creates an image good for just 240dpi when printed at 8x10in. You'd need images with at least 2400x3000 resolution, from a 7+-megapixel camera, to achieve a true 300dpi print at 8x10in.

If you can't see (or won't pay for) the difference a 5-megapixel camera makes, a 4-megapixel unit might be your best bet. Several vendors offer new models in this class.

Canon has just released its PowerShot G2 ($1999), a 4.13-megapixel model with notable new features. The G2's new three-point focusing system lets you choose on which portion of the frame the camera will focus. The camera's metering system can also adjust the light level for every pixel shot rather than adjusting based on data from a few regions of the frame, according to Canon.

Also new is Olympus's 4.13-megapixel Camedia C-4040 ($2299). It has the same case and many of the same features as the C-3040 (an older 3.3-megapixel model), including a 3X optical zoom and a wide f/1.8 lens aperture.

Sony's new 4.1-megapixel DSC-S85 uses a high-quality Carl Zeiss 3X optical zoom lens, and costs $2649.

Many 3-megapixel cameras still cost as much as or more than higher-end models, but prices are dropping. For example, Kodak's new $1399, 3.1-megapixel DX 3900 has a 2X optical zoom. If you can do without a CompactFlash slot and an optical zoom, save over $300 with Kodak's 3.1-megapixel DX 3700 model ($979).

More than resolution

With affordable 4- and 3-megapixel cameras available, vendors are looking beyond resolution to distinguish their products. Like scanner vendors, some camera manufacturers now trumpet colour bit depth. The higher a model's bit depth, the greater the range of colour captured by the camera and the richer the subsequent image.

Sony's DSC-S85 uses a 14-bit analog-to-digital (A/D) converter, for a total of 42 bits spread over the three colour channels. The Dimage 7 uses a 12-bit A/D converter (for a 36-bit total). Other vendors still have 10- or 8-bit A/D converters. Users with high-end printers will see the most benefit from higher bit depths: their pictures should show more subtleties in highlights and shadows, as well as more realistic flesh tones.

The Minolta Dimage 7's Flex Focus Point is a great feature: it allows you "to pick the focus of your shot, rather than relying solely on the centre-weighted focusing typically found in many cameras. Nikon and Casio offer similar features in their respective high-end cameras.

To go beyond 5-megapixel resolution, camera technology will need a boost. Forthcoming high-resolution cameras handling bigger, more complex files will require more-powerful digital signal processors, better batteries, larger memory buffers, and more storage, according to industry experts. Camera bodies may also have to grow to accommodate the larger CCDs (charge-coupled devices) that are needed for the extra pixels.

For now, you can still get sharp, high-resolution pictures with a 5-megapixel camera, and shots of nearly as high quality using new, less pricey 4-megapixel models.

Minolta Dimage 7

Price: $2999

Phone: 1300 728 606

URL: www.minolta.com.auSony DSC-S85Phone: 1300 137 669

URL: www.sony.com.au Canon PowerShot G2Phone: 1800 816 001

URL: www.canon.com.au Kodak DX 3900; DX 3700Phone: 1800 147 701

URL: www.kodak.com.auOlympus E-10 and Camedia C-4040Distributor: R Gunz

Phone: (02) 9935 6600

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Alan Stafford

PC World

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