DCRP Review: Minolta DiMAGE Z1
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: October 15, 2003
Last Updated: October 20, 2003

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The DiMAGE Z1 ($399) marks newly-merged Konica Minolta's entry into the growing ultra zoom camera market. Where Olympus used to be the only game in town, now the majority of the camera manufacturers in this space. That means a cameras has to be pretty darn good to be the best in the class.

The Z1 may look like just another ultra zoom camera, but it has several features that set it apart from (most of) the competition. These include:

  • Passive AF system
  • Hot shoe for external flash
  • VGA, 30 frames/sec movie mode
  • Unique "switch finder" that you'll see later

How does the Z1 fare? Find out now!

What's in the Box?

The DiMAGE Z1 has an average bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.2 (effective) Mpixel DiMAGE Z1 camera
  • 16MB Secure Digital card
  • Four AA alkaline batteries (not rechargeable)
  • Neck strap
  • Lens cap w/retaining strap
  • USB cable
  • A/V cable
  • 115 page camera manual + software manual (both printed)
  • DiMAGE Viewer Utility + ArcSoft software CDs

Minolta includes a 16MB Secure Digital (SD) card with the camera, which is barely enough to start with. I highly recommend picking up a 128MB or larger card right away. The Z1 can use SD cards, or the slower (and lower capacity) MultiMedia (MMC) cards.

Another purchase you'll need to make is for more batteries. Minolta includes four alkaline batteries with the camera, which will quickly find their way into your trash can (or should I say, recycling bin). So go buy two sets of NiMH batteries instead -- they'll last longer while saving the environment -- and your money -- as well. Minolta estimates that you can take about 250 photos (with 50% flash use), or spend 300 minutes in playback mode using alkalines, so expect better results with high power NiMH cells. The nice thing about these AA-based cameras is that you can use alkalines in emergencies.

Want more battery life, and don't mind carrying around a bulky battery pack? Then check out the Minolta EBP-100 battery pack kit ($275). It holds two lithium-ion batteries, which should provide you with hours of battery power (sorry, I don't have exact numbers).

Minolta includes a lens cap and retaining strap with the Z1.

Since the DiMAGE Z1 is equipped with a hot shoe, you can use a external flash. Keep in mind that you must use a Minolta flash, as its a proprietary hot shoe. Compatible flashes include the Program Flash 2500 (shown above), 3600HS, and 5600HS.


Image courtesy of Konica Minolta

The only lens accessory for the Z1 is a wide-angle conversion lens available ($120). This lens will give you a wide-end of 28 mm. Other accessories include an AC adapter ($60) and leather neck strap. And I already mentioned the battery pack.

Included with the camera is version 2.2.1 of the Minolta's DiMAGE Viewer software. It's certainly not a substitute for something like Photoshop Elements, but it does basic editing fairly well. The software is Mac OS X native. If you're just looking to connect your camera and transfer files, you'll be pleased to hear that the Z1 is Windows XP and OS X compatible -- and you probably won't have to install any drivers.

The DiMAGE's manual is pretty good as well, with long explanations and not a lot of fine print. Much better than the average camera manual.

Look and Feel

The DiMAGE Z1 is a unique looking camera, with a silver plastic body. I'd rate the build quality as average, reminding me of the Toshiba PDR-M700. It's definitely not as well built as the plastic Kodak DX6490 or the all-metal Olympus C-750UZ. Something else I notices is that the lens rattles if you give the camera the slightest shake. I'm not sure if this actually affects camera operation, but it's food for thought.

The Z1 is easy to hold, thanks to its large right hand grip. Let's take a look at the dimensions of the Z1, and how they compare with the other ultra zoom models:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Minolta DiMAGE Z1 4.3 x 3.1 x 3.2 42.7 cu in. 305 g
Fuji FinePix S5000 4.4 x 3.2 x 3.1 43.6 cu in. 337 g
HP Photosmart 945 4.8 x 3.4 x 3.4 55.5 cu in. 389 g
Kodak EasyShare DX6490 3.9 x 3.2 x 3.2 39.9 cu in. 310 g
Olympus C-740 Ultra Zoom 4.2 x 2.6 x 2.7 29.5 cu in. 295 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ10 5.5 x 3.4 x 4.2 78.5 cu in. 550 g
Toshiba PDR-M700 4.3 x 2.7 x 2.6 30.2 cu in. 298 g

As you can see, the Z1 is right in the middle of the pack in terms of size, but its plastic body makes it one of the lightest cameras in the bunch. And how about that Panasonic -- it's huge!

Let's begin our tour of this camera now.

The DiMAGE Z1 has an F2.8-3.5, 10X optical zoom lens. The focal length is 5.8 - 58 mm, which is equivalent to 38 - 380 mm. The lens is threaded, and the camera supports the wide-angle conversion lens that I mentioned earlier.

Directly above the lens is what Minolta calls Rapid AF -- basically a passive autofocus sensor. This sensor helps speed up focusing in good lighting, and also helps the camera focus in dim light. It's a similar concept as an AF-assist lamp, but it's useful in daylight as well. It's nice to see Minolta adding this feature to their cameras. Now if we could get everyone else to go along with it (the Kodak DX6490 had it as well).

Continuing upward, we find the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.75 - 6.1 m at wide-angle and 1.2 - 4.8 m at telephoto (with the ISO set to automatic). As I mentioned before, the camera supports several Minolta external flashes.

The only other items of note on the Z1 are found toward the left side. These include the microphone and self-timer lamp.

The back of the camera has one of the most bizarre features I've seen on a camera. You're probably guessing that this is just another ultra zoom camera with an electronic viewfinder. Not so. Minolta has designed a contraption which mechanically flips a mirror in front of the LCD, projecting the image in the viewfinder above. This page shows how it works pretty well. The viewfinder has a diopter correction knob to focus what you're looking at.

With the availability of perfectly decent electronic viewfinders, I have no idea why they did this. It's just another mechanical thing that can break.

The LCD itself is brilliant, and one of the best I've seen. It's on the small size (1.5"), but it makes up for it in resolution (113k pixels) and especially its refresh rate. You haven't seen a camera LCD until you've seen one running at 60 frames/second -- it's wonderful. The camera also amplifies the image on the screen in low light, which is very handy.

The LCD brightness can be adjusted in the setup menu.

Let's resume our tour by looking at the back of the camera with the LCD closed.

Below the LCD is a switch which moves the camera between playback, record/LCD, and record/viewfinder mode. The power button is in the middle of all that. Switching between the LCD and viewfinder is bizarre the first time you do it, with a noticeable "thunk" when the mirror moves.

To the right of the LCD is the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation, manual controls, and adjusting exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments).

The three buttons below that are for menu, QuickView/delete photo, and info. Pressing QuickView shoves you into playback mode, where you can review photos. The i+ button toggles what is shown on the screen -- it's basically the same as the display button on other cameras.

To the right of those is the DC-in port, which is where you'll plug in the optional AC adapter or external battery pack.

The final item to talk about is the zoom controller, located at the top-right of the photo. It takes about 2.9 seconds to move the lens from wide-angle to telephoto. Precise movements of the lens can be made by quickly pressing the buttons.

Now let's cover the top of the Z1. As I discussed back in the first section of the review, the camera has a proprietary hot shoe. So don't try to stick your Canon Speedlite on it.

At the lower-right of the picture is the Z1's mode wheel. Items on it include:

  • Auto - point-and-shoot, most settings locked up
  • Movie mode - more on this later
  • Program mode - still point-and-shoot, but with full access to menu options
  • Aperture priority mode - you choose aperture, camera selects appropriate shutter speed; aperture range is F2.8 - F8, and will vary with focal length
  • Shutter priority mode - you choose shutter speed, camera picks aperture. shutter speed range of 15 - 1/1000 sec
  • Full manual mode - you choose both shutter speed and aperture
  • Night portrait - these next five are scene modes
  • Sunset
  • Landscape
  • Sports/action
  • Portrait

Above the mode dial are two buttons and the speaker. The buttons are for macro mode and flash setting (auto, auto w/redeye reduction, fill-flash, slow sync, flash cancel).

On this side of the camera, Minolta has hidden the SD/MMC card slot and USB port. The sliding plastic door is nice, since you can't snap it off like on some other cameras. It is a little tight in there, making it hard to get the card out at times.

Nothing to see here... move along.

Finally, here is the bottom of the DiMAGE Z1. Here you'll find the battery compartment as well as a metal tripod mount. The door over the battery compartment has a lock, so it doesn't accidentally spring open. The door itself is quite flimsy.

Using the Minolta DiMAGE Z1

Record Mode

For a big zoom camera, the Z1's 2.5 second startup time is impressive.

When it wanted to, the camera focused very quickly, in half a second or less. I wasn't impressed with its low light abilities, even with that passive AF sensor. The camera could not lock focus on many objects around the office, even with the lighting at 50%. My first set of night shots all came out blurry, so I had to reshoot them all with manual focus.

Shutter lag is very short when a fast shutter speed is used, but you'll definitely notice it when a slow shutter speed is used. You'll want to use the flash or a tripod in those situations.


No histogram in record mode

Shot-to-shot speed is excellent, with a little over a second of lag before you can take another shot (assuming instant playback is turned off). If you're using instant playback, you can half-press the shutter release to go back to shooting immediately.

To delete a photo after it is taken, you must first enter QuickView mode. (Updated 10/16/03, 10am)

Now, here's a look at the resolution and quality choices on the DiMAGE Z1:

Quality Resolution Approx. File Size # images on 16MB card
Fine 2048 x 1536 1.1 MB 9
1600 x 1200 770 KB 14
1280 x 960 550 KB 22
640 x 480 160 KB 69
Standard 2048 x 1536 720 KB 17
1600 x 1200 450 KB 27
1280 x 960 310 KB 39
640 x 480 130 KB 100
Economy 2048 x 1536 430 KB 32
1600 x 1200 280 KB 47
1280 x 960 200 KB 69
640 x 480 90 KB 150

The DiMAGE Z1 does not have a RAW or TIFF mode.

The camera saves images with a name of PICT####.JPG, where #### = 0001-9999. The camera will maintain the file numbering, even as you erase/replace memory cards.

The DiMAGE Z1 uses a pretty standard menu system, that users of other Minolta cameras will be familiar with. The menu is divided into three "tabs", each with its own set of options. Note that most of the options below are locked up in the auto and scene modes. The menu options are:

  • Drive mode (Single-frame, self-timer, continuous, UHS continuous, progressive capture, UHS progressive capture, bracketing) - see below
  • Image size (see chart)
  • Quality (see chart)
  • Auto DSP (on/off) - essentially an automatic scene mode feature; available in auto record mode only
  • White balance (Auto, custom, daylight, cloudy, tungsten, fluorescent, flash) - custom mode lets you shoot a white or gray card in order to get perfect color in any light
  • Flash key function (Flash mode, drive, white balance, focus mode, color mode) - redefines the function of the flash button on the top of the camera
  • Focus mode (Auto, manual) - see below
  • Full-time AF (on/off) - camera is constantly trying to focus (and you'll hear it, too)
  • Flash mode (Auto, auto w/redeye reduction, fill flash, slow sync, flash cancel) - for changing the flash mode when you've redefined the flash button
  • Flash compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments) - adjust the flash strength
  • Metering mode (Multi-segment, center-weighted, spot)
  • Sensitivity [ISO] (Auto, 50, 100, 200, 400)
  • Digital zoom (on/off) - using this will reduce the quality of your photos
  • Color mode (Natural, vivid, black and white, sepia)
  • Sharpness (Hard, normal, soft)
  • Contrast (Low, normal, high)

Some things up there need some major explanation. I'll start with the drive modes. Continuous advance is your standard sequential shooting mode. The camera takes photos at 1.5 frames/second, and the maximum number of photos depends on the image quality. At the highest setting, it's five photos. UHS continuous advance takes up to ten 1280 x 960 photos at 10 frames/second.

Progressive capture works in a different way. You keep the shutter release button held down, and the camera saves the last images that were in the buffer at the time you release the button. Standard progressive capture saves the last six images (which were recorded at 1.5 frames/second), while the UHS progressive mode saves the last 10 images (same 1280 x 960, 10 frames/sec as above).

Auto bracketing takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure. You can set the exposure interval using the four-way controller. All-in-all, the Z1 has one of the most impressive burst modes out there.


Manual focus (sorry for the crappy picture)

Manual focus mode lets you use the four-way controller to focus the lens. A guide is shown on the LCD displaying the current focus distance, and the camera will enlarge the center of the image so you can verify that your subject is in-focus.

Let's move on to the setup menu now:
  • LCD brightness
  • Power save (1, 3, 5, 10 mins)
  • Instant playback (Off, 2, 10 sec) - how long photo is shown on LCD after it is taken
  • Lens accessory (None, wide converter)
  • Language (Japanese, English, German, French, Spanish)
  • File # memory (on/off)
  • Folder name (Standard, date) - choose the naming system for folders
  • Audio signals (1, 2, off) - menu beeps
  • Shutter FX (1, 2, off) - fake shutter sound
  • Volume
  • Reset to defaults
  • Noise reduction (on/off) - used to reduce noise in exposures 1 second or longer
  • Date/time set
  • Date imprint (on/off) - print the date on your photos
  • Video output (NTSC, PAL)

Let's move on to photo quality now!

The Z1 produced a nice, smooth reproduction of our favorite macro subject. The colors are right on. The Z1 has a regular macro mode, which lets you get as close to your subject as 10 cm at wide-angle, and 1.2 m at telephoto. Super macro mode locks the lens at around the 2X position, and it lets you get as close as 4 cm to your subject -- very good.

I have put in additional hours of work to discuss the purple fringing (chromatic aberrations, or whatever you want to call it) issue on the Z1 that caused some controversy when the review was first posted. Much of the content below was rewritten on 10/20/03.

Never before have I had so much difficulty taking my night test shots with a camera. I went to Treasure Island four times with the Z1, and then gave up and went to City Hall instead. For whatever reason, I could never get an image that satisfied me.

Below is the image included with the review when it was first posted:


F3.5, 4 sec

As you can see, it was purple city. I should mention that I do the same procedure with each camera I test: shutter priority mode, self-timer, tripod. In situations like this, the camera will choose the largest aperture, which means purple fringing (AKA chromatic aberrations) will be at their worst.

Using my standard testing methodology, the image taken by the Z1 was far worse than average. I've taken the shot hundreds of times before, with ultra zoom cameras, bargain cameras, and digital SLRs, and have never seen something like the above photo. It's a shame too, because the Z1 took in plenty of light, and noise levels were very low.

So what causes so much purple in the Z1 image? Well, I don't know exactly, but I know how to fix it. The first way is what most people would think of first: close down the aperture. And that works:


F3.5, 4 sec
View Full Size Image


F4.0, 4 sec
View Full Size Image

And it works pretty well. Close down the aperture another stop, and it gets even better (though the softness stays the same).

But there's another trick as well, that I only heard secondhand, and that is changing the white balance. Changing it to daylight (and I think fluorescent as well) knocked the purple right out. Unfortunately, I tossed those samples photo accidentally, so you'll have to take my word for it. So the auto white balance is also involved in this.

One more weird thing with this image that I still can't nail down is why the left side of the image is softer and has more purple fringing than the right side. Just open any of the samples above to see what I mean.

Bottom line: the camera performed poorly using my standard test methodology, but it can be fixed easily. The image softness was only seen in these images -- which I took on four separate occasions.

After giving up on Treasure Island, I went to City Hall and got much better results (though there's still plenty of purple to be had). The following were taken in aperture priority mode:


F2.9, 0.8 sec
View Full Size Image

F3.2, 1 sec
View Full Size Image


F3.5, 1.3 sec
View Full Size Image


F4.0, 1.6 sec
View Full Size Image

F4.5, 2 sec
View Full Size Image

As you can see, chromatic aberrations were very noticeable until F4.0, when they started to die down. I would personally choose F4.5 if I shot this scene again (which I certainly hope I won't do again for this review).

Using the first night shot way up there, here's a look at how changing the ISO sensitivity affects image noise:


ISO 50
View Full Size Image

ISO 100
View Full Size Image

ISO 200
View Full Size Image


ISO 400
View Full Size Image

Noise levels remain low at ISO 50 and 100, and they start to creep up at ISO 200. At ISO 400, it's pretty grainy, but really not that horrible.

Way to go Minolta -- no redeye!

The distortion test shows moderate barrel distortion, and no vignetting (dark corners).

I have already discussed purple fringing (chromatic aberrations, etc) to death a few paragraphs above. I stand by my assertion that the Z1 has too much of it when compared to other ultra zoom cameras that I've tested recently (where this problem "goes with the territory"). Above average purple fringing is not just in night shots -- but in the regular everyday shots as well (check the gallery). It can be reduced, of course, using the methods I've described. I also thought that colors were a little dull at the default saturation setting (which can be adjusted in the menu). Aside from those issues, image quality was comparable to other ultra zoom cameras. I do think that the image quality on Olympus' latest ultra zooms is a step above other cameras in this class.

The ultimate judge of quality is your eyes -- please visit our photo gallery and decide if the quality is acceptable to you. You are also welcome to have the photos printed.

Movie Mode

The DiMAGE Z1 has one of the most impressive movie modes out there. You can record VGA quality video (that's 640 x 480) at 30 frames/second until the memory card is filled up. On the included 16MB memory card that takes just 13 seconds. Upgrade to a 512MB card and you can get close to 7 minutes. One way to get more video is to lower the frame rate down to 15 frames/sec, essentially doubling your recording time. You can also choose the 320 x 240 resolution at both 30 and 15 frames/second.

You cannot normally use the zoom lens during filming. However, if you turn off sound recording, you can use it.

The Z1 has a unique feature called Night Movie. Basically the camera boosts the sensitivity so you can film in low light.

Something that's I've read on the forums out there mentioned that the sound is out of sync with the video. So I aimed the camera at the television and took this movie (warning: 11MB). Sounds off to me. Apparently this only happens at the VGA / 30 fps setting. (Updated 10/20/03)

Here's a large VGA sample movie:


Click to play movie (12.8MB, 640 x 480, QuickTime format)

Can't play it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Z1 has a pretty standard playback mode. Basic playback options include slide shows, DPOF print marking, image protection, thumbnail mode, and zoom and scroll.

The zoom and scroll feature (my term) allows you to zoom in as much as 6X (in 0.2X increments) into your photo, and then scroll around. This feature is well-implemented.

By entering the picture info screen (shown below), you can rotate photos. You can also downsize images for e-mailing, and copy images from one memory card to another.

A very unique feature that I don't think I've seen before is the ability to do frame grabs from movies you've recorded.

One other feature that I appreciate is the ability to delete a group of photos, instead of just one or all.

By default, the Z1 doesn't give you a lot of information about your photos. However, press "up" on the four-way controller and you'll see much more, including a histogram.

The camera moves between photos at an amazing pace -- there's virtually no delay between photos.

How Does it Compare?

The Minolta DiMAGE Z1 in an interesting ultra zoom camera that, in the end, did not win me over. While I like its design, hot shoe, and support for a wide-angle lens, the rattling lens and cheap plastic doors made me wonder about build quality. The "switch finder" is an interesting (and perhaps unnecessary) invention, but I'm concerned about how long this mechanical system will last. The LCD itself is excellent -- one of the best I've seen (although it's on the small side). The camera has a full suite of manual controls, and it performed as well as other cameras in this class. The multiple burst mode options are a nice bonus.

Photo quality was good in most situations, but the camera had higher than average purple fringing (chromatic aberrations). This was most notable in the night test shot, where it was much worse than normal using my standard test methodology. In that case, either closing down the aperture or adjusting the white balance helped resolve that problem. The Z1 has an excellent movie mode, with unlimited VGA / 30 frames/sec recording, though the sound seemed to be slightly out of sync with the video (apparently only at that highest quality setting).

The Z1 is certainly an intriguing camera, and if Minolta could try to reduce the purple fringing (if it's due to image processing, and not the lens) and fix the movie sound syncing, it would be more competitive. Right now I feel that it's not the best choice in its class. I'd rank it below the two Olympus models for sure, and somewhere between the Kodak DX6490 and Fuji FinePix S5000.

[conclusion updated 10/20/03]

What I liked:

  • 10X optical zoom lens
  • Full manual controls
  • Hot shoe
  • Supports wide-angle conversion lens
  • VGA movie mode, 30 frames/second
  • One of the best LCDs I've seen
  • Passive AF system (though I had trouble focusing in low light)
  • Good redeye test performance
  • Several burst mode options

What I didn't care for:

  • Too much purple fringing / chromatic aberrations
  • Colors seem dull at default saturation
  • Mediocre low light focusing (night shots did not come out, difficulties around the office)
  • Sound in movie mode appears to be out of sync with video (640 x 480, 30 fps only?)
  • Lens rattles, plastic battery door is flimsy
  • Concerned about durability of switch finder
  • So-so bundle

Some other lower priced ultra zoom cameras include the Fuji FinePix S5000, HP Photosmart 850 and 945, Kodak EasyShare DX6490, Olympus C-740 and C-750 Ultra Zooms, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1 and DMC-FZ10, and the Toshiba PDR-M500 and M700.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera store to try out the DiMAGE Z1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Want to see how the photo quality turned on? Check out our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Read a different opinion over at Steve's Digicams.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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