Anyone whoās been following the digital camera scene knows that Minolta was a pioneer in the ultra-thin segment of the market. The original DiMAGE X-series, released almost four years ago, stunned the industry with its sleek little metal body, 2-megapixel imager and, most of all, a 3X optical zoom that used an ingenious ćfoldableä design which allowed the zoom to be completely internal. A number of other X-series models followed, with progressively higher megapixel counts. The 5-megapixel DiMAGE x50 is the latest and the subject of this review. Times have changed since the original DiMAGE X. If you wanted the absolute best-in-class back then, the DiMAGE X was it. No one else came close. That has changed. Everyone else has been hustling to bring out one of those jewel-like little metal blocks with all the functionality and power of much larger cameras. Minolta, in the meantime, was purchased by Konica. Sony, Canon, Casio, Epson and several others have released some truly terrific little cameras, many of which we reviewed in detail in the pages of Digital Camera. Did Minolta manage to keep up? Does the new DiMAGE X-series still have what it takes?

I must admit that at first sight I wasnāt overly impressed. The DiMAGE X50 isnāt as sleek as some ultra-thins. In fact, itās actually a bit larger even that earlier X-series models. It also didnāt have this ćmilled from a solid block of metalä feel. For that it wasnāt, dare I say it, ćblockyä enough and it also felt too light. Now light weight is a good thing in a camera, but for some reason it also subjectively determines whether the camera feels right. Make it too heavy and it feels clumsy. Make it too light and it feels cheap. Hitting the right weight is actually a significant determinant of the quality feel. In addition, the ćblock of metalä pretense is quickly punctured when you open either the battery or the SD Card door. Both are made of flimsy gray plastic and reveal more plastic inside. And the SD Card door feels like itās going to break off very quickly. Overall design is also somewhat uninspired. Everything is there, but no one is going to say, ćWow! Will you look at that beautiful little thing?!ä Then there are other things. Tiny viewfinder. A tiny Li-Ion battery about the size of a single AA battery. Itās enough to make you wonder if this DiMAGE can live up to expectations, let alone its lofty heritage.

Good news: It can and it does. Spend a single afternoon with this camera and youāll be a believer. Thatās because while the DiMAGE X50 is no longer unique nor exceptionally small or exceptionally cute, it works exceptionally well. Some of this inherent goodness becomes obvious as soon as you start using the camera. Other qualities reveal themselves more slowly, but youāll discover them and come to appreciate them very quickly.

There is, for example, a very good 2-inch LCD. That weāve come to expect of even the smallest ultra-things, but it was still good to see it on the back pane of the X50. And itās not just any LCD, but one that you can see outdoors as well. Yes, after all these years, digital camera manufacturers have finally discovered that people use digital cameras outdoors! Further, unlike others, Minolta has not eliminated the optical viewfinder which still comes in handy in those situations where even the best LCD isnāt very viewable or where your eyes first need to accommodate to it. In those cases itās good to have a viewfinder, even if it is small and not terribly accurate. And Minolta placed it so that whichever eye you use to peek through it, your nose wonāt press against the LCD.

Another nice surprise is the way you power the X50 on and off. Thatās done via a big slider in the front that also acts as a lens cover. Iāve always liked this arrangement because it never leaves any doubt whether the camera is on or off, and you never need to worry about scratching the lens. Add to that how quickly the little X50 springs to life and you have something eminently useful. Sliding the switch makes the little Minolta exult in a happy start-up tone and within perhaps half second youāre read to shoot. That, of course, is aided by the still ingenious folded zoom. You donāt have to wait for the engine compartment to motor the lens out of the body (I hate that!). Whenever I look at the X50 I marvel at what a terrific engineering achievement it is to have a full 3X optical zoom lens (well, 2.8X to be precise) in a camera this thin.

Moving on to ergonomics÷always important lest youāre ready to live in frustration÷where there is more good news. Minolta aced everything. Itās as if Minoltaās engineers spent month studying the human thumb and forefinger, their mechanics and how they move most comfortably and naturally. The result is a design where ALL controls on the back of the camera are within easy reach of your thumb, and ALL controls on top of the camera within easy range of your index finger. Further, the lens and the flash are just far enough out of reach so that your middle finger doesnāt obstruct them when you hold the X50. Very clever, and very much appreciated when you use the camera.

Apart from being in the right spot, the X50ās controls are simple. No cluttered mode dial here. Instead thereās just a slider with three positions: automatic, scenes and movies. On the back is a button for playback with the commonly used green ćplayä icon, the ubiquitous five way control, and a menu and a display button. Everyone can figure this one out. The simplicity carries on into the onscreen menus, which are simple and clear as well. Menus are clearly legible on the large screen, they are in plain English rather than a mix of icons and abbreviations, and you always know which option is selected. Still no ćEscapeä button, but Minolta always clearly states which button to push to get out of a menu. Excellent. But how does it all work? Weāve seen plenty of pretty cameras, a good many with fine ergonomics, but far fewer that are also a pleasure to use and provide great pictures. The DiMAGE X50 is among them. Even without reading the excellent 106-page manual (yes, itās still possible to get a real, well designed, well written manual all in English!) we managed to use the X50 in many different real-life situations and it passed every test with flying colors. Its focus works exceptionally well, with only a bit of hunting and an occasional miss in low-light situations. Get a close-up of an insect sitting on a flower? No problem. Use the macro mode and see what the little critter is up to, up and very close. Want to bring a distance object closer? The 3X optical zoom is very quick, and if it isnāt enough, multiply it with the 4X digital zoom which works much better than expected. I cannot overemphasize the importance of a good auto focus system, and the Minolta X50 definitely has one. Thereās nothing more frustrating than finding out that half your pictures are blurry.

The large screen also lets you peruse the shots you just took in good detail. You can zoom in in 0.2X increments to a maximum of 6X. You can pan around to your heartās content, in almost 40 steps in up/down or left/right. You can also annotate pictures with up to 15 seconds of audio, create slide shows, crop pictures, create email copies, or use the DPOF system to tag pics with print orders.

The X50 has a movie mode, but youāre limited to the small 320 x 240 format which you can record in at either 15 of 30 frames per second. You can zoom while recording and the X50 records audio as well, plus you can capture individual frames. However, with a 5-megapixel camera Iād expect the full VGA 640 x 480 format. And speaking of audio, you can not only voice-annotate pictures, you can also use the X50 as a voice recorder, until the storage card is full.

When I first saw the X50ās tiny battery I was concerned that it would quickly poop out, and since it is a proprietary design customers would have to invest in costly backups just to make it through a day of shooting. A pleasant surprise as well. While the little battery has its limitations, it easily made it through a three hour walk with my nine-year-old where the camera was in almost constant use. We took pictures, we looked at pictures, we stopped by the local Walgreens and had pictures printed out. No problem. I still prefer beefier powerpacks, and rechargeable AAs best of all, but the X50 definitely gets by.

Model-Konica Minolta DiMAGE X50
List price-US$379.99
Sensor res-5.0 megapixels
Image dimensions-2560x1929 down to 640X480
ISO-50 to 400 or auto
Lens-F:2.8-5.0 2.8X opt./4.3X digital
Lens focal length-6.1-17.1 mm (37-105mm equiv.)
Shutter-1/1000 to 4 seconds
Exposure compensation-+/- 2.0 EV in 0.3 EV steps
Storage-SD Card (16MB incl.)
Focus-Video AF with lock
LCD screen-2.0 inch TFT
Flash modes-4 modes, up to 10.5 feet
Viewfinder-optical real-image zoom
Battery-NP-700 lithium-ion rechargeable
Weight-4.4 ounces w/o battery or card
Dimensions-3.3 x 2.4 x 0.9 inches
Included-DiMAGE software, cables, strap

On the software and accessories side you get DiMAGE Viewer for Windows and Mac, a strap, the charger for the battery, the excellent manual, and a 16MB SD Card (in this day and age of cheap high-capacity cards, why not at least spring for a 64MB card that would be somewhat useful?)

Oh, and a final little extra: when you press the shutter, not only will an audio signal announce when AF has focused properly, but one of two shutter effects is an exact shutter release recording from the legendary Minolta CLE, a compact rangefinder that was perhaps the best of the famous Leitz-Minolta CL cameras.

Thereās clearly much to like in the X50. It is no longer the only one of its kind and it now has to fight for recognition, but Minolta hasnāt lost its touch. This is a great little camera thatās easy to use, exceptionally well designed, and takes great pictures. It is also small enough to simply slip into whatever pocket you have available. A perfect camera for beginners, and a perfect camera for anyone who wants a competent, serious shooter for those occasions where their larger, heavier primary camera is too big and bulky to take along. The minds of Minolta are alive and well, and as innovative as ever.

÷Conrad Blickenstorfer



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