From the minds of Minolta (that‚s one advertising slogan I‚ll apparently never forget) comes another very consumer-friendly big-zoom camera, the 5-megapixel DiMAGE Z20 that replaces last year‚s 3.2 megapixel Z10 model. The Z20 is one of those cameras that at first sight looks like a small SLR: no viewfinder, fairly big body with a big lens barrel, and then a „power bulgeš handle on the right. The Z20, however, is not a SLR, it just looks that way because the big barrel contains a massive 11 elements/9 groups 8X Konica Minolta Zoom lens. You can‚t see a viewfinder from the front because the Z20 doesn‚t have an optical one like most digicams, but an electronic one that actually does let you see through the lens, just like with a SLR.

In its press release, Minolta positions the DiMAGE Z20 as „the ideal solution for both first-time digital photographers and those consumers upgrading from earlier generations of digital cameras.š I‚d qualify that statement by saying the Z20 is a great digital camera for first-timers who want or need a big optical zoom because that is what determines the rather bulky design of this camera. Its dimensions are modest (4.3 x 3.2 x 3.7) and it weighs just 12.6 ounces fully loaded with four AA batteries. However, its design with the long lens barrel is what makes it large and difficult to stow away. The Z20 is not a camera you can stick into a pocket, or even an attaché case. If you take it with you, you need to plan for it and reserve a space for it. What you get in return is a fast, modern 5-megapixel camera that is pleasure to use and lets you get as close as you want both via its superb macro as well as its massive 8X optical/4X digital zoom. See the pictures on the right that show no zoom, 8X zoom, and then digital zoom magnification, all without tripod.

There are many aspects of this camera that warrant commentary. Let‚s start with ergonomics and design. Most of the plastic body of the Z20 has a matte-silver powder finish. The design of the body is functional rather than beautiful. Whatever is there serves a purpose. There aren‚t any unnecessary styling elements. As a result, the Z20 looks a bit bare and you feel you need a case to protect that vast expanse of powder-coated plastic. The ergonomics, however, are first rate. You can hold the camera in your right hand where the powerbulge with its rubber coating fits nicely into your palm. The shutter is located in the perfect spot, and the zoom rocker also is exactly where you expect it to be. For extra stabilization you want use your left hand, and the rounded left side of the Z20, also with a pad of rubber coating, fits perfectly into your handųsort of like you might hold a small camcorder. These ergonomics are actually quite important with a big-zoom where you want to hold the camera as steady as you can, especially since for cost reasons Minolta did not give this model its excellent „anti-shakeš feature.

As far as controls go, everything is large and clearly marked with the possible exception of the mode dial that squeezes 11 symbols onto a small wheel that must be aligned to an easily overlooked marker. It isn‚t always immediately clear which mode is selected. The traditional 5-way navigation pad is ergonomically located and works well. The remaining three buttons (Menu, Quick View and Information) are also located within easy reach of your right thumb, as is the on/off button with its record/playback ring around it. Someone gave this a lot of thought, and as a result the Z20 is one of the few designs where you can reach every single control with your thumb while you hold the camera.

As stated, the Z20 has an electronic instead of an optical viewfinder. It also has a smallish 1.5-inch LCD. You use either the LCD or the electronic viewfinder by toggling between them. Minolta calls it a „switchfinderš because you‚re actually looking at the same LCD. Toggling is weird: when you push the switch into viewfinder mode the camera makes a flapping noise like when you push the shutter on a SLR, and the LCD disappears behind two plastic flaps. The electronic viewfinder is a mixed blessing. It has a diopter adjustment and does allow you to see what‚s going on in full 32X total magnification, which wouldn‚t be possible with a regular optical viewfinder. But it‚s a low resolution affair that reminded me of one of those old-fashioned camcorders where everything looks grainy and unsharp. This choice of looking at a very small low-res LCD or a viewfinder that uses the same LCD to let you view the world through what looks like a grainy honeycomb grid are among the few weak points of the Z20.

Despite Minolta‚s positioning of the Z20 as a camera for those new to digital photography or folks who are trading up from lower-res digicams, and despite the basic, uninitimdating looks of the Z20, there is more to this camera than meets the eye. It is, for example, deceptively fast. Push the „onš button and the DiMAGE springs to life instantly. No waiting at all. There is also very little shutter lag, and Minolta‚s proprietary CxProcess III image processing technology assists in making pictures come out just the way you see them by applying edge enhancement, adjusting the tone curves and slightly boosting color saturation. A neat little trick that really works.

The main attraction of the Z20, however, is its ultra-flexible lens. The macro is nothing short of incredible. You can get within 0.4 inches of a subject for close-ups that very few other cameras can take, or you can bring the world as close as you want with the powerful 8X optical zoom. Multiply that with an amazingly good 4X digital zoom and nothing is ever too close or too far away for this camera. You have to experience this vast range to truly appreciate it. Get used to it and it‚s hard to switch back to the standard 3X or 4X zoom you get with your average digicam.

Movie mode is a mixed blessing. On the one hand you can zoom while shooting movies, and you get a full 30 frames per second in the standard 320x240 mode. And there is a night-movie mode and you can also capture individual frames from a movie. On the other hand, that frame rate drops to 15 in 640 x 480 mode, and neither mode has sound. In fact, there isn‚t any sound in this camera, so no voice annotations for your pics.

The Z20 is powered by either four standard alkaline AA batteries, or any kind of AA-size rechargeables. It‚s pretty energy-efficient, too. My older digicams drain four AAs almost immediately. The Z20 is supposed to get 450 shots out of a set, and that sounds about right. I‚ve always preferred cameras that use standard batteries because you find them wherever you go. On the storage side, the Z20 offers a nice surprise with an internal 14.5MB. Not much, but it can tide you over while uploading pics from the SD/MMC card which the Z20 uses. No SD Card card is included.

Model-Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z20
List price-US$275 (web)
Sensor res-5.0 megapixels
Image dimensions-2560x1920 down to 640x480
ISO-auto, 50/100/200/320
Lens-F:3.2-3.4 8X opt./4X digital
Lens focal length-6-48 mm (36-290mm equiv.)
Shutter-1/2000 to 15 seconds
Exposure compensation-+/- 2.0 EV in 1/3 EV steps
Storage-SD Card (plus 14.5MB internal)
Autofocus-Rapid AF
LCD screen-1.5 inch color TFT (113k)
Flash modes-4 modes
Viewfinder-Electronic „switchfinderš
Battery-4 AA or rechargeables
Weight-10.6 ounce w/o batteries
Dimensions-4.3 x 3.2 x 3.7 inches
Included-DiMAGE Viewer, cables, strap

Though the Z20‚s operation is pretty much self-explanatory, there are times when you want to consult the manual, especially when you seek to assume more control via its manual, shutter, or aperture priority modes. The manual looks nice and hefty, like it might hold the answer to all your questions. Sadly it‚s just a quick reference guide that, in six languages, covers basics but mostly refers to the appropriate page in the much larger pdf version of the real manual that comes on a CD. Not much love either in the software section. You get the DiMAGE ImageViewer, which is a basic file browser with some rudimentary image correction and manipulation functionality. But that doesn‚t matter as anyone interested in digital imaging has his or her own favorite application anyway.

To anyone looking for a competent, easy-to-use camera with an exceptionally flexible lens, the Konia Minolta DiMAGE Z20‚s report card is overwhelmingly positive. If you can live with the bulky and somewhat plain body and small, low-res „switchfinder,š the Z20 rewards you with superb ergonomics, speed, great battery life, and the ability to take excellent pictures of subjects that can be as close as less than an inch and far, far away thanks to the excellent 8X optical zoom. This is one of those rare cameras that can do it all.

ŲConrad H. Blickenstorfer



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