Minolta's Dimage F300 fits neatly into the crowd of compact, high-style 5-megapixel digital cameras designed for advanced snapshooters. It looks and feels good, costs a bit less than much of the competition, comes equipped with a 3X zoom lens, and offers some unique features. Unfortunately, lackluster performance and mixed image quality tarnish what could have been a sparkling digicam.
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Distinguishing these buttons by feel is easy, thanks to their size variations and the rubberized plastic around the LCD.
The handsome F300 has a sleek, silver body of brushed aluminum. Though boxy, it's slim enough to ride comfortably in most pockets. It feels sturdy and well made, and rubberized accents enable a firm grip. And after you've installed an SD card and your chosen power source, the F300 is still relatively light: 8.6 ounces if you use two nickel-metal-hydride AA cells, 7.9 ounces with a CRV3 battery.
The controls are crisp, responsive, and intelligently placed. But they're also sparse: Minolta should have included dedicated buttons rather than menus for the self-timer, continuous shooting, metering, and other functions. The menus, however, were easy to learn, offering a logical layout and smooth operation.
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Minolta kept the mode dial simple.
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The zoom buttons feel a bit small. Such important and frequently used controls should be big enough for easy thumb operation.
A few of the F300's design aspects do take some getting used to. The lens's location at the far left will force you to experiment a bit with the position of your left hand. The four buttons that make up the zoom and menu-navigation controls are a tad smaller than they should be, making it hard to get a good feel for the zoom. Plus, the battery and media compartments are inconveniently side by side; we accidentally spilled the cells twice while changing SD cards.
Like many other 5-megapixel compacts, the F300 has a broad feature set that stops just short of what top-end prosumer models offer. The exposure options are quite comprehensive, including all four basic modes, a Bulb setting, five scene presets, and two continuous-shooting modes. There are three light-metering systems: multisegment, center-weighted, and spot. And you can automatically bracket your exposures or adjust them to plus or minus 2EV via the easily accessible exposure-compensation controls. You get automatic and manual white balance, as well as four presets. Several image parameters, including in-camera sharpening, contrast, and color saturation, are adjustable.
Minolta also touts the F300's automatic program selection, which is designed to pick the correct scene mode. For example, if you're photographing a person, Portrait should kick in. But during our tests, the function frequently identified scenes incorrectly.
The 3X zoom lens's f/2.8-to-f/4.7 maximum aperture is about average. Its 38mm-to-114mm range (the 35mm-camera equivalent) limits you to a fairly narrow angle of view--a big flaw if you like shooting landscapes or architecture. The camera offers a nice variety of autofocus options. Subject Tracking AF, for example, shifts the focus area to track moving objects, and Area AF automatically chooses a subject from within a larger focus frame. But neither of the two features worked reliably or consistently enough during testing to be of practical value.
You can shoot stills in JPEG at any one of three compression levels or in uncompressed TIFF. Four resolutions are available. Unfortunately, unlike more-sophisticated models, the F300 can't capture RAW files, a capability advanced photographers will miss. You can also record 320x240-pixel video with sound for up to three minutes. The Night Movie mode handles much dimmer light than most other still cameras can. The resulting footage is very noisy, but large subjects are more or less recognizable, and it's better than nothing.
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Battery life is fairly short, and rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride AAs yield sluggish performance. We recommend sticking with a CRV3 lithium cell.
The F300's performance was always sluggish when we used nickel-metal-hydride AAs; it occasionally climbed to average when we switched to a CRV3 battery. Start-up took about 6 seconds, middling for this camera's class. The autofocus system tended to be slow and too often couldn't lock, especially in low light. While it searched for the correct subject, the Area AF contributed to a frustrating 2-second shutter delay, though we shaved off about 0.3 second by selecting a fixed focus area, such as the middle of the frame. Shot-to-shot time for JPEG files was also subpar, typically 2.9 seconds. Introducing flash recharging into the equation can stretch that wait to as long as 9 seconds.