VMLP 15: Minolta Maxxum 7xi—Comme ci, Comme ça

I get that some people love the xi models. I get that one size does not fit all. And I get that Minolta was focused on innovation, which I applaud. I really, really tried to the like the 7xi—I really did. The xi camera series is an example of technology trying to do too much, and not quite making it. Close, but not cigar-worthy.

On first seeing the 7xi, it struck me as modern, even futuristic—it has the type of soft, round curves one associates with dolphins and porpoises. Having read about the xi series, I was somewhat concerned about buying one because forum posts were rarely complimentary; some were outright hostile. When I purchased my 7xi on eBay, few were for sale. However, those that were listed, were dirt cheap. I bought a pristine copy for my brother at auction for 4.25. My copy cost 35.00 (BIN) and came with two xi lenses (a 100-300mm and a 28-105mm) a tripod, and a bag. I probably could have gotten it for 20 bucks. After using the xi lenses and fumbling with the camera’s controls, it was obvious why these were so cheap.

Xi lenses offer Power Zoom, which takes control from the user and gives it to the camera. The disconcerting thing about this feature is that even in manual mode, the user does not have complete control. I used each xi lens once and have not touched them since–I doubt I ever will.  Eye-Start, which can be a useful feature, became annoying when I could not turn it off.

When the xi series was released, Minolta needed a follow-up hit to the groundbreaking Maxxum 7000—the xi series proved to be the opposite. From the Maxxum 7000 with its easy-to-use buttons, Minolta designers devolved the interface of the xi series to nondescript buttons and modal menus. For me, the xi series user interface is a step backward in usability in the name of innovation.

The xi series was to be Minolta’s AF opus magnum. Unfortunately, the cameras bombed—they were too clever by half, and that cleverness made them irritating to use. So much was removed from the user interface that one is forced to rely on the camera or memorize the menu system. I prefer buttons and dials, and so, it seems, did most people.

Historical Perspective
Introduced in 1991, the 7xi was a member of Minolta’s third generation of autofocus cameras. Minolta touted it as a significant technological advance with a 16-bit computer chip and built-in fuzzy logic. The “xi” stands for “expert intelligence,” and the xi cameras were hailed as being smart cameras that could be capable assistants. They did bring a number of innovations: eye-start, wireless TTL, AF focusing controlled by fuzzy logic, better movement prediction, Power Zoom, and a built-in four fps drive being the most prominent. The list of new features was quite long. Had Minolta skipped the modal menus in favor of buttons and made Power Zoom and eye-start optional, the xi series might have been better received.

Inspection and Appearance
My copy of the 7xi looks lightly used. The grip is smooth and shiny with no cracks or stickiness, and no scratches or dents are evident. It is full-bodied and rounded, more so than any other Maxxum. Although it isn’t heavy compared to non-xi Maxxums, it feels bulky and thick.

The first thing that strikes me on looking at xi cameras is how plain they are. From the front, one sees only the flash pop-up, lens release, and focus mode buttons. On top, there is the “P” button that returns the camera to program mode, the On-Off switch, the shutter release, wide-view button (unmarked), Card button for controlling Creative Expansion cards, and the front control dial. The wide view button allows one to zoom out while looking through the viewfinder. I understand what this button does, but is zooming out manually that much of a chore???

The camera’s backside sports an AEL button, the back control dial, and the FUNC button. The FUNC button and front and rear control dials are what one uses to navigate the menu system. The camera’s right side has a door where one can access the self-timer/drive mode, flash mode, rewind, ISO, and Card Adjust buttons. The 7xi supports off-camera flash, which can be set using the flash mode button. The LCD is large and easy to read.

Function and Handling
The 7xi weighs about 23 ounces, three more than the 7000i. However, its bulk gives the impression it weighs much more. It is relatively thick in the grip area and fits well in my large hands. The viewfinder seems darker than earlier Maxxums, but to the designers’ credit, the viewfinder has been enhanced to include more information. In particular, I like the depth of field information provided when in P, PA, and aperture priority mode. Since I quickly decided the xi lenses were not for me, I haven’t used the wide-area button.

Power Zoom, which I tried with both the 100-300mm xi and 28-105mm xi, was frustrating during initial testing. The zoom function adjusted FL slower than I could manually–I see no benefit to this feature. Perhaps Minolta was ahead of its time because this feature seems more suited to video than still photography.

Used on a non-xi camera, xi lenses are not that bad. One pleasant discovery was that the 100-300mm xi is a better lens than the 100-300m released in 1988 with the “i” camera series, but since I have the big Beercan (75-300mm), I see no need for the 100-300mm range. However, since the non-xi 28-105mm is better than the xi version, I have no reason to use it.

The is no depth of field button, although the display gives a readout that gives an idea of the DoF.  I have never found the DoF button to be that helpful, so I don’t miss this feature. Spot metering and a central focus point are provided.

As mentioned before, I do not like the modal interface. Exposure compensation access is a perfect example of a design feature that I find irritating. On the 8000i (but not 7000i), there is a button on the side of the lens mount for selecting EC. That, plus the front control on the 8000i, made EC easy to engage and use–press the EC button with thumb and turn the dial. On the 7xi, there are no visual cues as to how to use EC. Instead, it has to be accessed via the generic FUNC button. On most Maxxums, one can look at the camera and tell how to access EC, but on the 7xi, it requires reading the manual and memorizing the sequence as well as all the other sequences required to access various functions. Since this camera came after the 8000i, I see this design change as a step backward.

Loading and unloading film is easy. Pop in a roll, move the film leader over to the take-up spool, and close the door. The ISO is read automatically, and if necessary, changing the ISO is done using the side door panel button.

Monochrome Photon Painting, Minolta AF 28-105mm
Bowl1, 28-105mm

Shooting
The viewfinder is darker than expected, which outside in sunlight was somewhat of a pain. However, the added info, such as depth of field, was helpful. One thing I do like about the 7xi is the AF speed and accuracy. The central focus point seems more accurate, and lock-in is faster than the 7000i. Eye-start was a pain. Eye-start resulted in one or two blurred shots because the shutter fired as I moved the camera with my finger on the shutter button. The camera’s fuzzy logic decided it was ready when I wasn’t. I fought with eye-start, but I had learned to live with it by the second roll of film. It cannot be turned off except by using a Custom Functions Creative Card, and those cards are scarce. I finally got a card after owning the camera for nearly two years. Exposure compensation was a pain. I am used to setting EC mode quickly. With the 7xi, I had to keep remembering the button/dial sequence needed to use EC.

For this user experience report, I used red, green, and blue filters, and each has different EC requirements. I wasn’t sure how the meter would handle these shots and did not want to discover later on that I had botched them. Using the FUNC button and dials made the entire EC experience slow and cumbersome.

Black and white images are XP2 and were shot with a variety of lenses.  Color images were made using the Minolta AF 35-70mm f4.

Bath, Minolta AF 35-70mm, f4

Impression
The 7xi is well-built and feels solid. It is slightly heavier than the 7000i, and for those with larger hands, the grip may feel more certain. Its blob-ish looks may not win any beauty contests, but many innovations lie beneath that round and somewhat amorphous surface. The 7xi is packed with features not found in earlier Maxxums, but those features are hidden behind an irksome interface. Power Zoom and xi lenses were solutions looking for problems. They were innovative, but to what end?

On the bright side, autofocus and metering are definitely better. Focus speed is faster, and metering seems more accurate as well. The DoF info in the viewfinder is a major plus; I wish that feature had made it into all later Maxxums. Unfortunately, unlike its predecessors, I find that I am either neutral or negative in my reaction to the 7xi. When I use the 7xi or 9xi with regular lenses, I find them tolerable. But, since I have all the other Maxxum 7 and 9-level models, why bother?

I see 7xi models listed on eBay for pretty high prices relative to their past public perception. In fact, one new-in-box 7xi set sold for over 100 dollars, likely to a collector. Should you buy one? Well, if the goal is experimenting and trying new things, or you just like things that are different, why not? You should be able to find one in excellent condition for under 40.00.  And the camera does perform well if one is willing to learn its interface.  However, if the goal is simply to try an AF Minolta, a more traditional model would be a better introduction.

One final thought: The 7xi and the other xi cameras are sufficiently different from their Minolta relatives and other camera brands that I wonder if they could become weird-chic items. You know, the kind of things that become popular because they are odd, like garish Christmas sweaters, ugly 60’s furniture, or swing dancing in the 90s?  To each his own…

 

Other takes on the Minolta Maxxum 7xi:
Simon Hawkett’s Photo Blog

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