So I bought myself a nice, shiny new Minolta DiMAGE 5. The camera is a crossbreed of SLR with 'prosumer' compact. It doesn't have interchangeable lenses but it does have a mechanical barrel zoom and a focus ring. It also has a fairly decent zoom range, the 35mm equivalent being 35 → 250mm. And of course, a full manual mode so you can have fun being creative. Also, practically every control you ever need is mounted on the body in a fairly ergonomic manner (at least for my small hands!). So it's pretty much as easy to use in manual mode as it is in full auto.
It was a more expensive than a similar spec 35mm film SLR would have been (although no where near the price of a digital SLR!). However, it has more than made up for that in the fact that I haven't needed to send what would have been about 100 rolls of film off to be developed! The camera does have a tendency to chew through batteries. But two sets of 1800mAh NiMHs and a 90 minute charger are enough to keep it happy. That and a 256MB compact flash card or two.
Quality wise, the camera has both good points and bad points. The optics are basically superb, no chromatic aberrations at all and capable of very sharp pictures with lots of detail. Unfortunately, the electronics aren't quite up to the same standard in a couple of places. In particular, the low light performance isn't amazing and the auto-focus can take a while. The first isn't really a problem, the worst you get is above average grain (especially in skies for some reason) in a few shots. The focus speed, though, is really annoying at times. I mean, 1 second to focus?!?!? It's a good thing manual focus mode is so easy to use :-).
Well, I thought the D5 was nice to use but next to the E1 it's positively clunky! There's just so many things about this camera that just work. It feels right in your hand, all the controls are easily accessible, the operation is intelligent, the auto focus is SLR speed (i.e. significantly faster than any 'prosumer' camera and infinitely faster then the D5!), and it's built like a tank. Very sturdy feel and environmentaly sealed for when the weather turns bad.
Of course, it doesn't matter how well built it is or how intelligently designed if it can't take a decent picture. Fortunately, it can :-). It's not the highest resolution camera out there but it can certainly withstand printing to any size I'm ever likely to print. Also, the it may not be quite as noise free as a Canon 1D# but it's not that far off and when it does get noisy it looks like film grain and not randomly coloured pixels (i.e. it actually looks better than noise free does for some things!). And the new line of Olympus Zuiko lenses is shaping to be a very competent set of professional quality glass.
Of course, what all this really means is I've got no excuses for taking bad pictures now!