Earlier this year Casio introduced the 4-megapixel Exilim Zoom EX-Z40, a thin-bodied digital camera with a large 2-inch TFT LCD screen. This successful model has now been followed up by the 5-megapixel Casio EX Z50 and Z55 models. Both these cameras represent all the good qualities from the previous model, such as improved battery life and high response time, together with a few other nice improvements that we will discuss later.
The new Exilim Zoom models both incorporate Casio's heralded Exilim engine, the compact image-processing module that enables high picture quality, speedy response time and even lower power consumption than the Z-40. Casio claim that capturing close to 400 pictures on a single charge should be well possible. For this test we will restrict ourselves to the Casio EX Z50 as that was the model we received on loan for our test. The Casio Z55 is basically the same camera but sports a 2.5-inch LCD screen with 115,000 pixels as opposed to a 2-inch screen with 85,000 pixels on our EX Z50.
Using the camera
The Exilim series already comprises a number of stylish and extremely compact cameras and it will come as no surprise that the Casio Z50 is no exception in this respect. With a weight of 121g (4.2 oz) it is light and small enough to carry around in your trouser pocket all day. The all-metal, magnesium-alloy body has a stylish brushed finish that gives the camera a real quality feel. All controls give the impression that they are built to last and are comfortable to use.
Looking at the back of the camera shows that Casio have clearly thought about where to put all the dials and buttons. Of course you can't fail to notice the huge 2.0inch LCD screen, but for the rest the back is extremely uncluttered and well laid out. Above the screen is a tiny optical viewfinder together with two round buttons for playback and recording mode. Pressing them with the camera turned off, switches the camera on instantly and takes you straight into playback or recording mode. Next to this is the zoom control with the 4-way control below it. Pressing the latter up or down in record mode sets flash and focus modes. In playback the 4-way switch lets you delete images or assess the calendar function. Users can customise the left/right key of the 4-way button to control functions like recording mode, EV shift, white balance, ISO or self-timer. Very handy to have some frequently used functions directly at your disposal without having to consult the menu first.
Although we immediately experienced a disadvantage of this handy function as it was rather easy to change settings unwillingly by accidentally pressing the L/R key. In our case we had set the L/R key to control ISO settings to quickly take several images at different ISO levels. The result was a whole series of images that were taken at ISO 400 without us noticing until much later.
Two tiny rectangular switches either side of the 4-way control are used for calling up the menu or setting display options of the LCD screen, including a live histogram for instant assessment of highlight and shadow areas. The top of the camera shows a minuscule on/off switch that has to be operated with your fingernail and the shutter release button, which has a pleasantly light touch without being too sensitive. Start up time is pretty quick at 1.6 seconds and with a shutter release lag time of 0.01 secs action pictures should well be possible. On top of this the camera automatically selects fixed focus Auto Pan Focus mode for instantaneous response when the shutter is pressed rapidly. Assessing images in playback mode is pretty quick as well, allowing you to swiftly move through all the images in camera.
The Casio EX Z50 can capture still images in full Auto mode (Program AE) or Best Shot mode. When using the automatic setting - or Snapshot mode as Casio prefer to call it - it is not possible to influence aperture or shutter speeds, but the user can set many other variables such as white balance settings; flash; exposure compensation over +/- 2 stops; saturation; sharpness and contrast. Two settings which show the attention to detail Casio have built into their models are the options to adjust flash intensity plus the so-called Flash Assist function which provides exposure compensation for areas not reached by the flash.
In Best Shot mode there is a choice of 23 pre-programmed settings as diverse as scenery, party, pet, flower, natural green, sundown, food, text and a Business Shot function which compensates for photos of documents taken at an angle and records them as though taken from straight ahead. The camera can be used as a voice recorder and video with sound can be recorded until the memory is full. Shutter speeds in SnapShot mode range from 1/8 to 1/2000 secs. In Fireworks mode the camera sets a fixed shutter speed of 2 secs, while for Night Shot shutter speeds of up to 4 secs are possible. Auto Focus is of the contrast type with 7-point Multi-Auto Focus or Spot AF, plus the options of Manual Focus, Infinity or Macro mode up to 6cm from your subject. The camera connects directly to PictBridge and USB Direct-Print compatible printers and menu display is possible in one of 10 languages including English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, 3 types of Chinese and Japanese.
During our test we time and time again experienced what a pleasant and comfortable camera this Casio is to work with. Lots of tiny details show that Casio have really tried to make taking pictures as user-friendly and easy as possible. For instance the memory tab in the menu lets you select which settings the camera should remember next time it is switched on. Another example is the Icon Help, which displays on-screen guides to help the user in choosing the appropriate camera settings.
In the box
As this was a pre-production model not all the goodies were included yet. However the Exilim Z50 will be sold with lithium-ion battery, which should be powerful enough to capture about 400 photos and a USB compatible docking station, which transfers images to the computer at the touch of a button while charging the battery at the same time. The docking station can also be used as a desktop calendar with slideshow. USB cable, AC adapter and wrist strap are included, plus Photohands V1.0 and Photo Loader V2.2 software. The former allows you to edit and print image data while the latter is used for managing image files and automatically loading them from camera to PC.
Installing the software couldn't be simpler. Just put the CD in the drive, make your choices in the menu and the program will lead you through the installation process. There is no need to install drivers for Windows XP, but drivers for other Windows versions are included just to make sure. However, you are advised to consult the "readme" files first because if you already have Photo Loader V1.0 installed on your computer this must be uninstalled first, otherwise image files may not be viewed or may become lost. New for version 2.0 is that image libraries are now displayed in calendar style.
We did not receive a printed manual with our test model, but of course this will be included when the camera becomes available in the shops at the beginning of October 2004. For us this meant we had to find out about all the camera functions from the camera menu. That this was no problem once again shows the user friendliness of this little gem. There is no SD or MultiMedia memory card with the camera as the Casio Z50 has a built-in flash memory of 9.3Mb. And with enough power to capture close to 400 photos - or 3 hrs 15 mins of recording time according to CIPA standards - there is now no more direct need to buy a spare battery straight away as this one will keep you going for quite some time. A small icon in the bottom left of the LCD screen keeps you informed of battery power left, so you know when to start heading for home . . .
Images taken with the Casio EX Z50 were clear and bright and they all showed good sharpness and lifelike colours. The camera uses an SMC Pentax 3x zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f2.6-f4.8 with an optical range of 35-105mm in 35mm terms. The multi-pattern metering system did a good job as images were correctly exposed all the time. There was a good balance between highlight and shadow detail and even in strong "contre jour" lighting the Casio EX Z50 managed to capture enough detail in the shadows to make the image perfectly useable. Noise is not a problem at ISO 50 and even at ISO 400 image quality is still satisfactory. Exposure can be adjusted by dialling in plus or minus two stops through he EV-shift function in the menu if you need to override the camera's settings.
There are eight white balance settings including Auto and Manual, but we never felt the need to use them as Auto worked perfectly well for all our images. Saturation, sharpness and contrast can be adjusted to set up the camera to your own personal preferences. In wide-angle shots some barrel distortion presents itself but this quickly disappears when you zoom in. The tele end of the lens did not show any visible distortion at all. Some chromatic aberration was visible in high contrast situations but nothing to worry about really.
With excellent handling, superb portability and image quality that is easily good enough for large prints, we have to conclude that this new 5-megapixel Casio is a welcome addition to today's digital camera market. Ergonomics are good with all controls being well-placed and functional without there being too many of them. The menu system is logically organised and very user-friendly, while the long battery life makes it ideal for long vacations, or business travel. So if you have been looking for a reasonably priced, stylish point-and-shoot camera that delivers the goods, this Casio Z50 might be just the ticket for you.