Despite being best known for calculators and digital watches, Casio is becoming a player in the digital camera market. Its main contribution is the tiny camera with a huge screen, now available in two incarnations: the super-slim Exilim Card range, typified by the EX-S100, and the less slim but more fully featured Exilim Zoom range. The latest in the Zoom family is the Casio Exilim Zoom EX-Z57, which takes the 64mm (2.5-inch) screen of the EX-Z55 and stretches it out to 69mm (2.7 inches). Other features include a 5-megapixel sensor, a 3x zoom lens and charging stand that lets you use the camera as a digital photo frame.
The 87 by 58 by 23mm Exilim Zoom EX-Z57 is about the same size as a pack of cards, although somewhat heavier at 157g with the battery. It's finished in brushed aluminium and has a metal and rubber ridge on the front to make it easier to grip.
The lens slides flush into the body and none of the controls protrude more than a couple of millimetres. The power and shutter buttons are adjacent, but easily distinguishable by touch. The controls on the back sit in a recessed area that places them slightly behind the screen, turning the camera into a neat rectangle that slides easily into a case (not included).
Apart from the power and shutter buttons, all the controls are on the back, down the right-hand side of the screen. From top to bottom, they comprise Wide and Tele buttons for controlling the zoom, Play and Rec buttons for switching modes, a four-way controller with a Set button in the middle, and small Disp (display) and Menu buttons. Pressing Play or Rec activates the camera, so you only need the power button to turn it off.
The enormous LCD dominates the back of the camera. It offers almost twice the viewing area of the 51mm (2.0-inch) LCDs found on most ultracompact cameras, and the difference is staggering -- you can quite happily navigate the world using the viewfinder as your sole source of information. That said, the resolution (115,200 pixels) is no greater than the resolution of most 51mm LCDs, so you don't see more detail, just get a bigger picture. In bright sunlight we preferred the smaller LCD of the Pentax Optio S5n, which gives a brighter image with better contrast. There isn't an optical viewfinder.
The supplied docking station does triple duty, enabling you to charge the camera, transfer images to your computer and use the camera as a digital photo frame. There's no other way to charge the camera, so you'll need to pack the docking station when you travel.
You'll need to purchase an SD memory card to store images, since the camera is sold with just 9.3Mb of internal memory.
The EX-Z57 comes with a 16-page printed guide that documents all the features, but doesn't give you any advice on using them. To get the best from it, you'll need to load the full manual from the CD, or simply turn it on and experiment. Most of the controls and menu options are self-explanatory, although it's easy to miss some of the novel features.
The EX-Z57 has two basic modes, Recording and Playback, and you switch between them using the dedicated buttons. Unlike many other cameras, it doesn't switch from Playback to Recording when you press the shutter button.
It fires up in Snapshot mode for basic point-and-press photography. Pressing the top part of the four-way controller changes the focus mode, cycling through Auto, Macro, Pan (for moving subjects), Infinity and Manual. Pressing the bottom part of the controller cycles through the flash options: Auto, Off, On and Red Eye. Pop-up speech bubbles describe each option so you don’t have to memorise all the icons.
If you dig into the menu, you can tweak all sorts of settings, including image size, image quality, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO rating, autofocus area, sharpness, saturation and contrast. Alternatively, you can switch to Best Shot mode, which gives you access to 23 scene modes. Selecting a mode optimises all the settings for your chosen scene, be it a portrait, a night scene or the perennial Japanese favourite, a plate of food. Each of the options has an example photograph, a quick description and sometimes a word or two of advice, so it's easy to see what they do -- if you can be bothered to explore them all. We were intrigued by the Business Card and Whiteboard modes, which straighten out wonky images. If you make some attempt to frame the image correctly, they are surprisingly effective. It also has a couple of double-exposure modes that let you combine two scenes. You can create a User scene mode that stores your own favourite settings.
Other shooting features include a live histogram that not only displays the image contrast, but also the red, green and blue components. If you're a follower of classic 'rule of thirds' composition, you can superimpose a framing grid on the LCD.
Playback features include a slideshow mode that can play all the images, or just the ones you've transferred into the Favorites folder. You can also rotate, resize or trim the images, then create a simple Web page that displays them. This is a great feature for sharing images, since all you have to do is transfer the files to your computer and upload them to a Web server. We also like the calendar display, which organises your photographs by shooting date. It's very useful for locating photos from a particular event or location.
Movie mode lets you record 320x240-pixel clips at 15fps, complete with audio. With other ultracompacts offering 640x480-pixel clips at 30fps, the EX-Z57 seems underspecified in this area. You can also add voice comments to your snapshots, for example to record information about your subject. The playback volume is very low, so be prepared for some strange looks as you hold the camera to your ear while reviewing images.