Casio EX-Z50 & EX-Z55

It is often foolhardy to apply a fixed specification grid over a range of products and pick a clear winner. Many products are built to satisfy ćchecklist shoppers,ä packing in all the buzzwords of the day without a thought to making them all easily discoverable by the user and, thus, actually usable. Trusting buyers will figure they are doing their homework, but what they expect and what they take home are often two very different things.

There is much more to a camera than a spreadsheet of specs. You can elect to consider only cameras that are fairly bristling with features, then discover over time that you only use 20% of them. You can choose to consider buying only cameras that do exceedingly well in laboratory testing environments on perfectly illuminated, static targets. Take this same camera outside and you (a) canāt see the display in sunlight and (b) find it isnāt fast enough to capture a six-year old blowing out the candles on her birthday cake. A viewfinder you canāt view is oxymoronic, and a perfect shot of the wrong thing is pointless.

There are easily a dozen brand-name 4ö5 megapixel thin-zoom cameras vying for your dollars today, in a price range from about $200 to $400 street. Choosing the right model without taking them all out for a spin is risky, yet we reviewers see most if not all of them and often canāt pick a clear winner. Sometimes it just comes down to trusting a brand that has done well in the past and that you feel confident will still be in existence two years hence. Sometimes itās just a gut feeling. Sometimes it hinges on a purely subjective evaluation of image quality/convenient size ratio ÷ thin-zooms are a textbook study in tradeoffs.

In this class of camera, weāve gotten to the point where what a camera maker leaves out is as important as what they build in. So small have these devices become that there simply isnāt room for a lot of bells and whistles. Simplicity is the order of the day. Thin-zooms are 21st century snapshot cameras for social occasions, nothing more. To berate Camera X because it lacks full manual control over shutter speeds, external flash terminals, or a metal-threaded tripod socket is a bit silly. Save those considerations for the big guns.

Last year, Sony shook the consumer digicam industry up with their groundbreaking T1 thin-zoom. They designed a terrific little feature set into a stunning design and brought the full weight of their awesome marketing machine to bear on our collective consciousness. It worked. Theyāre selling T-series cameras by the truckload all over the world. But it wasnāt Sony that pioneered the Sexy Little Digicam, it was Canon and Casio ÷ both of which have revamped their models to more resemble Sonyās hit camera. Canon still doesnāt get the little camera/big display thing, but Casio does. Last yearās hot Z40 has morphed into this yearās hot Z55, a reasonably priced five-megapixel looker with a big 2.5-inch display and the most sensible docking cradle in the business. Best of all, Casio has figured out how to beat even mighty Sony in the battery life war: on a single charge, the Z55 can shoot 400 to 1000 photographs, half with flash. The T1 typically poops out at less that 200 shots. When I think back on the digicams we had just two years ago that would give up the ghost after a couple dozen shots, I shake my head in wonder.

Sure, the Casio Z line has been criticized for using proprietary, $45 rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs, but with stupendous longevity like this, who really cares? You can charge this thing for an hour or two, then shoot for days without even thinking about running out of electrons. What is the consumable part of digital photography? Battery power and hard disk storage space. Hard disks are massive these days and cheap, but batteries on most cameras are still short-lived and costly. The importance of having a casual camera that shoots for days on a charge cannot be overstated.

Casio has successfully addressed the other bugaboos of digital cameras: startup delay and shutter lag. These two cameras, like the Z40 before them, use Casioās proprietary EXILIM engine, an ASIC that supercharges all the functions of the camera that matter. Like Canonās excellent DIGIC chip, EXILIM-equipped cameras spoil you forever ÷ you just canāt go back to a slow digicam after you used one. The Z55 and Z50 each startup in well under two seconds and have almost imperceptible shutter lag. For those times when you absolutely, positively need the shutter to fire right now, these cameras perceive that you have quickly mashed down the button and take their best shot with no lag. It may not be perfectly sharp, but itāll be there.

Another welcome feature is the auto-macro function, which detects that your subject is within the rage of 6.69 and 19.69 inches and sets the camera to macro (close-up) mode for you. Focus on something father away and it switches back to normal range autofocus mode. Why did it take so long for this feature to come to be? Itās delightful.

Another area where these Z-cams excel is in their extensive array of programmed scene modes, which Casio calls Best Shot modes. This camera offers almost no control over traditional shooting parameters ÷ you can set white balance, ISO sensitivity, and flash output and thatās about it. But there will be a Best Shot mode that does what you want it to in any imaginable casual photography situation: Portrait, scenery, portrait with Scenery, Coupling Shot, Pre-shot, Children, Candlelight Portrait, Party, Pet, Flower, Natural Green, Sundown, Night Scene, Night Scene Portrait, Fireworks, Food, Text, Collection, Monochrome, Retro, Twilight, and the unique Business Shot mode which corrects off-axis whiteboards and documents so that they are square in the frame. You can even create your own custom mode and store it in the cameraās nonvolatile memory.

The basic difference between the Z55 and Z50 is a half-inch more display and fifty bucks. Oh, and the Z55 gets a few more shots per charge using the same battery, but not enough to matter in the real world. A bigger display is always better, so get the Z55. Speaking of displays, the parts Casio uses in their Z line are bright and crisp but not the highest resolution displays in the world. The Z55ās 2.5-inch display offers 115,200 pixels while the Sony T1ās 2.5-inch display has 211,000 pixels ÷ almost twice the resolution in the same space, but the T1 costs a bit more, too.

Model-Casio Exilim EX-Z50/Z55
List price-US$349/399
Sensor res-5.0 megapixels
Image dimensions-2560x1920 down to 640x480
Lens-F:2.8-4.3 Pentax
Lens focal length-5.8-17.4 mm (35-105mm equiv.)
Shutter-1/2000 to 4 seconds
Exposure compensation-+/-2EV in 0.3 EV steps
Storage-SD Card (+9.3MB internal)
Focus-Contrast: spot/multi
LCD screen-2.0/2.5 inch TFT (85/115k pixels)
Flash modes-4 modes, up to 8.3 feet
Battery-NP40 lithium-ion rechargeable
Weight-4.3/4.6 ounces w/o battery
Dimensions-3.46 x 2.24 x 0.88 inches
Included-Software, cables, strap, cradle

Other features worth mentioning are the optical viewfinder and Casioās superb sync-and-charge desktop cradle. Somehow these guys managed to squeeze in what has to be the tiniest optical viewfinder ever. It crops dramatically, but in extremely bright situations such as water reflections or snowscapes, youāll be glad to have it. The Casio cradle is simply brilliant. The camera drops in backwards and there is a PHOTO button that switches the camera into a mini-desktop photo frame, automatically cycling through all images in the cameraās memory. Of course, it charges the internal battery pack and provides USB 1.1 connectivity via included cable to your Mac or Windows PC. It looks great and works flawlessly. The only things that would make it better is USB 2.0 speed and a slot in back to charge a spare battery.

Casio Z-series cameras stand out more for their careful balance of useful, friendly features than for their raw specsmanship. This is what makes them so satisfying to use and easy for me to recommend. Other thin-zooms may create infinitesimally better images (Canon S-300), have sharper displays (Sony T1), offer gee-whiz features (Panasonic), or have slimmer bodies (Minolta), but none offer such a likable balance for the money and none offer such incredible battery life. Think about what matters most to you, then buy.

öDavid MacNeill



© 2004 D.C. Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.