Reacting against the trend for rounded contours, the Casio EXILIM PRO EX-P700 presents distinctively squarish lines and chamfered edges, in a graphite grey finish.

Its headline feature is its use of the new 7.4-megapixel chip (effective 7.2 million pixels) giving images up to 3072x2304 pixels in size (sufficient for A3 ink-jet prints). The lens is a well-specified Canon 4x zoom covering the range 33-132mm (35mm equivalent focal length) i.e. not terribly wideangle to a useful telephoto. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 at the wide-angle to f/4 at the long end is good for this class of camera. Unusually, the Casio carries a nominal 8.9MB of internal memory and accepts SD (Secure Digital) and MMC (MultiMedia) cards. Power comes from a proprietary Li-ion (Lithium ion) battery.

The LCD screen is large and bright, making it easy to use. One small detail shows good attention to design: the viewfinder is centred over the lens, to increase its accuracy. But the green focusconfirmation light right next to the viewfinder eyepiece is very distracting. Studio lovers will welcome the PC synch socket for flash (but there's no hot-shoe). Deeper in you'll be delighted with the 7-point multi-zone auto-focus, the range of lens apertures from f/2.8 to f/8, a good range of sensitivities from ISO 80 to 640 and choice of metering patterns.

The back of the camera offers ten buttons, including a jog pad and a multi-mode dial. As the camera is quite compact though, it's easy for your fingers to hit a button when picking up the camera. The recessed power switch sits next to the shutter button.

Handling qualities

Like many prosumer cameras, the Casio is designed to meet every level of need - from those who like to have their hands held, to those who wish to set exposure and white balance themselves. There are 27 pre-sets for picture situations ranging from fireworks to photographing white board presentations, from flower shots to portraits at night. These are easy to find, with a helpful picture reference and explanations of the settings used.

But you can go and set it all yourself. The menus are extensive and easy to use: there are three different sets for the record mode - including exposure correction, sharpness and saturation. And there are two sets for the playback mode including, for the frequent traveller, 32 time zones and daylight-saving.

Time to power up and extend the lens takes 2 secs (that is a bit leisurely by current standards), but in compensation, the shutter lag - said to be only 0.01sec - actually varies from near instantaneous to too long depending on the autofocus state. The LCD responds very well to commands, with a quick display of images and menu options. As all the buttons are well weighted with definite clicks, the camera is very pleasing to use apart from the zoom control which was sluggish in response and imprecise in action.

Another strong point is its ability to shoot off three images in a second at full resolution. The LCD is shut down, so you have to observe through the viewfinder, but that is no hardship. This mode needs to be specially set through the menu options but recovery after the three images is only about 15 sec - a truly fine performance.

So far, the camera has put in a very good performance and at first glance its images look very promising. They are punchy, colourful and sharp, but with a closer and more critical look, the picture starts to break up.

Colours are a little brighter and snappier than realistic - the convenient side of being wrong. The sharp appearance of the images is obtained by a little too much in-camera sharpening (even with the sharpening set to zero). However, the sharpening artefacts would disappear with normal inkjet printing and show up only on the largest enlargements. Overall, colour balance errs on the side of being too warm. As a result skin tones are generally acceptable, if at times a little too flushed.

Images often appear somewhat overexposed. And the auto-focus sometimes gets it wildly wrong. On the other hand, flash exposures are very well controlled and give pleasing results.

Shadow noise is also disappointing: flatly-lit subjects are rendered very well, but substantial contrast in the lighting leads to burn-out losses in the highlights and patches of blocked, black shadows. And noise increases markedly with higher ISO settings.

Overall, this is a fine handling and highly customisable camera capable of delivering good results, but it's let down by problems in image processing. Tom Ang