Casio's Exilim range boasts some rather nice superslim snapshot cameras. This is the third incarnation in the 5-megapixel Z series range and has a generous 2.7-inch screen.
The Z57 includes all the other trademark Casio features, such as Direct On record and playback buttons and a wide selection of Best Shot modes. These are equivalent to the scene modes on other cameras, but have a lot more polish. Certain modes speak for themselves - Sundown, Natural Green, Night Scene - while others do rather more.
Collection mode offers a superimposed outline to help you compose your shots; Business mode corrects the perspective errors you get if you don't photograph items from a perfectly perpendicular angle; the Coupling Shot and Pre Shot modes let you combine snaps of yourself and a companion or pre-compose a shot for a passer-by to shoot.
You can also configure and save your own Best Shot settings. For example, you might set up a mode for high-contrast, high-saturation shots with extra colour, or another with the focus fixed and a high ISO for sports shots.
The Z57's focusing system warrants a closer look. It can be set to automatically move into macro mode for close-up subjects and, even more usefully, it has a Pan Focus option. This fixes the focus at a pre-defined distance, so if you want to grab a shot the camera won't wait to focus but instead use this catch-all focus point. Compact digital cameras have such a large depth of field that the results are generally perfectly acceptable.
Even if you do wait for the Z57 to focus, it's still quicker than average, and can lock on to a subject in less than half a second, except in gloomy conditions and with the zoom at full range. This makes the Z57 feel exceptionally responsive, and the lack of focus lag at critical moments makes it a far better snapshot camera than many of its rivals.
The build quality is another big selling point. The aluminium body feels strong and is well finished. The quick start-up time - around a second - is another plus factor. That giant LCD display will be a bit of a talking point too. The problem here, though, is that it has only 115,000 pixels, a resolution you'd expect in a 1.5-inch display, but not one of this size. This means the pixel pitch - and hence the detail rendition - is quite coarse, negating the value of that extra screen size.
This is a very smart camera to use, with a logical control structure. The menus are big, clear and easy to navigate, and the Best Shot modes are presented superbly, each with a sample image and a concise explanation of what the mode does and when to use it. However, there's a danger this fancy presentation can distract you from one of the Z57's few annoyances. How many button presses will it take to find the Best Shot mode you want in the list of 23? That's a lot of button pressing.
And are you really going to use that alarm function with customisable wake-up photo? Or generate a web album for exporting to your computer? Or customise your start-up screen, operational sounds and favourite photos for internal storage?
You can also display saved images using a calendar screen with sample thumbnails for each date on which you took pictures. To do this, though, you'd better invest in a hefty SD card, because the camera comes with a measly 9.3MB internal memory - enough for just four Fine quality shots.
The Casio has its strong points, of course. It can display a live histogram during shooting, and if you configure the left/right navipad keys to operate the EV compensation, it's simple to fit the scene's tonal range into that of the sensor's by tweaking the exposure to prevent the highlights being clipped. To be perfectly honest, if all cameras were this easy to adjust, fewer people would bother with manual modes or fancy metering patterns.
From a distance images look sharp, colourful and clear, but as the ISO increases the tiny sensor produces plenty of noise; at ISO 400 it's almost unuseable. The in-camera sharpening/noise reduction system attempts to limit this noise, but while outlines stand out well, fine, textural detail tends to blur into a featureless mush. This happens at all ISOs, so even the super-smooth look to ISO 100 shots hides some compromises. Snappers won't notice, but if you want to blow your shots up to A4 or like fiddling around in Photoshop, you will.
Fair's fair, though, and this is essentially a snapshot camera. You may decide its size, ease of use and charm outweigh its average image quality. But at this price, it has some tough competition. Rod Lawton