By Josh Fate
While slim and compact, the Z280 fits very well into your hands. The simple layout of the controls makes operation a breeze. Thanks to the one touch video recording button, the camera is always ready to record, no matter what shooting mode you are in. This makes it much more versatile for shooting video quickly, when compared to many other cameras. On the right side of the LCD, you have the option to keep a quick menu visible at all times. Unlike some of the other Casio's that feature this menu, you have the option to choose the items that are found within. Framing and viewing your images are done on the camera's 2.7-inch LCD display, which is a bit of a let down as it only has a resolution of 114,960 pixels. This is about about half the resolution that you will find on any other digicam today. The screen also lacks in brightness control as well as an anti-reflective coating, which makes it difficult to see in bright light.
Performance from the Z280 is nothing to get excited about. From the time you press the power button, it takes 2.4 seconds before the camera can capture its first image. When the camera is pre-focused, the shutter lag is less than 1/10 of a second. When allowing the auto focus to work, depending on the distance and zoom, the shutter lag will fall between 2/10 and 5/10 of a second. In single shot mode, we were able to capture 5 images in 15.5 seconds or when using the flash 5 images in 17.9 seconds, which both come out to a delay of over 3 seconds. The camera's burst modes don't fair too much better, capturing 5 full sized images in 13.5 seconds and 5 in 17.5 seconds with the flash. Hi-speed burst mode was able to capture 8, 2-Megapixel images in 1.8 seconds before filling the buffer. Flash burst mode also captures smaller images, but allows the flash to fire 3 times in 1.4 seconds, giving you 3 quick images with the flash before the camera needs to recharge. All of our tests were completed using a 2GB, Patriot SD memory card, Auto shooting mode, ISO auto, flash off and all other settings at the factory defaults. All times may vary depending on lighting, camera settings, media, etc.
Our outdoor sample shots taken with the Z280 are OK for an entry-level model, showing us proper exposures and realistic looking colors. When you zoom in to look at your images at 100%, you will notice that they look a little soft throughout the image area. You will also see some aberrations, either purple or green, in high contrast areas. Take a look along the curb of the Firehouse or the shadows in the Museum shots.
A 4x wide optical zoom lens with 35mm equivalent range of 26-104mm allows you to capture vast landscapes as well as works great for shots of large groups of people. The telephoto end doesn't get you very close to distant objects, but is a great composition tool, allowing you to add or remove items from your images based on the amount of zoom you use. Along with the fringing, you will also see some barrel distortion when shooting at the wide end of the zoom.
As with the outdoor samples, our indoor shots also show some soft edges, which makes it a little difficult to read the magazine titles on the the left side of our M&M man shots. The colors of these images also look a little on the dull side. When viewing the photos at 100% on a computer, you are able to see some noise in all of the shots, no matter how low the ISO is. At ISO 200, all of the detail is gone from the flag, and at ISO 400, the rest of the image starts to loose its fine detail as well. Any of the settings over 400 should be avoided if possible due to the high levels of noise and lack of detail.
Assisting you with your indoor and low-light shots is a built-in flash, which has a range of up to 13.8ft. at ISO Auto. This is not a very powerful unit, but it can be useful when you are fairly close to your subjects. Remember that the more zoom you use, the less range the flash will have. Our flash sample is very warm because the camera's white balance was set for the flash, which was not powerful enough to correctly light the scene on its own. The subject shown in the image was 6ft. away, shot at ISO 64. Raising the ISO would allow the flash to correctly light the scene, however, the noise level will increase as well.
Shooting portraits with the Z280 is easy as long as your subject is willing to be still. The face detection struggles a little when the faces are moving or not directly facing the camera. This makes it a little trickier to catch candid moments. Once the face has been detected, the camera does an excellent job producing an image where exposure and focus have been set specifically for the face. Our sample portrait shot shows good tones, but lacks a bit of detail due to the ISO 400 setting. Here the flash did an excellent job filling the right side of the face while not causing any red-eye in the subject.
Unlike some of the other new Casio models, the Z280 does include 720p, HD movie capture along with its standard 640x480 and 320x240 modes. The camera also includes the One-Touch video record button so it is always just one button away from recording, no matter what the camera's settings are. Our HD sample has very choppy playback, due to the 23fps, which makes for unpleasant viewing. At 640x480 and 30 fps, the movies play smoother but still not what you would expect from a video at 30fps. Both movies show slight variations in the white balance as the subject gets further away from the camera. The camera's built-in mic is very sensitive, allowing you to hear the air circulation in the background. This is common on all digicams, and the only thing you can do is watch where you record from, trying to stay away from furnaces, air conditioners and anything else that hums or makes any other kind of noise.
Powering the Z280 is a 3.7V, 700mAh Li-Ion rechargeable battery. During our tests, we were able to capture 162 images and videos. While there is still a little juice left in the battery, the icon on the screen is red and it would need charged before going to take more pictures. This falls way short of the 250 images that Casio claims the battery is able to provide based on CIPA standards. You will definitely want to keep a spare battery charged and on hand all times if you plan on using the camera for a full day or longer.
Bottom Line - The Casio Exilim Z280 is a very capable entry-level digicam featuring a 4x wide optical zoom lens, a 12-Megapixel imaging sensor, Face Detection and HD video capture. There are also several special shooting modes, including a Make-Up mode and Dynamic photo options, which are perfect to bring out anyone's creativity. Image quality and performance are OK for an entry-level model. With a MSRP of US$179.99, it is an affordable option packed with creative features. You might also want to look at the ultra-compact Panasonic Lumix FS25, sporting better image quality with a slightly higher price tag.
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