Casio EX-Z300 Review
The "top of the line" Exilim Zoom series model for 2008, the Casio EX-Z300 shares many of the same features we saw when we reviewed the EX-Z200 and EX-Z250. This model boasts a 10.1-Megapixel imaging sensor, 4x wide optical zoom lens, 3-inch LCD screen, advanced Face Detection and Auto Shutter technologies, CCD shift Anti-Shake system, new Makeup function, more powerful li-ion battery, and a HD (1280x720, 24fps) Movie mode. This is a simple to use point-n-shoot model that offers Auto (Program AE), BSAuto and 38 Best Shot scene modes to help users obtain great images in a wide variety of shooting situations.
Casio's Face Detection software is very advanced and gives you several different settings to ensure you get the best possible pictures. The Standard face detection setting will locate and focus on faces much like all cameras do. However, the EX-Z300 offers a unique Family setting, which allows you to record your family members faces into the camera. When set to Family priority, the camera is able to distinguish them from a crowd, and will set focus and exposure to their faces. You can also set higher priorities for some of the people that you have saved within the camera.
Also included are the three new Auto Shutter modes. These allow the camera to operate by itself based on the settings. The first mode is Blur Detect, which allows the camera to take pictures whenever the it senses that the image is clear; there's no need for you to press the shutter release. Next is Panning mode, which will only snap a picture when the moving object is in focus, blurring the background as you follow the subject with the camera. Finally, there is Smile Detect mode. It will automatically take a picture when all recognized faces in the frame smile, so that you never miss that perfect portrait shot. There are also sensitivity controls for all three modes to help you adjust the camera to meet your needs.
The EX-Z300 is a typical Casio Exilim model. Not only is it extremely compact, but stylish too with 3 available color choices (Black, Silver, and Pink). The control lay out between the EX-Z250 and EX-Z300 are identical. The all metal body offers a nice study, well-built fell, and all of the camera controls are placed in a comfortable manner. Even with my large hands, I had no problems using the camera with one or both hands. The menu system is very easy to navigate, and I especially liked the "Panel Display" shortcut menu, which allows you to quickly change various cameras settings. Taking up the majority of the back is a large 3-inch LCD screen. I found the display was easy to use in most lighting, gaining up nicely in low light situations. Outdoors, there are several angles which reflect the sun, but the live image is bright enough so you can still frame the subject. You can also adjust the screen brightness via the Setup menu.
Shooting performance was a average. Power up to first image captured measured about 2.6 seconds. Shutter lag was impressive, averaging less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused, and between 1-2/10 including autofocus, depending on the amount of focus change. When shooting in single drive mode, the shot to shot delay averaged 2.4 seconds between frames without the flash and between 2.8 - 3.5 seconds including the flash. The EX-Z300 offers three burst mode settings; Normal Speed CS, High Speed CS, Flash CS. In Normal Speed CS I was able to capture 5 frames in 9.9 seconds (0.5fps). This was a bit disappointing as I achieved about the same frame rate in single drive mode. High speed CS allowed me to take 10 images in 3.5 seconds, and Flash CS captured 3 images with the flash in just 9/10 of a second. Both High Speed and Flash CS modes drop the resolution to 2-megapixels. However, a good 2M image can still create usable 4x6-inch uncropped prints. In all three burst modes, the camera briefly displays the last image captured, making it somewhat possible to follow a moving subject. All of our tests were completed using an Ultra 150x 4GB SDHC memory card, Auto (Program AE) mode, ISO auto, flash off, preview on, and all other settings at the factory defaults. Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, media, etc.
The EX-Z300 produces pleasing 10-megapixel images. When shooting indoors, the flash has a limited range of about 14 feet at wide angle. Changing the zoom position and/or choosing a lower ISO setting can greatly effect this range. I got the best results when shooting from 3-5 feet away using zoom to frame the subject. When using Portrait mode, the new Makeup function is automatically enabled on the standard setting (+6). Overall portrait mode produces nice looking pictures with good flash exposure, and depending on the degree of "Makeup" you use, sharp facial features and pleasing skin tones. I found the Standard setting produced the best results if you are going to use this feature, however I personally liked the fact that you can turn it off. The best part about the Makeup featue that I found was it did very well at bringing out highlights in your subjects hair. On the Samples Photos page, you can see three portrait examples at each setting (Off, Standard +6, Strong +12). While the EX-Z300 offers high ISO settings up to 3200, I found it best to try and keep the sensitivity to ISO 400 and below. As with most all consumer digicams, the lower the ISO, the better the image quality. Noise starts to become noticeable in low contrast areas at ISO 200, and increases as you raise the sensitivity. ISO 400 shows some detail loss from the Noise Reduction algorithms, and at the higher 800, 1600, and 3200 settings, images start to become very soft from heavy NR.
Like we saw with the EX-Z250, when using the face detection AF mode, it seemed to be a little more particular than most face recognition systems from other manufacturers. In order for the camera to detect a subject's face, they have to be relatively still and facing directly towards the camera. If the face is moving too much or even turned to the side slightly, the camera would have difficulty registering them. This can make using the face detection tricky, especially when shooting children.
Outdoors, the EX-Z300 does very well, capturing images that show good exposure and natural colors. For those who like to "dial in" that certain look, you can use Color filters as well as access adjustments for Saturation, Contrast and Sharpness. The 4x optical zoom helps the camera capture sharp images throughout the 28 - 112mm zoom range, however I did notice some edge softness on many of our outdoor photos. At 28mm, you're going to be able to capture nice indoor and outdoor group shots as well as vast landscapes. The 112mm telephoto end of the zoom range will be great for framing filling portraits, just don't expect to bring distant subjects up close and personal.
The EX-Z300 is the first Exilim Zoom series model we have see that offers a 1280x720 (HD, 24fps) movie mode. You can also record video at 640x480 (STD, 30fps) and 320x240 (LP, 15fps). All video is recorded using QuickTime H.264/AVC compression. This allows the camera to capture high quality movies at a fraction of the size of a MPEG, while looking just as good. Our indoor movies look relatively good when you consider the conditions (marginal indoor lighting) they were taken in. There is an average amount of noise, but this is most likely due to the camera boosting the sensitivity to help brighten the image. Our HD samples played back just fine on my PC, just be sure you have a "wide view" type monitor, other wise the sides of the movie will not be visible.
Battery life from the supplied NP-40 3.7V 1300mAh battery pack was great. Casio claims you can capture up to 300 still images or 8 hours and 50 minutes of continuous recording. I had no problems capturing all of our sample images, recording several short movie clips, and concluded all of our other test with plenty of power to spare. However, if you plan on taking vacation and shooting a ton of pictures, we highly recommend the purchase of a large SDHC memory card along with a second spare battery pack to keep charged and ready at all times.
Bottom Line - Casio's Exilim EX-Z300 is an appealing ultra-compact model with loads of "cool" features. Shooting performance could have been a little better, however with some practice pre-focusing, you're sure to capture those special moments. With great image quality, plenty of exposure options, and a full HD movie mode, the EX-Z300 has a lot to offer for US $249. If you're one who is in the market for a fully loaded ultra-compact, at an affordable price, this "top of the line" Exilim Zoom model just might be the ticket.
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