DCRP Review: Casio Exilim EX-Z3
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: August 28, 2003
Last Updated: August 28, 2003

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The Casio Exilim EX-Z3 ($399) is an ultra-small camera with a 3X zoom lens. The Z3 is quite similar to Pentax's Optio S model (they share the same lens), with the main difference being the Z3's larger LCD and thicker body. Both cameras are high performance 3 Megapixel cameras in a nicely designed metal body.

For those who want more resolution, Casio recently introduced the EZ-Z4U model. It's also priced at $399, so I expect the Z3 to drop in price soon.

Is this a great "take anywhere" camera? Find out now in our review!

Please note that since the EX-Z3 is so similar to the EX-S3 that I recently reviewed, some text will be reused where appropriate.

What's in the Box?

The Exilim has a good bundle. Inside the box, you'll find:

  • The 3.2 (effective) Mpixel Exilim EX-Z3 camera
  • NP-20 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • AC adapter
  • USB docking cradle
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • CD-ROM featuring PhotoLoader software and drivers
  • 26 page basic manual (printed) + full manual on CD

Casio does not include a memory card with the EX-Z3. Rather, you get 10MB of on-board memory, plus a slot for a Secure Digital (SD) or MultiMedia (MMC) card that you can buy separately. I recommend picking one up right away, as 10MB doesn't hold many 3 Megapixel photos.

When you have a camera this small, you've gotta have a proprietary battery. The EX-Z3 uses the same NP-20 Li-ion battery as the EX-S3. This 2.5 Watt/hour battery will get you about 75 minutes in record more, or two hours in playback mode, according to Casio. That's not great, so I recommend picking up a spare battery ($30 a pop).

When it's time to recharge the battery, just pop it into the included cradle. A full charge takes about two hours. The cradle is also used for transferring photos to your Mac or PC over a USB cable.

The EX-Z3 has a built-in lens cover, so there is no lens cap to worry about. As you can see, this is one small camera.

In terms of accessories, don't expect a lot. You can buy a spare battery ($30), an external battery charger ($40), and a variety of cases.

The Exilim includes Casio's PhotoLoader and Photohands software. PhotoLoader is used to download and view stills and movies from your camera. It's not Mac OS X native, but works in Classic mode. Photohands is for Windows only, and is used for retouching and printing images.

Casio has "pulled an Olympus" and is now including the full manual only on CD. This is a bad move, in my opinion. Once you actually load up the manual, expect its quality to be about average.

Look and Feel

If you like small metal cameras, then you'll really like the EX-Z3. It's very attractive, with a finish reminiscent of Canon's Powershot S400. I'll pass along my usual warning: metal cameras scratch easily, so take care of them.

The Z3 is easy to hold and operate with just one hand. You won't have any trouble finding room in your pocket for it, either.

The EX-Z3's dimensions are 3.4 x 2.2 x 0.9 inches (W x H x D, excluding projections), and it weighs a measly 126 grams empty. The Pentax Optio S is a little smaller, with numbers of 3.3 x 2.0 x 0.8 and 98 grams, respectively. The main reason for the size difference lies on the back of the two cameras: the Casio has a 2" LCD, while the Pentax has a 1.6" model.

Let's begin our tour of the EX-Z3 now, beginning with the front.

As I mentioned at the start of the review, the Exilim shares the same 3X optical zoom lens as the Pentax Optio S. The lens in question has a maximum aperture of F2.6-4.8, with a focal range of 5.8 - 17.4 mm. That's equivalent to 35 - 105 mm. The lens is not threaded, nor would I expect it to be.

To the upper-left of the lens, you'll find the built-in flash. The flash has a working range of 0.4 - 2.3 m at wide-angle, and 0.4 - 1.5 m at telephoto. That's not great, but you can't put a huge flash on a tiny camera.

Below the flash is the microphone, with the self-timer lamp to the upper-right of it.

The EX-Z3 does not have an AF-assist lamp.

One of the biggest features on the EX-Z3 is its 2.0" LCD display (no pun intended). If the 1.6" display on the Pentax model is too small, then you may want to check this one out. Don't get too excited though -- the resolution of this screen is quite low (85k pixels), and you'll notice. The LCD brightness isn't adjustable (not that it needs much adjusting).

Above the LCD is the optical viewfinder which, as you'd expect, is very small. There's no diopter correction feature available, either.

Moving to the right, you find a switch which moves the camera between playback and record mode. Next to that is the zoom controller, which doesn't have enough "play" (freedom of movement) for me. Try it and you'll understand. The zoom controls move the lens from wide-angle to telephoto in under two seconds. There's a bit of a delay before the lens starts moving.

Below that you'll find the menu and display buttons, as well as the four-way controller. The four-way controller doesn't have enough play either, in my opinion. It's used for menu navigation, plus changing the focus (auto, macro, infinity, manual) and flash (auto, on, off, auto w/redeye reduction) settings. The function of the left/right directions can be defined in the menu. In playback mode, the up button displays the Album menu (more on that later), while the down button deletes a photo.


Manual focus

A quick note about the manual focus feature. With this turned on, you use the four-way controller to focus. The center of the image is enlarged so you can make sure the subject is sharp. A guide is shown on the LCD showing the (very approximate) focus distance.

The only things to see on the top of the camera are the power and shutter release buttons.

This is also a nice shot for seeing just how amazing that lens is.

And here's another one!

Nothing to see here, either! If you're looking for I/O ports... well, there aren't any (the Optio S has both USB, video out, and power on the side of the camera). You need to use the dock for everything. Even with the dock, there's no video out support.

Last, but not least, here's the bottom of the Exilim EX-Z3. You can see the SD/MMC card slot (card not included), the battery compartment, and the metal tripod mount. The door covering all this seems like it could bust off if forced.

The NP-20 battery is shown at left.

Using the Casio Exilim EX-Z3

Record Mode

The Z3 starts up very quickly, taking just about two seconds to extend the lens and "warm up".

Autofocus speeds were average at best. Expect about a one second delay before focus is locked. The camera did not focus well in low light -- an AF illuminator would've helped here.

The camera did a much better job with shutter lag -- it's barely noticeable.


A live histogram is displayed in record mode

Shot-to-shot speed is good as well. You will wait about two seconds before you can take another shot, at the fine quality setting. That assumes that you turn off the post-shot review feature.

There's no way to delete a photo right after it is taken; you must enter playback mode.

Now, let's take a look at the image size/quality choices on the EX-Z3:

Image Size # photos on 10MB built-in memory
Fine Quality Normal Quality Economy Quality
2048 x 1536 5 7 14
1600 x 1200 8 12 24
1280 x 960 13 20 35
640 x 480 46 61 98

There's no TIFF or RAW mode on any of the Exilim cameras. The file numbering is simple: CIMG####.JPG, where # = 0001 - 9999. File numbering is maintained as you switch and erase memory cards.

Let's take a look at the menus now.

The Exilim has an attractive and easy-to-use menu system (it looks better in person than it does in my screen shots). Here's what you'll find in the record menu:

  • REC mode (Snapshot, best shot, movie)
  • Self-timer (Off, 10 sec, 2 sec, x3)
  • Size (see chart)
  • Quality (see chart)
  • EV Shift [exposure compensation] (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, light bulb, fluorescent, manual)
  • ISO (Auto, 50, 100, 200)
  • Digital zoom (on/off)
  • Review (on/off) - whether picture is shown on LCD after it is taken
  • L/R key (REC mode, EV shift, white balance, ISO, off) - define what left/right on the four-way controller does

As you can see, the EX-Z3 has manual white balance -- the only manual control on the camera.

The Exilim has a rather unique "x3" self-timer feature. The camera takes three shots in a row, with a 10 second delay for the first shot, and a 1 second delay for each subsequent shot.

The EX-Z3 has the same "Best Shot" modes that have been on Casio cameras for years. Here's how it works: you select a scenario on the LCD, and the camera picks the best settings for it! The choices are:

  • Portrait
  • Scenery
  • Portrait w/scenery
  • Coupling shot - combine two shots into one
  • Pre-shot - Shoot the background first, then have someone shoot you in front of it
  • Children
  • Candlelight portrait
  • Party
  • Pet
  • Flower
  • Natural green
  • Sundown [sunset]
  • Night scene
  • Night scene portrait
  • Fireworks
  • Food
  • Text
  • Collection - a bizarre one: macro mode + displays a "composition outline"
  • Monochrome
  • Retro - low contrast + sepia filter
  • Twilight - high contrast + magenta filter
  • Register favorites - create your own Best Shot using a photo you've taken

The memory tab in the menu lets you choose what settings are stored when the camera is turned off. The choices include REC mode, flash, focus, white balance, ISO, and digital zoom, and manual focus position.

There is also the standard-issue setup menu for setting the date and all that fun stuff. Interesting items here include:

  • Beep (on/off)
  • Startup [screen] (on/off) - you can select your own image if you want
  • File no. (continue, reset) - file numbering
  • World time - choose your home city and another one abroad
  • Language (Japanese, English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, plus 3 mysterious Asian languages)
  • Sleep (Off, 3 sec, 1, 2 min)
  • Auto power off (2, 5 mins)
  • Reset - go back to default settings

Well enough about menus, let's do photo tests now.

The EX-Z3 did a fine job with our macro test -- I have no complaints. The focal range in macro mode is 6 - 50 cm.

I do, however, have complaints about the night shot. The Z3's slowest shutter speed is a mere 1 second, which means it cannot capture enough light to properly expose this shot. There's no way to set the shutter speed manually, either. Do note that the Optio S is the same way, but it has much better 4 second shutter speed limit. There's quite a bit of noise in this shot as well.

Redeye, on a tiny camera? You bet! The poor flash range forced me to set the ISO to 'auto', which adds a lot of noise to the image, as you can see.

The distortion test results are the same as on the Optio S -- not surprising, since they use the same lens. You've got above average barrel distortion at wide-angle, plus vignetting (shadows) and blurriness in the corners. You'll find both of these phenomena in the gallery as well, like here and here.

Images as whole have a soft, grainy look to them, reminiscent of video frame captures. Photo quality isn't bad by any means, but there are definitely tradeoffs that come along with the Z3's compact lens. Purple fringing was seen occasionally, but it wasn't a major problem. Color and exposure were good in almost all of my test shots (with the exception of the torture test).

As always, don't just take my word for it -- have a look at the photo gallery and judge the quality for yourself!

Movie Mode

The EX-Z3 has a rather outdated movie mode. You can record up to 30 seconds of video, with sound. The resolution is 320 x 240. Movies are saved in AVI format, using the M-JPEG codec.

You cannot use the zoom lens during filming, though can you position it where you want before you begin.

Here is a sample movie for you to check out. The low (12 fps) frame rate makes the video pretty choppy.


Click to play movie (852KB, AVI format)

Can't view it? Download QuickTime.

Playback Mode

The Exilim has a pretty full-featured playback mode. The basic features like slide shows, DPOF print marking, zoom and scroll, and image protection are all here.

The zoom and scroll feature lets you zoom up to 4X into your photo and then move around in it. This feature was quite sluggish.

You can also rotate images, or resize them to 1280 x 960 or 640 x 480.

But there's more -- the Exilim has three very unique playback features.

The first is favorites, which lets you "tag" your best photos for easy retrieval later.

Cool feature number two is the "create album" item, which will make an HTML photo gallery automatically! You can then copy over the album folder to your website, and that's it! You can choose from 10 different album layouts, or make your own. This is a useful feature that is (surprisingly) still unique to Casio cameras.

The last interesting playback feature is the calendar. This shows a calendar of the current month, with a tiny thumbnail picture shown on the day it was taken. This is a nice (and different) way to jump through your photos by date!

By pressing the display button, the Exilim can display exposure information for your photos, including a histogram. The camera moves through photos instantly.

How Does it Compare?

The Casio Exilim EX-Z3 is a fairly nice ultra-compact camera, but I must confess that I prefer the Pentax version more. Here's why. The Casio may have a larger LCD, but the resolution isn't great, and the camera ends up being larger than the Optio. The Optio's 4 second max shutter speed gives you much more flexibility that the 1 second limit on the Z3. The Optio also has a few more controls than the Exilim, namely saturation, sharpness, contrast, and metering.

Both cameras share the same lens, and therefore the same limitations in terms of photo quality. Barrel distortion is higher than average, and dark and blurry corners are common. The Casio seemed to be a little more "video capture-like" than the Pentax.

In terms of performance, the Casio offers fast startup, shutter lag, and shot-to-shot speeds, though its AF performance left much to be desired. In direct contrast to the Optio, there are no I/O ports at all on the Casio camera -- you must use the dock to get at the AC adapter and USB connectors. There's no video out on the Z3, at all. And finally, the 10MB of on-board memory seems a little skimpy to me.

If you want an ultra-compact camera like this, I'd go for the Pentax instead (in case you didn't notice). The only advantages of the Exilim EX-Z3 over the Optio S that I can think of are the larger LCD and cool Best Shot modes. In the end, you can't go terribly wrong with either camera.

What I liked:

  • Ultra-thin, all-metal body with 3X zoom lens!
  • Robust performance (except for AF)
  • Large (though low resolution) LCD
  • Manual white balance
  • Handy dock for photo transfer / battery charging
  • Lots of useful "best shot" (scene) modes
  • Cool calendar, favorites, album features in playback mode

What I didn't care for:

  • Images have "video capture" look to them
  • Vignetting and blurry corners common in images
  • LCD resolution is poor
  • No AF illuminator means poor low light focusing
  • Redeye
  • Zoom and four-way buttons need more "play"
  • Average movie mode
  • Sluggish zoom and scroll feature in playback mode
  • 10MB of on-board RAM is not much
  • Bundled software not Mac OS X native

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the Exilim EX-Z3 before you buy!

Other cameras worth looking at include the Canon PowerShot SD100, Fuji FinePix F410, Minolta DiMAGE Xt, Olympus Stylus 300, Pentax Optio S, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-P8.

Photo Gallery

So how does the photo quality stand up? Check out the sample photos in our photo gallery!

Want a second opinion? How about a third?

In case you think I'm making this all up, get more options at Steves Digicams and DP Review.

Feedback

Jeff welcomes your comments or questions. Send them to jakeller@pair.com. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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