The Casio Exilim EX-S600, a versatile 6-megapixel ultracompact, puts the brains back into no-brainer snapshooting. With 35 scene modes that cover every picture-taking situation--including a few you probably never thought of--plus the ability to add 999 user-definable scenes of your own, this camera is reasonably prepared for just about anything you can throw at it. That includes low-light scenes tamed by antishake technology and automatic ISO sensitivity up to ISO 1,600, an instant picture mode for snapshots with virtually no shutter lag, and stellar motion-picture-capture capabilities. Unfortunately, those assets are outweighed by its limited 3X zoom range and mediocre photo quality. Still, it may be just the ticket for snapshooters looking for a friendly, stylish camera. Although its 3.5-by-2.3-by-0.6-inch stainless-steel body is scarcely larger than the stack of credit cards in your wallet, Casio still manages to include a 2.2-inch LCD on the EX-S600's back surface. To do so, the company eschews an optical viewfinder and miniaturizes the sparse array of buttons on the top and back panels. Those with large hands will find it a challenge to operate and adjust this camera. The top of the camera--it's more of an edge than a panel--hosts a tiny sliver of a power button and the shutter release. The other controls reside on the back panel, which is dominated by the coarse 84,960-pixel LCD. Three small buttons are arrayed along the top rim of the viewfinder: playback, record, and movie keys, flanked by a pair of zoom buttons that can be thumbed easily when an index finger is poised over the shutter release.
You'll want to learn the functions of each control quickly, because the tiny white labels on the metallic blue body are difficult to read except under direct lighting.
The Casio Exilim EX-S600's only other controls are a Menu button, a Best Shot key (for selecting scene modes), and a four-way cursor control pad with central OK button. Only two of the cursor keys have alternate functions: pressing up adjusts the type of status information displayed on the LCD, while down serves as both a delete key and a flash options button. Pressing the Best Shot button calls up an LCD of the 35 different modes, presented 12 to a screen with a sample picture representing that type of scene. Use the cursor keys to highlight a particular scene and press either the Wide or Tele buttons to pop up an info screen on the use of that mode. Scroll down to the Best Shot option and store your camera's current settings as a user-definable scene focus mode that preserves your EV, ISO, white balance, flash mode, sharpness, saturation, intensity, and other settings in the menu with the canned modes. The custom scenes are stored in the 8.3MB of internal memory and are deleted when the built-in flash memory is formatted.
For other functions including, unfortunately, EV adjustments (which take a minimum of eight key presses), you'll need to visit the multilevel menu system, which includes three screens of options each for recording, image quality, playback, and setup features. You can bypass the menus for one function by
assigning it to the left/right cursor keys; your options include self-timer, EV, white balance, focus, or ISO adjustments. Bounteous scene modes and movie-shooting versatility are the all-star features of the Casio Exilim EX-S600. Available options include all the usual suspects--Auto, Portrait, Scenery, Sunset, Sports, Night Scene, and Fireworks--along with some less common choices, such as Soft Flowing Water, Splashing Water, Natural Green, and Autumn Leaves. Several are intended for copying text or images, including Old Photo, Text, Business Cards, and White Board (which can automatically straighten out images taken at a slight angle). Four of the Best Shot modes are motion-picture and voice-recording options, while antishake and high-sensitivity (both of which can boost ISO as high as ISO 1,600) get special scene modes of their own. There are also modes for shooting Children, Candlelight Portrait, Party, Pet, Flower, Sundown, Night Scene Portrait, Food, Collection, Backlight, Monochrome, Retro, Twilight, and Silent pictures.
Once you've finished playing with the scene modes, you'll want to explore this camera's motion-picture capabilities. It can shoot MPEG-4 clips for as long as your memory card holds out; the 640x480, 30fps HQ mode will fill a 256MB card in about 8 minutes. Drop down to Normal movie recording at the same resolution and frame rate, and you can fit more than an hour of clips on a 1GB SD card. There's also a space-saving 320x240, 15fps option.
Several different movie-shooting modes are available. In addition to normal moviemaking (press the button and shoot until you stop), Casio offers an action-friendly 5-second capture mode, in which the EX-S600 records to the memory buffer until you stop recording. It then saves only the last 5 seconds. This mode is useful for grabbing action shots, such as a batter swinging at a pitch, when you're not sure exactly when the peak moment will occur. There's a similar Short Movie option, which saves the 4 seconds preceding and following the depression of the record button.
You can take a still snapshot while shooting a movie or extract specific frames from your movie clip using a Motion Print option. Your movie clips can be fast-forwarded, rewound, and edited right in the camera, too.
Most of the camera's other features are fairly mundane. The 38mm-to-114mm zoom lens focuses down to just 5.9 inches, but you can opt for manual focus, center-spot focus, or multiple focus zones; the camera displays the nine zones as a cluster of boxes on the LCD, with the in-focus zones highlighted in green. A Pan Focus option sets the lens to its hyperfocal distance, rendering everything beyond a few feet sharp, plus an Infinity Focus for landscapes and similar shots. A Quick Shutter feature virtually eliminates shutter lag by allowing you to shoot even if the subject is not in focus.
Your choice of matrix or center-spot metering selects an exposure from 1/8 to 1/2,000 second; the camera can set up to 4 seconds in Night Scene mode and a fixed 2 seconds in Fireworks mode as well. Special effects include multiple filters (black-and-white, sepia, red, green, blue, yellow, pink, and purple), plus tweaks for sharpness, color saturation, and contrast.
The Casio Exilim EX-S600 offers a few just-for-fun features, including Image Roulette, which rapidly displays a selection of your images on the LCD before stopping at one random photo. A Calendar mode lets you sort your pictures by date, with a calendar display that highlights the first picture taken on a given day. Either feature is especially effective with the camera mounted in its recharger/cradle, which is also required to connect to your camera to a computer via a USB cable. The Casio Exilim EX-S600 performed moderately well on most counts. Shutter lag lasted about 0.7 second under high-contrast lighting and 0.9 second under low-contrast illumination with the focus-assist lamp helping. The EX-S600 took 2.3 seconds to wake up and was a little slow in snapping off pictures thereafter--typically about 2.6 seconds between shots and a poky 3.6 seconds when the flash was used.
The flash itself is a little on the puny side, good out to about 8.5 feet in wide-angle mode and no more than 5 feet at the telezoom position with the ISO set to auto. The camera does have a flash-assist option that provides some exposure compensation.
The LCD proved less than satisfactory under extreme lighting. While you can set the LCD to automatically adjust its brightness, you can also set it to a bright mode, which is still insufficient under direct sunlight, or a power-saving normal mode. The LCD didn't gain up sufficiently under dim illumination, and there was lots of ghosting when the camera or subject moved.
The Casio Exilim EX-S600 lacks a true burst mode; its continuous mode simply shoots pictures at a clip of about one every 4 seconds as long as you keep the shutter release depressed.
The Casio Exilim EX-S600's image quality is fair to poor, depending upon how closely you look at the photos. Shots taken under typical conditions aren't very sharp, and a combination of poor focus and compression artifacts make photos look more like paintings. While the camera exposes well in the midtones, shadows lack detail and highlights tend to blow out. Chromatic aberration occurs more frequently than we typically see, with purple fringing quite evident around moderately high-contrast edges. Colors pop, however, and the red-eye prevention preflash worked well for most of our people shots.
Scaled down, the EX-S600's photos are very pleasing and have a lot snap (top). But with the images at full size, you can see how smearing obscures the details (bottom). It becomes even more pronounced toward the edges of the scene, as the lens's focus degrades.
Because of the poor lens and postprocessing artifacts, noise at the ISO 200 setting completely eradicates details and, as you'd expect, gets progressively worse as you raise the setting. However, the grainy high-ISO shots are still better than having no picture at all or resorting to the anemic flash unit.