Casio Exilim EX-G1 digital camera

Do you want a very portable digital snapshot camera for use in all weathers and formerly inappropriate conditions?

Looking like some futuristic hand tool from a James Cameron sci-fi epic, Casio is making a claim for the new 12.1-effective megapixel Exilim EX-G1 having the world's thinnest profile in its class at a mere 19.9mm in depth. It may be skinny but the fully automatic model is no seven stone weakling: its body comprises a stainless steel outer layer to repel knocks and scrapes, plus secondary waterproof inner shell of polycarbonate and fibreglass construction to absorb impact.

Available in red or black and with an obvious target market of adventure sports fans or simply those careless in nature, the camera is, according to Casio's own tests, shockproofed to withstand drops from 2.17me, waterproofed to survive a depth of 3m for up to 1 hour, freeze-proof to temperatures of minus 10°C plus dustproof into the bargain. So snow blizzard or sand storm, this is the camera that you want with you - on paper at least.

As such it is placed in direct competition with rough and tumble-ready compacts from the Olympus Mju Tough series (including new 6020 model), Panasonic with its FT1 and FT2 cameras, Canon with the PowerShot D10, plus, at the waterproof-only, cheaper end of the market, the Fujifilm FinePix Z33WP and Pentax Optio WS80. Casio's entry is priced at a suggested £279 which falls somewhere in the middle of the above, whilst still demanding a slight premium for its nigh indestructible casing over a conventional 12 megapixel, 3x zoom compact.

Yet with distinctly unconventional spec like that, the still relatively lightweight EX-G1 feels reassuringly rugged and solidly constructed. However its use doesn't come without some compromise. The slender dimensions, internally folded 3x optical zoom mechanism (swift and virtually noiseless, with a focal range equivalent to 28-112mm in 35mm film terms) and lens positioning also mean that fingertips can - if not careful - accidentally stray into shot when holding the unit steady with both hands to compose a frame.

You need two hands because there's otherwise not really anything on this camera to get a firm hold on, save for a narrow ridge on the camera's smooth-fashioned faceplate. So camera shake, and blurred shots as a result, is a danger. There's the option of course to manually boost ISO via an on-screen toolbar, and here the light sensitivity range starts lower than most at ISO 64 and continues incrementally up to a maximum ISO 3200.

With a press of the small power button located on the top plate, its rough, ridged surface allowing for operation with wet fingers, but not anyone wearing ski gloves, the EX-G1 readies itself for action in just under 2 seconds, rear 2.5-inch screen fading up from black for shot composition and review in absence of an optical viewfinder.

LCD visibility is adequate for purpose, though is a little dark at times when viewed indoors and provides only a rough indication of the scene before the lens when operated in bright sunlight; basically it's the level of performance you'd expect from an auto everything point and shoot camera at the lower end of the market.

Focus and exposure are determined quickly with a half press of the largest control to be found on this otherwise minimal in appearance model, the shutter release button, set into the highest point of the gently sloping top plate. With an ever so slight shutter delay as you go on to take a shot, full resolution, Fine detail JPEG images are committed to memory - here a small and fiddly to extract and insert microSD card also used in camera phones - in around 3 seconds, the screen momentarily blanking out then freezing with a display of the captured still.

A generous 2GB microSD card was included with our review sample to supplement the perfunctory 35.7MB internal capacity, along with a miniSD adapter so the fingernail-sized card can be used in card readers accepting the more conventional (for a camera) SD or SDHC formats.

As well as stills, the EX-G1 offers the capture of a maximum 848 x 480 pixels resolution mono video, of which around 40 minutes will fit on a 4GB card, with a user-friendly dedicated red record button featuring top right on the camera's backplate.

This ensures that users don't first have to fumble around swapping shooting modes - or here, rather, Casio's own 26 option-strong "Best Shot" (BS) modes - to film "movies"; simply press the provided button and recording will immediately begin. A record lamp can also be switched on to provide artificial illumination when filming in lower light; this is basically the same lamp that is used to assist the auto focus in more challenging conditions, and which blinks to count down to the shutter firing in self timer mode.

The wide ranging BS modes - covering everything from landscapes to underwater photography - are meanwhile individually selectable as well as being jointly incorporated into the camera's Auto BS mode, a kind of intelligent Auto setting if you like, which independently selects the most appropriate setting for a given subject or scene. It appears to work well. And again, it saves fiddling around with settings when you're trying to photograph a swordfish or hurtling down a black run.

Slightly more creative options include time lapse photography, with intervals of 10 or 30 seconds, 1 or 3 minutes, plus the same facility for shooting movies, at intervals of 3, 10, 20 or 30 minutes.

Whilst this is more functionality than regularly found on your £100 point and shoot, certain aspects of the camera are awkward to use. We've griped about the small and fiddly microSD card, a slot for which is provided at the right-hand side of the camera, and a second slot at the base that houses the rechargeable lithium ion battery also has a very narrow compartment from which it's difficult to prise the power cell.

Minor grumbles perhaps, but our discontent mounts when it comes to reviewing captured images.

There are a couple of in-camera digital effects the EX-G1 provides; make up and vivid landscape. The former smoothes facial skin so that it takes on the shiny appearance of a waxwork about to melt, whilst the latter boosts blues and greens in a scenic shot, so is marginally more successful.

However both, along with the majority of images taken on regular auto default setting, have a distinctly digital appearance that at its worst almost looks like a screen grab from a piece of standard definition video. Photo quality isn't up there with the majority of compacts we've tested over the past year and that includes the rival compacts we mentioned at the outset, but, in fairness, pin sharp results are probably not what the audience for this model will be buying it for.

Verdict

We had fun using the EX-G1 and while we admired its looks, we found that occasionally practicality had been sacrificed to achieve the esoteric design.

Adrenaline junkies may be prepared to pay the premium for the Casio Exilim EX-G1 and be happy with slightly fuzzy snaps to recall their exploits, but photo enthusiasts wanting images pin sharp and properly exposed for the wall, portfolio or family album have cause to look elsewhere.

Up until ISO 800, low light performance is acceptable, but grain appears across the image at ISO 1600 and by ISO 3200 detail is smudged to the extent that photos take on a painterly appearance. Shooting video is slightly more successful and pin sharp quality is less key for the moving image, though the camera's microphone appears to be particularly sensitive in picking up operational movements of the user's fingers and wind noise into the bargain.

If having a camera that will take punishment without breaking is a higher priority than anything else, the Casio Ex-G1 is worth considering - and, again, have we mentioned how cool it looks? - but, in a more sober light, there are better overall options out there.