Once you've tried a compact camera that has successfully shoehorned in a big zoom whilst maintaining pocket-sized dimensions, going back to using a regular 3x or 5x zoom model will leave you feeling creatively short-changed.
Pulling off that Tardis-like feat this time around, and offering more scope when it comes to how you frame your shots, is Casio's Exilim EX-H15. Its dimensions are 102.5 x 62.1 x 29.3mm and it weighs a robust 206g with card and battery on board.
Justifying the "H" in the model name, the manufacturer describes the camera as a "high speed, high zoom" - the former courtesy of a zippy fifth generation Exilim Engine processor, and the latter by virtue of the integral 10x optical zoom (24-240mm in 35mm film terms). Wide-angle vistas, group shots or intimate portraits can therefore be yours with a toggle in either direction of the zoom switch encircling the shutter release button on the top plate.
The EX-H15's other headline features are 14.1-megapixel effective resolution, plus 1280 x 720 pixels high-definition video with a maximum 29 minutes recording time for a single sequence and the advantage of a one-touch record button top right of the camera back, saving the need to tab through menu or mode options to otherwise select the feature. Disappointingly, as the zoom itself is rather noisy in operation - with a definite mechanical buzz as it moves through its range - its use is disabled when shooting video, with only a digital zoom to fall back on by way of concession.
Shame also that there's no HDMI output for playing back footage directly on an HD TV as with big zoom competitors from Kodak and Canon; here we get a shared single port for USB 2.0 and standard AV output and the relevant cables in the box.
Further allowing for user friendly point-and-shoot operation are some 40-odd Best Shot scene/subject modes and not one but two auto modes, regular and "premium" auto, the latter Casio's take on the Smart Auto and intelligent Auto functionality of Canon and Panasonic respectively. Among the "BS" modes are some Art Shot digital effects filters, including an impressionistic Old Painting mode that impressively delivers a result in the style of Van Gogh.
For those who like to get up close, macro focus can deliver sharp shots up to 7cm from your subject. There is, in addition, a dedicated button on the top plate for alternating between blemish smoothing "Make Up" and "Vivid Landscape" modes. We felt this button would have been of more use if given over to the Art Shot effects, rather like the Art Filters on the Olympus Pen series have their own quickly selected mode dial setting.
Its manufacturer is also very proud of the camera's battery life, and at 1,000 shots from a full charge it should be, most competitors in its class struggling to manage 250 pictures. These are written to SD or SDHC card, with the option to also utilise Eye-Fi media for wireless download, plus there's an internal 73.8MB capacity as back up.
Available in a quartet of different coloured bodies, we had the traditional yet not unattractive silver version for review. Pick the EX-H15 up and it feels reassuringly robust when gripped, inevitably slightly wider in depth than more modest zoom compacts. This is not in itself a bad thing, as it helps in holding the camera good and steady in both hands, though because most of the back plate is swallowed up by the 3-inch, 460,800-dot resolution LCD, said screen quickly becomes covered in thumb prints. As a concession to an actual grip, at the front there's a narrow stylish sliver of raised metal and plastic over to its left hand edge, while four small raised nodules forming a square at the back stop your thumb from slipping.
Switch the camera on via the dedicated button next to the shutter release and the EX-H15 powers up in just under 2 seconds - fast for this class of camera. Even in single shot auto mode full resolution stills are committed to memory in around a second, when the average is 2 or 3. Good work Casio.
Helping achieve a greater proportion of sharper shots when shooting handheld, Casio has thoughtfully included image stabilisation of the CCD-shift variety, moving the sensor to compensate for external wobble. However at maximum telephoto we still got the occasional soft shot, even in broad daylight.
Otherwise when given ideal conditions, photos are bright and colourful though display a loss of sharpness towards the corners at 24mm equivalent wide-angle setting. Pixel fringing is also visible on very close inspection. As far as low light photography is concerned, the EX-H15 offers a respectably broad ISO range, from ISO64-3200 and delivers noise free results up to and including ISO400, detail only moderately softening at ISO800. Though by ISO3200 we're losing edge definition and the photo is beginning to take on a painterly aspect, ISO1600 is useable at a push. In the main the EX-H15 affords a wider selection of photo taking than most amateurs will be used to, so is worth the modest premium.
Until the last couple of years, if you wanted a non-interchangeable lens camera with a big zoom, you were pointed in the direction of a bridge model - so called because it formed a link between point and shoot and fully fledged digital SLR - that was almost as bulky and unfathomable for beginners as a DSLR itself.
Now, thanks to the likes of Panasonic and its pioneering TZ series the same range is offered by a compact that will fit in your pocket. That's to say any disadvantages of using the EX-H15 - even the inability to use the optical zoom when recording video, something its direct competitor in Canon's PowerShot SX210 IS manages - don't outweigh the advantages of its broad focal range within compact dimensions. If we had the choice and money wasn't an issue we'd go for the Canon over this Casio, but with the EX-H15 retailing for a cool £100 less, it has to be worth further investigation.