Sometimes small can be beautiful. At other times it can be fiddly and frustrating. So which category does the almost credit card sized Exilim Z550 snapshot from Casio fall into?
As most relationships do, ours starts well. With the usual mix of metal and plastic in its construction, the Z550 is reassuringly solid when gripped and almost swallowed up by your palm. It boasts petite dimensions of 99.5 x 55.4 x 22.4mm and a weight of 137g with rechargeable battery (good for the standard 250 photos from a full charge) plus regular SD or Eye-Fi enabled card inserted.
It feels like it won't shatter if you inadvertently drop it, which is a possibility as unsurprisingly there's not much of it to get a good firm grip on. We had a sober all-black version in for review, adding an additional dose of sophistication and suggesting the manufacturer's asking price of £149 is, in fact, fair value.
The camera plays the numbers game by marrying a high 14.1-megapixel resolution to a 4x optical zoom that starts wider than most at a 26mm equivalent in 35mm terms, extending up to 104mm at the telephoto end. This spec suggests that it will be as adept at photographing landscapes and group portraits as well as individuals at relatively close quarters. The lens remains hidden within the camera body when the camera is inactive, and usefully anti shake, to avoid blur when shooting handheld at the telephoto end, is supplied courtesy of CCD shift image stabilisation, rather than via software fixes.
With precious few operational buttons keeping things simple and ensuring all the essentials fall readily to hand, the EX-Z550 powers up in the standard 2 seconds with a press of the recessed on/off button on the top plate, nestling next to the springy shutter release handily encircled by a lever for the zoom.
Images and 720p HD video clips are composed via the 2.7-inch, 230,400-dot resolution LCD, which takes up two-thirds of the camera's backplate in the absence of a traditional optical viewfinder. Ease of use perhaps excuses Casio's decision to only include a brief quick start pamphlet with the camera - unhelpfully featuring three different languages on each page - and the full manual only on CD ROM.
For added convenience Casio has thoughtfully included a camcorder-style one touch video recording button for its 1280 x 720 pixels high definition clips; this is located top right of the Z550's back plate. This button enables the user to be up and filming quickly whatever mode the camera might have otherwise been previously set to, with further separate buttons for, naturally, both still image capture and playback/review.
There's no HDMI output though for hooking the camera up directly to a flat panel TV - a feature increasingly popular even at this point-and-shoot end of the market - so users will have to make do with a standard shared USB/AV out port.
And, while it may look unassuming from the outside, under the bonnet the EX-Z550 comes festooned with various picture-enhancing gadgetry, including some 40-odd pre-optimised BestShot ("BS") scene and subject modes, which also have their own direct access button and are mostly illustrated with photo thumbnails to make matters extra simple. This is where you find the likes of a video mode optimised for YouTube upload and cut and paste Dynamic Photo function nestling next to the regular portrait, landscape, fireworks, flower and pet modes. Rather more interesting perhaps are the smattering of Art Shot digital effects filters, also found on Casio's simultaneously announced 10x zoom EX-H15.
The artsy options here include crayon, watercolour, our favourite is "oil painting" (imbued with a brush style reminiscent of Van Gogh's Sunflowers), plus more familiar monochrome and retro modes. Like the EX-H15 too, we also get regular auto and "Premium Auto" modes, the latter Casio's take on the auto everything subject recognising Smart Auto and intelligent Auto modes first seen on Canon and Panasonic compacts. Not that we noticed much, if any, real difference when alternating between the two, apart from a slightly longer writing time with the latter, exposures being reliably consistent anyway.
Auto helping hands aside, there is the ability to manually tweak some of the EX-Z550's settings - including selecting manual focus alongside infinity and macro options - plus exposure (+/- 2EV), white balance, broad light sensitivity range (ISO64-3200), metering (multi zone, centre weighted or spot) as well as applying a palette of colour filters to your shots to variously warm or cool the colour tones therein. Contrast, saturation and sharpness can also be individually tweaked via on-screen menu folders.
In terms of the pictures it delivers; under ideal conditions the EX-Z550 produced even exposures and warm well-saturated colours. We did however notice pixel fringing, a loss of sharpness toward the edges at maximum wideangle setting, and have a few white balance issues. This was namely getting a familiar blue daylight colour cast when shooting indoors without flash, though it had vanished by the next frame, suggesting that the camera's auto setting is a tad erratic. Low light performance was identical to the same manufacturer's EX-H15 camera, with detail sacrificed to hide the appearance of noise at higher settings - though not to such a pronounced degree as to render shots even at ISO1600 unusable. Steer clear of ISO3200 unless desperate however, as results are distinctly painterly.
The Casio Exilim EX-Z550 is an inexpensive, easy to use, snapper that allows you to do a little bit more with your images - and videos - within the camera than your bog standard £100 budget-priced compact. Little extras that reveal its manufacturer's consumer electronics heritage include the handy inclusion of the video record button, making it easy to swap modes in a thrice.
Overall the camera's image quality may not be perfect, but again this has to be set against the price, and in light of that its showing is quite respectable. As with any relationship that you haven't invested much in, don't expect a great deal and you may be very pleasantly surprised with the unassuming EX-Z550.