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Drew's Casio Exilim EX-S500 Digital Camera Review

Review By: Andrew B. Davidson - andrewdavidson/at\andrewdavidson/dom\com
Copyright © 2006 Andrew B. Davidson. All Rights Reserved.
Review Written: September 2006
Casio S500 S500 Size Comparison

I've had a Casio Exilim EX-S500 since June of 2006. I got it at Sam's Club for only $260. It is very similar to the Casio S600, which I compare it to in the review below, but my personal experience is only with the S500. The S600 adds an extra megapixel (6MP instead of 5MP), longer battery life, a brighter screen, and a few other features.

The S500 and the S600 are available in a few sexy colors like orange, light blue, and white. I got a metallic silver one, as that is all they had in stock.

There are lots of full-fledged reviews of the S500 on real camera review sites out there, so I won't go through the basic features and specs that are listed on dozens of sites. I just wanted to list my pros and cons to offer a different viewpoint. Check out these sites for full reviews and complete specifications:

Pros:

Very small camera! People are amazed at how thin and small it is. This is the most pocketable full-featured camera I have ever seen. You can see how small it is the above picture comparing it to a standard CD jewel case. Many people think it is a cell phone it is so small. I walk around with it in my pocket and don't even know it's there. It can even go easily into a front shirt pocket it's so small.

Full-res video recording. The S500 records 640x480 30fps MPEG-4 video with sound. This was a requirement for me. I think that video snapshots are much more evocative than photos, even if it's only 20 or 30 seconds, so I wanted a camera with full-size full-rate video. The video this camera can record is fantastic, and limited only by the memory in your camera. MPEG-4 means you can get excellent quality video at 30 minutes per Gigabyte. So with a 2 Gig SD card you can get an hour of video. There is no limitation on the individual clip length, so you can keep recording until you run out of memory. There are lower-quality modes that increase the recording time at the price of reduced video quality. The high-quality video is unbelievable for such a tiny camera. It's not DVD quality but it is darn close. The main problem with the video is very low light situations (see below).

Very fast and responsive operation. I can go from pocket to taking pictures or video in about 2-3 seconds. It will take a little longer if you need to use the flash however, but the flash charges fairly quickly. I'm used to massive shutter delay on digital cameras, and this one seems very fast. There is a mode you can turn on to cause it to "just take the dang picture" when you press the button (i.e. no auto-focus or exposure control). This is very useful if you don't want to miss the action, especially if you've pre-focused the camera.

Uses standard SD memory cards. This was another requirement for me, as I already have a lot of SD cards and didn't need to start collecting another memory card format. However, to use the video, you should probably get a high-speed SD card. There have been reports of dropped video frames when using regular speed cards, but I've been using a high-speed card since I got it so I haven't experienced this.

Fast and large (2.2") LCD screen. It can play video at 30fps so it looks great. And so it also is very responsive when viewing the LCD viewfinder to see what you're aiming at. Lots of other cameras, especially older models, seem to be blurry or low-frame rate in the LCD viewfinder. Not this one. It is quite bright too, and the S600 is supposedly even brighter.

Fast picture review. This is so important as everybody wants to see the picture right after you take it. There are two buttons, play and record. Press Play to view your existing pictures. Press record to start taking pictures again. The operation is pretty much instant.

No delay when viewing pictures. This thing is VERY responsive. It really feels like every button press is instant. You can flip from picture to picture with no delay. I have never felt like I was waiting for the camera to catch up to my button presses, no matter how fast I press.

Works one-handed. It's pretty small but it is possible to use it one-handed (albeit slightly clumsily).

Tons of features and modes. Edit photos in the camera (trim, rotate, etc). Change resolution of pictures in-camera.

Edit video in the camera! Chop off beginning or end, or choose a section to extract. You can also save individual frames as stills.

You can zoom in and pan around while playing video! How cool is that? However, you can't zoom video when watching it on an external monitor (i.e. via the dock and A/V cable). The video zoom only works in the camera itself. You can also fast foward/rewind at several different speeds, or even freeze frame and then zoom in, step frame-by-frame forward and reverse, etc. Pretty slick!

Nifty calendar mode shows what days you have taken pictures so you can find the one you want, or even useful as a regular calendar when you don't have one handy.

Past Movie mode lets you start your movie in the past. When you press record it starts recording 5 seconds in the past! That is just insanely cool. Surprisingly, I don't use this often, as it was one of the amazing features that made me want this camera. But its there if you need it, so you can catch sudden action without sitting there recording the entire time.

Dock is very small and light. This is important because you will need to bring it with you on trips.

Dock does not need power to work. It needs power to charge the camera of course, but if your camera still has battery power, you can watch video on an external monitor without having any A/C power to the dock.

Great slideshow mode for watching on external monitor. Pictures fade in and out, and video plays. Very nice.

You can pre-focus/pre-expose the camera before shooting video.

Long battery life. Supposedly takes 200 pictures on one battery charge. I've never run out of battery so I can't comment, and I've shot a full 30 minutes of video without even seeing any low battery warnings. In fact I've NEVER seen low-battery warnings of any kind, but I always put it back on the dock at night to charge. The S600 reportedly is 50% better in this regard, but it's not an issue with the way I use the camera.

You can turn off the AF Assist lamp. I wouldn't buy a camera where you couldn't turn this off.

You can turn off all sound/beeps, except the auto-focus sound (which comes from the mechanical action of auto-focusing). I wouldn't buy a camera where you couldn't turn off the beeping.

There are a bunch of "Best Shot" modes (why Casio picked this name and labelled the button "BS" is beyond me) but I never use them except for the one Low-Light BS mode. They are things like Landscape, Pet, Nature, etc. These modes automatically set the exposure, saturation, etc. for best pictures.

Uses a standard A/V cord for viewing video. There is a ferrite bead so the default cord is recommended, but a standard 1/8" to dual RCA cord WILL work in a pinch (I have tried it). However, you still need the dock itself to view video on an external monitor.

The supplied power supply is very small and light, and the prongs even fold down for added portability! Very nice detail.

The video can be uploaded directly to YouTube right out of the camera (I have done this and it works fine), and it can be edited on your computer after being repacked with a utility such as the free MP4Cam2AVI. This does not affect video quality, it simply repacks the video into an editable format.

Other nifty modes like Business Card mode (makes business cards taken at an angle look straight-on) and Old time movie mode, sepia tone, monochrome mode, red/blue/green/yellow/pink/purple filters, etc. Not exactly selling points for me, but hey, there they are.

You can change the Exposure shift, Flash intensity, metering mode, as well as a bunch of other tweaks.

Cons:

For me, the biggest problem is the poor low-light capability. With a flash, pictures are fine, but without a flash or when shooting low-light video, the quality suffers horribly. The pictures are very grainy and are simply not acceptable. The low-light video is very dark and very very noisy. There is a High Sensitivity mode that helps a little, but makes things even grainier. If I were to upgrade to another camera, this is the main enhanced feature I would be looking for.

Can't zoom while shooting video. This is annoying as you have to stop shooting video to zoom/unzoom. This camera is not going to be a camcorder replacement, but for video snapshots. The problem with ultracompact cameras is that the sound of the zoom mechanism would probably show up on the audio track, but it would be nice to have that option.

Picture quality is snapshot quality. It's a teeny tiny camera and so it simply can't compete with larger cameras with crazy indirect flash units and super high grade lenses. But if you don't have a camera with you, you won't get ANY shot. That's where this camera really shines. You can keep it with you.

Audio playback from the camera speaker is very quiet. Videos are pretty much unlistenable in any noisy environment (e.g. bar). There is no problem once you get the files on a computer or external monitor, but the speaker in the camera itself is frustratingly quiet.

There is no optical viewfinder, which is not so bad, but you can't turn off the LCD viewfinder, which may be kind of annoying because it is pretty bright. In some situations this may be inappropriate. If worse comes to worse you could make some sort of physical shade for it, but it would be nice to have this feature built in.

Optical zoom is only 3x. It would be nicer to have a larger optical zoom, but such as it is.

Needs the dock to charge the battery. But you can replace the battery so if battery life is an issue for you, you can keep extra batteries on hand.

Needs the dock to watch video on external monitor. Some cameras I have had just use an A/V cord. With this one, you need an A/V cord and the dock.

Auto-focusing is kind of noisy (as in, actual sound). It makes a clicking sound that may be annoying at very quiet events, and makes this not a true super-secret spy camera.

There is a Macro focus mode, but you need to use the menus to get to it, which is kind of a pain.

Would be nice to have a couple of display modes, or be able to specify exactly what info I want on the display. I rarely use the histogram, but that is the only display mode that shows how much video time is left. A minor inconvenience.

Most of the Best Shot modes are wasted on me. It would be nice to be able to disable them because I have to page through them to find the Low Light/High Sensitivity mode, which is the only mode I use often.

Video can be very shaky if you don't have a steady hand. This is probably because the camera is so small, it offer so much less inertia than a camcorder. So remember to hold it steady.

Anti-Shake mode doesn't work so well. I think they just added it for hype purposes. In my brief tests it didn't work so well, but maybe it will work better for you. In my opinion you shouldn't buy this camera for that. If you need a real anti-shake camera get an optical anti-shake from Panasonic or something.

No long-exposure times. The S600 supposedly has up to 4 seconds but the S500 has up to 1 second max, and you can't manually set it I don't think.

The video cannot be edited on a computer without repacking it first. I could be wrong about this, but so far I have had to use the free program MP4Cam2AVI before I could edit the video on a computer with Vegas Video. Luckily MP4Cam2AVI is free, easy to use, fast, and does not affect the video quality, so this just is a minor inconvenience. It can even batch convert so you can just click Start and it repacks your whole folder full of videos very quickly.

No panorama assist mode. But you can shoot panoramas manually and stitch them yourself with external software. It just doesn't have a panorama assist feature in the camera, so not a huge deal.

Uses the first frame of the movie as the thumbnail. It would be nice if it showed a few more frames to let you see what is in the movie.

Can't time-stamp the photos in the image itself. I wouldn't use this anyway so it's not an issue for me, but some people may need it.

Drew's Casio S500 Usage Hints and Tips

The S500 fits perfectly in an Otterbox 1000 watertight case (about $12), with room to spare for a little padding. Keep your camera safe with this tiny waterproof and crushproof case.

For best results when shooting video, hold down the shutter half way so the camera will pre-focus, pre-expose and pre-white-balance the scene. The camera will maintain those settings when shooting video. This is especially important for auto white balance. For some reason the camera will not properly white balance a scene if you just start shooting video immediately.

Use High Sensitivity BS mode in low-light situations for best low-light results (even though it is very noisy/grainy).

If you can't edit your AVI video files in Vegas Video, Adobe Premiere, After Effects, or other video editing software, you should use the free utility MP4Cam2AVI to repack the files. This will allow you to edit the video, and does not result in any quality loss.

Do not touch the lens mechanism while it is extended! I have read reports of people having issues with their lens mechanisms, but I have never had any problems with mine, and it may be because I am very careful about never touching the lens while it is extended. Before setting the camera down, always retract the lens first.

Conclusion

The Casio Exilim EX-S500 is an awesome little camera! Its small size and video capture functions are its prime features. Photos are very acceptable for snapshots except in low light without flash.

Pros: Small size, great video, snappy operation, wide feature set.

Cons: Poor low light capability without flash, no zoom during video.

Feedback?

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