Mini-Review: Casio Exilim P600
by Eric Jeschke
Last summer I purchased a Casio Exilim P600 camera, a model which debuted somewhere around February of 2004. At the time I thought that, after a fair bit of using the camera, I ought to write up a review of the camera. It is a sign of the times that the successor model, the P700, is out in August 2004 before I managed to get this review on the web! Nevertheless, most of the features of the P700 are also in the P600 and if this review is helpful to anyone considering purchasing a P600 or P700 then it will have been worth the trouble of writing it. Oh, and by the way, this is a mini-review, meaning that I won’t go into all the details of the specifications, screens, menus and all that minutia of the camera. This is a “usability review” from a self-described “digital photography afficianado and maven”. If you are interested in other reviews or more details about the camera please visit any of the following links:
Before I jump into the meat of the review, let me first present my mindset in purchasing this particular camera, which may explain some of the criticism, good and bad, that will follow.
When I first got into digital cameras a few years ago, after many years of shooting with 35mm SLRs, I couldn’t afford a digital SLR, so I had to “make do” with a digicam. After getting used to composing on the LCD (it’s markedly similar in some respects to composing on the ground glass of a large format camera, actually), I found that I actually much preferred working that way rather than constantly scrunching a viewfinder hole up against my eye. I also began to greatly appreciate how much more often I found I had my camera with me (and returned with interesting shots), since it was small and easy to carry, and only had the one integrated zoom lens. Yes, there were frustrating limitations and image quality issues, but like any camera, I learned to work around them as best as I could.
Fast forward to today. Now that DSLRs are in the affordable price range I keep thinking I should get one, just for the excellent image quality. Whenever that thought pops in my head, another one quickly follows, reminding me how much of a drag it would be lugging around (and worrying about) a large, heavy, expensive camera or multiple lenses. I’m now firmly in the “small cameras are great” camp. At the same time, as a “serious photography enthusiast” I want to have the option of full manual control of the cameras exposure, want the best image quality I can get without sacrificing on the size issue and I appreciate features that appeal to that more sophisticated photography market segment, such as autoexposure lock, spot-metering, easy EV compensation, short shutter lag, etc. The great news is that there are digicams out there finally with the resolution, quality (with certain caveats) and fine control to please the serious digital photography enthusiast.
Casio has established a history of very compact, ergonomically-pleasing digital cameras in their Exilim model line. The top model in that line (at least in the 2nd quarter of this year) was the P600, a camera that Casio explicitly positioned at the enthusiast market segment. The following were the main advertised features that attracted me to this camera:
- It has compact measurements (98 x 68 x 45 mm), which means it can fit comfortably in a medium size pocket such as cargo shorts. It’s still not quite small or light enough (~ 8 oz) to fit comfortably in a shirt pocket, but we’re getting there.
- It has a 4X optical zoom, covering approximately the 33-132mm equivalent range on a 35mm camera. This is a nice range, covering medium-wide angle to just beyond portrait length. I wish it was a little wider at the bottom end–say 28 mm equivalent, but there are few small digicams that do that.
- It has a durable looking metal finish (if a bit odd looking).
- The camera offers 6 megapixel resolution, which means decent-sized enlargements and cropping opportunities. With the newest 6 megapixel digital cameras, we finally have an option that competes with a 35mm camera (6 megapixels being the break even point for resolution on “larger” 35mm-size enlargements, in my opinion; digital has been better on image quality alone for a while now).
- The image quality was reputed to be very good, with low noise at “reasonable” ISOs for this sensor size and camera class (i.e. ISO 100 and below).
- Full manual controls, and other features that cater to the “enthusiast photographer” market segment.
So the bottom line attraction was: “small but capable”. Did the P600 meet expectations? Read on!
Screen, Controls and Ergonomics
The first thing that impressed me about the P600 after using it for a while is how ergonomic the camera is for its size. Making something ergonomically pleasing is a feat in itself; making it so for a very compact camera is doubly impressive. Not that everything is perfect, but the Casio engineers have done a pretty nice job. With a camera this small you have to use care when holding it so that a stray finger doesn’t cover something up–the lens, viewfinder, an external sensor, flash, etc. You also have the problem of accidentally pushing buttons. While this camera borders on being too small to use quickly, it manages to provide a reasonable number of external controls to easily manage settings while keeping them mostly out of your finger’s path.
An enthusiast camera has lots of possible settings to tweak, and the P600 doesn’t disappoint. What’s nice is that the most important ones are easy to access and are not buried deep in submenus that require lots of button presses. Case in point: white balance, ISO, metering mode and AF area are all easily changed by pressing a prominent button on the lower left corner which pops up the four menus simultaneously on the large LCD screen. Using the four-way thumb toggle you can quickly select the appropriate value in any of the four parameters. Compared to Nikon and Canon digicams that I have used, this method is easier and more intuitive. Case in point two: a pressing the left or right toggle decrements or increments the exposure compensation, no matter what shooting mode you are in. Some settings are still buried in menu hell, but these are mostly for digital camera freebies like sepia toning and the like, which are better left to photo editor. Most of the important settings for photographers are quickly and intuitively accessible.
The LCD screen is large and bright and very usable outdoors. My only complaints about it are that for a 2 inch display they should have employed a higher pixel count–displayed photos don’t look quite as sharp as they would on a 1.5 inch display with the same resolution. Color also, seems a bit off, but only for the LCD review, not the actual images. Nevertheless, the 2 inch size makes for pleasant photo review with others looking on over your shoulder and flipping through stored snapshots is near instantaneous. There is a “preview” button, which you can press while still in shooting mode to review the last shot taken, but unfortunately you need to turn the mode dial out of shooting mode into “play” to review more than just the last image, or to zoom or pan in the image. A better design would let you press “review” and zoom and pan and flip forward or backward and then return to shooting mode with a half-press of the shutter button.
While in shooting mode the display itself can be toggled/configured in a rather large number of ways. Possibly the most interesting is a “heads up” display that shows focus distance and separate real-time RGB curves, along with the usual plethora of ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, focus distance and other settings. It’s a bit cluttered, but fun to use. You can cycle through simpler views with the touch of a button. Unfortunately the LCD monitor itself is not of the tilt/swivel variety, but fixed flat on the back of the camera; thus you may find yourself getting in more awkward positions than you’d like to see the display while setting up your shot on occasion.
The P600 is fairly quick on the draw, taking just a hair over 2 seconds from power on till it is ready to shoot (most of that for extending the lens, it seems). Auto-focus is very quick and, once focus is locked, shutter lag is truly negligible. Irritatingly, the LCD screen freezes for a split second while locking focus, an annoyance mostly when tracking moving subjects. Of course this is not an issue of the viewfinder is used. Speaking of which, like most digicams of this size, the viewfinder is nothing special–it’s there and it works. Most of the time you probably won’t use it, but on occasion you’ll be glad you have the option.
Battery life is excellent; the only downside is that the camera uses proprietary batteries. The charger is small and light, the kind you plug into the wall and it hangs there. Batteries charge quickly and give you many, many shots per charge–I’ve literally shot for several weeks without changing the battery.
The fit and finish on the P600 is good. Except for few small places, like the flimsy USB port cover, the camera feels like it could take a few knocks. Image upload is fairly quick for a USB 1.1 camera with 6 megapixel files. The camera takes SD cards. I can get a little less than 200 shots on a 512MB card in Normal JPEG compression mode.
Lens and Focusing
The P600 has a pretty nice Canon-made lens: a reasonably fast f2.8-4.0 zoom that exhibits very little in the way of purple fringing or noticable distortion. The zoom is a 4X, which, at 33-132mm (35mm equivalent) gives you a pretty nice range to work with. Even better, the lens unscrews to allow you to attach several Canon-branded accessory lenses such as wide-angle and teleconverters. In order to provide a lens with such a wide zoom range on such a thin camera, Casio/Canon had to employ a double-folding lens design. It works well, but one should be cautious to avoid getting sand or grit getting between the concentric rings of the lens and interfering with the lens extension. The lens has a built-in “shutter” in the front, which opens and closes automatically, obviating the need to fumble around with a lens cap, but the mechanism does look a tad delicate.
My biggest gripe with this camera has to be the zoom control. There are just not enough discrete zoom steps. Many times while zooming it feels like I can’t stop it precisely where I want. Of course you can compensate by moving yourself, or later by cropping, but if you’re the sort that likes precise zoom framing from a stationary position you would be somewhat frustrated. On the plus side, for a non-manual zoom camera, the zoom moves in and out fairly speedily.
Auto-focus is very snappy in decent light. In low light levels it locks a little more slowly, but overall it seems quite good for a camera in this class and price range.
The P600 claims to have a macro setting, but with a closest focusing distance of 10 cm it is somewhat limiting for macro work.
Sensor, Metering, Exposure and Image Quality
Image quality is of course the main concern with any camera and I’m happy to report that the P600 does a very fine job. My last digicam (a Nikon Coolpix 990) also had a 1/1.8 sensor, and I was worried that with double the pixels (the P600 has 6 megapixels) that the noise was going to be a big issue. It’s not, at least not at “reasonable” ISOs, which for a digicam generally means around ISO 100 or less. Fortunately the P600 starts out at a very respectable ISO 50 (then 100, 200 and 400). The ISO 50 shots are surprisingly smooth and ISO 100 is decent; ISO 200 is usable in a pinch, but ISO 400 is not. Casio employs some fairly sophisticated noise reduction in camera and it works well. Very occasionally, in poor lighting fine detail is blurred a little too much by the mechanism or algorithm used, but I find that not to happen very often in the type of shooting I do.
In a related note, some shooters may be unpleasantly surprised by the P600’s unagressive sharpening; it’s a just a notch lower than most digicams at the normal setting. Those more experienced with a digital workflow will welcome the P600’s light touch here, which allows you more latitude in post-processing. It should be noted that the sharpening is definitely sufficient for great photos straight out of the camera; it’s just not overdone like on some other digicams, where you’d be very hesitant to apply any further sharpening, ever.
Color rendition is good with no noticable casts if white balance settings are used judiciously (auto white balance works fine in general, but I’ve never yet met a digicam that didn’t benefit from the photographer manually overriding the WB as appropriate).
Metering (and autoexposure based on it) is generally accurate; some reviewers have complained that the meter errs on the side of underexposure, leading to slightly dark shots. If this is true, it’s probably a good thing, because I’ve not seen many problems with blown highlights. I do use a lot of manual modes, spot metering, exposure compensation and autoexposure lock, though, and I haven’t really taken the opportunity to judge the camera on pure snapshots.
Dynamic range seems good for a sensor of this size and the camera has good tools for controlling exposure: an easily accessible auto-exposure lock button (a must have feature!), aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full manual control, quick 1/3 EV step exposure compensation and a real-time separate RGB histogram. If that’s not enough, throw in contrast and saturation adjustment, a complete range of shutter speeds from 60 to 1/2000 sec including a Bulb mode, impressive continuous shooting modes and an absolute plethora of shot bracketing options (including white balance and focus bracketing) and you begin to appreciate that this is an enthusiast’s camera and not just a P&S, although it certainly can be used for that.
For the ultimate in post-processing flexibility there is a secret raw mode that can be enabled through a special factory diagnostic menu enabled by an elaborate handshake: hold the menu and display buttons down simultaneouslu while turning on the camera, then press the right toggle twice and then the menu button again. In the resulting menu, navigate down to the #6 “image flag” submenu and select it; from that menu select “Bayer Mode” and toggle it to “On”. The camera will now take a RAW frame along with every JPEG (or TIFF) that you shoot. Clearly this is a pain in the butt, and if Casio puts the capability in the camera they should make it more accessible. (I have heard that in the P700 they disabled this “feature”–a shame).
The P600’s flash is a bit weak (guide no. 8, ISO 100), and really is only good at fairly short distances (8 feet or less?). I really dislike the look of fixed flash pictures, and avoid using on board flash whenever possible, but it’s there when you can’t do without it. There is the usual red-eye reduction feature and auto fill flash available, but apart from that there are no “advanced” flash options such as slow-sync, etc. The built in flash is also a tad slow to recharge compared to some other digicams I’ve used. Fortunately the P600 includes a standard type flash sync socket for connecting an external flash, if the need so arises.
Other Features and Extras
Other nice touches on the P600 include a “calendar” playback index that lets you find shots quickly by date, an included (tiny) wireless remote control, a “best shot” mode that has 20-plus settings for common scene (“dummy”) modes, voice annotation on shots, a standard flash sync port, a “rule of thirds” composition grid overlay, a web album generator, world time clock, alarm feature…the list goes on and on. Clearly the Casio software engineers got to have fun on this camera and just packed the features in.
Despite some minor flaws, the P600 delivers where it counts most for my buying criteria: an ultra compact, go anywhere camera with good ergonomics, verstatile shooting controls and impressive image quality. If you are looking for an enthusiast’s camera in a compact form factor it’s a great camera. Note to potential P700 buyers: the P600 successor, the P700, should deliver similar results, but rumor has it that Casio did away with the “unoffical RAW mode” on the P700 and also raised the starting ISO 80 (rather than 50). If so, those are unfortunate negatives relative to the P600. In terms of improvements, the P700 has 1 megapixel more resolution and a couple of other minor additions. It probably also carries a higher price tag.
Update: word has it that there is also a “secret menu” to enable RAW mode on the P700. From a post on dpreview.com:
- While firmly pressing down both [DISP] and [UPPER], turn the power on.
- After the version appears, press buttons in the order of [DOWN], [DOWN], [DISP] and [MENU] in 0.5 second. The diagnostic menu appears.
- Select option 6, “Image Flag”. From here you can set the Bayer mode to “on” and then use the menu button to back out of the service menu.
With Bayer Mode set to on the camera will generate 2 files for each image, a jpeg and a raw file with names like this: xxxxCIMG.RAW (10.4 MB) and CIMGxxxx.JPG (4.2 MB) (for fine compression and largest file size)
- Very small, very light for all it’s features, yet seems solidly built (with a couple of minor exceptions, e.g. the USB port cover);
- Good ergonomics for such a small camera, although typical compromises must be made;
- Bright LCD is usable in sunlight;
- Full manual control of shutter, aperture, iso and white balance, plus saturation and contrast adjustment;
- Lots of “extras” thrown in: fancy bracketing modes, HTML albums, “heads up” display, etc.;
- Almost non-existant shutter lag (after focus is locked);
- Unofficially supported raw mode available;
- Surprisingly low noise for a 6 Mpx 1/1.8 sensor at “reasonable” ISOs;
- Accurate metering and autoexposure;
- Lightning-fast paging through stored photos;
- Live histogram with separate R-G-B curves;
- Doubles as a functional audio recorder;
- Wireless remote included;
- Camera shows up as a USB storage device, ensuring good compatibility with a variety of OSes and applications;
- Nice small, portable battery charger included;
- Good battery life;
- Good selection of “scene modes” (if you like that sort of thing);
- Movie mode and sound recorder mode limited only by amount of space on card;
- Good quality Canon-built 4X f2.8-4.0 lens.
- Large display is not as sharp as it could be due to small pixel count, and color is not accurate (the display, not the photos, which are good);
- No separate, independent play button (play position on mode dial is inconvenient to use);
- No tilt/twist display means awkward posturing for getting certain shots;
- Fancy double-extending lens may have trouble with sand or grit;
- No “official” raw mode;
- No incremental white-balance compensation;
- Macro mode closest focus is only 10cm;
- Somewhat weak flash;
- No advanced flash options (e.g. slow sync, etc.);
- No ability to turn off noise smoothing algorithm;
- Vignetting on widest zoom setting with large apertures;
- No ability to lock autoexposure values in automatic modes and then switch to manual exposure, retaining aperture or shutter settings.
- Uses USB 1.1 instead of USB 2.0;
- Proprietary battery.
- Very flimsy USB port cover and other small plastic pieces mar an otherwise robust feel;
- Very bad location for tripod socket;
- Too few zoom steps may require cropping or “foot zoom”;
- LCD freezes for a split-second while locking focus.
If you are a P600 owner, there are a couple of firmware updates available from Casio which add some slight improvements. You can get them here. (Check your firmware version by holding down the menu button as you turn on the camera.