Competing point-and-shoot cameras from major OEM's (original equipment manufacturers) like Nikon, Canon, and Olympus are often so similar (same basic "look", same resolution, almost identical LCD screens, rigidly similar control arrays, same zoom range, etc.) that I sometimes forget for a moment which camera I'm testing this week. Casio's cameras are always a little bit different, but maybe that's because Casio is more likely to be known for calculators and wrist watches than cameras.
Casio is a Japanese company that makes computer peripherals, musical instruments, digital cash registers, and audio equipment, in addition to digital cameras. Casio built the first all electronic calculator, the first digital watch, the first consumer digital camera with an LCD screen, and the first true ultra-compact point-and-shoot.
Casio recently introduced the Exilim EX-H20G (designed primarily for travelers), the first digicam combining a built-in GPS system with motion sensor driven autonomic positioning. What makes the H20 unique is that its Hybrid GPS system uses three-axis accelerometers and a three-way direction sensor to determine the shooter's location (since the last satellite contact) and then track him or her even when indoors or away from GPS satellite feeds.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The Exilim H20G is built on Casio's EX-H15; sharing that camera's basic operating system, 14 megapixel sensor, 10x zoom, and 3.0-inch LCD. The H20 is a thoughtfully designed, precision built and robustly constructed imaging tool that was obviously designed for casual shooters who are also world travelers. The H20's body is metal alloy and polycarbonate.
The auto-everything H20 permits very limited individual input into the image making process. Styling is conservative, maybe even a bit stodgy. The relatively thick brick-shaped H20 is square and blocky and appears to be available only in black. The H20 can be dropped in a shirt pocket, but with noticeable droop and a substantial bulge.
Ergonomics and Controls
The H20 handles like a typical point-and-shoot, so users should deploy and religiously use the included wrist strap since there is only a rudimentary handgrip. The H20's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are a bit small, but they are clearly marked and easily accessed by right handed shooters.
Controls are well laid out except for the poorly placed and somewhat unresponsive on/off button which is tiny and flush with the camera's top deck surface, making it difficult to turn the camera on or off with one push of the button. Deleting an image immediately after review is also more difficult than it should be.
Menus and Modes
The H20's menu system is a bit complex, but it is comprehensive, logically presented, and navigation is fairly simple. Auto-everything digicams can be frustrating for more advanced users, but even auto-everything cameras can produce awesome images if they have the ability to make minor exposure adjustments to overcome prevailing conditions.
One of the most important options on any auto point-and-shoot is the exposure compensation mode. Exposure compensation allows users to easily and incrementally lighten or darken images to overcome lighting problems. While many OEMs provide a dedicated button or use one of the directional buttons on the compass switch to provide quick, direct access to the exposure compensation mode, Casio buries this super important control in the menu system.
The H20 doesn't have (or need) a mode dial since there are only two shooting modes - full auto mode (the camera automatically sets all exposure parameters) for still images and movie mode which automatically captures HD video clips.
In the early days of the digital imaging revolution essentially all cameras provided both an optical viewfinder and an LCD viewfinder. Digicam users these days have only the LCD screen for all composition, captured image review and menu navigation chores. Most modern shooters rarely use optical viewfinders anyway and in many shooting scenarios (macro and portraits, for example), it is often quicker and easier to watch the decisive moment come together on the LCD screen.
The H20 doesn't feature an optical viewfinder, but makes up for that shortcoming by providing a better than average 3.0-inch LCD with 460k-dot resolution. The H20's TFT LCD screen is bright, hue accurate, relatively fluid (not jerky), automatically boosts gain in dim/low light, and covers approximately 100% of the image frame. The user-enabled grid display is a very useful tool for more serious shooters.
The Casio Exilim EX H20G's LCD, like all LCD panels, is subject to fading and glare and reflections in bright outdoor lighting. Using an LCD for composition and framing in bright outdoor light can be very maddening. When comparing two (or more) digital cameras the camera with the brightest, highest resolution LCD, a good contrast ratio, and a decent anti-glare/reflection coating would (everything else being more or less equal) seem the best choice. It is virtually impossible to accurately estimate the contrast ratio of an LCD display by eye and camera manufacturers are dependably (and universally) guilty of grossly inflating numbers to make their newest models seem more appealing.
The DCR test lab objectively measures LCD peak brightness and contrast ratios to assist our readers in making more informed buying decisions. A decent LCD contrast ratio would fall somewhere between 500:1 and 800:1. That would be bright enough to use the LCD for framing and composition in outdoor lighting, and it would provide a better sense of contrast and image quality. The H20 weighs in on the high end of that scale at 663:1 - for comparison purposes several of Canon's current P&S digicam models score in the low 400's. Peak brightness for the H20 (the panel's output of an all-white screen at full brightness) is 650 nits and on the dark side the measurement is 0.98. For reference, anything above 500 will be fairly usable outdoors, with better results obtained at higher output levels.
The H20 is a very good general purpose camera that consistently produces very good to excellent images and video clips with very little effort on the part of the individual behind the camera.
Timing and speed are among the most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance. The H20 comes in right in the middle of the herd; it isn't the quickest digicam in its class, but it isn't the slowest either.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR||0.01|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX75||0.01|
|Casio Exilim EX-H20G||0.01|
|Canon PowerShot G12||0.04|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Fujifilm FinePix Z800EXR||0.19|
|Casio Exilim EX-H20G||0.23|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX75||0.28|
|Canon PowerShot G12||0.50|
This digicam (which should appeal primarily to travelers and casual shooters) is quick enough to capture youth sports and the decisive moment - in most cases, but it probably is not quick enough to capture pro or extreme sports.
The H20 is driven by its EXILIM Engine HS which features a 1/2.3-inch square pixel CCD sensor and two parallel image processors for quicker and more efficient operation.
Many techies will already have GPS devices in their cars, but the EX-H20G provides a portable (in the field) system to track position, outdoors or indoors, against map data stored in the camera's on-board memory. Push the dedicated GPS button on the camera's top deck and the EX-H20G will display a map with the shooter's precise location and the photos and movies taken at any place on that screen map. Tourists rejoice, the Exilim EX-H20G is pre-loaded with 10,000 sightseeing spots around the globe. When in the vicinity of one of these world class photo ops, the EX-H20G will automatically alert shooters.
The H20 doesn't provide an uplink connection to the web, so there is no way to add maps or update stored data. If you live in a provincial backwater (like I do) rather than in one of the world's great cities the maps are large scale and very generic. Whenever I accessed the GPS system the camera would display a map that covered north central Kentucky and south central Indiana (centered on Louisville) for about 100 miles in every direction. A two hundred mile radius map on a 3.0-inch screen provides little information that is actually useful.
For those travelers who regularly visit London, Paris, NYC, L.A., Chicago, Beijing, Tokyo, and Rio the H20 will provide a truly portable GPS system that will locate the user precisely and then display a smaller scale map and the quickest routes to major tourist attractions in those cities. The H20's GPS system reacts fairly quickly - providing a map in something between two and three seconds after pushing the dedicated GPS button on the cameras top deck.
The H20 features the same TTL Contrast Detection AF system as it sibling the H15. The H20 provides several focus modes including: Intelligent, Spot, Multi, and Tracking. The H20's AF is dependably accurate.
The H20's built-in multi mode flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including Auto, Flash off, Flash on, Soft Flash, and Red eye reduction auto. Flash recycle time (with a fully charged battery) is between 4 and 5 seconds.
The H20's image stabilization system reduces blur by quickly and precisely shifting the image sensor to compensate for minor camera movement. Image stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would have been possible without it. Image stabilization can also be useful when shooting dimly lit indoor venues where flash is inappropriate.
The H20 draws its juice from a Casio NP-90 rechargeable lithium ion battery. Casio provides no battery life claims, but based on my use of the camera over a two week period I'd put battery life at something between 200 and 250 images on a single charge.
The H20 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory media, but provides no built-in memory.
The H20's f/3.2-5.7 4.3-43mm 10x optical zoom (equivalent 24-240mm) has 11 elements in 10 groups with one aspherical element. Many premium tier point-and-shoots offer zooms with maximum apertures of f/2.8, which makes the H20's f/3.2 maximum aperture just a bit slower than much of the competition. When the H20 is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body automatically, and when the camera is powered down, the lens retracts into the camera body and a built-in iris-style lens cover closes to protect the front element. Zooming is smooth and relatively quiet. Minimum focusing distance (in super macro mode) is just shy of three inches. The H20 needs between 3 and 4 seconds to move the zoom lens from the wide angle end of the zoom range to the telephoto end of the zoom range.
The H20's zoom is surprisingly good even though it displays some minor corner softness, but there's no vignetting (dark corners). Barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from the center of the frame) at the wide-angle end of the zoom range is above average, while pincushion distortion (straight lines bow in toward the center) is below average at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Chromatic aberration (also known as purple fringing) is very well controlled. Here's an interesting feature - enable the Exilim EX-H20G's Single Frame SR Zoom function and the 10x zoom becomes a 15x zoom that (according to Casio) maintains the same image quality level as the 10x zoom, but with a 35mm equivalent telephoto focal length of 360mm.
The H20's 1280x720 at 30 fps HD movie mode produces sharply focused, properly exposed, color correct, and fluid videos clips. I shot the video that accompanies this review in a dimly lit old leather-workers shop. The light (mixed tungsten and window light) was pretty poor, but while the video may appear a bit grainy - it is hue accurate with good contrast and fluid movement.
The H20's image files are generally sharply in focus, properly exposed, and hue (color) correct. Viewed on my monitor default H20 images show surprisingly neutral colors. Reds look closer to real world reds than they do with most current digicams, blues are a just a tiny bit brighter than they are in real life, and greens/yellows are impressively hue accurate. In bright outdoor lighting, highlight detail was occasionally blown-out, which indicates a slight tendency toward over exposure.
The H20 provides users with a decent selection of white balance options, including Auto, Daylight, Overcast, Shade, Day White Fluorescent, Daylight Fluorescent, Tungsten, and Manual WB. The H20's auto WB setting does a very good job in most lighting.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
The H20 provides an impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 80 to 3200. ISO 80 and ISO 100 images are virtually indistinguishable. Both display bright colors, flat but slightly hard edged native contrast and very low noise levels. ISO 200 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less snap.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
At the ISO 400 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a (barely) perceptible loss of minor detail. Above ISO 400 noise levels increase exponentially.
There were times when I was living in Europe and Japan that I would have loved having a camera with GPS capabilities. My wife and I often went on unstructured/unplanned weekend adventure drives - searching for undiscovered villages, unique architecture, colorful local festivals, quaint pubs and restaurants, and interesting inhabitants. Many of those tiny villages were worth a return trip, but it wasn't always easy to find them again.
The Casio Exilim EX-H20G has a complex menu system and a couple of poorly designed functions, but it does yeoman work as a general use digicam. Unfortunately the H20 is relatively expensive. The inclusion of Hybrid GPS makes this camera especially appealing to world travelers or those living in our planet's largest cities. If you live in the provinces and don't travel much, there are better options.