Considering that the 2.2-inch LCD gobbles up most of the camera's rear real estate, Casio has done a good job with the control layout. Menu and Best Shot buttons are arranged to the lower right of the screen, with the Best Shot option providing access to copious automated scene modes. Next to those keys are a square four-way controller and a Set button. In addition to scrolling through the menus, the Exilim EX-S500's four-way arrow pad can be used to change flash settings and display options, which include a grid, a live color histogram, and current camera setting information. You can also program the left and right arrow keys for quick access to one of a number of functions, such as light sensitivity, exposure compensation, focus mode, and the self-timer.
All the controls are small and do not protrude far from the camera body, which may make it difficult for those with larger hands to comfortably operate the Casio. And keep in mind that there's no optical viewfinder. The shutter release and the power button sit atop the camera. Fortunately, you can power on the camera by pressing one of the mode buttons since the power control on top of the camera is small and sits flush with the surface, making it very difficult to find and press without looking.
A charging cradle comes with the camera and incorporates the USB and A/V ports that couldn't fit on the Exilim. That means you'll need to take it or a card reader along for downloads and TV displays away from home. Unlike some other ultracompacts, however, this one has a tripod mount built into the camera body. You won't find manual exposure controls on the Casio Exilim EX-S500, but this little camera has a long list of features that expand its capabilities beyond point-and-shoot. In addition to exposure compensation; sensitivity control of ISO 50 to ISO 400; adjustable sharpness, saturation, and contrast; multiple metering modes; flash assist for better focus in low light; flash intensity adjustments; and custom white balance, the EX-S500 offers built-in icon help that explains each Best Shot scene mode. The zoom lens offers a 38mm-to-114mm range (35mm equivalent), which is a little better than that of some competing ultracompacts on the long end but won't help when you need a wide angle for shooting in tight spaces.
One feature that is always a bonus is the ability to choose which settings the camera remembers when you power it down so that you don't have to start from the beginning the next time you shoot. With the EX-S500, the memory list includes Best Shot, flash, focus, white balance, ISO, AF area, metering mode, flash intensity, and even zoom position (although we never found a need for the last).
With about 30 scene modes, including a large number that can be used for video, the EX-S500's Best Shot mode represents one of the camera's most notable features. You'll find standard scene modes such as Portrait and Landscape, but the Best Shot list also includes Fireworks, Text, and other unusual options. More importantly, you can set as many as 999 of your own Best Shot modes, giving the EX-S500 perhaps the largest number of custom automated setting options on the market.
Casio's Anti-Shake DSP (digital signal processing) feature has only two settings: Auto and Off. On Auto, you never know when it's going to kick into operation, which is a little disconcerting since low light will boost the ISO to 1,600, for example. That may help eliminate camera shake, but it delivers a lot of noise in the process.
Not surprisingly, the EX-S500 saves photos as JPEGs only, but it offers six resolution settings, including a high-res 3:2 aspect-ratio option and a small e-mail mode. Three compression settings are also available.
Borrowing from its Exilim EX-P505, Casio has equipped the EX-S500 with MPEG-4 movie options. You can shoot a high-quality, 640x480 video with sound at 30 frames per second until the SD card is full. Short Movie and Past Movie (which continually records video and saves the last five seconds when you press the record button) can be accessed from the Best Shot mode. You can also take a still image while recording video, which is an interesting--and often useful--feature that may very well become common on more cameras. The Casio Exilim EX-S500 delivered a mixed performance. It started up and took a first shot in a respectable 2 seconds, but we had to wait more than 3 seconds between shots--with and without flash.
In continuous-shooting mode, moving along rapidly at low resolution, we were able to snap off more than 49 shots at about 1.6fps. At high resolution, however, the time was sluggish at about 0.33fps. But the EX-S500's minimal shutter lag--even in low light, thanks to its AF illuminator--was good at 0.4 second. Battery life was quite solid as well, especially considering the camera's tiny battery.
The 3X optical zoom lens moved quickly through its six steps, so we were able to maneuver from wide angle to telephoto with ease. The flash is, not surprisingly, rather anemic, so don't plan on shooting more than 8 feet away from your subject at wide angle. The Casio Exilim EX-S500's photo quality was a mixed bag. Our test shots were generally well exposed, and the camera recorded colors accurately, although they were slightly muted at the default setting.
On the other hand, our images looked a little soft. Increasing the level of sharpening helped slightly but not enough for a big improvement in sharpness and detail. And highlights in our shots often got clipped so that patches of white with no detail appeared. While visual noise was barely evident at low ISO settings, by ISO 400, it was quite heavy.
Purple and green fringing showed up consistently in our images. Though widespread, the fringes were so narrow that they shouldn't become apparent unless you make large prints.
The 640x480 MPEG-4 video clips we shot were quite good for this camera's class, with smooth 30fps capture. The EX-S500 doesn't record stereo sound like Casio's higher-end EX-P505, but the sound in our video clips was audible and relatively clean.