The Exilim C721 for Verizon is Casio's newest entry in the U.S. handset market. It offers a 5.1-megapixel, full-featured camera from the Japanese company's popular Exilim camera series -- known for packing a lot of technology into a slim package. Its newest incarnation has a high-resolution camera and high-end price tag put it in the same class as the popular Sony Ericsson C905a's 8.1-megapixel powerhouse.
Marketed as a "camera attached to a phone," the Exilim uses a pivoting clamshell design to offer a more digital camera feel. It has 3X optical zoom, a 2.3-inch rear viewfinder and -- like Casio's G'zOne outdoor models -- is tested to meet strict military standards to withstand water, shock, wind and high temperatures. The handset also features a music player, HTML browser, TV-out connection, Bluetooth and a microSD slot to augment its 128-megabytes of internal memory.
It comes installed with Verizon's services such as VCast Video to watch clips, VCast Music with Rhapsody to download songs, VZ Navigator for turn-by-turn directions and Visual Voicemail to select which messages they want to listen to first, with options to forward, archive, call back or respond with a SMS.
With its chrome-and-black body and pivoting clamshell, the Exilim's design plays on its dual functionality as a camera and phone. The top half of the hybrid -- made of shiny, hard black plastic -- smudges easily. The metallic, bottom half feels sturdy and balanced in the hand. The raised, backlit keypad feels sturdy and responds easily to pressure. A directional key with a center select button navigates screen menus, while right and left soft keys provide access to shortcuts and menu selections.
A dedicated camera/camcorder key turns on the camera quickly for action snaps, while a button to the right of the directional key serves multiple functions as a speakerphone, camera flash/flashlight or auto-focus lock button, depending on the handset's mode. On the right, there's a charging/data port, volume rocker, back key, volume rocker, select key and camera shutter key. Some of these buttons turn into camera functions when the phone is in reverse-clamshell position. The left spine holds the memory slot and charging terminal. A cumbersome cradle -- included -- is needed to charge the phone, an unfortunate design choice if you like to travel light. A red light on the bottom indicates when the phone is charging.
The back houses the camera's 5.1-megapixel lens, flash and battery cover. Since the lens is made of reinforced glass, it smudges easily. For protection, a divot keeps the lens raised slightly when the phone rests on a flat surface. The handset's stiff hinge makes it awkward to flip open with one hand. It's equally impossible to twist and close the phone with one hand. These difficulties aside, when the hinge is fully closed, the camera function kicks in automatically. Out of the box, the Exilim comes with a battery, wall charger, USB cable, headset adapter, charging cradle, wrist strap, Digital Photo Album software CD, user guide and quick reference guide.
The Exilim joins the fray of handsets with high-quality cameras that shoot 5-megapixels or above. Yet unlike the C905a, which shoot publishable-quality photos, the Exilim also earns bragging rights as the only camera phone of its class to meet military standards and can take snaps underwater -- though we wouldn't recommend it.
It'll appeal to adventurers seeking a rugged, high-end camera phone. While the handset can take high-quality pictures in harsh conditions, it has considerable delay and not quick to use. The 5.1-megapixel auto-focus lens features a 3x optical zoom and up to about 24x with digital zoom. Unlike most cameras, which offer digital zoom and loses photo quality when cropping, the Exilim's lens actually zooms in.
Image stabilizer is an the "anti-shake" feature that can minimize image blur due to moving objects or shaky hands. Best Shot automatically select the best settings for shooting such as options for Person, Scenery, Night View, Person and Scenery, Twilight, Food, Character, Sports, Party, Monotone, Sepia, Reverse, High Sharpness, High Contrast and Vivid.
Using a matrix with nine separate focus boxes, the auto-focus analyzes a broad area of the scene to take clear and sharp photos from a variety of angles. You can take single or multiple shots -- up to four -- at once, with a choice of seven resolution sizes -- up to 2,560-by-1,920 pixels in resolution in normal or fine quality.
Perspective Adjustment lets you take a photo of a rectangular object, such as a business card, at an angle and adjust it so that it appears to be taken from squarely in front. Additional options include a self-timer, brightness and white balance control, as well as color effects such as black and white or sepia. The auto-focus setting gives you the choice of single point or nine-point settings.
The camera operates vertically or horizontally, with the flip open or the clamshell twisted into reverse position and closed. Either way, the main screen serves as the viewfinder. When the flip is open, you can manipulate the camera using the keyboard, which is confusing and difficult to master, or by pressing the keys on the right side of the phone.
The first thing right-handed users will notice when flipping the phone open and turning on the camera for a vertical photo is how easily the hand covers the lens. The lens is positioned in such a way that it's impossible for your right hand not to cover -- and smudge -- it as you make adjustments on the keypad for zoom, brightness, self-timer, etc.
Another problem is that the camera's keyboard controls are complex. Buttons that seem intuitive on a full-sized camera seem confusing when squeezed into an alphanumeric keyboard. After bumbling through them numerous times, and shooting photos of fingers and hands in the process, you might be tempted to scratch the professional settings and instead hit the quick keys on the right side of the phone.
The camera becomes more user-friendly when the clamshell is twisted and closed and used in more natural "horizontal" position. A menu appears on the screen, with icons indicating which buttons to press for viewing a slide show, browsing the photo album, recording video or taking pictures. Each icon corresponds to a button on the top edge of the clamshell (in vertical position these buttons are on the right edge of the phone).
As soon as the camera is activated, the menu on the viewfinder changes, providing zoom, a full menu of shooting options, and the ability to toggle through all of the menus in an intuitive manner. In this mode, the Exilim most resembles the standalone camera.
Although the numerous settings and choices in sizing make for a longer setup time, you'll be happy with the camera's photo quality. With the option of up to 8-gigabytes of additional microSD memory, you can take hundreds of photos without changing the memory card, depending upon the photo size settings. The phone also includes complex editing functions such as cropping, renaming and perspective change. You can send a photo as a MMS or via Bluetooth to another Bluetooth-enabled device. Using the phone's USB connector, you can transfer photos to their PC after installing the Verizon USB driver for Exilim devices. Unfortunately, the phone doesn't transfer video or photos to Macs.
The camcorder functions in the same way as the phone, and shoots video in two resolutions: 176-by-144 and 320-by-240 pixels. When shooting, you can also choose a video message option, which times out the video at one minute. Video options include image stabilization, light settings, color effects, self-timer, macro mode, brightness, white balance, and call interruption, which holds calls until the camcorder stops shooting.
Like the Motorola Clutch or Tundra, the Exilim meets military standards for humidity, salt fog, drop, altitude, vibration, dust and solar radiation. Not only will the phone survive a drop in a puddle, it can withstand immersion in over one meter of water for up to 30 minutes and bring back the photos to prove it.
As packed as Exilim is with technology, it lacks the battery strength necessary to keep all of its bells and whistles running for long. Some owners say they have to charging the phone every day after moderate use. With heavy use of the camera, the handset requires charging more than once a day. Over time, the strengths could be dwarfed by its lackluster battery performance. Then again, many high-end phones, such as the iPhone, require twice-daily charging with heavy video and game usage.
The Exilim comes with multimedia messaging options, and a phonebook with up to 500 entries with multiple contacts. Other tools include flashlight, alarm, calendar, calculator, stopwatch, notepad and speakerphone. Call quality sounds robust and clear, with no dropouts or static. The speakerphone also projects balanced and vibrant tones, with good bass and treble on both ends of the call. When playing back video or music on the external speakers however, the sound comes out overly compressed, tinny and weak. Also lacking is an audible tone for missed calls. You may not complain that the tones for incoming text messages or voicemail are discreet. But the audio level can't be adjusted. It can merely be switched from tone to vibrate.
The handset also features Visual Voicemail to manage and listen to messages, Verizon's Chaperone service for parents to keep tabs on their children, Field Force Manager for employees who work outside of the office and VZ Navigator for turn-by-turn directions and location information. You should be aware that these features cost a monthly subscription fee on top of your plan.
The Exilim's puny 2.3-inch screen doesn't do justice to its 5.1-megapixel camera. It supports a mere 65,000 colors, which doesn't hold a candle to the 16.7 million colors supported by many high-end devices. Given the phone's battery issues, a less-than-brilliant screen is probably the better. Still, with Casio's reputation for putting large screens on its digital cameras, the size of the handset's screen is disappointing.
You can adjust the main screen's backlight time, contrast, dial fonts and clock display, as well as add wallpaper. The phone's external, black and white screen measures 36-by-96 pixels and displays battery use, time, connectivity and incoming calls. Positively drab, users can't personalize it with photos or wallpaper. Both screens are highly glossy, which adds luster to the viewing experience, but only if users wipe off the smudges and fingerprints first.
The Exilim's music player connects directly to VCast Music with Rhapsody, Verizon's music download service. It offers unlimited access to music for $15 a month or individual songs for $1 per track. You can also create and manage playlists and transfer your music from your phone to a PC or vice-versa.
One downside to transferring MP3's from a PC to the phone is that Verizon requires using its music management software to install them, rather than copying them straight to a folder in the memory card, which takes longer. The music player supports MP3, WMA, unprotected AAC and unprotected AAC+ formats.
Besides the standard array of messaging options (SMS, MMS, IM, Video and email), Verizon offers Visual Voicemail on the Exilim Mobile for $3 per month subscription. Visual Voicemail shows you a list of voice messages from callers or phone numbers and gives you the choice of listening first or responding by text messaging, forwarding, calling back or deleting.
You can subscribe to Verizon's Mobile Web service for $5 a month, and access Yahoo, MSN Hotmail and AOL accounts through the Internet. Web pages are optimized for mobile view. For text messaging, the Exilim offers the choice of multi-tap or T9 predictive text input.
Verizon's mobile IM application allows you to access their AOL, Windows Live or Yahoo instant messaging clients. Since Verizon bundles all IM's into their text message price plans and charges for data transmission, you're recommended to have a plan with unlimited text messaging.
Although it's built like a tank, the Exilim isn't all work and no play. You can download and play games, video and music on the phone using Verizon's subscription and per-download services. Verizon's VCast Video service offers short video clips from content providers such as Bravo, ESPN and Comedy Central. You pay up to $25 a month for unlimited downloads. While the Exilim doesn't come with games pre-installed, you can purchase games and ringtones on a per-download basis by clicking on the phone's media center, which appears on its main menu.
The Exilim connects to the Internet using Verizon's 3G Ev-Do Rev. A network, one of the fastest technologies that downloads data at rates up to 3.1-megabits per second. The Mobile Web takes you to Verizon's Dashboard app, a portal to the Internet, various game and entertainment channels. Unfortunately, the browser doesn't read Flash-based Web pages. Mobile Web optimizes the HTML pages for mobile viewing, and you should be aware that all downloads are subject to Verizon data usage charges. Reading web sites on its 2.3-inch screen is challenging at best, and slow-going compared to browsers on large touch-screen smartphones such as the Apple iPhone.
The Exilim supplements its 128-megabytes of internal storage with a capacity of up to 8-gigabytes of microSD removable memory. This extra storage translates to nearly 2,000 photos or songs or 40 minutes of video. Internally, the phone stores up to 500 contacts, allowing up to four phone numbers, two email addresses, a photo and two email addresses for each contact. You can track the phone's internal and cared memory usage in the settings and tools menu. With ample storage for high-quality photos, the Exilim has plenty of storage space to fully utilize its 5.1-megapixel camera.
The Exilim supports a number of different Bluetooth 2.0 profiles such as handsfree devices and headsets to communicate wirelessly, dial-up networking to use it as a laptop modem, stereo music to listen to music on compatible headphones and phonebook and object push for exchanging files with other phones or PCs. A TV-out connection gives you the option of previewing video and photos on the big screen. And a USB port and cable can connect to a computer to transfer music and videos.
The obvious draw for the Exilim is its 5.1-megapixel camera, which takes excellent, high-quality photos of publishable quality. The phone also boasts good connectivity and call quality. The sleek and stylish handset is versatile and basic functions are easy to use. The twisting clamshell transforms the main screen into a camera viewfinder and screen for viewing slideshows and videos. But its camera menus are complicated and require a learning curve and lots of practice before users can set up photos with one or two clicks.
If you're looking for a waterproof, durable handset that can replace their standalone digital camera, the Exilim holds up to its promise. However, if you use the phone primarily for text messaging and multimedia use, the handset's short battery life, small screen and lack of Wi-Fi doesn't compare to smartphones in the same price range, such as the iPhone or BlackBerry. ♦
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