Cameras

Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 Review

The ZR100's ace in the hole is its speed, which is unmatched by just about every other compact camera on the market.

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Introduction

Debuting at around $300, the EX-ZR100 is Casio’s latest flagship high-speed camera. It sports a 12.5x optical zoom ratio, a big image sensor, and an excellent video recording mode.

We found that the camera heavily processed many of its images by default, but the final result was still visually satisfying. Images were a tad oversharpened in-camera, and Casio could seriously benefit from a menu re-design, but the ZR100 strikes us as a worthy leader for Casio’s 2011 high-speed lineup.

Design & Usability

In some ways, the ZR100 feels cheap and outdated.

The ZR100 has a fairly thin metal body that is lightweight yet sturdy and easy to grip. It doesn't necessarily have the feel of a high-end compact camera and it's missing a viewfinder, but the ZR100 features a convenient button layout and its 3-inch, 460k-dot LCD is very clear and attractive. Though vivid and organized, the menu leaves plenty to be desired aesthetically, and unavoidable, excessive scrolling slows navigation. Worst of all, the menu automatically quits out whenever an option is changed, requiring multiple trips to change multiple options, and physical buttons lack labels, which is sure to boggle novices.

The telescoping lens elements are not sealed, so moisture, dust, and debris can easily enter and damage the camera.

While changes to settings require a trip to the full menu, a quick menu may be used for basic alterations to white balance, resolution, exposure compensation, ISO speed, and flash control. In terms of hardware design, the 12.5x optical zoom range is 4.24-53.0mm, with a maximum aperture of f/3.0-5.9. The lens itself telescopes out from the body, but retracts flush with its housing when the camera is powered down or in sleep mode. As with just about any lens of this type, the telescoping lens elements are not sealed, so moisture, dust, and debris can easily enter and damage the camera.

Features

This Casio is a real Road Runner, but it seems to have dropped some bells and whistles along the way.

The EX-ZR100 is all about speed, with a bevy of high-speed recording options for both still and video shooting. Continuous shooting is only available when activating the HS mode. From there, the camera can be put in either "F CS" or "High Speed CS," depending on how fast the user wants to shoot. "F CS" allows the user to select still shooting up to 10fps, with a maximum continuous burst of 30 shots. High speed CS allows for up to 40fps shooting, with a maximum of 30 shots as well, though maximum resolution is limited to 10 megapixels. When in HS mode, JPEGs can only be captured in normal quality, with no fine option on offer.

The ZR100 offers a great deal of manual control for a point-and-shoot, like manual shooting, shutter/aperture priority, HDR modes, and more. In lieu of scene modes, users will find "best shots" that encompasses both traditional scenes and those that take advantage of burst capabilities—32 in total, plus one customizable option. These modes are for still and video shooting, affecting everything from color to shutter speed and beyond. Picture effects on this camera are practically nonexistent, with just monochrome or single tone casts that come in various colors, and self timers are available as well. Users will also love the zoom options, but be aware that the digital zoom results in the worse image quality, and the Multi SR and HD zoom are slightly better. The optical zoom is your best bet in most scenarios, however.

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Performance

The ZR-100 is very fast, and though images are clean, they are also over-processed much of the time.

Given the EX-ZR100's speedy claims, we'll begin the discussion of performance on that note. With the "F CS" shooting mode (the only continuous shooting mode that offers the full 12-megapixel resolution), we found that the camera was able to better its advertised speed of 10fps by a slight margin. Its performance was not perfectly consistent, though, as in three rounds of testing it hit 10.89, 10.0, and 9.97fps. For a compact camera, however, 12-megapixel shots at over 10fps is remarkable. The camera also offers 40fps shooting in 10-megapixel resolution, with a nifty pre-record function that is great for capturing action exactly as desired. In terms of video, though the high-speed modes are fun to play with, any speed faster than 240fps results in a significant quality dropoff.

The EX-ZR100 severely over-sharpened most of its images.

As for image quality, the ZR100 had mixed results. Color accuracy was just average, not to mention severely undermined by an inaccurate white balance system. Regarding noise, this camera relies heavily on noise reduction, so while levels are fairly constant from ISO 100-3200, detail is sacrificed to a greater degree each time you move to a higher ISO. Additionally, the EX-ZR100 severely over-sharpened most of its images in-camera, though this did not happen uniformly. Thus, depending on where you are in the zoom range, the edges or the center may be oversharpened, but only rarely is the entire image given equal treatment.

Conclusion

Few compact cameras can satisfy the need for speed like this EX-ZR100, and it captures a pretty clean picture too.

There are many reasons to buy the Casio EX-ZR100, but one in particular stands out: high speed video recording. There's a reason you see Casio's high-speed cameras marketed in golf magazines, and it isn't because of the user interface. While the 1000 FPS is too dark to be of much use, the 240fps video recording is perfect for seeing all those various mechanical motions, while still offering enough resolution to be useful.

But whether you've got a creaky backswing in need of diagnosing or just a love of slow-motion video, the EX-ZR100 brings more to the table than just raw speed. The camera is a very capable shooter in its own right, with a 12.1-megapixel image sensor and a picture quality that is decent, if not quite "high end." Are there cameras at this price point that will deliver better still images? Yes, without question. Are there cameras that will deliver this level of image quality and superb speed? That's not nearly as clear. However, there are always going to be shots that require a certain level of speed to attain, and a "just above-average" clear image beats a blurry one every time.

Other compact cameras can only dream of this kind of speed.

That said, most speed-freaks will be happy to sacrifice some of the creature comforts that other $300+ cameras offer, like touchscreen control, better grip, or GPS. The shooting experience is still fairly fluid, despite those missing extras, and anyone looking for high-speed video at this price point will surely enjoy the ZR100—other compact cameras can only dream of this kind of speed.

Science Introduction

This Casio EX-ZR100 is a real speed demon, but we threw several tests its way to check the quality of its work. Turns out, its color accuracy is average at best and images tend to be over-processed, suffering from aggressive noise reduction and over-sharpening. Picture resolution was decent though, and video performance was impressive.

Color & Sharpness

We found that the ZR100 produced average color accuracy that was severely undermined by an inaccurate white balance system. Severe over-sharpening occurred frequently as well.

In our testing we found the Casio EX-ZR100 produced an average color error of around 3.5, which is nothing spectacular, but about what we expect from a point-and-shoot camera. The main culprit came in the camera's manual white balance settings, which tended to almost always produce a much cooler image than necessary. In our original testing this pushed the color error to over 4.5, but subsequent attempts reined that down to a more manageable score. We found the automatic white balance often did a better job diagnosing light, as well as the white balance presets that are available.

The Casio ZR100 managed decent resolution results, largely on the back of extensive sharpening applied by the camera. This is a common tactic and does result in some more discernible detail in images, largely because the lens is of a lower overall quality. We found the sharpening wasn't universally applied, with the camera often sharpening the edges substantially more than the center of the image, where the lens is naturally sharpest.

Distortion

A degree of other distortions polluted images from time to time too, including visible fringing.

The ZR100 produced very little distortion in the final image, though it was clear that when shooting in wide angle that there was a great degree of complex distortion throughout the image. The camera seemed to bow vertical parallel lines inward slightly, while having a similar effect on horizontal vertical lines. In our testing, we found the camera corrected this almost completely, however, leaving just 0.1% pincushion distortion at the wide end, 0.07% barrel distortion at the midpoint, and 0.46% pincushion distortion at the telephoto end.

The ZR100 suffered from heavy blue-green fringing as well as lateral violet fringing visible in our resolution testing at the wide angle. When zooming in, there is no visible chromatic aberration at the midpoint (around 27mm, or 130mm in 35mm equivalent), with heavy blue fringing at the telephoto end. It's difficult to see most of this fringing, even at 100% magnification, however, so it's not a huge concern.

Noise

Noise was artificially very limited on the EX-ZR100, as Casio has elected to eliminating noise indelicately throughout the ISO range.

Despite benefiting from a back-illuminated sensor, the EX-ZR100 relies heavily on noise reduction to keep channel and luminance noise under 1% throughout the ISO range, all the way up to ISO 3200. Noise levels do not shift dramatically, though, suggesting the camera ramps up the feature's aggressiveness as it approaches higher sensitivities. As a result, noise remains fairly constant from ISO 100 up to 3200, though detail is sacrificed to a greater degree at each rung up the ISO ladder.

Despite shooting in disparate low light (60 lux) and bright light (3000 lux) settings, we found the Casio EX-ZR100 produced almost exactly the same amount of noise on average. At 60 lux, the camera averaged 0.81% noise, while in a bright setting of 3000 lux, that noise level only dropped to 0.78%. This difference is largely inconsequential, and it's definitely a result of heavy noise reduction processing by the camera regardless of the amount of light detected.

Other Tests

For a compact camera especially, video performance was incredible.

Shooting video on the ZR100 is a simple matter of pressing the dedicated record button on the back of the camera. The camera will then begin to take a video in whatever setting has been set beforehand in the main menu. The menu gives the option for the user to record in 1080/30p (FHD), standard definition, 240fps, 480fps, 1000fps, or 30-240fps modes. The 240 fps mode is the only high-speed mode that retains any sort of detail and quality, though obviously there is some loss from the full HD mode. The 30-240 mode is fun for the more creative set, as it will shoot normal 30 fps mode but allow you to switch to 240fps when something happens that you want a slow motion capture of.

The ZR100 had a color error of 4.83 when recording video, though a solid saturation level of 93.51%. We found the main issue with the color accuracy came with the camera's interpretation of blues, which were heavily under-saturated. The camera handled magenta and purple colors very well, however, and was able to keep yellows properly saturated where many cameras fail to.

The Casio ZR100 had surprisingly sharp video results, able to pull in sharpness of 700 LW/PH vertically and horizontally. This is well above what most other point-and-shoot cameras have been able to do in our tests and we were pleasantly surprised. Most cameras are in good company if they can achieve 600 LW/PH of sharpness in either direction. Unfortunately, this sharpness does not matter much with the high-speed modes, due to the need to pull in so many frames so quickly that most fine detail is lost in artifacting and compression. Still, for basic 1080/30p video, it's quite a solid result.

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