Casio EX-ZR100 Review
The Casio EX-ZR100 is a new travel-zoom compact camera, sporting a 12.5x zoom lens with a focal length of 24-300mm. The 12.1-megapixel ZR100 has a back-illuminated CMOS sensor, can shoot Full 1080i HD movies and up to 1000fps slow-motion footage, features Casio's HDR-ART technology and Slide Panoramas, and offers an impressive burst mode of 40fps at 10 megapixels. The Casio EX-ZR100 is available in black and retails for $299.99.
Ease of Use
Looking for an approachable pocket snapper with a bigger than average zoom? A close cousin of the EX-ZR10 we reviewed earlier in the year, thanks to its blocky sober black exterior, the Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 betters its forebear's 7x optical zoom with a more versatile 12.5x variety. So delivering a broader focal range and in theory more framing opportunities without having to actually shuffle your feet forward or back.
Equipped with Casio's Exilim Engine HS processor, the EX-ZR100 welds its usefully wide-angle 24-300mmm equivalent reach in 35mm film terms to a respectable 12.1 effective megapixel resolution (same as the ZR-10), delivered from a 1/2.3-inch back illuminated CMOS sensor. For low light shooters we also get a modest light sensitivity range stretching from ISO100 to ISO3200. And for those that feel the 'basic' optical zoom isn't enough, the EX-ZR100's focal range can be boosted up to an equivalent 25x reach, or 600mm if so desired, whereby the camera forms one composite image from several taken, a process grandly christened (deep breath) Premium Zoom Multi Frame SR Zoom technology.
If you want to investigate more about this latter feature in a hurry, you're out of luck. A common gripe of ours is that Casio is up to its usual tricks here with the EX-ZR100's quick reference manual, printing instructions in three languages on each page that slows down the ability to disseminate the information provided.
While the Exilim misses out on an integral GPS facility as found on the likes of Panasonic's DMC-TZ20, that might otherwise see it gunning for glory in the travel zoom stakes, the EX-ZR100 is still worthy of consideration as a jack of all trades device if you are heading out on a holiday. To test its mettle as all the point-and-shoot you might conceivably need (if pointing and shooting is what you're happiest doing), we recently took it on a tour of Japan. Leader of the 'ZR' pack, with an original suggested price of £299.99 the EX-ZR100 can now be picked up for a reasonable £179 if heading to the UK's largest online e-tailer.
For this outlay we get a solid feel body that, whilst not the smallest or slenderest in contention, feels rugged enough to withstand bouncing around in a backpack. It's roughly the size of a smartphone, though thicker partly because of that retractable zoom, with official dimensions of 104.8x59.1x28.6mm. Weight is a sturdy yet transportable 205g with rechargeable battery and SD card media inserted into its base, or it weighs just 165g without either. We managed to fit the EX-ZR100 in a trouser pocket (as well as carrying it in the aforementioned backpack), though a jacket pocket would be more comfortable still.
That bigger than average zoom (for a snapshot) is supported by sensor shift image stabilization to help deliver sharper results when shooting handheld at maximum telephoto setting; though in practice we found it took a couple of attempts (if not more) to achieve critical focus in such circumstances, in single shot mode at least. Faced with the blurring effects of camera shake, one alternative was to switch to high speed continuous shooting.
With pictures and video composed via 3-inch, 4:3 aspect ratio LCD screen with an impressively clear 460k dot resolution, to set it apart from the pack the EX-ZR100 comes with 360° panoramic and HDR Art modes - the latter of which automatically delivers images that look like a cross between your typically otherworldly High Dynamic Range shots and results from an Etch-a-Sketch. Like most digital filters it's something to be deployed in moderation in drab conditions where you probably wouldn't otherwise even attempt a photo, with just how much processing the image undergoes controllable to a point via an on-screen level slider brought up with a press of the rear 'set' button. Incrementally strong, standard or light settings are offered. See our shots of the Sapporo Tower taken on an otherwise grey and flat afternoon with failing light to see the kind of image achievable.
With all of the above in mind, Casio is making a claim with the EX-ZR100 that here is a camera that 'goes beyond the limits' of past models; in truth a claim every upgrade could make. So let's examine then the ergonomics of the camera plus how the EX-ZR100 handles and performs.
At first glance this Exilim has a fairly clean looking user interface, and the front of the camera is the usual approachable rectangle. Here we find, located at the left hand side of the fascia, a leather-effect rubber strip by way of a handgrip, which does provide a limited degree of purchase in the absence of any thumb pad at the back. Instead, top right of the back plate we get a video record button in its place.
Back to the front, and set slightly in from this rubber strip, intentionally or not preventing fingertips straying in front, is a thin sliver of a window housing the integral flash. The EX-ZR100's zoom lens of course dominates proceedings at the front even in its dormant retracted state, but, more unusually, we don't find a separate bulb acting as an AF illuminator/self timer lamp; instead this is squeezed in next to the flash bulb.
More of a surprise, given that this is your regulation issue snapper, yet eminently welcome, is the fact that the EX-ZR100 features stereo microphones sunk into its top plate. Again these are set apart from the main controls of the shooting mode wheel and the forward mounted shutter release button, which is in turn ergonomically encircled by a lever by operating the zoom. The result is that we didn't pick up the typical scratchy sounds of our fingers moving about the controls when shooting video that integral microphones can often give rise to. Here videos are the Full HD 1920x1080 pixels in MOV format (as opposed to AVCHD), with the option to take a still in the midst of a video stream thanks to the EX-ZR100's dual processing circuits, but with the caveat that image resolution is slightly reduced to 10 megapixels.
The other two controls on the camera's top plate are both recessed to avoid accidental activation, being the on/off button and dedicated High Speed continuous shooting button, a feature which isn't available in every mode, notably not in the automatically image enhancing Premium Auto mode. Casio Exilims have made swiftness of capture their USP of late and the EX-ZR100 is no exception, offering a maximum speed of 40 shots per second, at a maximum 10 megapixels, which is more than enough for any casual snapshot user. For would-be action shooters this facility is extended via a pre-record continuous shutter facility that starts recording when the shutter is half pressed rather than after it is fully pressed, as is usual.
Zippy capture extends to video shooting naturally, with the option to create slow motion footage via capturing frames at a frankly ridiculous 1000fps, 480 fps, 240fps, or 30-240fps. It goes without saying that a high speed, high capacity media card is going to come in handy and the EX-ZR100 features a slot at the base for SD, SDHC or SDXC cards.
The ZR100 is no quicker than your average snapper when it comes to starting up from cold however, with the usual 2-3 second wait required before the user can begin to compose a shot, lens barrel extending to maximum wide angle and the rear LCD fading up fully from black a moment later. Press the Casio's shutter release button down halfway and, with the camera deploying contrast detection auto focus, the response time here is more successful, being as instant as we cold hope for. A central AF point illuminates in green, with a bleep of confirmation to signify focus and exposure have been determined.
One commendable feature of the Casio is that the instant you go to press down fully on the shutter release button the picture is taken - and there's no two or three second wait while the screen freezes and the shot is written to card either: there's the merest of blinks and the screen immediately refreshes for the next shot. Image review is intentionally deactivated at this stage, though it can be reactivated via the camera menus if you so wish. If only all point and shoots could provide this option and be this swift in their response times.
Select the likes of the HDR Art Filter however, and yes, fair enough there is a few seconds' wait while the camera does its stuff, a text message to the effect of 'Busy… please wait' appearing on screen. But, as we say this isn't unexpected and you're going to be more concerned with the look of the shot rather than how quick the image is processed if choosing such a setting anyway.
The smaller than a dime sized shooting mode dial on the Casio EX-ZR100 is crammed with ten options. This being the manufacturer it is, we get the familiar 'BS' (BestShot) scene mode option among them. As equally expected this provides a comprehensive selection of 33 options in total, including high-speed capture options specifically for photographing pets, children and sport. This is also where we find the Multi SR Zoom option mentioned at the outset.
Moving clockwise around the shooting dial from this, we come to a panoramic option. A half press of the shutter release button in this mode and an on-screen arrow prompts the photographer to pan the camera from left to right. While you do so, the panoramic shot 'builds' in miniature as part of a strip at the bottom of the screen, so you can usefully see what you're getting before the composite shot is complete.
The next mode along on the dial is the 'Best Selection' mode, which again shoots a rapid-fire burst of images in Normal quality mode only (as opposed to the top 'Fine' setting) so that you'll at least end up with one decently focused and exposed shot from a sequence. If you move the camera around too much though you'll still end up with a blurred result.
The next shooting mode option round the dial is a manual exposure mode that adds control over aperture and shutter speed via the function toolbar displayed at the right hand side of the screen when the adjacent set button is pressed. This button nestles in the midst of a familiar four way control pad, so navigating settings on the Casio is fairly intuitive for anyone who has used a point and shoot before. The next two settings on the dial, continuing clockwise, are actually for aperture priority and shutter priority themselves, so though the EX-ZR100 is very much a snapshot camera, at least there is a certain degree of manual control provided.
The HDR Art mode comes next with the ability to control the intensity of the effect applied via a level slider as previously discussed, which is followed on the dial by a plain 'HDR' option, the latter delivering a distinctly more realistic looking image without any of the hyper-real overtones, so is a good fall back if the premium auto or auto modes don't deliver the exposure you were after. It must be noted that by selecting either of these HDR options however the maximum capture resolution automatically drops to 10 megapixels. The camera signals this in the top right hand corner of the screen, though it's easy to overlook/miss.
Next up on the shooting mode dial is standard auto setting, which is also the 'intelligent' or smart auto option as it will, for example, switch to macro mode if you point the lens at a close object. This is the mode in which the photographer gets to disengage their brain and just point and shoot. Casio goes one better than this by including its Premium Auto mode alongside, which not only picks up on common scenes and subjects but also purports to optimize the results in camera to save post processing later. In truth we found minimal if any difference between this mode and regular auto.
Turning our attention to the Exilim's back plate now and we find the dedicated video record button situated top right. One press of this and recording nigh instantly commences, no matter which other stills shooting mode has been selected on the dial above. As a result there isn't actually a video setting on the dial itself. Thankfully the full extent of the optical zoom is accessible in this mode; it doesn't just freeze with the framing as you had it before filming started. The zoom's response is noticeably slower and its action steadier than when it is accessed in stills mode however, doubtless to try and temper the low mechanical noise that accompanies its movements as well as avoid lurching transitions in the footage itself.
Of course the largest feature of the Exilim's back plate is the 4:3 aspect ratio LCD screen, here swallowing up three quarters of the available real estate, what few rear plate controls there are shifted necessarily over to the right hand edge where they automatically fall under the thumb as the camera is gripped in the right hand.
As well as the aforementioned video record button, here we get dedicated image capture and playback buttons, rather than having to flick a slider switch between one and the other. That said, a half press of the shutter release button when in playback mode will still throw you back into capture mode without having to press the red camera icon, which cuts down on the review-to-capture time.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
The other controls are the four-way control pad we flagged up earlier with self-explanatory central 'set' button, that also calls up a toolbar of limited function selections on the right hand side of the screen when pressed in capture mode, while a press of the top edge of the surrounding disc acts as a way of altering the display settings. Press this with the thumb and a live histogram appears on screen with real-time brightness levels, with subsequent presses turning off most of the info icons to provide a distraction-free view of your subject. At six o'clock on the dial is a means of adjusting the camera's flash settings - on, off, red eye reduction, auto - or deleting duff images on the fly, indicated by the familiar trashcan icon. Throughout all of this the screen remains perfectly bright clear and usable, particularly with exteriors but also coping with bright exteriors.
The last button on the EX-ZR100's back plate, tucked into the bottom right hand corner is for the self-explanatory menu. Press this and the user is presented with three folders: record, quality and set up, which again are self explanatory. In record mode the photographer can activate the likes of the AF assist lamp, and enable or disable the digital zoom, as well as activate a compositional grid if so desired. The quality folder is, obviously, where the stills and video resolution is controlled from, with just two settings for those two options keeping things simple. The stills option allows the switching between Fine and Normal JPEG compression levels. The video quality settings are much more expanded however. Here there's the choice of the Full HD (or 'FHD' as the menu puts it) 1920x1080 pixels at 30fps, or alternatively a standard definition 640x480 pixels at the same frame rate. The high speed video capture options mentioned earlier are also located here, ranging from that choice of 1000fps down to the ability to toggle between 30fps and the slow motion 240fps at will, which is a neat feature for sports enthusiasts.
The third menu, for set up, is where screen brightness and sound levels can be adjusted, along with date and time stamps, auto power off given a time limit, plus or course the memory card in use formatted. As this choice and 'reset' are the last options presented at the bottom of three subsequent screen's worth, there's little chance of newcomers activating format accidentally and wiping their shots.
Alternatively, in playback mode a press of 'menu' and the user is presented with the usual slideshow and image trimming options, plus, via the 'dynamic photo' option, the ability to add little animated drop-ins to your stills, like fluttering doves bursting out of a cone. All a bit unusual, with functionality the same as it was with the EX-ZR10.
While the left hand flank of the Casio, as viewed from the rear, is devoid of any features apart from a pair of attachment screws, the right hand side is where we find a lug for attaching the provided wrist strap and just below this, a plastic flap covering separate USB/AV and HDMI output ports. Again, good to have the latter for hooking up directly to an HDTV, even if the necessary cable is as usual extra; we do get separate USB and standard AV connection leads however.
The base of the EX-ZR100 features a centrally located screw thread for the attachment of a tripod, and to one side of this a door with sliding catch covering the joint memory card and battery compartment. Incidentally here the life of the NP-130 rechargeable lithium ion battery isn't officially given by Casio in its documentation, but we managed around 300 shots and a handful of video clips before power started to flag, which is a fairly average performance - meaning that it's one with which we don't feel the need to take issue.
So while operation of the Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 is pretty straightforward with a few enticing extras thrown into the mix, such as HDR Art filter and high speed video capture (leading to slow motion footage) that you might not actually use all that often unless buying the camera for this specific purpose, how does the Casio fare when it comes to image quality, the chief deciding factor? Is this a camera that can - hopefully - be used as a point and shoot pure and simple and deliver pictures that require little if any software editing after the fact, or is this 'Exilim' slim on detail where it matters? Read on to discover more…