Unfortunately, picture quality has always been an issue with this type of camera. Even the best of the bunch thus far (last year, our favorite was the Olympus TOUGH 8000) took shots with a slightly grainy, flat quality to them―passable, but with plenty of room for improvement.
We're happy to report that Casio stepped up to the plate and gave us a hardy camera that takes good pictures too. The user interface could really use some work, but overall, this is our new favorite rugged camera. Here's why:
DesignWhen Casio first sent images of the G1 to the press, my first reaction was that it's one of the funniest-looking cameras I've ever seen. The designers obviously have to think about function over form with these rugged models, but the awkward shock-absorbing lumps on the top and left edges looked pretty, pretty goofy in the promo shots.
In person, it's actually a pretty slick package. It's surprisingly small – not ultra-compact, but at just 0.78 inches thick, it's the thinnest, most diminutive of these “tough guy” models so far. I really liked some of the more creative aspects of the design, notably the vault-like compartment with the microSD slot and mini-USB output, opened with a twist of a notched metal knob. Most importantly, it handled all the abuse I put it through with aplomb.
I repeatedly dropped it from shoulder height onto a hardwood floor in a crowded bar, and it auto-focused like nothing had happened. I dunked into my fish tank for a closeup on my goldfish, and the battery and memory card compartments stayed dry as burnt chicken. My boss climbed up a mountain with it, and I ran it over on skis chasing it down a mountain (that part, I didn't mean to do). Aside from a few tiny scratches in the glossy red paint on the front, the G1 escaped unscathed. I wouldn't drop it off a building (it's only shockproof to seven feet) or toss it into Boston Harbor (only waterproof to 10 feet), but it's plenty sturdy for regular outdoor use.
The life-proof design has a few disadvantages -- the battery compartment was a bitch to open without the wedge included in the packaging, and the buttons are a bit stiff. But those are minor gripes, and overall this is a well-built camera.
Picture QualityIt's wrong to compare a camera like the G1 to other $260 point-and-shoots. Something like the Panasonic ZR1, for example, can't survive a seven-foot fall or go for a swim. With that in mind, rugged models generally shoot mediocre pictures. You can't really blame the designers -- it's tough to put quality optics into a tight space at a consumer-friendly price.
But the G1 actually manages to take some really decent shots. The shots aren't exactly gallery-quality, but they are brighter, clearer, and more vibrant than anything I've seen from the G1's contemporaries. In bright, outdoor conditions (where I would guess that this sport-oriented camera will see most of its use), the images shine. Even in slightly dimmer conditions (cloudy skies, indoor lighting), it performs well.
No surprise, things get a bit hairy in poor lighting. Auto mode seemed to have a tough time adjusting for low light. The night scene settings were a little bit better, but I had the most success when I made manual adjustments. Images were noise-free up to ISO 400, acceptable at 800, and very grainy at 1600 and 3200. To put it in perspective, the shots at 3200 (automatically shrunken down to three megapixels) were no worse than an average cell-phone camera in good conditions -- not something for a stand-alone camera to brag about, but worth noting.
Basically, I wouldn't spend $270 on the G1 for the image quality alone, but it does perform admirably well compared to the tough guys currently on the market.
Performance and User Experience
The clunky user interface is the G1's weak spot, as it is with every Casio that I've tested. The button layout and menu system feel counter-intuitive at times. Only a few of the toggles are labeled, and sometimes poorly -- the zoom control, for instance, features a button with one tree to zoom in, and three smaller trees to zoom out. I appreciate the creative imagery, but a standard plus and minus would have sufficed (better yet, a real tilter). The directional pad is poorly labeled as well -- my first night out with the camera was a total guessing game. Once you find the menu, manual settings are pretty easy to change if you're familiar with point-and-shoot cameras. And as much as Casio hypes the Best Shot scene settings, the button is hidden on the top of the camera, a tiny “BS” marking next to the power switch. At least video mode has a dedicated record button.
The G1 also suffers from “Vivid Landscape” and “Makeup Mode” overload. Casio's signature color saturation effects aren't as cool or important as they'd like us to think. Sometimes they're even outright frustrating, like when they're automatically included in basic scene settings. Portrait mode automatically applies Makeup Mode, leaving a ghoulish, pasty texture on everyone's face. I know that Casio is proud of them (and Vivid Landscape can be cool -- I took some striking shots with it during peak foliage last fall when I reviewed the H10), but we don't always want tacky art filters applied to our photos, OK?
Other shot settings are cool in concept, but don't always work out so well in execution. Interval shooting (basically multiple exposures on one shot) is a nice touch, but a tripod is pretty much a must-have. The dynamic photo setting is likewise a bitchin' concept: shoot a scene with an object and without and object, and the result is -- voila! -- the object without the background. I never got it quite right though -- fragments of the background always ended up in the final photo.
I would've gladly traded both of those settings for some sort of continuous shooting mode. This camera is meant for active people, after all, and it seems to me that any sports camera worth it's salt should have some kind of burst shooting.
So yes, there's room for improvement with the intricate, specialized features. But as far as simply pointing and shooting in auto mode, the G1's performance is pretty solid. Auto-focus is fast and almost all well-lit shots come out crisp. The macro (close-up) performance could be better and a larger zoom lens would be nice too. But basically when the G1 is within its comfort zone, it's a solid performer.
All things considered, I'd buy the Casio G1 over any other tough guy camera. The photo quality outpaces rugged competitors like the TOUGH 8000 and the design is much tougher than semi-durable models like the Canon D10. Several manufacturers already announced new tough guys for the coming year, so we'll see how long the G1 can hold this distinction, but I'm satisfied for now.
We'd like to see some improvements to the user interface, some tasteful discretion applied to to the scene presets, and definitely burst shooting in Casio's next rugged model. And if you're not in real danger of breaking a camera, this is totally unecessary. If you are actually an active, outdoorsy person the G1 is a solid buy -- in many senses of the word.