Casio cameras always feel like dark-horse contenders in the compact zoom category. Maybe it's because Casio only makes compact cameras, but all the enthusiast chatter and punditry revolves around the more familiar brand names. This is despite near-universal praise for last year's FH100 model, which we gave a hearty 'A.' It was one of the first compact cameras to use a CMOS sensor, which made it one of the speediest shooters on the market and helped set the stage for the current boom of CMOS-backed compact zooms.
The ZR100, reviewed here, is a modest update on last year's model, adding a bit more zoom range and a few extra features. The market is different this time around, though. Speed is the norm, tacked-on features are expected, and low-light image quality keeps getting better. The ZR100's specs are competitive rather than impressive, and it runs into some performance issues that keep it from sitting at the front of the class of 2011.
Body & Design
The ZR100 is about the size of a smartphone, but an inch thick -- pretty typical of a compact zoom camera, and strikingly similar to last year’s Nikon S8100. It’s small enough to fit in a pants pocket, but it’ll be far more comfortable in a jacket pocket or purse. Our test unit came in a matte gray (Casio calls it black, but it’s like a black t-shirt after a few dozen spin cycles) and it’s also available in white.
A 3-inch LCD takes up most of the rear panel. At about 460,000 pixels, the resolution falls right in the middle of its class. Live view looks smooth and accurate, though it will wash out easily in direct sunlight, which is no surprise. A few buttons make up the rest of the rear panel, including dedicated keys for shooting mode, playback mode, video mode, and the menu, as well as a selector pad (not a wheel) for navigation.
The mode dial sits on the top-right, angled gently toward the user. It has dedicated slots for a few Auto modes, some special features, and manual exposure modes. The shutter and zoom tilter sit to the left, toward the front of the camera. Both are comfortable to operate. The power toggle is slightly recessed. Farther to the left, a dedicated burst-mode key sits in between the stereo mic apertures.
A versatile 24-300mm (12.5x) lens sits up front, complemented with an in-body flash and LED lamp. (It boasts a 25x software-assisted maximum zoom range, though the quality degraded at the far end of that range.) There’s also a small right-hand grip that makes the ZR100 marginally easier to hold onto. A plastic flap on the right side covers the mini-HDMI and USB ports, while a sturdier door on the bottom protects the battery and memory card slots.
The battery charges out-of-camera, though the charger hooks up to outlets with a long cord. This makes it easy for folks with over-subscribed power strips to juice up, but compared with all-in-one wall chargers or even in-camera charging, Casio’s system has more pieces to lose. It isn’t a big deal, just an annoyance, and since the battery itself holds a heck of a charge, it won't need to be plugged in all that often.
Performance & User Experience
The current crop of compact zooms are all pretty quick, thanks to the rise of backside-illuminated CMOS sensors. But the ZR100 is even a touch faster and more responsive than its competitors. Startup is pretty average -- just over a second -- but autofocus and especially shot-to-shot times are very quick in good shooting conditions. Burst mode is impressive, with a full-resolution top speed of 10 frames per second for up to 3 seconds. It tops out at 40 fps, though the resolution drops to 10 megapixels and it switches to an "electronic shutter," making it more akin to a movie than a series of still images. Also, the buffer takes several seconds to clear after a prolonged burst session, so it’s rendered useless for about a ten-count. Autofocus also slows down substantially in the latter-half of the zoom range. Still, the ZR100 is one of the speediest compact cameras we’ve seen this year, and that’s saying something.
Like a compact zoom should, the ZR100 offers a nice spread of automatic, manual, and extra-feature shooting modes to suit any kind of user. Standard Auto will do all the heavy lifting, but it’s more like a Program mode, since users can adjust settings like ISO sensitivity, exposure compensation, white balance, continuous drive, and the like. Premium Auto is a complete hands-off shooting mode. It smooths textures and alters hues into what it believes to be an eye-pleasing final product. For casual users, that might do the trick, but more discerning photographers will find issue with its liberal image processing. There’s also Best Shot mode, Casio’s usual batch of scene presets. Several modes use the ZR100’s burst or high-speed movie capabilities, while most others are standard settings like Portrait, Scenery, Night Scene, and so forth.
Most of the extra modes are worthwhile, too. Sweep panorama takes 360 degree shots, but lets the user stop mid-sweep if he or she wants a smaller field of view. It also supports both portrait and landscape orientations, as well as any sweeping direction. This is about as well-implemented a sweep panorama mode as we’ve seen, though the shots can still suffer from distorted perspectives and half-ghosted subjects. Best Shot Selector takes a burst of images, and keeps the “best” one. HDR mode, common in the compact zoom class this year, takes a few shots at different exposures and combines them into one evenly lit, almost hyper-real image. Casio also threw in an HDR Art mode, which appears to super-saturate HDR shots for an even more striking look.
Since it’s quick, easy to point and shoot, but still controllable, the ZR100 offers a mostly positive user experience, for sure. The feature set is pretty basic compared to its competitors, but extras like touchscreens and GPS units are overrated and expensive. While they do work well in some cameras, we don’t miss them here. The ZR100 doesn’t shoot RAW images either, but very few compact zooms do.
We’d like to see more direct-access keys for common changes -- two of the slots on the four-way pad are empty, where they could’ve been used for, say, toggling the focus mode, timer, or ISO sensitivity -- especially because the menu system is clunky. This will frustrate experienced hands-on shooters, though casual photographers probably won’t notice. It’s great that there are so many user-adjustable settings on the ZR100, but the interface could’ve been better-executed.
As is usually the case with Casio’s higher-end cameras, the ZR100 ships with a monster battery, capable of at least 450 shots per charge. We took about 350 shots in our test period, and the ZR100 still had two bars left on the battery indicator. It is by far the best battery in the compact zoom class.
Image & Video Quality
The ZR100 is capable of taking some great pictures. The sensor and processor seem to work well together, and the lens isn't bad, either. Despite that winning combo, the sub-par image stabilization leads to some trouble and limits the ZR100's effectiveness as a long-zoomer.
In outdoor conditions with plenty of light, the ZR100 performs very well, like any camera should. Shots are bright and clear. Colors lean to the neutral side of the spectrum in Auto and manual exposure modes, though Premium Auto mode usually dials up the vibrancy and saturation.
Our favorite characteristic is the amount of detail that the ZR100 retains in the lower half of the ISO range. The current generation of compact zooms tends to have soft picture quality, even at the base ISO setting. Many pundits, including yours truly, chalk that up partially to the BSI CMOS sensors that are so popular now, and partially to overzealous processing. The ZR100 on the other hand, which is also built around a BSI CMOS sensor, turns out some crisp shots at the base ISO, and they stay pretty sharp up through ISO 400. That’s great news for pixel sticklers and folks who like to make large prints.
At higher settings -- ISO 800 and above -- the ZR100 shows more splotchy noise than many of its competitors, but even shots at ISO 1600 are decent, which is a definite improvement over the compact zooms of years past. Details blur together, and white specks pop up in the darker areas, but there’s only a little bit of color desaturation, and at smaller viewing sizes, it’s pretty tough to spot any overwhelming problems.
Except, of course, for the high ratio of blurry shots. The image stabilization on the ZR100 is underpowered. It makes low-light shots tough, and even in bright conditions, limits the effective zoom range. Beyond 5x or 6x zoom, there's usually at least a little bit of blur due to hand-shake (though 300mm telephoto setting, inaccurate autofocus might be more to blame). A tripod or some other kind of steadying device will help dramatically, though most of the ZR100's chief competitors don't need a helping hand, and they all have longer optical zoom ranges to begin with.
Some other minor IQ issues pop up here and there. Barrel distortion is plainly obvious at the wide-angle setting (24mm). Subjects at the edges of the frame look like reflections from a carnival fun-house mirror. That’s a typical problem with wide-angle lenses like this, though it's more pronounced here than in most of the other 24mm shooters we’ve seen lately. And like most compact cameras, the ZR100 has a bit of trouble handling a broad dynamic range in a frame.
Video mode is great, shooting at full 1080p resolution. The picture is crisp and clear in bright light, and stays decent in low light. Optical zoom is supported during shooting, and it records stereo audio. Some typical problems pop up. The microphone picks up the motor noise while zooming, and the it's a bit slow to re-focus after zooming, too. Panning quickly causes blur. Wind noise gets picked up. But overall, compared to the haphazard video modes on some competitors, this is one of the better ones we've seen this year.
Casio got a lot of things right with the ZR100. It's a super-speedy camera that can be very easy and fun to use, but also offers plenty of hands-on control. Though the feature set is light compared to some of its chief compact-zoom competitors, we didn't really miss those extras (though we'd like to see that reflected in the price). The image quality can be very good, too.
But the operative word is "can." The weak image stabilization makes it tougher to get clear shots in low-light settings and at the far end of the telephoto range. Wider-angle shots are fine, and zoomed shots will work great when the ZR100 is mounted on a tripod or stabilized somehow. But the best all-in-one, carry-anywhere cameras work well on their own in a variety of conditions and throughout the zoom range.
There will be folks who love the ZR100. Hobbyist photographers will appreciate the manual control and the amount of detail the shots retain, and they probably won't mind working with a tripod. Good for them. But it's hard to recommend as a first-tier compact zoom when there are plenty of cameras that are either better-rounded (like the Canon SX230) or that have a true stand-out characteristic (like the Nikon S9100 or Fujifilm F550EXR). It is at the top edge of the second tier, though, so if you see something that you really like in the ZR100, go for it.