- Review Date: 06/28/11
- Bottom line:
The Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 is a speed demon that shoots excellent photos and video, but its high price tag, and quirks with zooming and autofocus, hold it back somewhat.
Incredibly fast shooting and performance. Good low-light performance. Gorgeous LCD. Lots of artsy features.
Expensive. Autofocus was occasionally slow. Photos were often blurry at high zoom levels. Ugly interface.
If you've ever tried to photograph a sporting event, a concert, or anywhere else people aren't standing perfectly still for hours at a time, you've seen how frustratingly slow digital cameras can be—a few seconds to start up, a few seconds between shots, and a half-second or more of shutter lag add up to a lot of missed moments. If you feel the need for speed, then the 12.1-megapixel Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 ($299.99 direct) is for you. It's lightning-fast and takes great photos and video, but its quirks, including a less-than-stellar user interface, keep this camera from the top of its $300 class.
The Exilim EX-ZR100 is one of the classier, sleeker cameras I've tested. It has a smooth, metallic feel to it, and the dark-gray color (the only color available) makes it even sleeker. The 2.3-by-4.1-by-1.1-inch body has rounded corners, a slightly raised look around the lens, and a small bump on the right side that acts as a grip. At 7.2 ounces it's not particularly light, but it's still pocket-friendly. The front of the camera, with too many logos and numbers (there's a Casio logo, a 12.5x symbol, and an HS logo), is annoyingly busy, but I'll overlook that in favor of the otherwise well-designed form.
On the front of the camera, other than the plethora of signage, is the wide-angle, 12.5x optical zoom lens. The lens extends from 24mm all the way to 300mm, which means whether you want a wide landscape shot or an extreme close-up, you'll get your shot. The ZR100's ability to go so wide and so tight is rare: Casio's Exilim EX-H20G ($349.99, 3.5 stars) starts at the same 24mm, but can only extend to 240mm. The Canon PowerShot SX210 IS ($349.99, 3.5 stars), on the other hand, starts at 28mm but extends all the way to 392mm.
The controls on the ZR100 aren't radically different from any other camera, with a few exceptions. There are dedicated buttons for switching between video and still recording mode, and a button solely for switching between single-shot and High Speed CS mode (more on that below). The LCD on the back of the camera is very sharp, a 3-inch screen packed with 460,000 dots (twice as sharp as most pocket cameras, which fill their screens with 230K dots), but about average for a $300 shooter.
The screen makes the otherwise drab interface a little more appealing, but not by much. The ZR100's menus are mostly gray text on gray backgrounds, and don't exactly pop. It's easy to navigate, though. If you press the center button on the camera's directional pad, it pops up a menu with the most-used options, which is a nice touch.
Turning the Exilim EX-ZR100 and shooting a picture takes 2.6 seconds: a fine score, but nothing spectacular. What is spectacular is the camera's recycle time, the time between shots. By default, Review mode (which briefly shows you the image you just shot before reverting to the viewfinder) is disabled by default, and with that off you can fire a shot every 0.7 seconds, crazy fast for a compact camera. With Review mode on (like most digital cameras), it still flies, needing only 1.6 seconds between shots. Add that to the camera's 0.3 seconds of shutter lag, and the ZR100 is absolutely screaming fast for its size and price.
In the PCMag Labs, we use the Imatest suite to objectively measure image quality, and we care especially about two tests: lines per picture height, a measure of an image's sharpness; and the percentage of noise in an image. The Casio Exilim EX-ZR100 scored well in the sharpness department, with a center-weighted average of 1,881 lines per picture height. Any score over 1,800 is very sharp, and the EX-ZR100's 1,881 is in line with or slightly better than other $300-range cameras, like the Editors' Choice Nikon Coolpix S9100 ($329.95, 4 stars), which scored 1,767.
A few technological tweaks by Casio make the ZR100 an excellent low-light camera, which hasn't always been true of Casio cameras. The sensor is backside-illuminated, which means the sensor is re-wired to bring photodiodes closer to the lens, which means more light can be absorbed more quickly. All that leads to a stellar low-light performance: The ZR100 can shoot photos up to ISO 1600 before Imatest measures 1.5 percent noise in an image, the threshold at which photos can become visibly noisy. That means, when you're at a party or shooting at night, the ZR100 is a good friend to have. The S9100 can go even further, though, all the way up to ISO 3200.
There were a couple of odd things that I encountered while shooting with the ZR100. First, and most annoying, the camera's image stabilization when zoomed in is terrible—anything beyond about 5x zoom created near-universally blurry photos. Second, the autofocus was often slow, taking a second to find a subject, the lens bouncing in and out as it tried to focus. Neither is a deal-breaker (though the image stabilization problem is close), but both are frustrating to encounter on a $300 camera.
Video recording options abound, from the high-speed to the high-quality. You can shoot in 1080p HD at 30 frames per second, and videos are recorded as .MOV files which can be uploaded directly to Facebook or YouTube. If you're feeling adventurous, though, you can shoot at 240, 480, or even 1,000 frames per second, though resolution gets ridiculously low, fast. The 1,000fps effect is cool, but there's not much practical use for any 224-by-64 video. HD video looked good, with crisp and clear colors.
Another of the best features on the ZR100 is its HDR (High Dynamic Range) technology. The camera takes three pictures simultaneously: one over-exposed, one under-exposed, and one normally exposed. Those three images are combined into one image, which typically has exceptional dynamic range and impressive colors that can show details in both shadows and highlights. If realistic isn't what you're after, though, try the HDR-Art feature, which takes HDR to an extreme to create a photo that looks more like an original piece of art. The HDR-Art feature is incredibly fun to shoot with, especially shooting still or slow-moving subjects.
The camera records to SDXC, SDHC, and SD cards. There's 52.2MB of built-in memory, enough for a couple of pictures if you forget your card, but you'll want a big card if you're doing serious shooting—and you'll want a Class 6 card or higher for the higher-speed work. There's a proprietary USB port for connecting the camera to your computer, and a mini-HDMI port for connecting it to your HDTV to play back photos and videos.
There's really not a lot wrong with the Casio Exilim EX-ZR100, but its subpar interface and the occasional quirk when zooming and focusing hold it back from topping our list of compact cameras—as does its $300 price tag. If you're looking for plenty of speed, and solid images even in low light, it'll serve you nicely. If the zoom and autofocus issues turn you off, my recommendation would be to either spend an extra $30 and get the Editors' Choice Nikon S9100, which offers a better user experience and huge zoom to go along with it, or spend the same $300 and get the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS ($299, 4 stars), which offers better still image capture (but not-as-good video), and packs a GPS for geotagging your photos.