Nothing really catches an onlooker's attention at first glance of the ZR100, but its compact size, surplus of quick reference buttons, and organizational layout make it a dexterous little device. Available in only black, the frame slightly resembles the film cameras of yesterday, with sophisticated and elegant lines. The face forms an ergonomic protrusion that provides a natural rest for your fingers and a solid grip for easy one-handed shooting with your right hand. In fact, most of the control operations can be performed with one hand. Casio also included a nice grip texture to the front of the handgrip, offering a bit better hold on the camera. The control layout in the back is well spaced and straightforward. A 4-way directional pad, by default, controls the display information for the Heads Up Display (HUD) and the flash toggle/delete. A feature that is a pleasant surprise apart from a typical point-and-shoot camera is that the left/right buttons of the directional pad can be conveniently customized to adjust focus, metering, self-timer, face detection, ISO, white balance, or exposure. Below the directional pad are the playback and menu buttons, above it is a useful movie record control, and also a useless 'Camera' button. While all these controls are nicely laid out, this 'Camera' button seems to be a waste of space. Unlike other cameras, exiting the playback mode is not achieved by pressing the playback button again. Instead, this is the main purpose of the 'Camera' button (it can also power on the camera, but that is what the power button is for). Even though the ZR100 offers plenty of quick reference buttons with its customizable directional pad, this 'Camera' button could have been utilized with a more practical operation; especially when you consider that tapping the shutter release will take you back to record mode. The mode dial sits adequately on the frame's top, situated at a slight angle right where your thumb can effectively rotate it without any hassle. Just to the left is the shutter release, surrounded by the 12.5x optical zoom dial, and even further left is the power button. The power switch does not jut out from the frame, yet is still undemanding in its manipulation, and can be located just on feel. The ZR100 also provides an HS (High Speed) button leftmost at the frame's top, which will allow you to quickly go into Casio's burst shooting. On either side of the HS button are left and right stereo microphones for more accurate sound input. The HDMI and USB/AV outputs are located on the frame's right side under a protective cover. Lastly, the battery and memory card alcove lies at the bottom next to a nice, sturdy tripod mount. We were partial to the location of the USB/AV output, as it allowed us to output data from the camera while still having it mounted on a tripod.
You will find that with the ZR100, you will have a slight boost in zooming abilities. It was a pleasure using the dial style zoom control, as it allowed us to precisely frame our subjects. On top of the impressive 12.5x optical zoom, Casio includes its Super Resolution (SR) feature, which allows a further digital zoom up to 18.8x. SR technology enlarges the image without the use of the optical lens, and then analyzes edges, flat areas, subject reliefs, etc. to digitally enhance the picture. SR enhancement produced quality images that were hard to distinguish from those captured with strictly optical zoom. The SR feature can be turned on or off via the menu. If it's on, you can clearly see in the HUD where the optical zoom ends (denoted by a green triangle), and where the SR zoom ends (denoted by a red line). Beyond that red line where the SR zoom ends, the ZR100 still allows for much further zooming (up to 25x) through its normal digital zoom option, although image quality drastically drops off. The optical zoom has a focal length of 24-300mm (in a 35mm equivalence), which is also displayed in numerical value in the HUD. The macro focus (which can be manually set) is available in standard macro and super macro. While standard macro focus allows you to get close to your subject using zoom, and capture quality images at the same time, super macro did not; it locks the zoom at 42mm (very common). However, super macro yielded more detailed images than those taken in standard mode. It should be noted that even in relativley sufficient light, you must be patient for the slow focus time when shooting macros, or distant objects when using the telephoto end of the zoom. Unfortunately, this often resulting in blurry images, as the camera will still snap a frame even if focus failed; something that can be very aggravating to the unaware photographer.
One of the more striking characteristics of the ZR100 is its 3.0-inch LCD. Perhaps it was because of its 460,800 dot display that caught my attention, but the pictures I was taking were looking great through this LCD. The monitor is viewable up to approx. 80°, and easily seen in the bright sunlight. There is a protective cover to guard the actual LCD screen, and that too did not scratch, despite being tossed in a pouch that also contained keys and a knife. Greasy fingerprints did collect on the cover, but were not too visible unless you were looking for them. One critique is that the HUD is very busy, there is too much unneeded data being displayed, especially in scene (Best Shot) and Manual modes. Granted, all this data can be turned off by way of the Display button on the 4-way dial, yet still it's either the choice of no HUD, or a busy one. Otherwise, the LCD is a plus for this camera.
If you are a new to photography and still learning about settings such as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, no need to worry- the ZR100 includes Casio's Premium Auto mode. With this mode, accessed via mode dial, the camera will observe the type of picture you are taking, and then intelligently decide an optimal scene to put the camera in, with no manual adjustments required from you. With only image size and exposure value adjustments, Premium Auto does not allow very much custom shot settings, but will do well for quickly capturing quality images for the novice and the experienced alike.
Manual mode permits customizable exposure settings, yet should be reserved for experienced users. While the ZR100 encompasses automatic exposure modes like the previously mentioned Premium Auto or the Auto (Program AE) mode, Manual mode allows for aperture and shutter speed fine-tuning. This in turn, is easy to adjust by pressing the 'Select' button in the live feed, bringing up a sidebar of exposure settings, and using the directional pad for tweaking. Although the aperture and shutter speed modifications are available, what is not is an exposure indicator like in other digicams. The exposure indicator can be used to help gain a correct exposure while changing the aperture and shutter speed. Even though lacking this indicator, the ZR100 does provide a warning if the shot is underexposed or overexposed when the shutter is half-pressed. Therefore, if you are not experienced in making these precise adjustments, and/or are in need to take a quick shot without time to half-press the shutter, the camera's automatic modes would be a better choice.
At some point you are going to encounter a scene that requires a bit more exclusivity than permitted by an automatic mode, and it is then that the ZR100's scene (Best Shot) modes would be a suitable choice. With over 30 unique preprogrammed scene selections, from a high speed night shot to natural green, the Best Shot feature will surely help you acquire irreplaceable shots. Additionally, the thumbnails used in the Best Shot menu (accessed by pressing 'Select' in live feed) are extremely beneficial in quickly deciding which scene will work for you. I was able to accurately and quickly seize the colors of a sunset using the sunset scene available in Best Shot. This feature on the ZR100 performs exceptionally well in assisting you in your "perfect-shot" ambitions.
Specific shooting modes are also included in the ZR100 which are conveniently located on the mode dial. Quickly becoming a standard in point-and-shoot digicams, the ZR100 contains a High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode that will capture multiple images at different exposures, and then fuses together the most detailed aspects of each image into one photo. HDR mode performed well in the late afternoon when the sun was casting long, pronounced shadows. Subjects in the foreground of a dark room, as well as those on the other side of a bright window or door, were both very much in detail thanks to the principles of HDR. Compared to Premium Auto, HDR mode acquired more true-to-life colors that might have otherwise been white-washed out. The color of a sunny side of a block building was overexposed in Premium Auto, but was preserved using the increased dynamic range of HDR. Casio also includes a unique HDR-Art mode, which uses the concept of HDR, then adds increased amounts of contrast and color saturation to create an unnatural looking photo; which more resembles a painting, or overdone HDR photo.
The Panorama feature was surprisingly impressive. Casio claims the ability to capture 360°, but we were capturing images up to approx. 400°. Equipped with an easy-to-use guide bar in the HUD, and options to change shooting direction, the ZR100's Panorama mode was a pleasure to use. The resulting panorama images are smooth, continuous, and did well with moving objects caught in the frame. The only real downfall we saw at times with the Slide panorama feature was exposure. On bright sunny days, it seems to blow out highlight details.
High Speed (HS) shooting is yet another impressive feature included with the ZR100. Much like most all other modes and features, HS mode can be accessed quickly through a dedicated button located on the top of the frame, to the left of the power button. Note you need to be in either P/S/A/M modes to use this button; in Premium Auto and the BS modes, it will notify you that this option is "Not supported in this REC mode". The HS feature has the capacity to incredibly capture 10-megapixel images up to 40 frames per second (fps), with a max of 30 frames per set. You can also alter the frame rate, from from 3, 5, 10, 15, 30 ,and 40fps. These figures should be well beyond your requirements for seizing specific action shots like your track star at the finish line, or the water drop as it splashes into the glass. Playback for HS shots are conveniently organized into sets, and you have the option to view these sets as a movie, or frame by frame. Once you are viewing a particular set, it's slightly irritating to exit. The Playback button is the logical and correct button to exit viewing. However, because of the camera's slow response time when viewing these sets, it is not unrealistic to think that the Playback button was the incorrect choice; and if you're anything like me, you start mashing random buttons until something happens. After a few hang ups, you should get the hang of it, and then start to appreciate this great feature.
If you are familiar with Casio's Exilim cameras, you should feel right at home with the ZR100's interface. On the other hand, if you are not well acquainted with the Exilim models, you might find the interface needs some getting used to. Initially, the text graphics seem generic and outdated. When the camera is turned on, the HUD launches a bunch of digits and letters onto the monitor, thus creating a very busy live feed. Furthermore, these digits and letters have no uniqueness between each one, making it difficult to distinguish what a particular number is representing. Fortunately, the side menu for exposure tuning that appears when the 'Select' button is pressed is a handy feature that allows for quick access without the need to enter the camera's menu system. The look and navigation of the ZR100 menu system is not dissimilar to a CRT (box style) television set-up menu. The menu lists are monotonous in a way that almost makes you not want to explore the camera's options. I was about as interested in exploring the menu system as I was exploring my Calculus textbook. The menu items are logically organized together; yet traversing through them is a hassle. The menu is set up in tab format ('REC','Quality', and 'Set Up'), and crisscrossing between these tabs is trying. For example, if you want to navigate to the 'Quality' tab, and are currently in the list of the 'REC' tab, you must scroll all the way to the tabs bar, and only then can you negotiate to 'Quality' items. Of course this is all personal preference, and as mentioned before, if you are familiar with Exilim models, you should have no difficulties with the ZR100's menu interface.
The ZR100's image quality results were actually quite good for a camera of its size and price. While Premium Auto produces the most vibrant photos, using P/A/S/M will give you more true to life colors. Exposures are relatively good, however like many digicams the camera can struggle a bit in bright sunlight, causing some slight overexposure. Images are full of fine details, with pleasing sharpness and contrast. Even when viewing images at 100%, you can see plenty of detail, and the image is pretty much sharp from edge to edge. Yes, on the very leading edge you can see some slight blur, but no near as much as we see from other models. The 12.5x optical zoom offers a great deal of framing possibilities, and produces nice photos the majority of the time. The exception to this was when fully zoomed out. We noticed on various occasions that the camera did not like to focus in lower lighting when fully zoomed, and like we mentioned earlier, caused some blurry photos due to the camera still capturing a photo even though focus failed. When shooting outdoors with plenty of light, we saw much better results. Either way, we highly recommend you use some sort of camera support when using the telephoto capabilities of this camera. Another issue we saw from this lens was with purple fringing, also know as CA or Chromatic Aberrations. This is usually seen as purple lines or areas of a photos, which appear along the leading edges of areas that have extreme contrast. We saw an above average amount of CA in our photos, weather indoors or out. Some of this was so string at times that you could see it at full-screen viewing.
Noise levels are very acceptable from ISO 800, and even the 1600 setting looks usable for small to mid-sized prints. IS0 3200 shows a great deal of details looks and "smudging", however in a last resort you might be able to produce some "ok" 4x6-inch prints from it.
Filming movies with the ZR100 is simple and easy. With the ability to record in 1080p HD 16:9 ratio, your movies will look great on any HD TV or on your favorite video sharing website. In fact, there is a special shooting mode dedicated specifically for YouTube videos. Additionally, capturing that special (or funny) moment can be achieved with features like a dedicated movie record button that can be pressed at any time to start recording, or the prerecord feature that begins recording a few seconds before the record button is actually pressed. Audio is quite good for a compact camera, thanks in part to the stereo microphones. However, we still recommend you watch your position, as they are still very sensitive, and will pick up a slight breeze and background noises easily. The ZR100 movie output is QuickTime's . MOV, a well-known and often used format from Apple. Just watch your record time, as this format eats up close to 2MB of card space for every second of video recorded.
Battery life is quite impressive with the EX-ZR100. Its massive 1800mAh NP-130 Li-iopn battery pack is rated to power the camera for up to 450 photos; using CIPA Standard testing methods (Flash used 50% of the time). We captured over 325 still photos, various short, full HD, video clips, and completed our other tests in a single charge; which included extensive use of the menu and playback systems. This tells us that Casio's battery life claims are right on track. The pack is charged out of camera in the included AC charger, which uses a power cord to plug into an AC outlet. While we normally stress you pick up an extra pack, the EX-ZR100's battery should be sufficient for most users; if you need to capture more than 400 photos in a day, then maybe you'll want to add a spare pack to your purchase.
Bottom line - Casio's Exilim EX-ZR100 has a lot to offer for a camera with a price tag of $299 US or less. This compact powerhouse offers pleasing 12-megapixel image quality, an excellent layout of controls, a higher-end zooming capability, a super clear 3.0-inch LCD, HDR technology, 360°+ panorama, extreme High Speed shooting in still and video mode, and much more. Its shooting performance is unmatched in this price range, and even rivals that of much more expensive "Prosumer" models, not to mention it has some of the most robust burst mode capabilities offered in a camera of this size. While we had a few pet peeves, along with some unwanted CA in the majority of our photos, the EX-ZR100 comes highly recommended from the staff here at Steve's if you're one who demands SPEED!
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