Casio cameras are almost always cheap, but they're still stylish, pocket-sized shooters. This potent mix has caught many a teenager's eye. Those teens' parents probably warned them that you get what you pay for, but a camera's cost often has more to do with special features than image quality. Could something like the Casio Exilim ZS10 actually outperform its humble pricetag? Read on to find out.
Body & Design
Despite being made entirely out of plastic, the ZS10’s cigarette-box sized body manages to inspire confidence. Maybe it’s just the unexpected heft of such a thin camera, but overall it feels solid. Our one gripe with the build is the battery-compartment door. It’s quite flimsy and warps under the slightest pressure. It seems unlikely it will stand the test of a few months of shooting.
The front panel houses a 26-130mm, 5x zoom lens. These numbers have become standard for cameras in the class, yet Casio manages to undercut the competition by making it a relatively slow f/3.2-6.5. For a class of cameras that already have trouble shooting in low light, such a slow aperture at the long end does not bode well. It shouldn’t matter as much in good light, however, and that zoom range is exceptionally useful on such a small camera.
Along the top are the shutter and power toggle. The zoom tilter wraps around the base of the shutter button, which we prefer to toggles on the back of the camera. It’s generally easier to use the index finger to zoom rather than rely on a thumb that may already be busy supporting the camera elsewhere.
The back of the ZS10 is decidedly sparse, which really isn't so surprising given the price. The low-res, 2.7-inch LCD is not particularly noteworthy, but there really isn’t room here for something more spacious. Of the few buttons on the back, one is a dedicated video-record button; direct and quick access to video is always a plus. Other than that, there’s the usual 4-way controller, playback access button, trash button, and a nifty "camera" button. This is a bit confusing, but it seems Casio decided photographers needed another way to turn the camera on as well as revert back to normal photography mode from either playback or video. It does its job well, although both of these functions are already covered elsewhere.
The one problem with these sparse controls is that there is no direct access to any shooting settings, like exposure compensation, flash mode, or ISO sensitivity, as we'd usually see; pushing any of the four directionals does nothing if not already in a menu. This is such an easy fix and a frustrating oversight on Casio’s part.
Performance & User Experience
Just like the ZS10’s build quality, initial impressions are surprisingly good. It turns on and is ready to shoot in about a second. The lens zooms back and forth with a satisfying zip too, and after taking a picture the image review is almost immediate. Scrolling between pictures on the back LCD is also a breeze. In short, you wont be waiting around for the ZS10.
The one hitch in this otherwise snappy experience is the autofocus. It’s good enough for outdoor use, but lags noticeably once the light levels fall. While none of the other cameras in the $100 price range focus well in low light, either, this is the one major speed bump in an otherwise zippy camera. Also notable is a relatively slow continuous drive mode that captures about one photo per second.
For the automatic user, the ZS10’s menu layout is probably just fine. Pushing the SET button brings up a vertical quick menu of an odd assortment of camera settings: photo and video resolution, flash, self-timer, face detection, access to the Best Shot Scene Modes, and a link to a more in-depth menu. I say odd assortment because the most useful settings, such as white balance, ISO, or exposure compensation, are buried under Quick menu>Menu>Quality. They’re a pain to get to and those who know even a little bit about photography will wish it were easier to reach these common options. It would also be nice if the main menu had a dedicated button (which would mean far fewer button presses), but it’s not the end of the world. Like most compacts these days, there is also a bevy of scene modes here, everything from the usual portrait and landscape modes to more exotic offerings like “eBay” and “Text”.
One other needlessly frustrating aspect of the Casio ZS10 is the charging system. To charge the battery, users need to plus a cord into an outlet, attach that cord to a converter, stick the USB cable into the converter, and then finally hook up the USB to camera. That’s right, there are three different pieces to charge one camera battery. Casio should really take a page out of Panasonic and Canon's books and provide cordless wall chargers.
Image & Video Quality
If you were still hopeful that the Casio ZS10 might come through this review unscathed in spite of the menu issues, unfortunately you waited in vain. Image quality even at ISO 64 is disappointing; the images never reach an absolute biting sharpness. Fine details are blurred to some extent, but even at such a low ISO setting there is obvious color noise mottling in darker areas of the photo.
Higher ISOs actually don’t reveal much more noise than ISO 64, and indeed appear cleaner than files from similarly priced competitors. ISO 400 shows some serious loss of detail, and Casio’s noise reduction algorithm is out in force at ISO 800 and 1600, smoothing both details and grain into one buttery mess. This smoothness may actually be preferable to an ugly graininess, but the high ISO’s are accompanied by a pretty extreme and unacceptable color shift at ISO 800 and above.
With such an unimpressive sensor it almost seems silly to try and discuss the lens that sensor is attached to, but it underperforms, too. Wide-angle photos reveal noticeable distortion and very soft corners. At telephoto (a very slow f6.5), the lens does better but still struggles to resolve the 14 megapixels. The ZS10 really does boast a versatile range, but it’s too bad Casio wasn’t able to engineer something better here.
Video quality is just fine, 720p HD, nothing too special by current standards. There’s no optical zoom while recording but Casio does include a stepped digital zoom. It’s a little jarring to watch, however, and the already mediocre quality dives quickly toward awful. For any serious video, stick to a dedicated camcorder.
The ZS10 had potential, but it's often frustrating to use and struggles to take very good pictures. Performance is quick but poor menu arrangement makes accessing the right settings take much longer than it should. This might be excusable had image quality been competitive, but unfortunately it never quite gets there. Brightly lit shots are fine to view on a computer screen, but images in both good light and low light are blurred to something that looks out of focus. Just look at how the text on the whiteboard in the ISO comparisons seems to disappear as the sensitivity increases.
It is just a $100, though, and it not much better or worse than most of the options at this price point. We could name a few cameras that go for similar money, but aside from the Canon A800, we don't actually recommend them. We suggest saving up a few extra dollars and springing for something with image stabilization, which tends to be the demarcation line for worthwhile point-and-shoots. Take a look at the Canon A3300, Panasonic FH5, or Sony W530. You’ll enjoy far better image quality and an smoother user experience. There’s simply nothing the Casio ZS10 offers that would recommend it above these well-established peers.