When you’re a professional gadget reviewer, you see plenty of cellphones, music players, camcorders and computers. But in two weeks, Casio will offer an entirely new device for sale, the first of its kind: a time machine.
Now, the Exilim EX-F1 is not a time machine in the H. G. Wells sense. You can’t climb inside and travel back to high school and undo every humiliating mistake you’ve ever made.
But for a digital camera, the F1 comes pretty close. It does let you freeze time, slow time down and even capture photos of sudden events that you’ve already missed.
How is this possible? Because, for starters, the F1 ($1,000 list price) is the world’s fastest camera.
A typical shirt-pocket camera, if you’re lucky, can snap one photo a second in “burst mode.” A $1,000 semipro model will get you 3 shots a second. But this Casio can snap — are you ready for this? — 60 photos a second. These are not movies; these are full six-megapixel photographs, each with enough resolution for a poster-size print.
After such a burst, you’re offered three options: delete all 60 shots, keep all 60, or review them and pluck out the individual frames worth keeping. The whole batch begins to play like a flip-book movie; you control playback with a back-panel control dial. As you watch, you press the shutter button once to identify each frame you want to keep; the rest will be discarded.
You can parcel out the 60-shot maximum in different ways: 30 shots a second for two seconds, 20 for three seconds, 15 for four seconds, and so on. You can even adjust the firing rate in midshot by turning the lens barrel. (The camera’s menus let you choose what you want the lens ring to govern: zoom, focus or burst rate.)
So who would ever need to take so many pictures in one second? Sports fans, of course; imagine having the luxury of plucking out a photo of exactly the bat angle, soccer-leg swing or basketball jump height you want.
But there are many other times when you might like to isolate just the right split second: when your subjects are wildlife (including children), explosions, splashes, bouquet tosses, celebrity glimpses, broadening smiles and so on.
(As I experimented with the F1, I couldn’t help feeling that my great-uncle Harold Edgerton would have approved. He was the M.I.T. professor who, in the late 1930s, pioneered the art of high-speed photography: the bullet piercing an apple, the splash of a milk drop, and so on.)
The F1’s second trick is that business about photographing a moment after the fact. In pre-record mode, you half-press the shutter button when you’re awaiting an event that’s unpredictable: a breaching whale, a geyser’s eruption or a 5-year-old batter connecting with the ball. The camera silently, repeatedly records 60 shots a second, immediately discarding the old to make room for the new.
When you finally press the shutter button fully, the camera simply preserves the most recent shots, thus effectively photographing an event that, technically speaking, you missed.
Then there’s the motion detector. In this mode, you put the camera down on something steady, press the shutter button and back away. It sits there, waiting for hours if necessary, until it detects movement in the scene — at which point it auto-fires 60 burst shots. That could come in handy when you’re trying to photograph a hummingbird approaching a flower, a bird arriving at its nest or an unauthorized household member raiding the cookie jar.
As a final time trick, the F1 can display, on its 2.8-inch screen, a slow-motion version of what the camera is “seeing.” Your preview falls further and further behind real time — but you now have the luxury of patience as you decide precisely when to snap the shot.
The F1’s movie mode is one of the most powerful ever. It has stereo microphones, and even a jack for an external mike. It has separate triggers for stills and videos, so you can snap stills right in the middle of filming a movie. It can zoom in midmovie, a rarity in still cameras. And it can film in either standard or high definition; there’s even a mini-HDMI jack for connecting the camera straight to an HDTV set.
Most stunning of all, this camera can film at outrageously high frame rates: 300, 600, or even 1,200 frames a second. The result is incredibly smooth, extremely slow motion, like something in an Imax nature movie. No still camera has ever offered anything like this feature.
The downside, alas, is that at faster rates, you get smaller movies. At 1,200 frames a second, you’re dealing with a Triscuit-sized video in the center of your TV screen, surrounded by oceans of black margin.
Still, when you’re trying to pinpoint problems with your golf swing, your tennis serve or your industrial equipment, slowing time down to this extent is like a keyhole into a previously invisible world. You might not care about the size of the keyhole.
Unfortunately, this highly unusual, almost experimental piece of equipment includes nearly as many downsides as breakthroughs.
First, even though it’s nearly as big and bulky as a digital S.L.R. like a Canon Rebel or Nikon D80, the F1 is, at its heart, an amateur camera. It contains a tiny light sensor (about half an inch diagonal, versus 1.1 inches in a beginner S.L.R.). As a result, its light sensitivity is poor. Except in bright sunlight or studio lighting, those burst-mode shots are often disappointingly dim or disappointingly blurry.
Casio was obviously aware of this weakness, and so it engineered one of the brightest and fastest flashes ever on a consumer camera: it can fire an amazing 7 times a second for up to 3 seconds. That superflash generally solves the light-sensitivity problem, but of course you might not want the characteristic harshness of flash photos.
There’s even a second “flash” right above the first — actually a very bright video-light L.E.D., which can maintain steady illumination on nearby subjects when the main flash’s 7 frames a second still isn’t fast enough. Clever.
But there are other problems. The eyepiece viewfinder is electronic (a tiny, relatively coarse video screen), not optical (pristine, see-through glass). Start-up is slow.
The 12X zoom is nice to have, but it’s slow to react. And during video capture, when you turn the lens ring to zoom, it jerks spastically through the zoom range, effectively ruining your shot. The camera has great difficulty changing focus during filming, too.
The F1 is also complicated. It has two different mode dials and two different “shutter” buttons (one for stills, one for video). All those high-speed features, and all the attendant settings, had to go somewhere.
There are long lists of limits, too. You can’t use the lens ring to zoom during high-definition filming. The flash won’t operate in pre-record mode. Face detection doesn’t work during video capture. There’s no sound in high-speed videos. You can’t change focus, zoom or exposure during high-speed filming. And so on.
Now, it does seem ungrateful to criticize such an astonishing camera; it’s like complaining that your 7-year-old violin virtuoso is lousy at sports.
But make no mistake: no camera has ever offered anything like the F1’s high-speed stills, high-speed videos or high-speed flash for anywhere near its price. Everybody who sees this camera in action winds up slack-jawed with disbelief.
Casio deserves congratulations for innovating in so many big, bold, industry-defying ways. Instead of pushing misleading metrics like megapixels, the company went its own defiant way and came up with a camera with an extremely clearly defined identity.
Maybe it’s not the time machine of sci-fi movies. But in the world of consumer electronics, it’s an eye-opening first step.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.