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To say the 6MP Casio EXILIM Pro EX-F1 ($999, street) is a breakthrough is an understatement. As we’ve said before (April 2008), and the Pop Photo Lab confirms, the F1 is a far-reaching achievement on several fronts:

• It’s an impressive 12X zoom (36-432mm f/2.7-4.6 equivalent) electronic-viewfinder (EVF) still camera with optical stabilization and Excellent image quality.

• It’s the camera equivalent of a machine gun, packing a breathtaking 60 frames-per-second burst rate (7 fps with flash) and 1/4 0,000 sec top shutter speed.

• It’s a full-HD (1920×1080 pixels at 60 fps) video camera with stereo audio, zoom while recording, and HDMI output.

• It’s a high-speed/low-resolution video camera, shooting up to a blistering 1200 frames per second.

That last quality — high-speed video — means 1 sec of real time equals up to 40 sec of ultra-slow-motion video. Scientists and sports trainers will find practical uses for this, but the “Wow!” factor is universal.

In HD mode, the F1 serves up crisp, sharp, full-HD videos on an HDTV (connect it using your own HDMI cable).

As a still camera, it’s all business. Roughly the size of a Canon EOS Rebel XTi, it feels like an SLR. Buttons and dials are well damped, and the 2.8-inch, 230,000-dot LCD is bright, although it does present noise in low light. The 0.2-inch, 201,600-dot EVF gives you a usable, if coarse, preview.

Want control? It’s all there — full manual exposure and focus; spot, center, and pattern metering; auto bracketing up to five frames; Dynamic Range Expansion.

Still, it has the usual weaknesses of an EVF. Autofocus, while responsive, particularly in tracking mode, is quick at wide angles (slower at tele), but not as fast as an SLR. And focus locks on the first shot in a burst. So if the action doesn’t move parallel to the sensor plane, many shots in a high-speed burst will be out of focus. Also, the EVF or LCD can’t redraw quickly enough to chase fast action during a burst.

Low light? Video of all flavors shows varying degrees of noise, even with the onboard lamp turned on. But JPEG stills are Excellent from ISO 100 to 400, Extremely High at ISO 800, and High at ISO 1600. (While the F1 also shoots RAW DNG files, we tested it in JPEG mode because high-speed capture, its big selling point, is JPEG-only.)

In all, the F1 is a new, exciting breed of camera. It’s easy enough for a beginner to use, but powerful enough to dazzle an experienced photographer.

* Tested as Highest-quality JPEGs at default setting

Distortion: Slight Barrel Distortion at 36mm equivalent (.24%), Imperceptible Pincushion Distortion at 200mm equivalent (.9%) and Slight Pincushion Distortion at 432mm (.17%)