The Panasonic Lumix TZ50 represents another foray into the wireless age for digital cameras, an expedition ongoing since Kodak took the first tentative step with the EasyShare One back in 2005. Allowing for free wireless uploads of full resolution photos both at home and abroad, the TZ50 is a great tool for the photographer on the go. A versatile and feature-packed pocket camera, it has much to offer to the casual snapshooter market. But in its primary function as a camera it's not without its flaws. Let's take a closer look at what this hybrid performer has to offer.
Design and Interface
Its wireless capabilities aside, the TZ50 offers an above-average range of features for a point and shoot model. It features a 9-megapixel sensor mated to a 10x optical zoom lens that incorporates Panasonic's traditional Mega O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization). The 28mm wide angle lens is a nice extra, and makes it easier to capture landscapes and crowd shots.
The LCD is large at 3.0 inches, and features wonderful clarity and resolution (460k pixels). Another big attention-grabber is the camera's ability to record 720p high-definition video and output it to your HDTV.
The TZ50 is slim and has a pleasantly solid heft and feel in the hand. Despite the largely plastic exterior, the build quality seems to be quite good, with what feels like a full metal interior chassis. In terms of ergonomics it's not exactly a natural fit, but Panasonic has done the best possible with an essentially rectangular base design.
A small textured grip bulges on the front of the right side of the camera for stability, while the shutter release and zoom control are placed ideally for the tip of your index finger. The well-spaced rear controls fall directly under your thumb, and provide good tactile response. The port and battery compartments feature well-built and well-secured doors—no cheap rubber inserts here.
Menus are well thought-out and operate smoothly. In its normal shooting mode, the TZ50 offers several manual shooting controls, including ISO settings (Auto, 100-1600), a semi-atypical "minimum shutter speed," and a custom white balance setting. In addition to the basic shooting mode you'll find Panasonic's "Intelligent Auto" or "iA" mode, which senses the lighting and contents of the shot you're framing and chooses the most appropriate settings on the fly. For this camera's target demographic, the casual snapshooter, it's a great addition.
A Wireless World
There's no denying that the TZ50's wireless capability is its biggest selling point. It allows the user to upload pictures to their Picasa account via either a home wireless access point or a T-Mobile HotSpot, aka any Borders, Kinkos, or Starbucks in the known universe, among others. The purchase of the camera also buys you a year of T-Mobile HotSpot service, which is activated the first time you use your camera's WiFi in such a location.
Accessing the WiFi is easy, since there's a dedicated mode for it on the TZ50's dial. Upon accessing it, you can choose between T-Mobile and "Other" access points (aka, your home's wireless router). The setup here is easy, as the camera autodetects nearby wireless signals. If the connection is encrypted, you will need to enter your network passkey, which is also relatively easy to do.
In order to upload your pictures, you'll need to first open a Picasa Web Albums account. Note that this is separate from the downloadable Picasa program, and the latter is not necessary in order to use the TZ50's wireless capabilities. In order to set up a Web Albums account you'll also need a Google account. If you already have a Gmail address you're all set; if not, now's the time to get one.
The actual performance of the WiFi connection seems to vary greatly by location. On my home router, which offers outstanding speed and connection strength throughout the house, I was only able to draw a two bar connection even when sitting next to the router. Moving as little as fifteen feet away, the connection was liable to drop out. On the other hand, at my local Starbucks the device performed like a champ. While the former case is somewhat worrying, when the wireless function performs it's incredibly handy and using it is a great experience.
Under the right conditions, the TZ50 can produce very good-looking photos. These conditions include: outdoors, direct sunlight, and interiors with flash. Unfortunately, when you move away from these comfort zones, problems with image quality quickly become apparent.
The biggest problems here are problems that seem to be hereditary to Panasonic's Lumix line. They first become apparent as a slight softness in many of the images the TZ50 produces. This can't be blamed on the camera's Leica lens, which is excellent throughout the zoom range and which exhibits little evidence of distortion and seems sharp in most situations. The problem really comes down to the camera's true achilles heel: image noise reduction. Simply put, beyond ISO 100 image noise and noise reduction are a problem, and beyond ISO 400 it renders photos near-useless. This is a disappointment, considering that the new and improved Venus Engine IV chip that's included in the TZ50 has been touted as specifically addressing this problem.
The camera, almost certainly due to its tiny consumer-grade imaging sensor, produces abnormally high noise levels throughout the ISO spectrum, and employs aggressive noise reduction in order to combat it. The noise reduction algorithm does its best, but in doing so destroys much of the detail in the original photograph. The end result is that high-ISO images, at least when viewed at 100% zoom, can take on a sort of watercolor effect, as details are smudged to do away with offending specks of noise. This effect is visible even at ISO 100, albeit in a vastly reduced state.
The good news is that in most cases even the worst of these instances look quite acceptable when resized for the web/email, or when printed at a standard 4x6 size—it's only when seen at their native resolution or when printed on a large scale that these problems become truly apparent. For the average user, the TZ50 will produce perfectly usable and even great results in day to day use.
Other positives are the camera's quick focusing and generally good responsiveness, which make it a joy to use on the fly. It also does a great job of avoiding chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in all but the most difficult situations. The default image settings produce very evenly exposed shots with neutral colors—no over-saturated greens or reds here. This can be adjusted by selecting "vivid," "cool," and "warm" color settings.
High-definition video captured with the TZ50 looks great on HDTVs, but on higher resolution monitors it becomes obvious that it suffers from the same noise issues described above. This is hardly surprising given that the images are coming from a consumer digital camera sensor. In addition, the audio recording could certainly stand to be of higher quality.
In other words, the HD recording that the camera offers is a nice bonus, and will probably serve many users well, but the TZ50 shouldn't be looked at as a true HD camcorder replacement.
The Lumix TZ50 is a marvelous gadget in many ways, let down only by a tiny sensor and the aggressive noise reduction employed to combat its effects. In low light situations it stumbles, so if you're looking for a camera to use for concert shots, parties, and stargazing, you'll want to look elsewhere. But in the right conditions its great responsiveness, build quality, and Leica lens make it an able performer, and a joy to use. As a device for uploading photos to the web it has few peers in the market, and works nearly flawlessly. If your priorities are ease of use, build quality, and versatility, the TZ50 is a great choice.