Panasonic’s SZ line, announced just this year, is their latest budget offering that combines versatile lenses with compact and lightweight builds. All three pocketable cameras in the line look nearly identical and feature 10x zoom 25-250mm lenses. The SZ5 is the priciest of the trio at $149, almost entirely due to the inclusion of WiFi. In other respects the SZ7 is the better camera, offering much faster burst rates and 1080p video due to its CMOS sensor.
The question, then, is whether the SZ5’s wireless functionality is worth the sacrifice in other areas. If image quality is good enough, then you aren’t paying much more (twenty bucks?) for what is generally a high-end feature. That 14 megapixel CCD sensor has, on the other hand, meant trouble in the past and we’re leery of its use in the SZ5, especially when the cheaper SZ1 uses a 16 megapixel version. Read on to see exactly how this somewhat confusing mix of features all comes together.
Body and Design - Panasonic SZ5
There’s little doubt upon handling the SZ5 that it’s a budget model, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t sturdy. Although made almost entirely of plastic, it holds together quite well and is a mere 136 grams. Panasonic borrows the SZ5’s styling cues from a deck of cards; the edges and corners are nicely rounded, yes, but the SZ5 won’t be winning any design awards. You can find the SZ5 in either a matte black or glossy white finish.
The lens housing sits nearly flush with the front plate of the camera, impressive for a 10x zoom lens. With a 25mm wide-angle and 250mm telephoto, chances are the SZ5 will cover most of your shooting needs. There’s a small flash near the center of the camera and the wireless transmitter sits along the right side. There’s no finger grip to speak of, but on a camera this light one really isn’t necessary.
Along the top of the camera sit the mono microphone, a small speaker, the On/Off button, the shutter button ringed by zoom toggle, and a red record button that falls under your shutter finger. It’s too bad Panasonic didn’t include stereo microphones here, but this isn’t surprising given the price.
The 2.5” screen on the back of the camera is 230,000 dots, fairly low for 2012 although usable. Next to the screen sits the Wi-Fi button at the top right, followed by Mode and Playback buttons and then the 4-way controller around a Menu/Set button. Beneath the controller lie the Display button as well as the Quick Menu/Trash button. The battery and memory card are inserted into the camera bottom next to the plastic tripod mount directly beneath the lens.
User Experience and Performance - Panasonic SZ5
The SZ5 is a very straightforward point and shoot camera with the added benefit of WiFi. There are only four modes to choose from: iAuto, Normal Picture, Miniature and Scene Modes. The iAuto, or Intelligent Auto, makes all the decisions for you and automatically detects the best scene setting for your subject, while Normal Picture allows a few more adjustments to things like ISO, exposure compensation, and white balance. The four-way controller accesses exposure compensation, timer, macro and flash settings and everything else is housed within the Quick Menu. There are only 15 scene modes to choose from, two of which are devoted to babies, but the important ones like Sports and Night Portrait are included. Compared to most cameras this is an extremely pared down selection, but it’s easy and gets you back to shooting quickly.
The most frustrating aspect of the camera, and it may be that we just are missing some vital step, is that the WiFi is too difficult to set up. The instructions are filled with jargon and tend to gloss over important steps. You need to sign up for a Lumix Club login to send images to your computer automatically when charging, but the sharing instructions following that step are too vague for mac users. Likewise, using your smart phone as a remote control should have been straightforward, but the Lumix Link software wasn’t able to find the camera and kept saying “Switch to Local Mode”, a warning that the manual doesn’t mention. We do know that the wireless works well as we’ve seen it in action before, but you might need to be very technically inclined to get it to do what you’d like.
Besides this hiccup, overall operation is very easy and the camera is fast enough to get out of your way. It starts up quickly, autofocuses quickly, and scrolls through menu options and the review mode quickly. Controls are exactly where you expect them to be and we think anyone could learn to use the SZ5 in under five minutes.
Image Quality - Panasonic SZ5
Although we had high hopes that the SZ5 would surprise in the image quality department, the sample photos aren’t very impressive. Colors are really quite good, but images throughout the ISO exhibit obvious signs of noise and noise reduction. Blue skies at ISO 100 look grainy and by ISO 400 things are looking pretty ugly. If you only view your photos on Facebook you may be happy, but at sizes any larger than that these noise problems become obvious.
Issues also extend to the lens itself, which has trouble resolving all 14 megapixels as you move toward the telephoto end of the zoom. While wide-angle looks great despite the soft corners, subjects get increasingly hazy as you zoom toward 250mm. Thankfully vignetting and chromatic aberrations are well controlled, but these are small victories in an otherwise lackluster performance. What’s the point of having a long zoom range if it does so poorly?
The 720p HD video quality is adequate though not outstanding. The camera does a great job of keeping focus and smoothly zooming, but footage is excessively grainy even in bright sunlight. The mono microphone doesn’t help sound quality much, either.
Conclusion - Panasonic SZ5
The main reason to buy the SZ5 over the cheaper yet undoubtedly better SZ7 is for the WiFi, but after hours of frustration we weren’t much closer to getting it working correctly. If the main purpose of having the camera automatically sync pictures to your PC is to make life easier, then why over complicate the setup? We aren’t docking the SZ5 too much for our inadequacies, but there’s little else here to recommend the camera. It’s very easy to use but the noise performance is unimpressive. The long zoom range is great for travel but often yields hazy, washed-out pictures. If you can live without the WiFi, the SZ7 or Nikon’s S6300 should both yield better images and fuller functionality for about the same cost.