Panasonic invented the "travel zoom" class with the ZS series (TZ series outside of North America). These pocketable long-zoomers are incredibly versatile, suitable for taking detailed shots of objects near and far. They're great for traveling (surprise!) or for shooting from the stands on the soccer field. They're also great as step-up, carry-everywhere cameras for casual and hobbyist shooters who need a touch more power than a simple point-and-shoot.
Panasonic's ZS shooters have been the best-rounded cameras in this genre for at least the past two years. Last year's feature-packed, sharp-shooting ZS7 was especially popular among reviewers and camera buyers alike. Panasonic has followed up that success with the ZS10 (TZ20 in most territories outside of North America), which gambles on a new sensor and touch-based interface to inject fresh life into the series, along with an even-longer zoom and boosted pixel count. The specs are certainly on par with the most promising travel zooms of 2011, but read on to see if the ZS10 is a total package.
Body & Design
The ZS10 is a big boy. It's large for the travel zoom class and slightly larger than its predecessor. But no travel zooms will comfortably fit into a pants-pocket anyway, so an extra few grams and an extra few millimeters in each dimension don't have much of a real world impact. If anything, the extra bulk makes the ZS10 a bit easier to grip and to hold steady.
Its front and rear panels are plastic, while the edges appear to be chrome-finished metal (though it's possible that they're just chrome-finished plastic). A 3-inch, 460,000-pixel touchscreen LCD takes up most of the rear panel, though it leaves enough room for a capture/playback toggle, four-way selector, and three buttons for various functions. The LCD resolution is good enough; some cameras in this class pack 921,000-pixel screens, but the lower pixel-count doesn't distract from the user experience.
Up top, from right to left, there's a sliding power switch, a dedicated video button, a sizable shutter-release encircled by the tabbed zoom-tilter, a 10-way mode dial (including notches for PASM manual modes, Intelligent Auto, 3D image capture, and a handful of scene modes), apertures for the stereo microphone, a small hump for the GPS unit, and a tiny speaker for playback.
The most prominent feature on the front panel is, unsurprisingly, the enormous 24-384mm (16x) lens, flanked by the flash and an LED focus-assist lamp. There's also a small right-hand grip off to the side. And on the bottom sit a metal-threaded tripod mount and compartment for the battery and SD/SDHC card. It's an all-around well-built camera that looks a lot like its predecessors. It's not the sleekest, prettiest travel zoom out there; instead, it looks like a purpose-built gadget.
Performance & User Experience
The ZS10 is a charm to use, and its interface is undoubtedly its best feature. It's a nimble performer with helpful automatic modes and a healthy dose of manual control, plus an intuitive control scheme that integrates the best parts of touch-based cameras with a more traditional, robust physical-button set-up.
It's possible to control the ZS10 entirely with actual buttons, which is a great option to have since touchscreens are tough to use in some situations. The aspects of a camera's control scheme that don't translate particularly well to touch-based interfaces -- reviewing shots, crawling menu options, and selecting exposure settings, for example -- are left exclusively to tactile buttons. But there are some valuable operations only available via touchscreen, like touch-to-focus. This is a great feature that reviewers and users alike have praised in Panasonic G series cameras, so it's nice to see it trickle down to the more humble (by comparison) ZS series too.
While the touchscreen controls are well-executed, the tactile controls could use some sprucing up. In particular, I'd gladly trade the four-way selector for a selection wheel. It's a boon for cycling through manual exposure settings and picture review, and seems to be a standard feature on other compact zooms up at this price range these days. As far as I can tell, a selection wheel has no real disadvantages, so it's time for Panasonic to join the club. There's nothing wrong, per se, with the button layout on the ZS10, but a few tweaks could have really pushed it over the top into near-perfect territory.
Thanks to the nimble Live MOS sensor within, the ZS10 is generally a speedy performer. Start-up can take nearly as long as five seconds, which is a glacial pace by today's standards, but that only seemed to happen when I replaced the battery after a charge. Otherwise, it took about two seconds to go from off to snapping shots. Autofocus is quick and accurate even in somewhat challenging situations. Shutter lag is not really an issue, nor are shot-to-shot times. The 10fps burst mode is basically on par with the best in the compact class; while autofocus is not terribly accurate for action shots in this top-speed burst mode, dropping the dial back to 5fps does allow the camera to focus between shots and capture much sharper pictures -- and 5fps is still faster than most compacts out there. The buffer seems to be able to handle 20-something shots at a time, though it takes a significant amount of time to write all the images to the card -- in other words, the ZS10 is out of commission for a bit after each burst.
The auto mode -- Intelligent Auto, as usual for a Panasonic -- is quite effective at choosing the right settings for most scenes. It doesn't always get it right, but no automatic mode does, and it's about as accurate as I've seen. Thankfully, there's full manual control for users who want to take exposure into their own hands, too. A 3D image-capture mode is available, too, playing into that gimmick. It uses the camera's burst capabilities to capture 10 frames, then chooses the two that will create the best stereoscopic image. I don't have a 3D monitor, so I couldn't tell how well this worked. Best of luck to you. And, of course, there's a slew of scene modes, 29 in all, including some art filters and effects, some low-light modes, and standard scene pre-sets. It's not the most fun or best-rounded collection out there (nor does Panasonic particularly play up these scene modes), but they can come in handy.
Like last year's ZS7 (and at least a half-dozen other cameras this year), the ZS10 has a built-in GPS unit for geo-tagging pictures as they're taken, which has proven to be a big selling point for many users. The implementation is as good as I've personally seen on a camera, which is to say that it's flawed, but usable. The biggest obstacle is getting the camera to establish a connection with the GPS satellite; I’ve only ever used GPS-enabled cameras when I’ve been in dense, built-up cities, and I have simply not been able to acquire a signal whenever I’m within a few yards of any building more than two stories tall, which is approximately 98 percent of the time. If I walk into a big park or out onto a bridge over a river, the GPS will lock on after a few minutes. Most of North America is not as dense as Boston, I’m aware, so anyone who lives in a relatively sprawled city, suburb, or rural area should have much more success than I did.
After the GPS locked, I could maintain the signal even in some dense areas. For example, I took it from the edge of the Charles River through Harvard Square and into Harvard Yard, and it maintained a connection the entire way. During this test, I did leave the GPS set to On, so that the camera periodically pings the satellite to update the location, even when the power is off. I would imagine a less successful attempt to reconnect if I’d turned the GPS off or set it to Airplane Mode, where the camera disconnects from the satellite while it’s turned off.
Battery life is solid, even for a camera with GPS capability. Throughout most of the review period, GPS was set to Airplane Mode (to preserve the battery while turned off), and it managed about 200 shots plus a few minutes of video on a single charge. The battery is officially rated for 260 shots, but that figure doesn't account for the drain that a GPS unit puts on the battery.
Image & Video Quality
The 14.1 megapixel Live MOS sensor within the ZS10 is an interesting specimen. It first appeared in the FZ100 superzoom, which hit shelves last August. I gave the FZ100 a 4 out of 5 for overall image quality in my review last September; for a camera that’s really a glorified point-and-shoot with a huge lens, the image quality was decent in most reasonable shooting conditions. I stand by that assessment for the most part, though six months and a handful of competitors later, it’s lost its lustre a little bit. The ZS10 produces very similar shots to its chunkier sibling, but enters the market at a time when there are plenty of other speedy, low-light-capable CMOS long-zoomers out there, so the “wow” factor has subsided and there’s a renewed emphasis on photo quality. The overall image quality of the ZS10 is indeed flawed -- probably too much to justify the bloated $400 price tag -- though it’s not a total wash-out as the harshest user reviews let it on to be.
At lower ISO settings and in well-lit conditions, the ZS10 produces some very pleasant pictures. Barrel distortion isn't obvious at either end of the focal range. Green and purple fringing rarely appear, even against drab, grey backgrounds. Shots are generally bright and well-exposed with very little user effort; shots with a broad dynamic range aren't particularly great, but they're good enough to touch up in a photo editor. Viewed at full-size, they have a bit of a smooth, dabbed-on watercolor texture that’s typical of MOS-type sensors. That look is obviously not to every photographer’s liking, but most photographers don’t make full-size prints of all their shots, so it won't be an issue for everyone. For the casual photographer, the ZS10 will be a perfectly capable outdoor shooter.
Splotchier noise starts to appear ISO 400, though it’s still totally manageable at that setting, so it’s possible to get some good-looking indoor shots, as long as the scene is well-lit. Once it passes the ISO 1000 mark, however, the results get ugly. It’s an unpleasant mixture of chromatic noise and overly aggressive noise reduction, smearing details like a broad paintbrush. It’s especially pronounced around the edges and corners of the frame. To put it simply, the ZS10 is not a very good low-light shooter by current standards. This quality seems worse on the ZS10 than it did on the FZ100 in this regard, possibly because the superzoom predecessor had a brighter maximum aperture of f/2.8, compared to the slow f/3.3 lens on the ZS10.
It’s expected that compact cameras will have iffy ISO quality above the four-figure mark, at least to a certain degree. The long-zoom/great low-light demand is still a tough one to pull off, too, since aperture narrows as zoom increases. But high-ISO quality has improved within the genre thanks to the proliferation of CMOS sensors, so what was acceptable six months ago looks disappointing now, especially when it's coming from the most expensive camera in the compact zoom class. While the high-ISO performance from the ZS10 isn't terrible, it falls short of what most of the competition can accomplish.
Based on what we know about the sensor from the FZ100, the image quality problems mainly seem to stem from the image processing, and especially noise reduction. On the FZ100, with noise reduction turned off and image capture set to RAW, the results come out looking pretty solid, much clearer than the JPEG quality at least. Unfortunately, the ZS10 has neither RAW capture nor adjustable noise reduction, which is a major letdown since it could help hands-on users rectify the IQ issues. Panasonic could conceivably release a firmware update that introduces those two options, but that seems unlikely.
Video quality is generally decent. In decent lighting, even indoors, the 1080i/60fps picture is pretty smooth and noise-free. Low-light videos are tough to see -- not much object definition, and lots of spotty noise. The stereo microphone is surprisingly adept, however. I took some videos of a band playing in a basement, and through a decent set of speakers, the playback was actually listenable and not totally blown-out. It seems to pick up quieter talking and ambient noise fairly well, too. Fast motion causes objects to blur, but that's not a surprise, and not much different from any other still camera. The AVCHD format is a mixed bag: File sizes are tiny by HD movie standards, but some users, especially owners of older Macs, may run into some playback compatibility issues. Optical zoom is available during video shooting, with barely audible motor zoom, much quieter than I'm used to hearing.
Panasonic had an excellent formula for the ZS series, but they bravely took a few risks with the flagship ZS10 this year. Those gambles paid off in the form of a charming user interface and a performance boost, but took a toll on the image quality. All of this year's travel zooms (and there are a lot of them) have flaws, so the ZS10 really doesn't look so bad by comparison -- except that at an eye-watering $399 MSRP, it's far and away the most expensive model on the market. Even the current street price of $375 is still significantly more expensive than the closest competitor, the Canon SX230 HS. The ZS10 is the only touch-screen model of the bunch, but it doesn't lead the class in any other key specs, and its image quality is among the roughest. The price makes it more difficult for us to recommend this model.
ZS-series fans for whom money is not an issue will still find plenty to like. As mentioned, the user interface is a charming, effective blend of touchscreen and tactile controls, and it's speedy in all aspects of its performance (except powering on). The GPS implementation is a bit wonky, but the best we've seen in any camera so far. Wherever there's natural light, the image and video quality are great -- perhaps a bit soft, but not distractingly so.
But, quite simply, there are better cameras for less money. Our favorite this year is the Canon SX230 HS. Despite some irritating design quirks, it has consistently great image quality, an ample 14x zoom, decent speed, and full 1080p video for a few bucks less than the ZS10. The Nikon S9100 is another solid option, particularly notable for its class-leading 18x zoom range and low-light images that pop. The Fujifilm F550EXR has the best image quality in the class and most manual control, including RAW capture. We'd even recommend the Panasonic ZS8: It's more like last year's ZS7 and ZS5 models, built around a run-of-the-mill CCD-type sensor, so it isn't as speedy or feature packed, but it's a solid, no-nonsense shooter with the same versatile 16x lens, at a much more reasonable price.