Cameras

Panasonic DMC-ZS20 Review

The DMC-ZS20 is the latest travel-zoom compact camera from Panasonic.

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Introduction

The DMC-ZS20 (also known as the TZ30 outside North America) is the latest travel-zoom compact camera from the company that practically invented the category: Panasonic.

Panasonic claims that the ZS20 is the slimmest camera with a 20x optical zoom. The insides haven't been neglected though. The ZS20 houses a new and improved 14.1-megapixel Live MOS image sensor, 1080/60p video capability, built-in GPS, and a 3-inch touchscreen LCD. Off to the labs then, to test this camera's mettle.

The ZS20 will be available in March 2012 for $349.99 in black, silver, brown, red, and white. Panasonic also informs us that they offer a ZS19 model, which doesn't include GPS but is otherwise identical to the ZS20, for $299.99.

Design & Usability

Several updates to the ZS20 enhance usability considerably, though there are simpler travel zooms on the market for the truly technophobic.

The ZS20 follows largely in the footsteps of the ZS10, though with more of a spring in its step. The improved sensor is a 14.1-megapixel CMOS (Live MOS, by Panasonic's parlance) with a standard point-and-shoot size of 1/2.33 inches across. The lens is bigger and better too, telescoping out to provide an optical zoom range of 20x. The telescoping segments are not weather sealed though, so beware of sand and moisture.

Buttons are nicely spaced and shaped, but the lack of clear labeling on the rear control panel is a bit of a nightmare in the dark.

Smooth, rubberized material covers the large part of the front protrusion, and a small section of raised dots populates an area on the back, enhancing grip. A rear display takes the form of a 3-inch touchscreen LCD, with 460k-dot resolution. It features an anti-reflective coating, though we think this adds little notable advantage. Thankfully, users are not restricted to touchscreen control—there are enough physical keys to get the job done without it. There aren't a great deal of these keys, but they offer a very nice response and an easy-to-detect click sound that indicates activation. Buttons are nicely spaced and shaped, but the lack of clear labeling on the rear control panel is a bit of a nightmare in the dark. The etched-in symbols are impossible to read without proper lighting. Other than this, the camera is quite simple to use—just familiarize yourself with the control layout quickly, or else you'll get lost in the dark.

The camera's physical mode dial and quick menu enhance usability for intermediate and advanced users, but there are simpler travel-zoom cameras available for the true technophobes out there. Both a main menu and a "quick menu" setup allow you to select from a number of basic shooting options for easy adjustments, and the main menu has undergone a happy change—clearer text.

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Features

The ZS20 doesn't offer enthusiast-level manual control, but a fair measure of manual authority is offered, and some very useful auto modes as well.

The ZS20 includes a wide variety of features, though we question the necessity of a built-in GPS. We can envision a day where a camera's GPS is as reliable as a standalone device, but the ZS20 isn't quite there yet. Otherwise, a physical mode dial offers a variety of creative, automatic, and manual shooting modes, as well as 3D shooting, two custom user-savable modes, and several more. Overall control then isn't staggering, but it's right in line with other high-end travel zooms. Users may take partial or full manual control over exposure settings, altering aperture and shutter speed as they need, or adjusting ISO sensitivity. Several automatic modes will program settings without user input though, which will certainly aid the beginners out there.

Users may take partial or full manual control over exposure settings, altering aperture and shutter speed as they need, or adjusting ISO sensitivity.

The ZS20 is packed with the fun stuff too. There is a generous batch of scene modes that includes portrait, panorama shot, baby, underwater, and many more. A creative control mode allows users to select one of ten different creative digital filters, which cover everything from expressive, to retro, to toy effect, and beyond. Standard, vivid, black & white, and sepia make up the four color mode offerings and in-camera editing enables auto retouch and creative retouch functions. The auto retouch will make slight adjustments to improve tone, while the creative retouch makes more drastic changes with digital filters. The camera also has functions for resizing, text stamping, cropping, favorite-ing, copying, and even digitally ordering prints. Finally, owners of the ZS20 will also have access to 1080/60p video recording.

Performance

The ZS20 is superior to the older ZS10 in many more ways than one.

Last year's ZS10 had an appealing collection of features, but image quality struggled due to its poor sensor and its mediocre lens. The new ZS20 is a complete reversal, with an even more expansive zoom range and a retooled, dramatically superior 14-megapixel image sensor. ISO options aren't extensive necessarily, with a whole-stop scale of just 100-3200, but a "high sensitivity" scene mode allows for a maximum ISO 6400 when absolutely necessary. Most importantly, noise was hardly apparent all the way through ISO 3200. At low ISOs, the camera's JPEG engine (it does not provide RAW shooting) was able to very accurately diagnose and reduce noise without destroying all the fine image detail.

One of the high points of the ZS20's performance was its shot-to-shot time, capturing 10 frames per second at full-resolution.

The ZS20 also returned fairly sharp images, though admittedly the 20x zoom lens traded some edge sharpness for that big reach. Color results were decent too, but we wish there were more than merely four color modes available to help on this end. One of the high points of the ZS20's performance was its shot-to-shot time, capturing 10 frames per second at full-resolution. A high-speed burst mode can alternately shoot 40fps at 5 megapixels, or 60fps at 2.5 megapixels, and there are some typical self-timers available if you need them. As for video, control isn't particularly great, but testing proved that this mode's images were sharp, and motion was rendered rather well too.

Conclusion

Last year's ZS10 had a cold reception, and Panasonic took it to heart.

The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 (or TZ30, outside of North America) is a travel-zoom model that manages to fit just about everything you might ask for right into your pocket. It has a 20x optical zoom lens, new 14-megapixel image sensor, a 3-inch touchscreen LCD, optical stabilization, and built-in GPS.

If you're skeptical, we don't blame you. That sounds a suspiciously similar to last year's ZS10. The older model looked impressive on paper, but landed with a thud in the market due to poor image quality, bad high ISO performance, and a relatively useless GPS feature. Well, the GPS is still practically useless unless you're standing in a wide open field (the non-GPS ZS19 is probably a better option for most buyers), but the image sharpness is vastly improved, the high ISO performance is much better, and the 20x optical zoom lens provides serviceable image quality. Color accuracy took a big hit, however, and creative features and fine control weren't quite as plentiful as we would prefer.

Altogether the Panasonic DMC-ZS20 is a fine camera, an extended zoom model that doesn't sacrifice too much in key areas (color accuracy and lens performance) while surpassing our expectations in others (high ISO performance). For a camera that provides a very attractive combination of size and zoom range, you can live with its faults if you take advantage of its strong points.

Science Introduction

The DMC-ZS20 made some great strides in terms of overall image quality compared with last year's model. Noise handling is quite tasteful and intelligent, sharpness is mostly solid, and video performance is very reliable as well. We just wish that color performance had turned out better.

Noise

The image sensor in the Panasonic ZS20 kept noise to a minimum, with very clean low ISO shots.

Noise on the Panasonic ZS20 was hardly apparent all the way through its ISO sensitivity peak of ISO 3200. The camera's JPEG engine (it does not provide RAW shooting) was able to very accurately diagnose and reduce noise without destroying all the fine image detail at low ISOs, though noise reduction is heavily applied at ISO 1600 and above. Small details such as text were all but gone, but the overall application of noise reduction was better than last year's ZS10. Specifically, the ZS20 returned a noise total of just 1.7% at the maximum ISO setting of 3200. The camera did show an average noise result of around 0.85% at ISO 100, but since noise reduction didn't take the broad, ham-fisted approach of last year's model, the results at ISO 100 were very impressive.

Color & Sharpness

The Panasonic ZS20 had decent color results and fairly sharp images, but the 20x zoom lens trades some edge sharpness for zoom range and there are not many color modes on hand to choose from.

The Panasonic ZS20 features four color modes: Standard, Vivid, Black & White, and Sepia. Black & White and Sepia apply a pretty firm colorization (or desaturation, in the case of B&W) cast across the entire image, thus we didn't bother testing their relative accuracy. The Standard and Vivid modes did yield somewhat decent color accuracy, with standard being the more accurate by far. In the standard mode we saw a color error of 3.35, with a saturation level 112% of the ideal. The vivid mode is not intended to be purely accurate, but it returned a color error of around 4.9 with a saturation level of 132% of the ideal.

The Panasonic DMC-ZS20 performed pretty well in our sharpness tests, lagging just behind the better superzooms on the market. The camera had maximum sharpness of over 2000 LW/PH around the center of the lens, though this fell off dramatically near the edge to around 600 LW/PH. That's still decent performance, and it's what we expect from a compact camera with such an extensive zoom range. The camera does apply a pretty standard amount of sharpening, resulting in many edges having a white halo on one side and a dark line on the other, upping contrast. This works well for broad lines, but it does tend to hinder image quality of more complex shapes, like tree branches intersecting.

Video Performance

The ZS20 doesn't have superb video control, but it performed fairly well in our video testing with sharp images and nice motion rendition.

The Panasonic ZS20 reproduced motion pretty well due to its 1080/60p AVCHD mode. The 60p really shone here, with sharp images and motion the blurred, but with little trailing or artifacting. The camera did suffer from some ghosting in our motion example video, but less than we typically see out of point-and-shoot cameras.

The Panasonic ZS20 performed very well, producing sharp images with its 1080/60p recording mode. We found that it was able to reproduce frequencies as high as 700 LW/PH vertically and 750 LW/PH horizontally, which is exceptional for a compact camera. Currently, in terms of display options, the 1080/60p can be a bit of a pain—it's a newer compression format and there aren't a great deal of delivery methods.

There isn't much in the way of manual control when recording video on the Panasonic TS20, though you do have the use of autofocus and optical zoom control. The camera doesn't feature a dedicated video record mode, so it will generally inherit whatever settings it can from the still mode you were using prior to beginning a video.

Other Tests

Despite offering a 20x optical zoom range, the ZS20's lens controls distortion very well.

We found that chromatic aberration on the ZS20 was a bit of an issue, though this is common in the point-and-shoot category (especially amongst long zoom cameras like this). The camera has issues in controlling chromatic aberration, with a strong defocusing error vertically on targets with moderate to high levels of contrast. In our testing we saw this most commonly on our slanted edge target, with a blue halo on the top edge of the target complemented by an ugly yellow-orange glow on the bottom edge. In real world results the yellow-orange glow was less apparent, but there was significant blue fringing in high-contrast areas.

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