Cameras

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS20 Digital Camera Review

The Panasonic TS20 can survive below-freezing temperatures, but couldn't survive our lab tests.

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Introduction

Like the TS10 before it, Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-TS20 aims to bring a high-performance, adventure-proof camera to the low end of the market. Design and some features have been carried down from the TS4, this camera's better and more expensive cousin, but cost-cutting methods have been applied across the board. The result is a camera that can at some times feel limited, and at other times feel like a decent bargain.

The TS20 is in stores already, and is available in black, blue, orange, or red.

Design

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Sides Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

In the Box

Box Photo

• Panasonic LUMIX DMC-TS20 digital camera

• rechargeable battery

• wall socket adapter

• wrist strap

• watertight compartment cleaning tool

• microUSB cable

• A/V cable

• software CD-ROM

• Basic Owner's Manual

Lens & Sensor

The rectangular lens opening is protected against the elements by a layer of plastic, and no mechanical action (like an automatic lens cap or an extending zoom barrel) occurs outside of this layer. That means you will have keep your fingerprints well away from the top left corner of the front panel.

While actually using the camera, optical zoom adjustment speed is on the slow side. A minor annoyance.

Display(s)

Without a viewfinder, your only method for framing shots is the 2.7-inch, fixed-position LCD. Panasonic clearly used this element to cut cost, evidence by the lower resolution and narrow viewing angle. Strangely, viewing angle is worst from above, so you'll need to bring the camera all the way up to your face before shooting. A "High Angle" LCD mode option is available, however this only affects viewing from below (i.e. shooting over your head).

Flash

The flash emitter is adjacent to an array of bright LEDs which are borrowed from the TS4, and idea that was in turn likely borrowed from the Pentax WG-1. They function as both autofocus assist lamps and video illumination.

Flash Photo

The flash emitter pops up from the top of the body via a mechanical release.

Connectivity

The only connectivity port is a small micoUSB terminal underneath the waterproof seal and adjacent to the media and battery slots. We do score microUSB as a proprietary connection, since they're so rare. A composite video / mono audio cable is packaged with the TS20. Battery charging via USB is not possible.

Durability

For the money, the TS20 is the most rugged still camera out there. It's waterproof down to 16 feet, much deeper than the average backyard pool, shockproof from a 5 foot drop, freezeproof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and dustproof. This isn't quite as durable as the competition, but cannot be beat for under $200.

Image Quality

Across the board, the TS20's image quality is basically a disaster. The camera is neither sharp, nor accurate, nor free of noise. Distortions of all tested types are severe, while videos lack smoothness, sharpness, and sensitivity. This is not a camera meant for serious photography.

Sharpness

A sharp camera this is not. At all focal lengths, horizontal resolution frequently drops far below 1000 MTF50s. Often we see peaks in sharpness at the center of a given frame, but the TS20 barely offers this compromise. In the crops below, notice the central shots are just as soft as the border shots, except haloing has been replaced with blue fringing. More on how we test sharpness.

Image Stabilization

The TS20's image stabilizer is effective, and we do recommend leaving it enabled, just don't expect more than a slight improvement in resolution. In our shaker test, activating stabilization resulted in a 23.67% improvement. But since this is only a 4x camera, detail was decent (relatively speaking) to begin with.

Color

Another disappointing test. The TS20 renders color is a way that isn't true to real life. The results of our color test were far worse than average (twice as bad, actually), and errors were spread out evenly across the gamut. This resulted in at least one sample photo that was just plainly wrong. In our Color Sample on the linked page, notice the purple envelope is rendered blue.

For what it's worth, saturation is almost perfect, holding steady at 97%. More on how we test color.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

This is really too bad, because the TS4 earned some of the best color scores in the category, ousting both the Nikon AW100 and the Sony TX10. Even the lackluster Kodak Easyshare Sport earned a better result in this test.

Color Modes

Four color modes are available: Standard, Vivid, Sepia, and Black & White, though we only tested the first two for accuracy. Vivid mode caused color errors to spike even more dramatically, so we recommend sticking with Standard at all times.

White Balance

The TS20 does earn back some points for its capable white balance system. In general, the results trend in a way that isn't unlike most cameras. Incandescent light is a real struggle for the automatic method, while fluorescent and daylight sources are better. Best of all is the custom white balance, which is nearly perfect under all light sources. We just wish the custom option wasn't buried so deep in the menu system.

Noise Reduction

Even at minimum sensitivity, there is no way to escape the TS20's ugly image noise. Our tests measured over 1.4% noise at ISO 100, and that's just way too high. For reference's sake, the TS4 only produced 0.67% noise at this sensitivity, and even that result was mediocre. At 1600, the maximum ISO, noise tops out at 1.97%, but by then it almost doesn't even matter anymore. Shots captured with the TS20 are always noisy, no matter what. And that's a limitation reserved, frankly, for only the worst cameras. More on how we test noise.

ISO Options

ISO options range from 100 to 1600, and given how poorly noise is handled, we can't imagine going any higher with this sensor. By comparison, both the Nikon AW100 and Sony TX10 offer ISO 3200.

Chromatic Aberration

Excessive chromatic aberration is a good indicator of a cheap lens, and this camera has it in abundance. While the effect isn't quite as pronounced in the center of the frame, the edges are consistently plagued by blue fringing. This occurs at every focal length, in just about every zone we examined.

Distortion

It's tough to avoid barrel or pincushion distortion in a lens of this size, but unlike many compact cameras, the TS20 neglects to compensate for distortion in software. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if you plan to correct the effect manually at a later time. We have a feeling most TS20 users won't do this however, so we're taking off some points here.

Distortion is worst at the widest focal length, coming in at 1.93% of the barrel variety, and least severe at the middle focal length, coming in at a still-noticeable 1.03% pincushion.

Motion

Videos captured with the TS20 suffer from neither trailing nor artifacting in an especially severe way (though each can be found if you really look for them). Instead, what really ruins the footage is smoothness. Moving objects and patterns have a severe judder to them, and this is obvious in the sample video below. Pay particular attention to the pinwheels and the moving train, you'll see what we mean. More on how CamcorderInfo tests motion.

Video Sharpness

Sharpness during video is also on the weak side. We recorded 300 lw/ph horizontally and 350 vertically in our sharpness test. That's slightly worse than the TS4, but far from the best we've seen from a compact camera. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

Low Light Sensitivity

The TS20 requires at least 33.5 lux of ambient light to collect 50 IRE of image data, and that's slightly better than some still cameras, though still much worse than any camcorder. We're awarding only minimal points for this test.

Usability

This is going to be a mixed bag. While the interface is serviceable, and new users shouldn't experience too steep of a learning curve, some controls just aren't available, and handling could use an overhaul. We need to keep reminding ourselves this is a sub-$200 model, with that in mind usability is adequate, above-average even.

Automatic Features

For completely automated shooting, an Intelligent Auto mode is available from the dedicated Mode button. It works pretty well but, like all full-auto modes, has a tendency to rely on flash too much for our taste. A few options are still unlocked in this mode, like burst mode and image size, and depending on the user's competence, this could either be a source of hindering confusion or of welcome flexibility.

Buttons & Dials

On the rear panel, buttons are laid out in a rather typical way. There's a directional pad, with shortcuts for exposure compensation, self-timer, flash, and macro settings; although the labeling is engraved and practically illegible. Surrounding the d-pad are four hotkeys, mode and playback buttons on top, and display and quick menu buttons below. The buttons below the d-pad feel fine, as does the menu/OK button in the center of the pad. But the mode and playback keys are more recessed into the body, and may require some use of the thumbnail.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Scene modes are typical, with options like Portrait, Food, Sunset, Pet, and two varieties of dedicated Baby modes. There's nothing here that can't be found on another camera. As for picture effects, there is only one: the highly fashionable Miniature Effect.

Just like the TS4, the TS20's menu system isn't particularly well designed or thought out, however it's so fast and responsive that this almost doesn't matter. For example, although the quick menu is very convenient, it isn't possible to set a custom white balance from here. Instead, the user must exit the quick menu, open up the main main, choose the Rec option, scroll down to white balance, and finally scroll down to the awkwardly-named "White Set Setting."

Then again, at least you'll never have to wait around for the camera to finish thinking, and for that we're grateful. It seems sluggish menus are becoming ever more common in the compact camera space, so it's nice to operate a device that can follow along quickly.

Instruction Manual

The camera ships with a vague Basic Owner's Manual in printed form, and we do recommend popping in the CD-ROM to find the full length manual. This document is certainly more helpful, though we did occasionally find some missing information over the course of this review.

Handling

All of the TS4's handling problems have been transferred to the TS20, and most are exacerbated by the smaller form factor. Since the lens is so close to the upper left corner of the front panel, shooting with two hands means risking errant fingertips making their way into your shot.

Handling Photo 1

But one-handed shooting isn't perfect either. The chassis is slippery and, other than a few raised dots, no dedicated rear traction has been included. This means the thumb naturally rests on the zoom buttons, which happen to be the softest keys on the entire chassis, and don't give any tactile feedback. It can therefore be hard to tell by touch whether your thumb is accidentally holding one down.

Handling Photo 2
Handling Photo 3

Buttons & Dials

On the rear panel, buttons are laid out in a rather typical way. There's a directional pad, with shortcuts for exposure compensation, self-timer, flash, and macro settings; although the labeling is engraved and practically illegible. Surrounding the d-pad are four hotkeys, mode and playback buttons on top, and display and quick menu buttons below. The buttons below the d-pad feel fine, as does the menu/OK button in the center of the pad. But the mode and playback keys are more recessed into the body, and may require some use of the thumbnail.

Buttons Photo 1

On the top panel, the shutter release is actually a little bit better than the TS4's, and gives firmer tactile feedback. Here you'll also find the video record button (not the best place for it, in our opinion), as well as the on / off button.

Buttons Photo 2

Display(s)

Without a viewfinder, your only method for framing shots is the 2.7-inch, fixed-position LCD. Panasonic clearly used this element to cut cost, evidence by the lower resolution and narrow viewing angle. Strangely, viewing angle is worst from above, so you'll need to bring the camera all the way up to your face before shooting. A "High Angle" LCD mode option is available, however this only affects viewing from below (i.e. shooting over your head).

Image Stabilization

The TS20's image stabilizer is effective, and we do recommend leaving it enabled, just don't expect more than a slight improvement in resolution. In our shaker test, activating stabilization resulted in a 23.67% improvement. But since this is only a 4x camera, detail was decent (relatively speaking) to begin with.

Shooting Modes

A dedicated mode button opens up the selection of shooting modes, which includes Intelligent Auto, Normal (where we spent most of our time), some of the most popular scene modes, the miniature effect, and a button for the remaining scene modes.

Focus

Recording Options

There are plenty of 4:3 shooting resolutions of varying size and quality, plus one resolution for each of the other three aspect ratios: 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1.

Speed and Timing

A few different continuous burst modes are available, including full and reduced resolution options. There's also a handy flash burst mode, a rarity in cameras of this size.

A full resolution, the camera is capable of almost exactly one frame per second. ISO sensitivity does not seem to have an impact on shooting speed. Using high speed burst, which limits resolution to 3 megapixels, the camera is capable of 6.31 frames per second.

Self-timer options are entirely basic, with only 10-second and 2-second countdowns available.

Features

We expect budget cameras to be less feature-rich than their full fledged counterparts, and while that's certainly the case for the TS20, a few ancillary options keep this camera from becoming too boring.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Scene modes are typical, with options like Portrait, Food, Sunset, Pet, and two varieties of dedicated Baby modes. There's nothing here that can't be found on another camera. As for picture effects, there is only one: the highly fashionable Miniature Effect.

Recording Options

In what is probably another cost-cutting effort, videos may be recorded in either 720p or 480p, no 1080p option is available. We don't mind so much, considering the rest of this camera's performance woes. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

Zoom

Optical zoom is unlocked while a recording is in progress, however the action has been slowed presumably to cut down on mechanical noise. Though we really can't imagine this tiny lens making any noise to begin with.

Focus

Other than recording resolution and zoom, the only user-definable option is autofocus, which may be toggled between continuous or not using a menu option. All other controls are absent.

Audio Features

The TS20 is only equipped with a small mono microphone, and the wind cut option found in the TS4 has been removed. We're not sure why, it seems like this would've been an easy feature to carry over.

Mic Photo

Conclusion

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS20 is certainly marketable. It's got some impressive durability specs and, for some people (not journalists), it's cheap enough to purchase on a whim, maybe en route to that warm-weather vacation. Sadly the appeal ends there.

The TS20 is best suited to an impulse buy because image quality doesn't hold up under anything except casual use. Nearly all of our image tests returned below-average results. Color accuracy was especially poor, and this is best illustrated by the sample photos below. But to be clear, note that sharpness, distortion, noise, and video quality were nearly as bad.

It would be hard for any photography device to make a comeback from empirically poor images across the board, and the TS20 offers less ancillary features than its more expensive cousin, the TS4. On the plus side, we should reiterate that this is one of the most durable cameras for the money currently available. 16 feet of waterproofing will get you a long way down, certainly more than most pools and probably enough for some light snorkeling or scuba diving. Freezeproofing down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit will be sufficient for relatively warm ski days, while the dust and shock resistance mean you won't spent as much time worrying about the camera's safety. And that brings us to an important point....

We do think there's a demand, a big demand in fact, for durable cameras at the low end of the market. But not for "adventure-proof" models like the TS20, more like "worry-proof" instead. Cameras that perform and look like any other, but happen to be capable of surviving the occasional drop, or have the versatility to be used underwater once in awhile. We'll point to the Sony TX10 as a great example of this. The TS20, on the other hand, succeeds as a cheap and rugged device, but fails as a camera. We think a reversal of priorities is in order.

If you make more than we do, and feel like splurging for a 200-dollar toy, the Lumix TS20 will absolutely make for a fun diversion. On the other hand, if you're a routine adventurer interested in some moderately serious outdoor photography, skip this camera and check out our review of the Lumix TS4.

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