Panasonic Lumix TS4 Review
Our first ruggedized camera review of the year goes to the Panasonic Lumix TS4, a slight upgrade over the TS3.
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Panasonic's line of rugged compact cameras are some of the most durable on the market, and their new Lumix TS4 is no different. Exposed bolts accent a sturdy metal and hard plastic chassis, for an armored look that copies the TS3 before it. A cursory glance at the two is enough to realize just how similar they are to one another, and for that matter, a detailed examination of the spec sheet will lead to the same conclusion.
Given the only-slight update from the TS3, MSRP has mercifully been left at $399.99. The TS4 will replace the TS3 completely, so–theoretically–Panasonic has improved this spot in their lineup without additional cost to the new customer. That is, unless our test results say otherwise....
Design & Usability
Menus are outdated, but at least they're speedy.
We get the sense Panasonic didn't dedicate much effort to this model's simplicity of use, but by no means should this be considered a clumsy or awkward camera on the whole. For example, overall handling is decent, but certain quirks and problems are impossible to ignore nonetheless. The placement of the lens is maddening. Two handed shooting inevitably leads to an errant finger in the way of the lens. We recommend shooting exclusively with one hand, but that's troublesome too. The armored chassis is quite slippery, and with no dedicated rear traction, the thumb needs to rely on the zoom buttons for support. That's sort of a cruel coincidence, because the zoom buttons are by far the muddiest, and give the worst tactile feedback of any of the keys, so you may not even notice when your thumb accidentally presses one.
The TS4 is accessible to beginners, but not by design. Most buttons on the rear and top panel have great tactility for a toughcam, but the labels are etched into the chrome, making them difficult to read. The layout has not changed since the TS3, so a nice dedicated mode button is still located directly below the playback key. Menu designs are dated and unintuitive, but the software is so fast and responsive that we actually don't mind that much. There is a quick menu in addition to the main menu, but both are necessary to shoot effectively. The quick menu contains most of the options you'll need from day to day, but there are some critical omissions—most notably, custom white balance. Options are legible though, so if you're anything like us, you'll quickly master the menu's quirks.
The TS4 can go underwater or over the bunny slopes, but it can also tell you the time and predict the weather, amongst other things.
The TS4's upgraded GPS capabilities steal the show from the ruggedized, "adventure-proof" body. Although the TS series is still the segment's most durable, these specs are not improved over the TS3. A plethora of advanced GPS tracking and logging tools not only offer the standard location data, but they also offer an altimeter/depth indicator and log, a barometer to measure air pressure (that's right, a camera that predicts the weather), embedded location data for both stills and movies, automatic clock settings, and pre-programmed NAVTEQ points of interest. This is by far the most complete GPS suite we've seen in a camera.
Another totally new additions to the TS4 is a full manual shooting mode. Control over both shutter and aperture are unlocked, though aperture may only be set to one of two positions. Manual focus is absent, but we rarely miss this on fixed-lens cameras. An intelligent auto mode is available for beginners, but we wouldn't quite call it beginner- "proof," since not all advanced features are locked out. 14 scene modes are offered, with settings for pets, babies, sunsets, and more, but the most useful scene mode must be high sensitivity, which increases ISO to 6400 while reducing resolution to 3 megapixels. In-camera editing options are quite limited, though you are unlikely to notice, since you'll be busy snorkeling and cliff-diving. Burst mode doesn't disappoint though, with full and reduced resolution modes that allow the kind of speedy capture that many toughcams can't match. An interval timer may come in handy as well, for time lapse photography. Imagine the sunsets you can capture with a feature like this. To top it all, there are 21 shooting resolutions with varying levels of detail (but not lossless RAW) and a video suite with tons of great recording options.
Image quality on the TS4 is much the same as the older TS3, but that is not a lamentable thing.
It seems Panasonic has retained not only the same sensor, but the same optics of the TS3 as well. This is a happy fact, because the TS3 produced nice photos. Image quality has been improved, but only slightly, and while we do see a big jump in sharpness, this is due to new software, not a sharper lens.
Sharpness is much better than on the older model then, but still not quite as strong as some competing models. Stabilization is excellent though, which is helpful for an adventure device like this one. Color accuracy is better than on most toughcams, but the white balance surprised us. Peculiarly, the automatic white balance was relatively accurate under incandescent "tungsten" light, but under daylight it was relatively poor... even though this is a tough cam, meant for outdoor use. Low light shooting isn't a priority for cameras of this type, so hopefully you'll be doing all your shooting in bright daylight. At ISO 100, noise rates are quite impressive, but 1600 is a different, grainy story, so try to keep out of the dark. Videos are neither smooth nor sharp, and the bright LEDs don't really help with low light recording, but the level of control over this mode is altogether admirable.
The TS4 is better than the TS3 only by a little bit, but that may just be enough.
The hefty, rock-solid Panasonic TS4 is equally capable of withstanding furious onslaughts of earth, wind and water, but it is equally capable of capturing attractive images. Search as hard as you want for a better in-camera GPS solution than the TS4's. You won't find one. This, plus the new interval timer and full manual control mode, are the key departures from the TS3. Otherwise, the same strong image quality returns, along with some modest improvements to color accuracy and chromatic aberration. More aggressive edge enhancement boosts sharpness scores into contention with the Nikon AW100, though we don't really think techniques like this actually make photos more attractive. Thankfully, the TS3's excellent optical image stabilization is unchanged.
The price too is unchanged, leaving us with little reason to complain about the TS4 at all. Image quality is close to the Nikon AW100, and although the body isn't particularly stylish, the new GPS features offer compelling advantages. For true adventurers, the TS4 is an ideal hiking, diving, or climbing companion. Hey, rugged camera industry, take note: this is how you replace a product in a lineup.
Check out our 7-camera waterproof shootout to see how the year's best tough-cams compare.
It seems that Panasonic has retained not only the same sensor, but the same optics of the TS3 as well. Image quality has been improved, but only slightly. There has been a big jump in sharpness, but this is due to new software, not a sharper lens, and this does little to improve photographs in a practical sense, which we explain below. White balance was a bit peculiar and noise was only a problem when it came to low light. Video mode was average at best.
"Better" isn't necessarily better...
Sharpness has been dramatically improved since the TS3, but since the lens apparently hasn't been reconfigured, we're guessing this upgrade is due to software changes. Such techniques are able to fool our tests, but real world images are rendered in a less flattering way. Our sample photos support this theory: close crops with the TS4 show far more haloing than those captured with the TS3. Even though Panasonic has made improvements within their product line, this isn't to say that the TS4 is particularly sharp versus competitors, especially non-toughcams. Rarely was this camera able to resolve more than 2000 MTF50s of detail in our resolution test. 1450 was average, with some zones plummeting below 500.
Image stabilization, on the other hand, is empirically better in this camera than most on the market, just like the TS3 before it. In a device specifically intended for outdoor adventuring, stabilization can make or break the product. We're happy to report Panasonic has carried over the TS3's extremely effective optical stabilizer for use in the TS4. With the feature turned on, we measured a whopping 51% sharpness improvement in our shaker test, and absolute sharpness was some of the best we've seen.
Low Light Performance
Low light shooting isn't a priority for cameras of this type. White balance is weird.
Hopefully you'll be doing all your shooting in bright daylight, because at ISO 100 noise rates are quite impressive: only 0.67% on average. After that, noise rates immediately cross 1.00% at ISO 200, increase to 1.21% at ISO 400, and remain steady there as noise reduction software attempts to compensate. The technique is quite aggressive and results in very grainy shots at 1600, the maximum sensitivity level. This isn't a strong low light camera, but it doesn't have to be, right? Stick to outdoor shooting and you won't have any problems here.
We've only begun full detail white balance testing on compact cameras this year, so we don't have comparative data for the TS3 in this particular test. But we can say the results were somewhat peculiar. The TS4's automatic white balance is relatively accurate under incandescent "tungsten" light, which seems strange given the camera's intended use. On the other hand, accuracy under daylight is relatively poor which, again, seems strange. It's worth noting the custom white balance function is much more accurate in daylight, so if you're serious about your shots, we do recommending bringing along a small white card or (here's a pro tip) wear a white watch.
Videos are neither smooth nor sharp, and the bright LEDs don't really help with low light recording.
While the spec sheet boasts 1920x1080 videos at a 60i frame rate, this is an interpolated value. Output from the sensor is only 30p, and this does result in some less than smooth video. Moving objects have a stutter to them, and some patterns are downright headache-inducing.
The TS4 only resolved 300 lw/ph of detail horizontally and 400 vertically. Pretty poor, but the footage behaved somewhat strangely. We shoot all our video sharpness tests while panning, and we do so partly to weed out cameras just like this one. Sharpness skyrocketed beyond 600 lw/ph when the camera was still. Therefore, if you plan to shoot most of your videos from a tripod, you may want to take our low results with a grain of salt.
The TS4 scored off the charts in our low light sensitivity test... In that we don't score cameras that can't achieve a certain level of sensitivity. Even at 45 lux, the camera couldn't manage 50 IRE of image data. At this level we no longer award points, and do not test any higher. Interestingly, the camera's built-in LED lights were turned on for this test, but only contributed about 2 lux of illumination.