It's a close race, but the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 loses out to the best pocket ultra-zoom camera, the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS (*Est. $230) . Although it has faster autofocus and more features than the Canon, experts say the Panasonic trails in the most important category: photo quality.
Touch screen doesn't do much. Some testers enjoy shooting with the Panasonic ZS20. Mark Goldstein at PhotographyBlog.com finds it "intuitive to use for both beginners and more experienced photographers alike, a particularly difficult trick to pull off."
Others, not so much. "To cut to the chase, I found the Panasonic ZS20 a frustrating camera to use," says Mike Pasini at Imaging-Resource.com.
One thing Pasini loved: the great rubberized grip. "There ought to be a law requiring just such a grip on every camera," he writes. Of course, since the ZS20 is little bigger than a deck of cards, he says, it's still easy to block the flash with your finger.
But a couple of things puzzle Pasini. First, auto mode. The ZS20 comes with quite a few manual controls (although no manual focus), but casual shooters will rely on auto mode to make all of the decisions. Jeff Keller at DPReview.com says Panasonic's is "probably the best point-and-shoot mode in the business," but it makes some odd calls in Pasini's test. For example, it chooses low-light ISO 800 -- for a flash photo. A few owners at Amazon.com report blurry photos; one suspects auto mode is choosing the wrong shutter speed.
Next, the touch screen. Pasini likes that you can control the camera without it, if you want. He says it could come in handy in the dark, when you can't see the camera's controls. But, "operations are restricted to a certain few so it's a little like signing to a gorilla," he writes. For example, during playback, you can't swipe to flip through photos like you normally would; instead, you slowly drag your finger. You can tap to zoom, but there's no point, he says: "The zoom lever is far more responsive." CNET's Joshua Goldman finds the touch screen "near-pointless."
Better speed and video than Canon, but photo quality lags. Photos from the Panasonic ZS20 look fine, experts say -- as long as you don't look too closely. "The ZS20 is fine so long as you don't plan to enlarge beyond 11x14 inches," say editors at Imaging-Resource.com. CNET's Goldman puts the limit at 8.5 by 11 inches. "There are a great many folks who fit that description, but more picky shooters will want to look elsewhere."
At first glance, critics see the obvious flaws: blown-out highlights and redeye (there's no tool to remove it in playback mode, either). Looking closer, Keller at DPReview.com finds that "too much noise, even at ISO 100" makes photos look grainy. Imaging-Resource.com agrees that "detail already appears slightly smudged at ISO 100." As light dims, things get worse, although Goldman says ISO 800 still looks OK at small sizes.
Still, plenty of folks like it just fine. Like the Canon SX260, the Panasonic ZS20 gets high overall scores from more than 300 owners at Amazon.com. Only a few find its photos too soft and grainy for their taste.
Speed is an area where the Panasonic beats the Canon. Both cameras can rattle off up to 10 frames per second (fps), but -- unlike the relatively pokey Canon -- the Panasonic earns praise for its quick autofocus and shot-to-shot times.
Video beats the Canon's in tests, too. Both shoot full 1080p HD, but the Panasonic's max 60p frame rate looks smoother than the Canon's 24p. Dim light poses problems in Choice magazine's test, though. "Video image lacks saturation, sharpness and brightness in low light," testers say. Neither the Panasonic nor the Canon offers manual video controls. Both allow you to zoom while filming, but you'll hear the zoom noise on your audio. Audio rates only fair overall in one top test, and poor at Choice magazine: "Audio has humming and loud snapping noises when using controls," say testers there.
Battery life is rated at 260 shots per charge (without GPS turned on). That's a little better than average for this class, but experts strongly advise buying a spare battery (*Est. $35) and external charger (*Est. $20). The battery ordinarily charges in-camera, and "it takes a whopping 260 minutes to fully charge," says Keller at DPReview.com.
Metal body with a couple of cheap-feeling bits. Like the Canon SX260, the Panasonic ZS20 is made mostly of metal, not plastic. That's rare among ultra-zoom cameras.
At PhotographyBlog.com, Goldstein calls the Panasonic "a very well-built camera." Keller at DPReview.com agrees that "build quality is generally solid, save for the door over the memory/battery compartment and the small/cheap-feeling mode dial." He scores it lower for build quality than the Canon.
Most owners at Amazon.com report no durability problems. Some say their ZS20s malfunctioned, though. A few of those owners complain of bad warranty service.
Plenty of extras, including GPS, HDR and panorama mode. "The Lumix DMC-ZS20 is arguably the most full-featured travel zoom on the market," says Keller at DPReview.com. Like all travel ultra-zooms, its long lens is the star. The 20x optical zoom can be doubled to 40x with "intelligent" digital zoom, "though it's best saved for small prints or web viewing, due to a drop in image quality," Keller says. Regular digital zoom (known to severely degrade image quality) stretches to 80x.
GPS on the Panasonic ZS20 is "pretty elaborate," Keller says. "While most GPS-equipped cameras just log your location, Panasonic also offers a built-in database of a million landmarks, plus maps of ninety countries. It can even show you where you are on the map, though they're not nearly detailed enough for navigation."
Satellite-locking performance "is pretty typical for a digital camera: decent if you're in the clear, and pretty lousy in the city," Keller says. At CNET, GPS lock "took anywhere from less than a minute to several minutes depending on how much open sky was above me," Goldman says. But Imaging-Resource.com testers couldn't get a GPS signal inside a car, and they find the ZS20's mapping "cumbersome or useless."
The Panasonic ZS20 has two common features -- in-camera panorama and high-dynamic-range photos -- that are missing on the Canon SX260. The Panasonic can also shoot in 3D, although you'll need a 3D TV or monitor to see the results.
Like other tiny travel zooms, the Panasonic ZS20 lacks RAW image capture and a hot shoe. It does have a built-in flash.
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Review Credibility: Excellent Jeff Keller says he enjoys shooting with the Panasonic ZS20. Its "fancy GPS system," fantastic auto mode, "decent" manual controls and high-quality HD video make it "arguably the most full-featured travel zoom on the market." Image quality is a letdown, although Keller says it would work fine for small prints and web sharing.
Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 Review, Jeff Keller, April 2012
Review Credibility: Excellent Unless you never print bigger than 11 by 14 inches, skip the Panasonic ZS20, experts here say. Image quality disappoints, and testers aren't impressed with the touch screen, GPS or panoramic features, either.
Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20, Mike Pasini and Stephanie Boozer, July 12, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Panasonic simply renamed its ZS20 camera as TZ30 for the British market. Mark Goldstein likes its image quality very much. He says grainy image noise doesn't pose a problem in good light, and he awards it a rare 5-star Essential rating.
Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ30 Review, Mark Goldstein, April 3, 2012
Review Credibility: Very Good Despite its drawbacks -- so-so image quality in dim light and a "near-pointless touch screen" -- the Panasonic ZS20's excellent speed, features and video make it easy for Joshua Goldman to recommend. CNET likes the Canon SX260 better, though.
Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 Review (Black), Joshua Goldman, March 8, 2012
Review Credibility: Good Editors here test 44 ultra-zoom cameras, including the Panasonic ZS20. Write-ups are brief, but editors do rate each camera's photo and video quality, ease of use and more. Cameras are ranked from best to worst in a handy chart.
Review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20, Editors of ConsumerReports.org, Not dated
6. Choice magazine
Review Credibility: Good This Australian magazine is similar to ConsumerReports.org. Editors test 157 digital cameras, including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ30 (ZS20 in the U.S.). Editors rate each camera's image quality, ease of use, LCD screen and flash before naming nine best buys, including three ultra-zooms.
Review: Compact Digital Camera Reviews, Chris Ruggles, December 19, 2012
Review Credibility: Fair The Panasonic ZS20 nearly ties the Canon SX260's stellar owner feedback, getting an overall 4.3 out of 5 stars with more than 350 reviews posted. Some are extremely thorough, including one comparison in which the owner chose the better-handling Panasonic over the Canon's slightly better image quality. For some, though, the Panasonic's photos are too disappointing. Others complain of bad warranty service.
Review: Panasonic Lumix ZS20 14.1 MP High Sensitivity MOS Digital Camera with 20x Optical Zoom (Silver), Contributors to Amazon.com, As of February 2013