Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 Review
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a well-designed, easy-to-use travel zoom camera that stuffs a 20X Leica lens into a body just 1.1 inches thick. As with its predecessor (the ZS10), its design, features, and performance are its best attributes, while photo quality could be better (though the ZS20 is considerably better than the ZS10 in that regard). The ZS20 isn't what I'd call an ultra-compact camera, but it travels easily enough in your pocket (even the small ones). Build quality is generally solid, save for the door over the memory/battery compartment and the small/cheap-feeling mode dial. The ZS20's new 20X zoom lens covers a range of 24 - 480 mm, and you can add even more telephoto power by using the Intelligent Zoom or Extended Optical Zoom features. Naturally, the ZS20 has image stabilization (of the Power OIS variety), which includes an "active mode" for extra shake reduction in movie mode. On the back of the camera is the same 3-inch, 460,000 pixel touchscreen LCD that was found on the ZS10. It's a really nice screen, with great sharpness and outdoor visibility. The touch functionality is mainly for focusing, shutter release, and image playback.
Probably the biggest feature on the ZS20, aside from its big lens in a compact body thing, is its built-in GPS. 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. GPS performance is pretty typical for a digital camera: decent if you're in the clear, and pretty lousy in the city. It also puts an extra strain on the battery, especially if you let it keep running while the camera is off.
Other features on ZS20 include its Intelligent Auto mode which, as I always say, is probably the best point-and-shoot mode in the business. If you have no idea how to operate a camera, just set the mode dial to iA mode, and the camera will do the rest. The ZS20 has a decent set of manual exposure controls as well, though it lacks RAW support, white balance bracketing, and manual focus. Some other handy features include Intelligent Resolution (on by default in iA mode), which does a nice job of sharpening your photos, and the new HDR mode, which really improves how high contrast photos turn out. The Intelligent Zoom feature will boost the focal range of the ZS20 by a factor of two, though it's best saved for small prints or web viewing, due to a drop in image quality. There's also an in-camera panorama stitching feature, similar to what's been on Sony cameras for the last several years.
The ZS20 is also capable of recording very high quality Full HD video. While the ZS10 topped out at 1080/60i (with 30p sensor output), the ZS20 records at true 1080/60p. The camera uses the AVCHD codec and Dolby Digital Stereo sound, and can record for up to 30 continuous minutes. You have full use of the optical zoom and image stabilization, and the camera can continuously autofocus, as well. That said, the video recording experience on the ZS20 is point-and-shoot, with only a wind filter available.
Camera performance is very good in most respects, with only two areas in which the camera lags a bit. The first area is startup time which, at 2 seconds, is a bit slower than average. Focusing times, on the other hand, are very responsive, and are among the best you'll find on a compact camera. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal, even with the flash. The ZS20 has a number of burst modes, with the two most important being one which takes 12 photos in a row at 4.8 frames/sec with continuous AF, and the other taking 10 photos at 10 frames/sec with the focus locked on the first shot. While the ZS20's battery life is a bit above average, the ZS20's new internal charging system is slow, and doesn't allow you to charge a spare battery.
While the ZS20's photo quality is quite a bit better than on the ZS10 that came before it, there's still a fair amount of room for improvement. Exposures were generally accurate, though since the camera has the tendency to clip highlights, you might want to bracket in high contrast situations. Colors were nice and saturated, though like its fellow Panasonic cameras, the ZS20 tends to lean in the yellow direction under artificial light. Images are a bit soft with Intelligent Resolution turned off, and pleasing with it turned on (hint, hint). Even though the ZS20 is 1-2 stops better than the ZS10 in terms of noise performance, photos are still noisier than I'd like, even at ISO 100. You will also spot some smudged or mottled details in areas of low contrast, most likely due to noise reduction. If you're sticking to smaller prints or downsizing for web viewing, then this shouldn't be an issue. Those of you making larger prints (or just inspecting photos at 100% on your computer) may want to consider a camera with cleaner photos. Another issue the ZS20 has is redeye -- it's pretty strong, and there's no tool in playback mode to remove it. Purple fringing levels were low, as is usually the case with Panasonic cameras.
Overall, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a very capable travel zoom camera that I enjoy using. Panasonic has improved the image quality to the point where I can now recommend the ZS20 (which was not the case for its predecessor), though it still needs some work. While I'm yet to try them, I'm pretty sure that Canon and Sony's latest travel zooms will best the ZS20 in the image quality department, as their predecessors did last year. Even with that, if you're mostly making smaller prints or sharing them on social networking sites, then the ZS20 will do just fine. Its powerful lens, generally snappy performance, elaborate GPS setup, nice set of useful features, and Full HD video recording make it worth considering. If you can live without the GPS, touchscreen LCD, 1080/60p movie mode, and don't mind a 16X lens, then the DMC-ZS15 is also worth a look. Since it uses the FZ150's sensor, I have a feeling that image quality will be better than the ZS20's, as well.
What I liked:
- Good photo quality (though see below)
- Packs a 20X Leica lens in a pretty compact package
- "Power OIS" image stabilization, with "active" mode for movies
- 3-inch touchscreen LCD with 460,000 pixels, great outdoor/low light visibility
- Built-in GPS with landmark database and maps
- Good collection of manual controls
- Intelligent Auto mode does it all for you, including scene selection, face detection, blur reduction, shadow brightening, and smart sharpening
- Robust performance, especially focusing and shot-to-shot speeds
- Intelligent Resolution improves sharpness
- Intelligent Zoom gives you double the zoom power (though it's best saved for small prints)
- New HDR feature noticeably improves contrast, doesn't require a tripod
- Fast burst mode can shoot at 4.8 fps with continuous AF and 10 fps without it
- Records Full HD video at 1080/60p with stereo sound and continuous autofocus using AVCHD or MPEG-4 codecs; optical zoom and image stabilizer can be used while recording
- Optional underwater case
What I didn't care for:
- While improved over the ZS10, photos still have too much noise, even at ISO 100
- Tends to clip highlights
- Strong redeye; no removal tool in playback mode
- Images have yellow/brownish cast in artificial light
- No RAW, manual focus, or WB bracketing support; movie mode lacks manual controls
- Slow internal battery charging system
- Flimsy door over memory card/battery compartment; can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
- Very little built-in memory; full manual on DVD
Some other GPS-equipped travel zoom cameras to consider include the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, Fuji FinePix F770EXR, Nikon Coolpix S9300, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V. Some non-GPS models worth looking at are the Olympus SZ-31MR iHS, Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS15, and the Pentax Optio VS20.
As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Lumix DMC-ZS20 and its competitors before you buy!
|Conclusion updated on 2/27/12|
Check out our photo gallery to see how the ZS20's image quality looks!