UPDATE: 22 February 2011: now we've reviewed our first genuinely five-star camera—the Sony Cyber-shot HX7V—the overall score of the Panasonic TZ10 can be switched back to four stars.
After spending 2009 as an undisputed best-seller, Panasonic's TZ7 will soon face a fresh wave of competition--not just from rival brands though, but from within the manufacturer's own stable, with the arrival of the new TZ10.
So what does the new camera bring to the table? It has the same 25-300 mm (12x zoom) in an incredibly compact shell, but the arrival of a Venus Engine HD II image correction chip as well as a new 14 Megapixel sensor both piqued our interest. The TZ10's also got a new GPS module and shutter and aperture priority modes that its predecessor didn't have.
Until you get close up, you'd be forgiven for confusing the TZ10 for the older TZ7. There are a few welcome changes though, including the new position of the mode dial and the power button, which have changed places on the top of the camera. The handle has also had a small makeover, and is now better to hold and more practical. Along with the new priority modes, there's another button on the back of the camera for exposure. It allows you to quickly adjust the exposure or speed settings using the joypad. It's a shame that Panasonic didn't go for a dial or a real joystick (like on the LX3) to make this easier.
The build quality and finish on the TZ10 are both excellent, and the only real disappointment is the flap that covers the battery and memory card slot. The controls might seem a little small, but overall the camera is easy to use, and we really liked the zoom control around the shutter release which has two different speeds. The 3'' LCD screen has 460 000 pixels and good viewing angles, giving a fluid, accurate display--in good conditions, anyway. As soon as light levels begin to drop, it becomes jerky, although most of the detail is maintained.
The menus are exactly what we'd expect from Panasonic: simple and effective. But the whole thing is beginning to show its age a little, and we would have been happier to see an upgrade in this area. Isn't it time to build in a help system, or at least at some more modern-looking menus? The Q.Menu button is as useful as ever, and it gives direct access to the main settings (image quality, sensitivity, GPS and so on). There's also a dedicated button to start shooting video, and the iA mode (automatic all the way but with a little extra intelligence) is there and works as well as it always has: scene and face recognition are both on offer, as are sensitivity adjustments and stabilisation.
With a wait of just over two seconds before it's ready for action, the TZ10 isn't the fastest compact in this part of the market, but it's still more than acceptable. The autofocus is snappy, taking 0.8 s in wide-angle and around one second in tele-photo. Using the (red) assistance lamp in low light levels, it takes a little over a second in wide-angle, which is pretty excellent. As you increase the resolution, the time between taking two photos doesn't change too much, and sticks at two seconds. The burst mode of 0.6 frames per second is a long way short of the 2.3 fps promised in the spec ...
With a new sensor and improved circuitry, it shouldn't be any real surprise that the TZ10 has been a highly anticipated camera. For years now we've been raging against the arms race between manufacturers keen to cram ever more pixels onto the sensors found in point and shoot cameras aimed at the general public. The TZ10 is yet more evidence of why this is a useless process. Unlike Sony and Canon, some of whose compact cameras now have sensors with fewer pixels but more sensitivity, Panasonic is going full steam ahead by using 14 million photo-sensitive sites, giving an effective resolution of 12 Megapixels. The results speak for themselves: despite the new Venus Engine HD II hardware, the photos are almost identical to those produced by the TZ7. That means they perform well up to 200 ISO, while at 400 ISO there's a little coloured noise and blur which is visible if you zoom to 100%. The blur is, of course, worse at 800 ISO, and doesn't stand up well compared to the Sony HX5V for instance. At 1600 ISO, the blurriness is even more pronounced. You can certainly still use this highest sensitivity to produce a decent A4 print--it's just that other cameras do much better.
Like with the TZ10's predecessors, distortion and purple fringing are handled by the Venue Engine HD II and the results are pretty convincing. The fringing is hardly visible and distortion is kept under control. Let's take a look at the new Intelligent Resolution feature, which is supposed to improve the quality of images. When we tried it out, we noticed a slight improvement when looking back at our photos on a computer screen at 100%. With a landscape shot, photos get a little bit of extra sharpness that's more than welcome, but it's nothing you couldn't do yourself in Photoshop afterwards, as these shots show:
TZ10 using Intelligent Resolution
TZ10 without Intelligent Resolution
TZ10 without Intelligent Resolution, but producing the same effect using Photoshop
The 1.3x i.Zoom feature, on the other hand, is a little bit more disappointing and introduces artefacts, as you can see in the extract below: on the left is the original; the photo on the right uses i.Zoom.
Overall, the exposure is reasonable and, outside, white balancing is accurate. As ever, though, photos taken under halogen lighting end up looking yellowy-orange.
The lens performs well and is good in both wide angle and telephoto mode, along with a pretty decent 3 cm macro.
The TZ10's video mode is pretty traditional for a camera like this. It films in 720p at 50 fps to produce files with a decent size-quality ratio. The optical zoom is available in video mode and sound is recorded in stereo. The zoom moves slightly slower to make for more graceful transitions, and the continuous autofocus is fast. When we watched our videos back on a 1080 HD TV, we were impressed by the results, especially with footage that we shot outside in bright sunlight. Indoors, where less light was available, blurriness and compression were more obvious.