HandlingThe Lumix TZ18 has a classic compact camera design and handling-wise it holds no surprises. There's a slight bulge on the right-hand side of the camera that's perfectly positioned for resting your middle finger on, even if it's a little too smooth and slippery to really improve grip. The product finish is fine, but nothing more, and the main controls are responsive and don't wobble or feel loose. The camera's interface is simple and user-friendly, with a mode-selection dial (PASM, iA, video etc.), a zoom control around the shutter-release button, a four-way arrow pad (flash, macro, exposure) and a QMenu button for easy access to the main picture settings (burst mode, ISO, image size, white balance etc.). One thing we don't like is the fiddly little switch for moving between shooting mode and playback, and it's a shame there's no video button to launch recording straight away.
ResponsivenessThe TZ18 is a very responsive camera. The autofocus is very fast at wide-angle settings and performs well at telephoto settings too. Plus, in low light, the TZ18 still manages to focus in under a second at all focal lengths. The camera takes a reasonable 1.5 seconds to start up, bearing in mind it has a 16x zoom lens to contend with, and photos are saved quickly.
Picture QualityThe star feature of the TZ18 is obviously its 16x (24-384 mm) superzoom lens, which is actually quite good for a camera in this price range. Picture quality is sharp and accurate at wide-angle settings. Although the pictures are almost certainly processed on the fly by the camera to remove certain faults (vignetting, chromatic aberration etc.), we still spotted a few blips, including lens distortion that's visible at wide-angle settings and slightly less noticeable at telephoto settings. Similarly, telephoto shots visibly lack contrast. So while the TZ18 does as good a job as most other similarly priced superzooms (Sony HX7V, Nikon S9100 etc.), it's outdone by the likes of the Canon SX230 HS, with its more advanced image processing system.
The Lumix TZ18 has a decent 14-Megapixel CCD. At 100 ISO, pictures are clean and sharp, and there's no significant loss in detail before 800 ISO. In this respect, the TZ18 actually does a better job than the higher-end TZ20, in spite of its more recent MOS sensor. At 1600 ISO, smoothing is heavy and very (too) visible and colours also seem to lose some of their intensity. At such settings, you'll be thankful of the TZ18's highly effective stabilisation system.
VideoTo make sure the TZ18 stays one step down the range from the TZ20, Panasonic has purposely restricted the video mode in this camera. Video is recorded in 1280 x 720 pixels at 30 fps and is saved in the out-dated M-Jpeg format. Needless to say, sound is mono rather than stereo. The TZ18 therefore clearly lags behind current market standards.
That said, the TZ18's optical zoom can still be used in video mode and can even be slowed down for smooth transitions. The continuous autofocus is also pretty handy. The results are acceptable when watched back on a Full HD TV, even if ghosting is clearly a problem with moving subjects.