Panasonic's Lumix TZ50S is a simple but powerful digital camera with good image quality, Wi-Fi connectivity, and the ability to record high-definition video. But its price is high, and its quirks may frustrate impatient users.
The TZ50S is a solid, well-built, all-metal compact. The controls are nicely placed and easily accessible for users with large fingers. However, the microphone is so close to the lens that it can record the sound of the zoom lens motor and has difficulty recording sounds coming from the subject. Additionally, it's easy to cover up the microphone, speaker, and flash when holding the camera with both hands.
The 3-inch, high-resolution screen is bright, very detailed, and colorful, with a fast refresh rate that avoids streaks and smears. Users can change the angle of view so the subject is still viewable when holding the camera overhead. However, the screen lacks an antiglare coating, and the camera's user interface lacks context-sensitive help and detailed identification of modes and settings.
A Powerhouse of a Lens
The TZ50S has a 10X Leica lens that begins with true 28mm wide angle and extends to a 280mm-equivalent telephoto. When shooting stills, the user can control the zoom speed. The camera offers two optical image stabilization settings: Mode 1 (always on) and Mode 2 (on only at the moment of image capture). We preferred the Mode 1, because it stabilized the LCD screen for better viewing.
Integrated (But Limited) Wi-Fi
The feature that sets the TZ50S apart is its built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi connection. The camera can access the Web through any wireless network or hotspot, or via the user's T-Mobile account, including WEP-, TKIS-, and AES-protected routers. We found the setup tedious, especially since terse error messages don't pinpoint specific problems or offer solutions. But once parameters were set correctly, logons were automatic and trouble-free.
Once connected, users can upload or download encrypted or unencrypted photos via their (free, password-protected) account on Google's picture-sharing Web site, Picasa. However, users can upload only to Picasa, annotated stills and videos can't be transmitted, and only 10 photos at a time can be uploaded or downloaded. It took us an average of 36 to 42 seconds to upload each full-resolution JPEG, though speeds will vary based on Internet connection and image size.
Transmission time can be sped up (though image quality will diminish) by allowing the camera's firmware to automatically downsize images. For most people, we think this feature would be a gimmick. However, it would be quite useful to a businessperson or a journalist on deadline who needs to transmit a few shots to an accessible site.
Features, Shooting Modes, and Quirks
The TZ50S lacks manual exposure, but it offers a panoply of settings and parameters. In addition to both auto and manual white balance, users can bump up reds and blues. On the other hand, the white balance menu includes both Shade and Cloudy (which are nearly identical) and a halogen setting (a rare type of light) but lacks the much more common tungsten and fluorescent options. Among the camera's most useful features are auto bracketing, face recognition for up to 15 people, 7 color modes, plus 25 different shooting modes. But the Clipboard mode, for shooting maps, timetables, and other travel-related visuals, is of marginal importance and should have been included in the Mode menu rather than on the dial.
Neither Fast Nor Slow
Performance times of the TZ50S were middling. The camera is ready to shoot in 2.5 seconds, and recycle time without flash enabled averaged just under 3 seconds. Depending on the mode and settings, shutter lag can be barely noticeable or excruciatingly long. Burst mode at full resolution/high quality is a ho-hum 2.5 shots per second, stops at only 3 frames, and then takes another 2 seconds before you can resume shooting. An unlimited burst mode offers better performance, at 0.75 seconds per shot, until you take your finger off the shutter or the memory card fills, but the image quality is reduced.
Still and Video Image Quality
Generally, the TZ50S' image quality was very good. Images were clean, with decent sharpness, good color, and nice contrast. However, highlights in brightly lit scenes lost detail, and images shot at ISO 400 or higher exhibited moderate noise. Images were barely acceptable at ISO 800 and very noisy at 1600. The camera did well in overall exposure at 800 and 1600, but under fluorescent light, there was a definite shift to red and yellow. Using the flash resulted in uneven shots: Those taken closer than two feet often blew out details, and photographs taken at ISOs higher than 200 tended to be overexposed.
Besides the usual video options, the TZ50 can record 1280 x 720-pixel resolution video at 30 fps that can be displayed on any HDTV screen via an optional mini-HDMI cable (which costs $39.95). The footage looked quite good, in no small part due to the ability to focus, zoom, and stabilize while recording. However, video zooming and focusing were very slow, and sound quality was mediocre.
In general, we recommend adding an Eye-Fi SD memory card to a camera for uploading over Wi-Fi because it supports several services, as opposed to just Picasa in the case of the TZ50S. And Panasonic charges a hefty premium for the wireless capability on this point-and-shoot. We say pick up the $100-cheaper Lumix TZ5 instead, which offers the same big zoom and good video quality but skips the Wi-Fi.