Update July 27, 2011: The ZS7 is still a fantastic compact zoom camera, but the going rate is far too expensive. The lowest street price we've seen recently is $400 (up from an average of $225 in its heyday), so it's no longer a good value for buyers. All the great things we said about the ZS7 still ring true, but we have to downgrade it, based on its inflated price tag.
Panasonic literally invented the travel zoom category. Practice makes perfect, and their ZS series (TZ series overseas) cameras have consistently been the best pocket-sized, big-zoom, sharp-shooting cameras year after year. Anytime they release a new model, it’s bound to get consumer attention.
This year, the electronics giant gave the world the ZS7 (TZ10 in some territories), an impressive specimen of a camera: 12 megapixels, 12x optical zoom, 25 mm at the wide angle, 720p AVCHD Lite video, manual control, a host of imaging features, and integrated GPS. It replaces last year’s popular ZS3, which rose to the top of the travel-zoom pack on the shoulders of casual-shooting tourists and enthusiasts who wanted a powerful compact to complement their dSLR setup.
Nine out of the ten major manufacturers have thrown their hat into the travel-zoom ring this year, so the ZS7 has some stiff competition. But you can’t mess with an original, and Panasonic’s offering comes out close to the top of the heap once again.
As a travel zoom camera should be, a compact body belies the huge zoom within. As long as you’re not wearing skinny jeans, the ZS7 could fit in your pants-pocket, though would be much more comfortable in a jacket pocket or purse. It has a nice confidence-inspiring heft to it despite the mostly plastic construction, and the lens actually doesn’t extend all that far at the telephoto end.
Nothing stands out about the controls, which is fine -- the less noticeable they are, the better. If you’ve used a digital camera in the past five years, the scheme should look familiar. On the back, the three-inch, 460,000-dot LCD is bright, crisp and visible anywhere but direct sunlight (a downfall of all LCDs). The buttons back there are small metal dots -- they get the job done, although they could be slightly larger. There’s a slide in the top-right corner to switch between capture and playback modes as well as a dedicated video capture button.
Up top, a mode dial allows for easy access to iAuto, the manual modes, a scene mode menu, two custom preset scene settings, video, and notepad mode. The metal shutter button has a nice resistance, as does the zoom tilter around its base. The battery and memory-card compartment door feels sturdy, and the slot for the USB and mini-HDMI/A/V output is easy to access. Everything’s just dandy.
Interface and User Experience
The ZS7's menus are pretty straightforward as well. There’s a “quick menu” for making common parameter changes like ISO, white balance, image size and the like, without leaving the LCD viewfinder. In manual modes, a dedicated exposure button allows for shutter and aperture adjustments. There’s a full menu for the more in-depth changes too.
I’m pretty familiar with Panasonic menus at this point, so I guess it might seem easier to me than it would for first-timers, but the interface should be easy to figure out with a day or two of practice. Novice photographers might not know what most of the settings do (intelligent exposure, intelligent ISO and the like), and the display can look overly busy if those settings are activated, but there’s always the option to just ignore all of it. I’ll put it this way: I rarely had to fumble for settings, and I never got frustrated looking for something in the menu. If I couldn’t find it on the first try, I found it on the second.
Operation should be fast enough for most users, and is on par, if not slightly ahead of other cameras in this class. The ZS7 starts up quickly, locks focus quickly and reliably, and has a barely-noticeable shutter lag. The zoom extends and retracts smoothly in still image mode. It’s sluggish while shooting video, but hey, it zooms during video and the motor noise is inaudible.
My chief complaints are about the battery and the GPS. The battery drained much faster than what I'm used to, I think because of the GPS. It’s constantly checking location while the camera is on, and even checks in every few minutes while the camera is off. With that said, I’m not sure how well the GPS worked; I loaded all the geotagged pictures on Picasa and I think they were mapped accurately but I’m not sure the location displayed on the camera while I was shooting was correct. It named landmarks that were a significant distance away from my actual location. I think it’s fine, but manufacturers need to find a better way to integrate the GPS into the cameras (see: Samsung HZ35W review).
Image and Video Quality
The ZS7’s predecessor, the ZS3, was lauded for it’s excellent image quality. I can’t personally say how the two compare because I never seriously tested the ZS3, but I can say, as somebody who has tested a number of this year’s travel zoom cameras, that it takes better photos than most.
Like most cameras in this price range, the general, everyday shots from auto mode will make most users happy almost all of the time. Panasonic’s iAuto mode has a similar “hit” rate as Canon’s Smart Auto. Shots in dim lighting are above average for the class, and the noise is bearable up to ISO 800 and usable at ISO 1600 (there’s also a low-res ISO 3200 setting, for what it’s worth). The default noise reduction (it is adjustable) doesn’t smudge away too many details and, even at full telephoto, the images are pretty crisp. The proof is in the pudding, so take a look at the shots on this page.
Video quality is above average shooting in 720p HD (AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG) or standard definition. The stereo microphone did a decent job picking up my dulcet tones in the video you see on this page, though it also picked up plenty of wind (I was on a windy bridge).
A note for Mac users: AVCHD Lite does not play nice with Macs. The video you see here is completely unedited because I shot in AVCHD Lite and there’s no easy way to edit that format on Apple products. Shoot in motion JPEG.
How It Stacks Up To The Competition
The travel zoom field is crowded this year. In addition to the ZS7, I’ve been able to test the Canon SX210 IS and the Samsung HZ35W personally, and our contributors have tested the Casio FH100 and Nikon S8000.
Of the three that I’ve tried, the ZS7 is my clear favorite. I had a number of issues with the HZ35W, mainly that the GPS barely worked and I wasn’t happy with the image quality. It certainly is not worth the $350 price tag. Perhaps on a related note, Samsung is discontinuing the HZ35W in August.
25mm wide angle (left) vs 300mm telephoto (right)
As for the SX210, it’s a closer call. The ZS7 is not as pretty as the SX210, which has a very classy, streamlined physique for a reasonably powerful camera. But in terms of the usability the ZS7 wins by a long shot. The SX210’s pop-up flash is endlessly irritating, as is the drumhead-tight mode dial and unlabelled scroll wheel. The ZS7 doesn’t bother with any of that fancy stuff, and comes out ahead as a result. The image quality is a touch better as well: sharper around the edges and a bit less noisy.
Our reviewers panned the Nikon S8000 and praised the Casio FH100, which has garnered strong reviews from other sites as well. I’d put the Casio and Panasonic at the top of the heap, with a bit of an edge toward the Panny.
Then there’s the issue of the ZS7 versus the ZS5, one notch down the product lineup. The ZS5 lacks GPS, the LCD is smaller and lower-resolution, and shoots lower-quality video. They use the same imaging system, so still photos from both cameras are identical. Most of this ZS7 review applies to the ZS5, so if you can live without the extra features in the ZS7 and want to save a few dollars, the ZS5 is worthy of your purchase as well.
Panasonic did the travel zoom first and they still do it best. The ZS7 shoots great images and video. Operation is foolproof if you want it to be, though there’s plenty of room for manual experimentation. It’s also small enough to bring anywhere. Despite a few flaws, I can confidently recommend this camera to a wide variety of photographers, from casual shooters to enthusiasts to travelers (the GPS is a nice touch for that last group), and even advanced shooters who need a backup to their dSLR. Anyone who wants a versatile yet high-quality camera should take a close look at the ZS7.