The Panasonic TS20 digital camera picks up where 2010’s TS10 left off, filling a niche for the budget-minded consumer looking for a rugged compact. The TS series is most well-known for the TSx’s, the most recent being the high-end, ultra-rugged TS4. The TS20, with its 16 megapixel CCD sensor and more moderate waterproof rating to 16 feet, doesn’t quite reach into these upper echelons of technology yet still represents a great value. Competition from Fujifilm’s XP50 and Olympus’ TG-320 is fierce; read on to determine whether the TS20 is worth your heard-earned cash.
Body and Design - Panasonic Lumix TS20
Initial impressions of the TS20 are overwhelmingly positive. The brushed aluminum body is really quite stylish and the review model’s bright orange lends the camera a welcome edginess. It’s one of the smaller ruggedized cameras on the market and doesn’t feel unwieldy like some of its competitors. The truncated plastic grip on the front is a bit smaller than we’d like, yet does offer a nice finger hold on an otherwise boxy design. And as you’d expect from a rugged camera, build quality is excellent. The aluminum is sturdy and the port door is nicely damped and lined with rubber sealing.
Lets begin our tour of the camera body. The front has that small grip on the left side, a flash just left of center along the top, and the 25-100mm 4x optical zoom lens at the far right corner. The lens isn’t aligned with the plastic tripod mount unfortunately, so don’t expect tripod-mounted panoramas to swing exactly around the central axis. The top of the camera has an on-off button next to a tiny mono microphone, the shutter button and a record button. The battery and memory card live within the grip, and Panasonic has included both a latch and a lock button to ensure you don’t accidentally open it while underwater.
The back of the camera also has the usual Panasonic layout, with controls to the right of a 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 dots. This isn’t a great resolution for mid-2012 but a necessary cost savings. Two separat buttons operate the zoom rather than a single rocker, both of which sit just under the top of the camera. Below these are the Mode button, a playback button, the 4-way controller with Menu/Set button in the center, and finally a Display and Quick Menu/Trash button at the bottom.
User Experience and Performance - Panasonic Lumix TS20
The TS20’s shooting modes are split into two different menus. The Mode button calls up the RecordingMode menu, which features the shooting options Panasonic apparently thinks you’re most likely to use. These include iAuto, Auto, Sports, Snow, Beach, Underwater, Miniature and a pass-through to further Scene Modes like Portrait, Baby 1 and 2, Soft Skin, High Sensitivity, Panorama and the like. It’s a bit of an odd division; why is miniature included in the main menu but the more useful Panorama or High Sensitivity aren’t? In any case, the system as a whole works well and the Quick Menu will, in Auto, be your go-to for changing settings like white balance, exposure compensation, and autofocus mode on the fly.
The camera turns on in about a second, which means it’s ready to shoot about as quickly as you are. Autofocus is also very fast in a wide range of lighting conditions, although there were times it had troubl locking. This was most apparent when shooting objects that were somewhat close to the camera (although not macro, per se), for the TS20 has trouble focusing on a subject within a foot if you don’t put it into Macro Mode. This was only a problem in Auto, where the camera didn’t switch to Macro automatically, yet it’s something to be aware of if you want the extra control of Auto versus iAuto.
There were a couple speed problems with the TS20 as well. Firstly, the lens simply doesn’t zoom in or out as fast as you want it to, leaving you waiting while it slowly extends out to full telephoto. Such a problem actually lends the whole camera a sense of lethargy, for although it turns on quickly and autofocuses admirably, getting to the focal length you want is a bit of a chore. The burst mode, too, is a lackluster .8 frames per second at full resolution. Panasonic has included a 3megapixel high-speed burst that shoots 7 frames per second, yet with reduced resolution and locked exposure and focus this isn’t all that useful.
Despite these couple annoyances, overall usability is quite good. The Quick Menu does its job well and there’s essentially no reason to ever delve further into the admittedly short Setup Menu. The camera buttons are a little tougher to push than most, perhaps due to the camera’s waterproofing, yet this was only ever a problem when trying to hit the record button and knocking the camera a little due to the effort. The TS20 is really a pleasure to use and makes shooting both above and below water a breeze.
Image Quality - Panasonic Lumix TS20
Image quality, while fine for a rugged camera, doesn’t impress when compared to more typical compact cameras. Color reproduction is spot on but the resulting files never seem crisp enough. Colors and highlights bleed into each other and leave images feeling washed out and lacking punch. This may be due to the internal sealed lens, but there are also obvious signs of noise reduction even at ISO 100. And asyou’d expect from a CCD sensor, things get dramatically worse as the light lowers; ISO 400 is passable and the color shifts at ISO 800.
The lens isn’t anything to write home about either. First of all it doesn’t let in much light; at the 25mm wide end the aperture is a paltry f3.9 and at full telephoto f5.7. The wide end possesses some serious barrel distortion and bright blue chromatic aberrations around highlights can be seen in the corners. Photos with a bright point light source in the frame or just outside of it were also likely to be washed out or ruined by flare. The TS20 has seemingly fallen prey to the same zoom fanaticism that has affected all the newest camera models, yet with its tiny lens the sacrifices for such a range are too great.
As for the video quality, the 720p footage is both grainy and choppy. The stabilization also had some issues at the long end of the zoom, where it jerked the image around unnaturally. It’s great to be able to shoot video underwater, but this definitely isn’t the best we’ve seen.
Conclusion - Panasonic Lumix TS20
Having just beaten the TS20’s image quality to a pulp, it seems somewhat silly to end on a positive note.The truth is, however, that the TS20 camera is no worse than any of its similarly priced competitors and gets a lot of things right. The size, build quality, and usability of the camera don’t compromise in the slightest. While some rugged cameras (like the XP50) would look out of place in a social setting, the TS20 wouldn’t raise eyebrows and remains sleek enough to slip into a small pants pocket. It’s possible to get better image quality for less than the TS20’s $180 asking price, yet you’re unlikely to find a similar all-in-one, go-anywhere camera that you’ll be just as happy to use on the beach as you would in the club. For this amount of money, expect a compromise no matter what camera you choose.
The closest competitor to the TS20 is, as mentioned previously, Fujifilm’s XP50. The XP50 is a lot bulkier and not as well built as the TS20, yet does shoot 1080p video, has a longer zoom range, and sports a CMOS sensor for better low-light image quality. We hope to get one in the studio soon to see how it fares, but expect it to give the TS20 a serious run for its money. Also take a look at the Olympus TG-320, though with its smaller zoom range and lackluster image quality, the TS20 is likely the better choice.