Panasonic has really been nailing it with their upper echelon of compact cameras lately. The ZS3 was among last year's most successful cameras of any shape or size, and the first compact to feature the high-quality AVCHD Lite HD video format. Even the lesser cameras in the lineup featured impressive zooms, stunning image quality, and some form of HD video in thin bodies, all at reasonable prices. Like some of Canon's more advanced compacts, they occupied an interesting spot in the marketplace: advanced enough for enthusiasts and hobbyists to be impressed, but easy enough for any casual user to pick up and shoot away.
Panasonic stuck with the same formula with this year's new models. None boast big changes over their predecessors, just some tweaks. That includes the ZR3, on review here. It's the thinnest and lightest among the Pannys, and has several marquee features. However, its predecessor, the ZR1, received less attention than its contemporaries. It just never really caught on. But it's a new year, so let's see how the ZR3 might fare.
Body and Design
The ZR3 feels as well-built as a $300 compact camera should. It's predominantly plastic with some metal sections, but feels substantial in-hand. Like several Lumix models, it's impressively thin for a camera with an 8x optical zoom. Panasonic seems to have mastered this design. The grip does bulge a bit, but it's purely ergonomic. The 2.7-inch LCD is nothing special, just a standard old 230,000-pixel monitor that looks somewhat dim in the sun but is otherwise suitable.
All the user controls are made of metal, and the layout is pretty standard. On the rear, from top to bottom, there's a toggle for playback and shooting modes, a dedicated video button, a directional pad with a button in the center, and two extra buttons for the display and a quick menu below it. Up top, from left to right, a power toggle, a nicely weighted shutter button with a zoom tilter around the base, and a mode dial.
The mode dial is the weakest part of the design. There are just six settings on it, so half the wheel is empty (that is, half-useless). It's also a bit loose, and a few times it failed to land on the notch I wanted it to -- switching from a scene preset to iAuto, for instance. That was irritating. Also, two notches are set aside for a scene preset of the user's choosing. It sounds convenient, though I usually found myself skipping to notch with all of the scene presets, because I forgot which two I had picked. I would have preferred more notches, each dedicated to a single preset. It seems to work on pretty much every other camera with a dial, and would also fill up more of the empty real estate. It's a flaw for sure, but it's the only big one I found on this otherwise well-designed camera.
Performance & User Experience
Like the FH series on up through the ZS series, the ZR3 is speedy. Fast start-up, fast auto-focus, and barely any shutter lag. A dSLR will still be faster, but only by hundredths of a second. This is about as fast as any point-and-shoot I've ever seen.
Also like most Lumix models this year, the ZR3 has a big zoom stuffed into its thin body. It's advertised as a 10x "intelligent" zoom, which really means that it's an 8x optical zoom with dash of digital enhancement to telescope it out a little further -- it looks as crisp as a legitimate optical zoom to my eyes. Intelligent zoom only works in intelligent auto mode, so other modes have to settle for "only" 8x zoom. It's decently fast to extend, and yes, it does work in video mode. This is certainly a highlight feature of the ZR3.
1x (left) vs. 10x "intelligent" zoom (right). Click to enlarge.
Intelligent auto (iAuto) is suitable as automatic modes go. It chose the right settings probably nine times out of ten, even when the shots were backlit. The scene presets are pretty standard, though I usually preferred the shots that iAuto churned out when they differed (I guess it's smarter than I am). Program, or "normal" mode offered up controls (via the intuitive Q menu) for white balance, exposure compensation, ISO, resolution, and the like, though nothing for shutter speed or aperture -- standard stuff for a point-and-shoot. Basically, a complete novice could pick up the ZR3, put it into iAuto, and starting shooting nice images right away, then still have some room to grow with it over time.
The ZR3's image quality is what I expected: sharp shots almost every time, but room for improvement indoors. It's a real treat outdoors, and I had a great time taking nature shots. Most of the time, indoor shots were adequate, but I noticed some worrisome graininess here and there. Then I'd turn around and it would take a great shot of an awkwardly backlit scene. Low-light shooting is a challenge, as it is with almost any point-and-shoot. I'd say that in dim lighting, it does pretty well, but truly low-light shots are iffy. The inconsistency was frustrating, but it was a mostly positive shooting experience.
Noise begins to creep into the shots around ISO 400, which is lower than I'd like to see. It's only really obvious around ISO 800, but even ISO 1600 produces usable images. Macro mode is a high point. The minimum focusing distance is just 3 centimeters, and the bokeh is pleasing. The colors seem accurate to my eyes, and the details around edges are well preserved. As for video, the AVCHD Lite codec produces some crisp, smooth results. I wasn't blown away by either image or video, but overall, the ZR3 pretty much met my expectations for image quality, considering the price. Check out the images to see for yourself.
But Is Something Missing?
So by the numbers and the pictures, the ZR3 is a great camera. It's well built. It's fast. It's easy to use. The lens is impressive. The photo and video quality are pretty sharp most of the time. There are some flaws, but nothing crippling. But I still feel indifferent about the camera as a whole. It lacks a certain charm that I like to see in cameras up at this price range. I don't have any strong feelings about the ZR3, and nothing about it really inspired me. I think a few weeks after this review goes up, I probably will have forgotten about this camera. I never laid hands on last year's ZR1, but maybe it also lacked an identity. That would explain why it was lost in the shuffle.
That said, I'm spoiled rotten because I see new cameras every week, and I think this conclusion is coming across a bit harsh. Bottom line: The ZR3 is a useful tool, a semi-high-performance shooter that captures sharp, compelling images and videos almost every time, and in the blink of an eye. It'll impress casual users, and it could complement a dSLR setup for enthusiasts. It lacks distinguishing features, but it gets the job done.