Some things just go together like Brad and Angelina, peanut butter and jelly, Madonna and controversy. And then there are things that aren’t so buddy-buddy like digital cameras and Wi-Fi. In theory it sounds wonderful. You take your shots, find a hot spot then upload your images to friends and family. Gee, it sounds just like snapping a shot with your cell phone and zipping photos to your buddies—without tracking down a hot spot. And that’s just one of the issues—who wants to spend time uploading huge digicam files while sipping a Doubleshot on Ice to those same pals or trying to see if you’ve subscribed to XYZ hot spot just to log-on? And then there are our “friends”—those lovable SSID and WEP key numbers. With cell phones so handy, it’s no wonder Wi-Fi enabled cameras have gone nowhere as Canon and Nikon have tried unsuccessfully to foist this feature on the public. Now it’s Panasonic’s turn to see if they can overcome the many obstacles and design a Wi-Fi digicam that’s appealing to those beyond uber-geeks. At least they started off with a solid foundation—the popular TZ series of compact cameras with potent 10x zooms. Let’s see if it does the job or it’s just an overpriced digicam…
Features and Design
This is an extremely compact 9.1-megapixel digicam, considering it has a 10x optical zoom. If you look at close competitors like the much less expensive Canon PowerShot SX110 IS ($299 USD) with similar zooms, you’ll notice they’re bulkier. That’s the reason Panasonic refers to the TZ series as Travel Zooms. It’s not the sexiest name but you get the idea. The DMC-TZ50 measures 4.07 x 2.33 x 1.44 (WHD in inches) and weighs 8.6 ounces fully loaded. The TZ50 doesn’t have the sweeping lines of a Canon Digital ELPH—in fact it’s pretty utilitarian looking and won’t win any design awards. The size of the proverbial Altoids tin, the front of the silver-bodied digicam is dominated by the Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens. Much to my pleasure the camera starts off with a nice wide-angle focal length (28mm) and reaches 280mm for telephoto close-ups. As DT readers well know, I’m a big fan of wider angle point-and-shoots since they let you capture all your friends in group shots plus they add dramatic touches to landscapes and architectural images.
On the front you’ll find the flash, a self-timer/focus assist lamp and a few unobtrusive decals. The right side below the shutter has a nicely-designed grip with a touch of black, taking it a bit above the same-old, same-old silver-bodied digicam. The word “Wireless” is embossed in the black—was the color a hint of things to come?
The top of the TZ50 has the usual suspects—the shutter button surrounded by the wide/tele ring, power on/off, a mic, speaker and mode dial. What’s not typical is the E. Zoom button. Touch it and the camera zips through the entire focal length to 10x. Hit it again and it goes the other way. This is pretty cool as is the larger-than-normal mic. The mode dial won’t surprise anyone who has looked at a digicam recently. There’s iA for Intelligent Auto where the camera tries to figure what it’s shooting and chooses the appropriate scene mode. There’s also Easy (auto), SCN for individual scene modes, movie, Clipboard and Wi-Fi (we’ll get into Wi-Fi in the Performance and Use section). Clipboard is a cool feature—it lets you take a 2MP image of a timetable—or other text material–so you can store it in the internal memory. It worked fine on a NJ Transit timetable.
The rear has a very nice 3-inch LCD screen rated 460K pixels. It’s definitely one of the better ones out there—it has excellent detail plus it’s simple to adjust. To the right of the monitor is the classic four-way controller with center Menu/Set button. The four points control the flash, macro modes, self-timer and exposure compensation (along some other photographic options). Underneath the controllers are Display and Quick Menu keys. On the top right is the Record/Playback switch. Pretty simple it wouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to learn—the camera portion, that is.
On the right side is a compartment for three ins and outs (DC-in, A/V-USB and Component outs). On the bottom of the Made In Japan digicam is a plastic tripod mount and a compartment for the rechargeable battery and SDHC card slot.
The Panasonic DMC-TZ50 comes with a basic kit of the camera, battery, charger, A/V and USB cables, wrist strap and CD-ROM with Photofun Studio viewer, ArcSoft MediaImpression and Panoramamaker along with a USB driver; the component video cable is optional. On the analog side, there are a pair of printed owner’s manuals—one for the camera, the other for dealing with Wi-Fi. Wishing myself luck during a visit to Wi-Fi Land, it was time to charge the camera and start shooting.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Performance and Use
Although touted for its wireless capabilities, this is primarily a camera and if that part of the equation doesn’t work, who cares if you can upload images to who-knows-where? Since this is a 9.1MP model, it captures 3456×2368 pixel JPEGs. This is a decent rating although most new digicams have 10- to 14MP CCDs. Unless you’re making poster-sized prints, you won’t miss too much.
I set the camera to maximum resolution, digital zoom off, Standard color, optical image stabilizer to Mode 1, ISO at 400 max, auto white balance and single shot mode. This is how I typically adjust P&S cameras initially. I really don’t want to use the burst mode because compact digicams rarely have the processing power to handle continuous shooting so why expect the speed of a D-SLR? I took a variety of shots—baseball games, family gatherings, NYC architecture, bucolic suburban scenes and the like. Once done it was time to make some prints. Before getting to the quality let me point to some of the camera’s strengths—namely the 10x zoom. You can quickly move the entire focal length using the E. Zoom button or simply turning the toggle switch. It’s nice having such a potent range at your fingertips. The LCD screen is also a winner, handling direct light with ease. The Quick Menu button is also good, giving you access to the major parameters including the LCD adjustments. I liked the “High Angle” setting where it adjusts so you can look at the screen while holding the camera over you head. Nice going, Panasonic. The optical image stabilization also did a good job eliminating blurry images. Of course this camera has Face Detection—what 2008 model doesn’t?—and it did a decent job handling smiling faces, skin tones and the like.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
After making a series of 8.5×11 full-bleed prints my takeaway regarding quality was O.K., nothing super special here. Colors for the most part were accurate but they didn’t have the pop I like. They simply didn’t look as good as comparable Canon and Sony point-and-shoots. At least the noise wasn’t a real bust as in older Panasonics which had digital noise issues galore. It looks like company engineers are finally pushing that genie back in the bottle. Now onto the Wi-Fi…
Panasonic supplies a specific Wi-Fi manual for this camera and I opened it eagerly waiting to join the wireless world. The first series of diagrams made it look like fun—Take Pictures! Upload! View Together. Ah, if life we only that simple (they don’t give you a 48-page manual for laughs). The first thing you have to do is open a Google account and log-in to Picasa Web Albums so you have to set one up then get ready to start entering email addresses, passwords and WEP numbers to get going. I simply wanted to use my router at home to work this “magic” rather than be cool and upload images at the local T-Mobile hot spot. Dear readers, I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, crawling on the floor to check the serial numbers on my Actiontec router then inputting a 10-digit WEP Key on a digital camera really made my day. This was an incredibly annoying and frustrating experience. Since this is a G-rated site, I’ll keep my true feelings under wraps. I will say this: what a bust—and after all the frustration I still didn’t get the silly camera to upload images. Friends, life is way too short to deal with this nonsense—even if you get paid to do it.
Now would I spend $449 USD for this camera—just to take pictures? No way on Earth. Would I spend an extra $150 USD list compared to a Canon SX110 IS? You know the answer before reading another word. To make it official—no, I wouldn’t. As noted at the beginning, some things just go together. As of this date, Wi-Fi and digital cameras should just go their separate ways. If you really want to share an image with friends, just send it through your cell phone. However, if you want a decent compact camera with a 10x zoom, check out the Wi-Fi-less TZ5 for $349 list, $299 or so in the real world.
• Good 10x zoom
• Quality LCD screen and image stabilization
• Compact package
• Too expensive
• Wi-Fi is a bust