Panasonic’s new rugged compact cameras go where camera phones fear to tread

Panasonic Lumix TS20Fighting to remain relevant in a camera phone driven world, Panasonic has announced two new point-and-shoot compact cameras that offer something most smartphones don’t — durability in tough environments.

Here’s a scenario. You’re away skiing for the weekend with some friends, and want to take some candid shots after a run, so you pull your iPhone 4S from your pocket, fumble it because of your gloves and it buries itself in some soft snow. Change the snow for rocky terrain after a hike and the dust or heavy shock against the ground could be equally as disastrous.

We all know that our smartphone cameras are great, but sometimes you need something a little more rugged. Step forward Panasonic with their Lumix TS20 and Lumix TS4.

The baby of the two is the Lumix TS20 (pictured above), a slimline 16.1-megapixel camera that also offers 720p video recording, is waterproof to 5 meters, shockproof to 1.5 meters, dustproof and even freeze-proof to temperatures as low as 14 degrees F/-10 degrees C.

Other features include a 2.7-inch screen, 4x optical zoom and a 25mm wide-angle lens, face-recognition, a panoramic shot mode and Panasonic’s iA fully automatic setting. The TS20 will be out in February at a price of $179 and will come in a variety of different colors.

Panasonic Lumix TS4

Panasonic describes the Lumix TS4 as its “top-of-the-line” rugged digital camera, and the price certainly reflects this statement, as it’s set to cost $399 when it goes on sale during March.

For this you get a 12.1-megapixel Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens with a 4.6x optical zoom, plus the advanced LSI Venus image processing engine. The TS4 offers 1080p video recording, a panorama mode and a cool time-lapse setting for recording something changing over a longer period of time — a flower blooming for example.

Unlike the TS20, the TS4 has a manual mode — a first for the rugged TS range — as well as the iA automatic mode, plus it’s even tougher too. The waterproof depth is increased to 12 meters and the shock to 2 meters, although the freeze-proof temperature remains the same.

Additionally, the TS4 has GPS built-in and can geo-tag images taken with the camera, plus it has an altimeter and barometer for not only measuring water depth, but adding even more information to the saved GPS data.

Is this the direction Panasonic and other camera manufacturers should be taking to differentiate their compact cameras from phones? While there are several rugged smartphones — the Motorola Defy for example — they don’t offer the same degree of camera performance as the TS20 or TS4.

Yesterday, Sony also announced several new compact cameras, choosing to upgrade the sensors and software without increasing the prices.