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Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1 (FT1 in Europe)
12.1MP | 28-128mm (4.6X) ZOOM | Waterproof 3m/10ft | $340/£250

Panasonic has come a long way in a short time, and - as winner or joint winner of virtually all our recent group tests - is now a major force in the photographic industry. And now it's moved into the ruggedized camera market with the TS1, which packs everything you might expect in a 2009 compact (including HD video) into a body that is waterproof, dust proof and shock proof. The TS1 represents Panasonic's first attempt at a waterproof camera (just like Canon's D10), and, while not the most compact in this group, it is certainly more pocketable than the D10. Panasonic has managed to pack an impressive number of features into a fairly compact and stylish body that feels solid in the hand. With advanced features that match the best of today's crop of compact cameras, and available in three colors (silver, orange and green) the TS1 presents a very attractive package to potential buyers.

  • 12.1 effective Megapixels
  • 28-128mm equiv lens with 4.6x optical zoom and optical image stabilization
  • Waterproof to 3m / 10 ft.
  • Shock and dust proof
  • 720p (1280x720) video recording, AVCHD lite option
  • 2.7-inch LCD with 230,000 dot resolution
  • ISO sensitivity from 80 to 1600 extendable to 3200 and 6400 at reduced resolution
  • 29 Scene modes
  • In-camera Image editing (such as cropping and resizing)
  • Battery life 340 shots (CIPA standard)

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Overview

While not the most compact camera in this group test, the TS1 is more compact than the D10, and only a little bigger than the Olympus Tough cameras. The boxy design means that it is still easy to slip into a breast pocket or shirt pocket. The construction materials used are a combination of metals and plastics, and the brushed aluminum finish on the front of the camera certainly adds style. To keep the camera looking sleek and stylish, Panasonic has not included a hand grip on the front left of the TS1, so you might find it a little slippery to use one handed. The ergonomics are not helped by the placement of the zoom rocker and shutter button, which decrease your grip on the camera in operation. Another problem we found with the TS1 is that the rear mode wheel is very tight. While this may be good for preventing you from changing the mode unintentionally, when you do actually want to change the mode it's usually a two handed affair.

The TS1 features a non extending (internal zooming) lens with a range of 28-128mm, which is second only to the Pentax W60 and W80 (which have a little more at the telephoto end). Unlike the Pentax cameras, the TS1 does include optical stabilization, and as you can see in our stabilization tests, it is quite effective in keeping your shots shake-free without the need to increase the ISO settings (and thus introducing noise). Unlike the Olympus Tough cameras, which have the lens in a similar location to the TS1, there is no lens cover when the camera is turned off, meaning that you will likely need to clean fingerprints and dust off the front element quite often. Behind the lens is a 12.1 MP sensor that has a normal ISO range from 80 to 1600. ISO 3200 and 6400 are available as reduced resolution options, but to get to these settings you must be in the special high sensitivity scene mode.

Stills aside, the TS1 features the most advanced video recording capabilities of all the cameras in this group test. It is capable of recording video at 720p (1280x720) at 30fps, and you have the option of M-JPEG compression, or AVCHD lite. The inclusion of AVCHD lite using H.264 compression allows you to jam longer videos onto the same memory card compared to M-JPEG. Video recording is available in reduced resolutions apart from 720p - 848x480, 640x480 and 320 x240 all at 30 fps. The TS1 is one of only two (the other being the Z33) cameras in this group test with a dedicated video recording button, and is the only camera to allow you to operate the optical zoom during video recording. There is also a HDMI port to output your videos to a large display (unique in this group to the TS1).

The TS1 features a playback button for quick access to the pictures you have taken, with some some basic in-camera editing features - such as cropping or resizing - while in playback mode. Unfortunately you cannot turn the camera on with the playback button (the camera needs to be on before you can go into playback mode). This brings us to one of the most annoying things about the TS1 - the ON/OFF button. You need to hold the ON/OFF button for a second before the camera turns on (though it you only have to press it for a fraction of a second before it turns off), and when coming from any other camera in this group test, we were constantly thinking the camera had a flat battery or was broken. The TS1 will go into record mode (from playback) with a half shutter press (this a shooting priority camera).

The interface of the TS1 is quite straightforward and easy to learn and the menu system is intuitive and is easy to read even underwater. A nice feature (that is similar to the Olympus cameras and the D10) is the Q.menu system that gives you quick access to available shooting parameters in record modes. You generally won't be wading through the menu while taking a picture, and it is possible to display just about all the information you would want on the LCD screen.

Equal with the Z33 and Tough 6000, the TS1 is one of the least waterproof cameras in this group, able to only get to 3m/10ft. On top of the waterproofing it is also shock- and dust-proof.

Key Features

The design is mostly rectangular and boxy with a brushed aluminum-like finish on the front and back. There is no hand grip on the front and you might find it a little slippery to use one handed. Build quality in general feels quite solid. The placement of the lens on the right side of the camera means that at times fingers from your left hand are going to be in pictures when holding the camera two handed (at least until you get used to it).
The rear of the TS1 is laid out in a similar way to the Olympus Tough cameras. There is a mode wheel on the top right, playback and dedicated movie recording buttons below that, a four way controller with exposure compensation, flash control, macro and drive control / timer settings. Towards the bottom of the camera as the display and Q menu buttons (which gives you quick access to image settings in record modes). The LCD used in the TS1 is a 2.7 inch 240K screen.
The top of the TS1 features the ON/OFF button, the zoom rocker and the textured shutter button. The shutter button has a fairly positive half press (you are unlikely to take a picture when trying to focus). The unconventional zoom rocker and shutter button arrangement take some to get used to, and contribute to the camera being a bit slippery to use one-handed.
From the side view you can see that while the TS1 features no protruding elements to the front or rear, it is not really all that slim compared to some of the other cameras in the group.
The side port of the TS1 hides the Digital AV and HDMI ports. The TS1 is the only camera in this group to feature a HDMI port. The rubber gaskets, and click-locking mechanism of the door should keep any water and dust out.
Both battery and memory card are hidden behind the watertight door at the bottom of the camera. The battery included with the TS1 has the equal highest capacity (with the D10) in this group at 940mAh. SDHC and SD cards are accepted meaning you can use cards up to 32 GB.
It is possible to overlay a lot of information on the LCD screen when shooting. Here you can see the live histogram, grid view overlay, focus point indicator, number of images left on card, battery level indicator, JPEG compression indicator, currently selected resolution, ISO, flash mode, shooting mode, video recording settings, AF mode, and IS mode . I think a representation of what you are about to take a picture of is in there somewhere as well.
The Q.menu system on the TS1 resembles the FUNC menu on the D10 and the quick control menu on the Olympus Tough cameras. You have access to all the most common shooting parameters in record mode, and all changes that you make while in this menu are reflected in the live preview on the LCD screen.
The menu system used in the TS1 should be familiar to users of other compact cameras in the Panasonic range. Menu is split in to three sections: Shooting, video recording, and settings. In each of these sections there are pages of settings in with clearly readable items. Overall the menu is clear and easy to understand, and resembles the one on the Z33.

Image quality and performance

The panasonic TS1 was not quite the fastest camera in this test operationally, but it was by no means the the slowest either. Our focus test, conducted in moderate indoor light at wide angle, showed it took 1.2 seconds to achieve focus. It was the slowest camera to zoom from wide to telephoto taking 2.7 seconds, and the zoom rocker takes a moment to react when you press it. The slow zooming action means that the TS1 can allow you to zoom during video recording, but we would have liked to see a faster zoom action when not recording videos. The TS1 was one of the slower cameras to turn on taking 1.8 seconds to turn on, and most of that time is holding down the ON/OFF button (if you just press momentarily it will not turn on). The TS1 averaged about 2.5 seconds to write an image out to card.

Taking a close look at the images from the TS1, it produced some of the best results in this group test, and up to ISO 400 shots from it and the Canon D10 were at times hard to distinguish. The main difference is that Canon images generally looked sharper than those from the TS1. Like the D10, sharpness is not quite as good in the corners, and the TS1 is not quite as sharp at the telephoto end as it is on the wide end, which you might expect from a camera with a compact in-body zoom lens.

The high ISO performance of the TS1 is the best in this group test, with Panasonic taking a conservative approach to in-camera noise reduction at higher ISO settings. And while it does show more noise at high ISO settings than the Canon D10, the TS1 also retains the most amount of detail at ISO 1600 of any camera in this group, and will be most likely to give you a usable 6x4 or even 8x10 print when light is low.

In general the color reproduction and exposure of the TS1 is pretty good, but the auto white balance in bright outdoor conditions tends towards more blue than other cameras in this group (though it is not quite as bad as the Z33), so colors are not quite as accurate as those from the Canon D10. The ability to display a live histogram should help you get the correct exposure, but in general it performed very well in full auto mode, with few blown highlights and few exposure problems. Face detection on the TS1 was a little erratic, and there were situations where there were two people in the frame (such as in our flash test) when it would recognize one face but not the the other. Auto focus performance was fairly good, while it was not the fastest in the group (that would belong to the D10), it was not the slowest, and was generally pretty accurate.

The flash shots from the TS1 were some of the worst of the bunch. It produced a sharp, detailed and noise-free image by selecting ISO 100, but it also captured the least amount of ambient light of all the cameras in this group. In fact it was the only camera for which the subjects of our flash test complained that the flash was too bright, and they needed a moment to recover between test shots.

Finally the underwater performance of the TS1 was a mixed bag. When using flash it refused to choose any ISO other than 100, and preceded to blast everything with great amounts of flash. This resulted in an image that was not well exposed and had a distinctly warm color cast. This, along with the ergonomic annoyances, made the camera less enjoyable to use than the Canon D10.

The TS1 produced some of the best images in the group test, losing out to the Canon D10 only in terms of absolute sharpness at low ISO settings, and producing the best results at ISO 1600 of all the cameras in this test. The white balance tends slightly more towards blue than other cameras in this test.

Summary

The TS1 is a feature-packed compact camera that just happens to be waterproof. It produced some of the best image quality in this group test at lower ISO settings, and was the best at high ISO settings. It is let down somewhat by interface annoyances (especially the power button) that you will either hate with a passion or gradually get used to. If you are willing to learn to live with its shortcomings and want a camera that you can use day to day and sometimes take into shallow water, then this should be at - or near - the top of your list, though you do have to remember that this is the one of the least waterproof cameras in this group test.

  • We like: Compact stylish design, good metering, some of the best image quality in this group (especially at high ISO settings), wide zoom range with optical image stabilization, high capacity battery, optical zoom available during video recording.

  • We don't like: Unresponsive power button, ergonomics may not suit everyone, poor flash performance, very slow optical zooming action, equal least waterproof camera in this group.
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