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Compact Camera Group Test: Travel Zooms

The so-called 'Travel Zoom' category was effectively invented by Panasonic, with the Lumix DMC-TZ1. Released in 2006, the TZ1 was the first camera with a 10x optical zoom lens that could truly be called 'compact', and although Panasonic had the field to itself for a while, it wasn't long before other manufacturers started to move into the same space. Fast forward to 2011, and almost all of the major camera manufacturers offer compact cameras with at least 10x optical zooms, up to almost 20x in some cases.

Putting a 10x-plus optical zoom lens into a camera small enough to fit into a jacket pocket is quite a feat, and zooms of this type are made possible because the sensors inside these cameras are tiny compared to the sensors inside DSLRs. Because the size of a lens is directly related to its required imaging circle, the smaller the imaging circle (defined by the dimensions of the sensor) the smaller the lens needs to be. The sensors in these cameras are all the same size - 1/2.3in, which equates to actual dimensions of 6.1x4.6mm - much smaller than the sensors in most interchangeable lens cameras (with the exception of the rather curious Pentax Q)

We know from previous group tests that putting complex zooms of this type into such small bodies can lead to compromises in critical image quality. This being said, the primary attraction of these cameras is versatility. The ability to shoot a sweeping landscape at wideangle one minute and to zoom right in to capture distant details the next is addictive, and invaluable of course when travelling.

This test is not intended to give a detailed breakdown of every single travel zoom compact on the market - there are simply too many at this point - but rather, we've picked out six models which represent a broad cross-section of the available products, from low-cost, low-specification models (like the Pentax RZ10) to the more expensive, feature-rich competitors (like the Sony HX9). Four of the models featured in this review - the Canon SX230 HS, Nikon S9100, Panasonic ZS10 and Sony HX9V, succeed cameras tested in last year's group test and we're interested to see how (or 'if') their respective manufacturers have moved the technology on. The Pentax RZ10 and innovative Samsung WB210 represent new lines, and neither has a clear predecessor.

In addition to the six cameras that we've selected for the full 'review treatment' we have also used, and shot with a much wider selection of the current range of travel zoom-class compact cameras, and you can find our (brief) take on them, plus studio and real world samples, and a summary of key specifications in the 'the ones that got away' page at the end of this group test.

The test cameras

As the travel zoom marketplace has expanded, the technology has advanced, to the extent that even some of last year's crop of products look under-specified compared to current models. One of the most noticeable effects of the increased competition in this sector is the increased sophistication of the hardware, not just with regards to the angle of view covered by the lenses, but also pixel counts and the increased prevalence of 'extras' like built-in GPS.

As far as their lenses are concerned, whereas 35mm (equivalent) used to be considered a 'standard' wideangle, many of the cameras we're looking at here range from a genuinely 'wide' wideangle to well beyond 200mm (equivalent), which in theory, makes them just as capable when tackling intimate interiors and landscapes as distant telephoto shots. Four of the six cameras in this test offer optical zoom lenses that start at 24mm (equivalent), and all exceed 250mm (equivalent) at the long end. The widest optical zoom range of any camera here belongs to the Nikon Coolpix S9100, which offers a 25-450mm (equivalent) zoom.

As already mentioned, we've selected 6 representative models from the current crop of travel zoom compact cameras for the dedicated 'in-depth' pages of this test. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

  • Canon Powershot SX230 HS
  • Nikon Coolpix S9100
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10
  • Pentax RZ10
  • Samsung WB210
  • Sony Cyber-shot HX9V

Key Spec compared

This table details the 'top level' features of all of the models on test. As you can see, some specifications, especially as regards sensor size and ISO span, are similar from model to model, but there are a few distinctions, particularly when it comes to optical zoom range.

Three of the models in this test feature 'back-illuminated' CMOS sensors, which are designed to (theoretically) give improved low-light performance compared to more conventional models. Put simply,'back-illuminated' means that some of the circuitry which might normally sit alongside the light-gathering photodiodes on the surface of the sensor is moved to the rear. This allows the photodiodes to collect more light, unobscured by their accompanying electronics.

 
Canon Powershot SX230 HS • 1/2.3" CMOS (BSI)
• 12.1 MP
100-
3200
28-392mm
(14x)
Lens • 3.0"
• 461k
SDHC/
SDXC/SD
• 1080p
• 24fps
$329
Nikon Coolpix S9100 • 1/2.3" CMOS (BSI)
• 12.1 MP
160-
3200
25-450mm
(18x)
CCD • 3"
• 921k
SDHC/
SDXC/SD
• 1080p
• 30fps
$299
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 • 1/2.3" CMOS
• 14 MP
100-
1600 (6400*)
24-384mm
(16x)
Lens • 2.7"
• 460K
• Touch-sensitive
SDHC/
SDXC/SD
• 1080p
• 60i/p
$319
Pentax RZ10 • 1/2.33" CCD
• 14 MP
80-1600
( 6400*)
28-280mm
(10x)
CCD • 2.7"
• 230k
SDHC/
SDXC/SD
• 720p
• 30fps
$173
Samsung WB210 • 1/2.3" CCD
• 14 MP
80-
1600
24-288mm
(12x)
Lens • 3.5"
• 1,152k
• Touch-sensitive
Micro SD/Micro SDHC • 720p
• 30fps
$219
Sony Cyber-shot HX9V • 1/2.3" CMOS (BSI)
• 16.2 MP
100-3200
24-384mm
(16x)
Lens • 3.0"
• 921k
SDHC/
SD/Memory Stick
• 1080p
• 60i/p
$349

*Highest ISO settings only available at reduced resolution

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