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Design and Handling

Although it's a little smaller and a little sleeker the TZ3 doesn't veer too drastically from the design of its predecessor, and it's still pretty amazing to see such a small camera sporting such an impressive zoom range. There are a couple of minor changes of note; a new FUNC button (for Panasonic's useful new quick menu) is very welcome, the slightly shallower grip less so (it makes the camera a lot slimmer, but doesn't help handling). There's no optical viewfinder (it would be pointless given the huge zoom range), and the diminutive dimensions mean there's no space for an electronic viewfinder either, so if you like to shoot with the camera to your eye... this ain't the camera for you.

Handling

Although the grip isn't as useful as it was on the TZ1 (part of the drive to produce ever slimmer cameras), the TZ3 is still pretty comfortable to hold in one hand (though it feels a lot safer if you use the wrist strap). The shutter release and zoom controls are well placed and overall there is very little to complain about.

Key body elements

Although you don't get the manual control over shutter speeds, apertures, focus and so on found on Panasonic's FZ series of cameras, the TZ3 - like its predecessor - packs a surprising number of useful features into its small body. In everyday use the majority of controls you're likely to need (flash, AE compensation, self-timer) get their own external control buttons, with the new FUNC menu making a huge difference to people who like to change white balance, ISO, metering etc on a regular basis.

Panasonic has struck the perfect balance between making the TZ3 small enough to be truly portable and the need to be big enough to use without fumbling over the buttons. I was surprised at how well the controls are positioned and how well the camera handles.

The top plate is home to the shutter release (which sits inside a circular zoom rocker), main power switch, IOS button and mode dial. There are no manual modes, but there are two scene mode positions on the dial, where you can store your favorites. New for the TZ3 are Intelligent ISO (which increases the ISO to get the shutter speed up if it detects movement in the frame), Clipboard and Direct Print modes.
The 230,000 pixel 3.0-inch screen is even better than the excellent LCD used on the TZ1; bright, clear and fast-moving. Like the TZ1 it has a special mode that allows you to see it from an acute angle when the camera is held above your head. We found the screen worked very well in low light, gaining up well, but glare is an inevitable problem when shooting in very bright, direct light.

By far the biggest change over the TZ1 is the lens, which - though still boasting a 10x optical zoom - is now a lot wider and a lot shorter, covering 28-280mm equivalent rather than 35-350mm.

To me this is a hugely welcome move; I find the extra wideangle much more useful - both practically and creatively - than the extra telephoto, especially in such a compact camera. For standard sized prints or on-screen viewing the loss of telephoto can easily be made up by cropping (or using the TZ3's digital zoom at a lower resolution setting) - there's nothing you can do in most situations to replace the extra angle of view offered by a 28mm lens.

It's not all good news; the maximum aperture at the wide end is F3.3, where on the TZ1 it was F2.8. The half stop loss is in part made up for by an increase in the base ISO, and to be honest it's a small price to pay for the more versatile zoom range.

The other welcome change is that new FUNC button, which brings the TZ3 in line with the LX and FZ series by adding a quick 'Function' menu. This offers quick access to stuff like ISO, WB, metering and so on, and means you never have to leave the live preview mode in normal use. The remainder of the controls are pretty standard Panasonic fayre and my only complaint is that the engraved icons can be difficult to see in some lighting situations.
The battery and card slots are located together under a fairly sturdy lockable door. The TZ3 has a measly 12.7MB of internal memory, so you don't get a card (it's SD and SDHC compatible).

Controls & Menus

Panasonic has been refining its user-interface for several generations of Lumix camera, but the essentials remain the same, with lots of control and an admirably logical, easy to use and yet attractive design. Users of any recent Panasonic model will feel completely at home here.

The live view screen in record mode will be familiar to anyone who's ever used a Panasonic compact. The DISP button lets you choose the amount of information overlaid, from nothing at all this fairly comprehensive display, complete with histogram. There is also a handy grid option. Half-press the shutter release and the camera will calculate exposure (AE) and focus (AF) indicating the AF area used and the aperture/shutter speed chosen. You'll also get a warning if camera shake is a danger.
New for the TZ3 is this 'SLR viewfinder' style (as seen on all the recent FZ series cameras). Also new for the TZ3 is the quick 'Function' menu seen on the LX and FZ series. This offers fast access to burst mode, white balance, ISO, aspect ratio, size and quality. Note that the FUNC menu is normally displayed as an overlay on the live preview (click).
A nice touch - common to all Panasonic models - is the easily accessible AE-Compensation, AE-Bracketing and WB adjust options. These are accessed via repeated presses of the 'up' arrow on the rear of the camera. Switching to the 'Simple' mode (indicated by a heart symbol on the mode dial) gives you a friendlier, simpler on-screen display with larger icons, fewer controls and less information.
The record menu in 'Simple' mode is suitably basic, with easy icons and limited options. There are 21 scene modes in total, and an option in the setup menu allows you to choose between seeing this menu when you turn the dial to the SCN1 or SCN2 position. If you choose not to, the last selected scene mode for each position on the dial is remembered, allowing you to set the two SCN positions on the dial as your two favorite scene modes. Pressing the info button brings up a brief description of each mode.
The three-page record menu covers options such as white balance, sensitivity, picture size/quality, focus modes and image adjustments. A new feature is the 'Clipboard'. This allows you to shoot low res images and save them in a special area on the internal memory - the idea being you snap train timetables and so on for use later. I suspect most users will, like me, see this as a bit of a waste of a notch on the mode dial.
As when in record mode you can choose the amount of information displayed in playback mode - from nothing at all to full data and histogram (as shown here). A new option is 'Dual Display' - useful for comparing and sorting through lots of shots (the thumbnails can be scrolled and zoomed independently). You can view 3x3 or 5x5 thumbnails, and magnify images up to 16x. As is now fairly common you can also view images sorted by date using the calendar view.
The three-page playback menu offers the usual array of printing, erasing, protecting and slide show options. There's also the option to add sound to saved files, as well as crop (trim) and resize them. The setup menu - accessible from either playback or record mode - has three pages of basic camera-related settings, from monitor brightness and auto review settings to power management, sounds and date and time settings.
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