Having spent a month or so working with these cameras a few things are clear. First and foremost, the range from 'best' to 'worst' is fairly narrow, and none of the cameras wins on every single criteria. For the most part the results we got from all seven models where getting close to indistinguishable at normal print sizes at base ISO, and handling is pretty consistent across the group. Secondly, the compromises involved in squeezing such a huge zoom range into a small-ish affordable camera mean that even the best models here struggle to produce usable results at high ISO settings (thanks to the tiny sensors) or to match the optical performance of the best compact cameras furnished with less ambitious zooms.
It's also obvious that you can't expect any image stabilization system to work miracles now that these big zooms have started to stretch well beyond 400mm (equiv.). Our experiences on that score showed a clear advantage to those cameras using lens stabilization over sensor-shift, and that the design of the camera itself plays a big role in how still you can hand-hold at long focal lengths (the lightest cameras being the least stable, obviously).
In general these are compromises we're happy to live with; you need to be looking very closely to see the lens and sensor limitations in 'real' images, and - in good light - they simply won't impact at normal viewing magnifications. When balanced against the incredible versatility of a single compact lens that reaches from a real wideangle to a long telephoto for a few hundred dollars, the slightly underwhelming pixel level image quality and poor high ISO output fades into insignificance.
Of course there are clear differences in the performance of the seven cameras here. While none of them are really bad, some we'd advise against buying simply because there are better alternatives. Inevitably one or two cameras in the group manage to stand out as having the fewest serious issues, and therefore are the easiest to recommend.
Image quality: outdoors / daylight
If you mainly shoot outdoors in good light any of the cameras here will do the job, with little to choose between the better cameras here unless you intend to print at sizes larger than about 8x10 inches. The group is split roughly down the middle, with the Canon, Panasonic and Sony models (in that order) capturing sharper, more detailed results, but only if you look very closely. The least impressive of the bunch are the Nikon P80 and Fujifilm S2000HD - both use excessive noise reduction at base ISO (smearing detail and texture) and the P80's focus is unreliable at the long end of the zoom.
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot SX 10 IS, Panasonic FZ28, Sony H50
- Middle of the road: Fujifilm S8100fd, Olympus SP-565UZ
- Bottom of the class: Nikon P80, Fujifilm S2000HD
Image quality: Low light / High ISO
All seven of the cameras struggle to produce decent results at anything over ISO 400 thanks to their small sensors, but some are 'less bad' than others. As mentioned it should be noted that for the most part the differences here are pretty small. The grouping here represents the performance in the ISO 400-1600 range (above that you're better off just doing a quick sketch on a napkin)
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot SX 10 IS, Panasonic FZ28, Sony H50
- Middle of the road: Fujifilm S2000HD, Olympus SP-565UZ
- Bottom of the class: Nikon P80, Fujifilm S8100fd
Image quality / performance: Flash
Most of the cameras produce perfectly good flash output and in truth, for the typical user, there's little practical difference between them. The rankings below represent the sliver of difference between the best and worst based on flash exposure, low light focus, recycle time, red eye removal and exposure.
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot SX 10 IS, Sony H50
- Middle of the road: Nikon P80, Fujifilm S8100fd, Panasonic FZ28
- Bottom of the class: Fujifilm S2000HD, Olympus SP-565UZ
Ratings and recommendations
Looking at the rankings above (even taking into consideration the relatively small differences) three cameras bubble to the top of our superzoom broth: the Canon SX10 IS, Panasonic FZ28 and Sony H50. The only cameras we'd advise you to steer clear of are the Fujifilm S2000HD (buy the S8100fd instead) and the Nikon P80 (simply because it's so hard to get it to focus on the right thing at the long end of the zoom). We were very impressed by the Olympus SP-565UZ and could find little to complain about with the Fujifilm S8100fd, though it's hard to see why you would choose it over the Panasonic or Olympus.
So on, then, to the recommendations. We knew from the start it was going to be hard to pick a single winner from this group; it turned out to be impossible. So we give you:
Recommended: Olympus SP-565UZ
The SP-565UZ packs an awful lot of power into its diminutive body. The huge 20x zoom gives you the widest wideangle and the second longest telephoto here, it's very well built, has reliable focus, metering and white balance and plenty of manual overrides for the more serious photographer. It fails to make it all the way to the winners podium simply because the it's not as good as the Panasonic FZ28 (particularly in flash, low light and image stabilization performance). This is the best Olympus compact we've used in a long time and - for walking around shooting in daylight - it's well worth serious consideration.
Joint winners: Canon SX10 IS and Panasonic FZ28
I mentioned earlier that three cameras consistently outperformed the rest of the group. Of these three the Sony H50 lost marks for its smaller zoom range, fiddly controls and tiny, low resolution viewfinder (it also has the most destructive noise reduction and least effective image stabilizatoin of the trio), leaving the Canon SX10 IS and Panasonic FZ28 vying for the top spot.
Both cameras are significant upgrades to successful and popular models in long established lines, both offer reliable point and shoot image quality as well as comprehensive manual controls and both offer fast, responsive handling and logical user interfaces. But that's as far as the similarities go, and sat here with both cameras in front of me it's obvious that which to choose will depend entirely on the priorities of the potential buyer.
The Canon SX10 IS has the slight edge in image quality (especially at lower ISO settings), has the longest zoom range and by far the best viewfinder in the group, plus a list of features as long as your arm (including flash hot shoe and an articulated screen) and - unlike some of its predecessors - it is very keenly priced. But it's a big hulking beast of a camera that's getting close to entry-level DSLR size and weight.
It's only a little lighter and smaller, but the Panasonic FZ28 feels less bulky, and though it lacks the Canon's style, it also feels a lot more user friendly (especially for the less experienced user). The larger screen, raw mode, clever AF tracking and HD movie capture are all welcome, and the high ISO performance is a lot better than we've seen in previous models (and noticeably better than most of the cameras in this group). Ultimately though, the appeal of the FZ28 is that it is a small, light, reliable camera with a huge zoom that offers excellent image quality and is easy - and fun - to use.
So then, the SX10 IS may win on points, but the FZ28 puts up quite a fight, and is the one we'd pick up when going for a walk and didn't fancy carrying an SLR. Two very impressive cameras; all the more so considering their sub-$350 price ticket, and both easy recommendations.
Group test written by Simon Joinson, Richard Butler and Lars Rehm.