During the past couple of months or so we have used all the cameras in this text extensively and it has become clear that in terms of image quality the difference between the best and the worst in class is rather small. This means that other factors such as dimensions, features, usability or price, are likely to be playing an important role in you decision making process as well.

At both base ISO and higher sensitivities the image results from most cameras in this test would be almost indistinguishable on a 6x4 print. However, differences become more visible the more you magnify the image and at a 100 percent view the wheat is clearly being separated from the chaff. As a consequence the importance that you as a user should put on image quality will largely depend on the size you normally view and/or print your images at. The pictures from all the cameras in this test are certainly good enough for a normal album size print.

However, at larger output sizes the limitations of these cameras become more obvious. Only by using a tiny imaging sensor is it possible to squeeze a 10x or 12x zoom lens into such compact camera bodies. The inevitable consequence are very tightly pixel-packed sensors that are prone to noise-reduction smearing even at base ISO and perform poorly at high sensitivities. It's a relatively small price to pay though for the enormous flexibility in terms of mobility and zoom range offered by a compact superzoom camera.

Despite the gaps between rivaling models becoming smaller and smaller there are of course clear performance differences between the six contenders and we have described them in detail on the previous pages of this review. None of the models that we have tested are really bad cameras but some are simply better than others, and even those which are 'bottom of the class' in our ranking might still be suitable for your specific photographic requirements.

Image quality: outdoors / daylight

If you take the majority of your pictures outdoors in good light you won't be disappointed with any of the cameras in this test. There is very little difference between the output of the better cameras in this comparison. At normal viewing size the images are (apart from the slightly different renditions of color) virtually indistinguishable but at a larger magnification differences in the rendition of detail will become visible.

The Panasonics and the Sony produce consistently the most detail across the frame (The Sony's default sharpness is a little on the strong side though, you might want to dial it down). The Canon is almost on par with the leaders but loses a hint of detail towards the edges of the frame. The Samsung displays good sharpness across the frame but applies fairly strong noise reduction at base ISO, losing some low contrast detail. The Olympus lens produces visibly softer output than the rest of the pack and doesn't make things better by adding a good portion of noise reduction to the mix.

  • Best of the bunch: Panasonic ZS1, Panasonic ZS3, Sony H20
  • Middle of the road: Canon Powershot SX200 IS, Samsung HZ10W
  • Bottom of the class: Olympus Stylus 9000

Image quality: Low light / High ISO

This is arguably the most difficult section to determine a ranking for. All six cameras in this test struggle to produce decent results at anything over ISO 400 thanks to their small sensors but while most of the results are equally 'bad' they have very different characteristics. At ISO 1600 all cameras show a lot of noise (both the luminance and chroma variant), noise reduction artifacts, color bleeding and detail smearing, but the 'mix' of these rather unpleasant image characteristics is a different one on each model making choosing a 'winner' a very difficult task.

The only camera that is, in terms of high ISO performance, noticeably worse than the competition, showing visibly more noise and detail smearing, is the Olympus Stylus 9000. Ranking the other cameras is almost entirely a matter of personal preference and it has to be stressed that when looking at the images at a typical 6x4 print size it is very hard to spot any differences. So when you look at our rankin below please bear in mind that the differences, at least between the best and middle ranked cameras, are fairly marginal.

  • Best of the bunch: Panasonic ZS1, Panasonic ZS3, Sony H20
  • Middle of the road: Canon SX200, Samsung HZ10W
  • Bottom of the class: Olympus Stylus 9000

Image quality / performance: Flash

Most of the cameras produce perfectly good flash output and 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, flash reach, low light focus, recycle time and red eye removal.

  • Best of the bunch: Sony H20, Samsung HZ10W
  • Middle of the road: Panasonic ZS1, Panasonic ZS3
  • Bottom of the class: Olympus Stylus 9000, Canon SX200

Ratings and recommendations

Looking at the rankings above the Panasonic twins ZS1 and ZS3 emerge as the obvious choice for general use, offering an extremely versatile 12x zoom range from proper wide-angle to 300mm equivalent and good all-around performance and image quality.

The Sony H20 is more or less on par from an image quality point of view but offers, due to its non-existent wide-angle lens, much less versatility than the other cameras in this test and its user-interface is really designed for point-and-shoot operation only. If you're mainly working at the long end of the lens and don't usually tend to set parameters manually it should be very high up on your short list though.

The Canon SX200 is no doubt a very decent camera but we simply can't see why you would choose it over a Panasonic ZS. It's image output is almost up there with the very best but it's a tad larger than its closest competitors and comes with a slightly annoying pop-up flash and a user interface that we found slightly more clunky than its predecessor.

The HZ10W is a very decent first stab by Samsung at this segment of the market. It's not quite up with the best in terms of image quality (although you would only notice at very large output sizes) and occasionally struggles to focus properly in low light but offers the widest lens in this test (24mm equivalent) and a well designed user interface (we just love this exposure compensation lever). It's also considerably cheaper (whilst still offering a very decent feature set) than its most direct competitors which makes it an interesting alternative if you're on a budget.

The only cameras we'd advise you to steer clear of is the Olympus Stylus 9000. The camera delivers arguably the worst image quality in this comparison and comes with an at times slightly clunky user interface and a very scratch-prone surface. Its compared to the competition slightly smaller dimensions cannot make up for these shortcomings.

So on, then, to the most important part of this review. And the winner is...

Joint winners: Panasonic ZS1 and ZS3

As we've mentioned earlier Panasonic was the manufacturer that 'invented' the compact superzoom segment a few years back with the original TZ (Travel Zoom) 1. As a consequence Panasonic has had the longest experience in designing and making this type of camera and it becomes evident when having a closer look at the latest generation of TZ models (now called ZS in the United States) which are arguably the most mature cameras in this test.

The image quality of both cameras is up there with the very best in almost any shooting situations, be it bright daylight or low light conditions. As we've written throughout this review the gap between the best and worst is in terms of image quality is fairly narrow but the Panasonics have the slight edge over the competition at low ISOs producing images that are consistently sharp and detailed across the frame. At higher sensitivities none of the cameras in this comparison can cut the mustard but the ZS1 and 3 are simply not quite as bad as some of the competitors.

The sensors of the two cameras are not identical but looking at the output they must have a very similar design and unsurprisingly the image processing produces near identical results. The only obvious difference that we could spot is the ZS3's occasional tendency towards a slightly warmer white balance than the ZS1.

All the electronics and optical elements of the camera are wrapped up in a solid all-metal body, there is a good selection of external controls and the menu structure is intuitive and straightforward. The ZS cameras handle well and are easy and fun to use.

The ZS3 is currently just over a $100 more expensive than its ZS1 sister model which is easily justified by the larger and higher resolution screen (which is much better than the ZS1's) and the HD video mode. As a customer that leaves the choice with you. If video is not a priority and you can live with a standard resolution, smaller screen you get, with the ZS1, a camera that is very similar to its bigger brother at an attractive price point.

Overall the two ZS cameras offer the best image quality and the most balanced mix of features, build quality and design in this test and are therefore both easy recommendations. If you are looking for a take-anywhere camera with a super-flexible zoom range they should be your number one option.

Group test written by Lars Rehm and Richard Butler