When testing cameras like the six which make it into this group, we try hard to keep our criticisms relevant. For a lot of people considering products like this, pixel-level image quality is of less importance than ergonomics, operational speed, accurate color and exposure. During the several weeks that we have been using these cameras, virtually everyone in dpreview's Seattle office has had a chance to shoot with at least one of the cameras on test, and to give feedback on their experiences. It was on the basis of this shared experience, as well as price and specification, that we selected the six models which made it into the main test. Altogether though we have looked and shot with almost the entire range of travel zoom cameras currently on the market, and you can read about the models which didn't quite make the main selection on this page.

Like last year, we're impressed that despite the disparity in price and specification that exists across the models in this test, none of them could be called 'bad'. In favorable conditions, all of the cameras in this group are capable of excellent results given their likely usage, and whilst none of them is capable of producing a convincing poster-sized print, that's not what they're designed to do. Naturally, your opinions might not match ours, because you'll have your own priorities. Hopefully though there is enough information scattered throughout this test to allow you to make your own mind up about the relative merits of these different models, but what follows is our (summarized) take on how they stack up.

Image quality: outdoors / daylight

Outdoors, in decent light, all of the cameras in this test perform well. Even those models that disappoint us in other ways are able to produce attractive, detailed images which are perfectly suitable for small prints or web galleries. In terms of detail resolution in bright conditions, the best models here are the Canon SX230 HS and Sony HX9V, but there are no 'bad' cameras in this sort of environment. The Pentax RZ10 gives the worst critical image quality, but aggressive sharpening masks this problem in small prints and when images are viewed on the web. Noise levels at low ISO settings in good light are much lower than we'd expect higher up the ISO scale, but all of these cameras display some noise nonetheless, which is most visible in blue skies.

Metering performance from all of these cameras is strong, and most cope very well with everyday shooting conditions outdoors. The only disappointing performances come from the Pentax RZ10 and Samsung WB210, which share a tendency to underexpose scenes which contain large areas of bright or dark. Speaking of light and dark, the Pentax's real problem is its LCD, which makes accurate exposure a matter of guesswork. Whether we set the screen to its brightest or darkest setting, we found ourselves frequently being fooled into using exposure compensation to get what we thought was an accurate exposure (often unnecessarily). Another issue which can afflict the RZ10 is very occasional sensor blooming in bright light, which depending on the angle of the camera to the sun, can result in shadow areas turning a distinctly unnatural purple.

As far as color is concerned, in daylight conditions none of the cameras in this group presented us with any serious issues. If we had to pick losers, the Panasonic ZS10 does tend to deliver somewhat yellow tones (especially visible in portraits) and sunny, outdoor shots from the Pentax RZ10 are often rather too blue, but in general term, all six cameras perform well.

  • Best of the bunch: Canon SX230 HS, Nikon S9100
  • Middle of the road: Panasonic ZS10, Sony HX9V
  • Bottom of the class: Pentax RZ10, Samsung WB210

Image quality: Low light / High ISO

Inevitably, in low light, at high ISO settings, all of the cameras on test deliver noisier images than we'd expect lower down the ISO scale. That said, technology has improved a lot in recent years, to the point that with some of the models on test we can confidently shoot at ISO settings at least 1EV higher than we'd be be prepared to risk with their predecessors. This is definitely true of the Canon SX230 HS and Nikon S9100, both of which offer considerably more attractive images in poor light than the models that they replace. The Canon actually comes out on top of this group in low light at high ISO settings.

What the SX230 HS manages is to balance noise reduction with detail retention. In our low light shooting images from the SX230 HS are clearly sharper and contain more genuine detail than the other cameras on test. The Samsung WB210 does a fairly good job of maintaining high and medium-contrast detail in high ISO images, as does the Pentax RZ10, due in no small part to their conservative approach to luminance noise reduction. Towards the bottom of the scale is the Panasonic ZS10, which suffers badly from a noise reduction system which prioritizes smooth tones over detail. The other four cameras in this group fall somewhere in the middle. The Nikon S9100 and Sony HX9Varen't bad, but although not in the same league as the blur-tastic ZS10, both opt to perform rather more luminance smoothing than we'd like.

Fortunately, several of our test cameras offer special multi-shot low light shooting modes. Of these, the Sony HX9V's handheld twilight mode is the most effective, followed by the Nikon S9100's night landscape mode. The Panasonic ZS10's 'handheld night shot' mode is less useful (partly because it captures its images at a much slower frame rate), and tends to give unnaturally smooth, almost airbrushed-looking results which don't stand up to close scrutiny.

In terms of color, we're generally very impressed by how well these cameras preserve saturation in images taken at high ISO settings. Because of how it works, chroma (color) noise reduction typically reduces color vibrancy, but of the cameras in this group, only the Pentax RZ10 and Samsung WB210 give images that we would consider disappointingly 'flat'. The Canon SX230 HS is particularly good at retaining color accuracy and saturation at high ISO settings.

  • Best of the bunch: Canon SX230 HS, Sony HX9V
  • Middle of the road: Nikon S9100, Samsung WB210
  • Bottom of the class: Panasonic ZS10, Pentax RZ10

Image quality / performance: Flash

During the shooting for this review we took a lot of flash photographs in typical 'social' environments, and in general, we are impressed with the results from all six test cameras. None give 'bad' flash performance, and all manage to balance flash with ambient light reasonably well. In the unusually low light of our flash test scene, taken in a very dimly lit bar, all of our cameras gave decent results, although the Sony HX9V does have a tendency to 'overcook' things a little in terms of exposure and saturation.

At the other end of the scale, the Panasonic ZS10 tends to produce somewhat muddy results when flash is the main light source, but copes very well when it comes to fill flash in brighter daylight conditions. Apart from a characteristic slight oversaturation of skin tones the Canon SX230 HS gives probably the best flash images of all the cameras in this group, followed by the Samsung WB210 (assuming your subject is at fairly close quarters) and the Nikon Coolpix S9100.

  • Best of the bunch: Canon SX230 HS, Samsung WB210
  • Middle of the road: Nikon S9100
  • Bottom of the class: Panasonic ZS10, Pentax RZ10, Sony HX9V

Summaries and recommendations

Canon Powershot SX230 HS

Not only does the Canon Powershot SX230 HS appear at the top of several pages as a result of its position in the alphabet, it is also, coincidentally, one of the best cameras in this group. The new sensor and processor deliver excellent image quality in just about any situation we tested the camera in, and when you add excellent optical quality and video performance into the mix, the SX230 HS is a very compelling camera. Compared to its predecessor the SX230 HS offers better image quality and a meaningfully expanded feature set, including effective GPS.

The only flies in the ointment are noticeable chromatic aberration and fringing in certain shooting situations (which the camera makes no effort to correct), noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end of the zoom and comparatively slow autofocus. We'd love to see Canon add a touch-sensitive screen in the next generation, but for now, the SX230 HS's 'traditional' button and dial interface works well.

Nikon Coolpix S9100

Compared to its predecessor the S9100 is a lovely little camera, with all of the speed and portability, but a longer zoom range and better image quality. Operational speed, including AF, is superb, and for day to day shooting, image quality is very good, only dropping towards the upper end of its ISO sensitivity scale. We really like the 920,000 dot LCD screen and at 25-450mm (equivalent) the S9100's lens spans the widest range of any camera in this group, making it extremely versatile in a wide range of shooting situations. The only real weakness of the S9100 is image quality in poor light, at high ISO settings. Although a definite improvement on its predecessor, images from the S9100 at high ISO sensitivity settings do still lack detail when compared to the best of the competition.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10

We love the Panasonic Z10's advanced feature set, and the versatility provided by such a wide-ranging zoom, as well as full manual control is addictive. Not everyone will get so much value from the built-in GPS, but in our time with the camera we grew to really like it. Not only is it one of the most accurate systems we've used in a compact camera, it has essentially no impact on battery life. Video mode is excellent too and out of all the cameras in this test the ZS10 is bettered only by the Sony HX9V's 1080p, 60p capture mode.

Unfortunately, it isn't all roses. The ZS10's LCD screen is uncoated, leaving it very vulnerable to reflections and fingerprint smears, which makes it hard to use in bright light. The lens is one of the best in this group, but high-ISO noise and low-contrast detail smearing are less impressive. Also, we think that Panasonic's insistence on a mechanical shooting/review mode switch is a mistake. Even after weeks of shooting with the camera it still slows us down. All these issues might be forgivable in a cheaper, lower-end model, but not in such a 'flagship' product.

Pentax Optio RZ10

The travel zoom category is wider now than it was, and spans a fairly wide range of price points. The Pentax Optio RZ10 sits firmly around the bottom of the price scale, and this is reflected in its relatively small feature set but. We weren't expecting to like the RZ10 as much as we do.

The RZ10 is a great value product which surprised us on several occasions. Although it is certainly lacking in certain areas compared to the competition, the bottom line is that the RZ10 is very easy to use, produces bright colorful JPEGs and provides a great deal of control for its price. Viewed critically, images from the RZ10 are noisy and oversharpened, but the RZ10 is more than equal to the task of making small prints and creating web galleries. The biggest disappointment when shooting with the RZ10 is its wretched LCD display, which makes exposure difficult to judge.

Samsung WB210

The Samsung WB210 is unusual amongst the cameras in this test (and indeed the travel zoom class as a whole) for relying almost solely on its touch-sensitive LCD screen for control. The overall experience is mixed. We like the elegance of the button-less interface but if you want to use the WB210 as anything other than an 'auto-everything' camera things can get very frustrating very quickly. Perhaps Samsung's designers hoped that by creating an Apple iPhone-like interface the camera would automatically become as easy to use as an iPhone. Sadly this has not turned out to be the case, and we long for more physical control points.

As far as image quality is concerned the WB210 isn't the best camera in this review, but in most respects it holds its own very well. Noise levels are relatively high at all ISO settings, but this only becomes a problem at the higher end of the ISO scale, where noise reduction takes a significant bite out of resolution. Optical performance from the Samsung's 10x zoom lens is reasonably good, and we'd like to give a special mention to the WB210's special 21mm (equivalent) lens mode. In our testing we have been very impressed by how usable the camera is at this setting, and we hope that Samsung incorporates 21mm into the 'normal' optical range in future models.

Sony HX9V

The Sony Cyber-shot HX9V is very similar in a lot of ways to the HX5 which impressed us in last year's group test. Externally they look alike, but the HX9V offers more customization through the addition of a 'Memory recall' mode that allows you to save up to 3 different configurable shooting modes. The HX9V is also a solid video performer, and is the first camera of any type that we have tested that produces 1080p 60p video. Just like its predecessor the HX5V, the HX9V is capable of extremely good image quality, especially in regards to low-light performance, but operationally, the HX9V is still amongst the slowest cameras in this group when it comes to switching between review and playback, viewing and dismissing videos and zooming the lens.

Joint winners: Canon SX230 HS and Nikon S9100

Picking a winner from such a varied field is very difficult, so we've opted to do the same thing as we did in last year's travel zoom group test, and pick two. The Canon Powershot SX230 HS and Nikon Coolpix S9100 in combination do exactly what we think cameras of this type should. They provide enormous versatility, meaningful manual control (in the case of the SX230HS), and good image quality, in relatively small, eminently portable bodies. If we could combine the strengths of the two into one camera, we'd take the Nikon's lens (and in-camera CA correction), LCD screen and speed, and meld them with the Canon's excellent image quality, reliable AWB and metering systems and built-in GPS.

Both cameras are run very close (and in some respects surpassed) though by the Sony Cyber-shot HX9V. The HX9V is the latest in a very attractive series of long-lens compact cameras from Sony, and boasts one of the most attractive and interesting feature sets of any camera in this market segment. Many of the HX9V's 'special' modes, like Sweep Panorama and handheld twilight mode have made their way into competitive models in the years since they were first introduced, but in our opinion the HX9Vstill does them better. The only black marks against the HX9V are relatively slow operational speed and slightly smeary noise-reduction at medium and high ISO settings.

Towards the bottom of the group, in descending order of performance, are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10, the Samsung WB210, and Pentax RZ10. The Samsung is a perfectly good, reliable point-and-shoot camera, but its more advanced features and manual control are harder to use than they should be as a result of Samsung's insistence on deleting physical control points from the camera. The RZ10 gives easier access to its controls, but is lumbered with unsophisticated JPEG processing and a woefully unuseful LCD screen. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 is up there with the Sony HX9V, Canon SX230 HS and Nikon S9100 in terms of specification and video performance, but its poor LCD visibility in good light, clunky interface and relatively poor noise and noise-reduction performance mean that it can't quite stack up with the best of its competition.