The Basics

We define a 'travel zoom' camera as one that incorporates a 10x or greater optical zoom lens in a traditionally 'compact' form factor. Cameras that fall into this category are far more numerous than they were in the past, but travel zooms remain a relatively small sub-set of the entire compact camera market. The selection that we're looking at in this test span the range of current models both in terms of features and ergonomics, but all are smaller and lighter than their DSLR and mirrorless cousins - in most cases, significantly so.

All of the cameras in this test have at their heart a 1/2.3in sensor - the smallest that we'd expect to see in a modern compact digital camera - and all feature LCD screens on their rear which are used for image capture, image review and menu navigation. None of them features an optical viewfinder, and none has an accessory shoe for mounting an external flash or microphone either. All of these models can capture video as well as still image files, and 'true' HD video of 1080p resolution is offered by four of the six models in this test.

As well as assessing the cameras' video and still image quality, and testing their key features, we're also concerned about ease of use, and versatility. How easy these cameras are to use, and how responsive they are, is equally as important as their image quality, and the effectiveness of their major features.

Key Features Compared

All of the cameras in this test offer optical zoom lenses of 10x or greater, and all feature genuinely wide wideangle settings of at least 28mm (equivalent). This is a huge improvement on travel zoom compact cameras of earlier generations, which typically sacrificed wideangle performance for the sake of telephoto 'reach'. Four of the six cameras in this group have zoom lenses which start at 24mm (equivalent), and all offer some sort of image stabilization, which should help to keep things sharp at the long end of their zooms.

The smallest optical zoom range of the cameras in this test belongs to the Pentax Optio RZ10, which spans 28-280mm (equivalent).
The largest optical zoom range belongs to the Nikon Coolpix S9100, which spans 25-450mm (equivalent). As you can see from these comparison images, the extra 3mm at the wide end of the zoom compared to the RZ10 makes a considerable difference to lateral coverage.

The widest zoom range of any camera in this review is offered by the Nikon Coolpix S9100, but the widest focal length comes courtesy of the Samsung WB210. The WB210's 'normal' zoom range spans 24-288mm (equivalent) but offers a highly unusual feature - an optical 21mm extension wideangle setting, which is available as a special 'Super Wide Shot' mode. You can read more about it on this page.

In keeping with their 'travel' credentials, three of the models in this test feature built-in GPS systems which attach location data to captured images. We had a mixed experience with GPS during last year's group test. Some models, like the Sony Cyber-shot HX5 performed very well, but one of the joint-winners, the Samsung WB650, featured a GPS system that was deeply flawed.

Three of the cameras in this group - the Canon SX230 HS, Panasonic DMC-ZS10 (pictured) and Sony Cyber-shot HX9 - feature built-in GPS systems. GPS is great for plotting where you've been, but can be unreliable and has the potential to reduce battery life. The most versatile GPS mode belongs to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10. More than half a million landmarks are programmed into the ZS10's geolocation database, and you can choose what, and how geolocation information is displayed.
Using the latitude and longitude information in the images' EXIF data, it is possible to geotag your photographs in many popular photo-sharing websites, like Flickr. Canon's Map Utility software is bundled free with the Powershot SX230 HS and automatically displays images on a map in the location in which they were captured.

Also becoming more common in today's travel zooms is touch screen technology. Two of the models in this test feature touch-sensitive LCD screens, and we're confident that this feature will become more common in the future.

The Panasonic DMC-ZS10 is the most 'hands-on' camera here in terms of operation, and boasts plenty of external controls. Its touchscreen is there if you need it, but you're not forced to use it for every operation The Samsung WB210's touchscreen, on the other hand, is completely integral to the operation of the camera. There are only three buttons on the WB210, power on/off, playback, and a 'home' button. The WB210 has elegance on its side, but honestly, we'd prefer hard buttons for commonly-used settings like exposure compensation.

Speaking of LCD screens, another area of specification in which we've seen great improvements is in screen resolution. Three of the cameras in this group test offer LCD screens with a resolution in excess of 900,000 dots, which matches our expectations of LCD screens in today's midrange and high-end DSLRs. The lowest resolution on offer here comes from the Pentax RZ10, which can only muster 260,000 dots - considerably fewer than the best displays in the group and noticeably less crisp during image composition/review.

Design and Operation Compared

As we'd expect in such a mature market, most of the cameras in this group test work in similar ways. All are similar in size and weight, and some control elements, such as the shutter-mounted zoom collar are common to all of them. The most obvious 'odd one out' is the Samsung WB210, which is almost devoid of external control points, and forces the photographer instead to rely on its capacitive touchscreen for most operations.

One element common to all of the cameras in this group test is a zoom 'collar' control mounted around the shutter button. We much prefer this sort of control to the zoom in/out buttons on some compact cameras, and it's good to see that in the SX220/230 HS, Canon has ditched the rather sharp rocker switch that provided zoom control on the last-generation Powershot SX210IS.
Three of the cameras in this group feature flashes which are built into the front plate, and three are recessed into the top-plate and pop-up to fire.

This flash belongs to the Nikon Coolpix S9100, and it is raised using a small mechanical catch on the side of the camera.
Over the years, we've seen exposure mode dials trickle down from DSLRs and high-end compact cameras into models in this class. Three of these models feature an exposure mode dial, but three do without. This is the Sony Cyber-shot HX9, and as you can see, it offers a full complement of manual and automatic exposure modes.

As far as manual control is concerned, the cameras in this group offer different amounts of functionality. Some, like the Pentax RZ10 and Nikon S9100 offer only exposure compensation, but others, like the Panasonic ZS10 and Canon SX230 HS, provide a full complement of exposure modes, from fully automatic to aperture/shutter priority, program and fully manual. The Sony HX9V is in the middle of the pack, and provides program mode and manual mode, as well, of course, as exposure compensation.

In Use

The cameras in this group span the gamut from those which offer a lot of external controls, like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10, to those which offer very little. The most extreme example of a camera with virtually no external control points is the Samsung WB210, which is built around a large capacitive touchscreen. The majority of the travel zoom cameras currently on the market (and most of the ones in our group) represent a middle ground. They are not peppered with buttons, but don't force you to rely completely on their screens for all aspects of the cameras' operation either.

The Nikon S9100 is impressively slim considering that it features an 18x optical zoom lens, but although it offers a lot of optical versatility, manual exposure control is restricted solely to exposure compensation. There are plenty of external controls though, and we like the rear control dial.
Pentax's first travel zoom compact camera, the RZ10 is chunkier than most of its peers, but disconcertingly lightweight. We like its 'proper' hand grip, but the trade-off is that the RZ10 is the least pocketable camera in this group.
Unashamedly utilitarian in appearance, the Sony Cyber-shot HX9 offers a useful combination of onscreen and physical controls, and overall we really like the way it handles. A rear control dial makes changing exposure settings nice and easy, but zooming in both capture and playback modes is frustrating. You have to pull and hold the zoom ring for around a second before the camera will let you zoom in.

If you're the sort of photographer that likes to take manual control over exposure, the chances are that you will naturally gravitate to those cameras which make this process easiest. We've always been of the opinion that on cameras which offer manual exposure control, dials are far preferable to left/right, up/down button presses, and it's good to see that three of the cameras in this group feature control dials. The Sony HX9, Canon SX230IS and Nikon S9100 all offer control dials which are positioned around the periphery of the now-standard 4-way controller on the rear of the cameras.

The only camera which offers significant manual exposure control but lacks a control dial is the Panasonic ZS10, and to change settings in the PASM modes it is necessary first to press the 'exposure' button on the camera's rear, and then shift settings using the four-way controller. Not quite as fluid as a dial, but easy enough and very quick once you've become used to it.