Compared: Panasonic Lumix ZS15 and Canon SX230 HS Digital Cameras Features

By Randy Wakeman

Four digiital cameras
From left, the Panasonic ZS-15, Canon SX230. Photo by Randy Wakeman

Recently, I reviewed a battery of compact, point and shoot, digital cameras suitable for use in the field. The winner was the Canon SX230 overall, with an honorable mention to the older Panasonic DMC-ZR3. I noted that the later, but similar, Panasonic DMC-FH25K model was quite a bargain at its $140 street price.

Now, the 2012 models are out and, as usual, there is a mix of hits and disappointments in what is called the travel zoom category. (Compact point and shoot cameras with 10x or longer zoom ranges, often including a GPS.) The new Canon SX260 stretches the optical zoom of the SX230 from 14x out to 20x. It costs about $300, as of this writing, and it also adds a plethora of new scene modes. It is easy to recommend the SX260, as it yields essentially the same performance as the SX230 and uses the same sensor. It is an incremental improvement, though, and if the 14x zoom of the SX230 is enough for you, the remaining SX230's are a bargain at about $200.

You might be wondering when I'm going to get to the Panasonic ZS15; so am I, but I'll get there. Though Panasonic has generally been credited with pioneering this branch of digital camera, their 2011 offerings fell flat. The DMC-ZS10 was described by one reviewer (Jeff Keller) as doing everything right, except take good pictures. The 2012 flagship Panasonic super-zoom, the DMC-ZS20, gets Panasonic back in the game with a 20x optical zoom lens featuring Leica optical technology and a comparatively full-featured GPS, currently offered at the equally full-featured price of about $325.

I decided it wasn't worth reviewing the ZS-20 compared to the Lumix ZS15, also benefitting from Leica optical technology and a comparative screaming deal at about $230. Panasonic describes the ZS15's Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens this way: "The high-quality LEICA DC lens system is versatile with 24mm ultra wide-angle to powerful 16x optical zoom (35mm camera equivalent: 24-384mm). Comprising 12 elements in 10 groups, including 1 ED lens and 3 aspherical lenses with 6 aspherical surfaces, this advanced lens unit suppresses chromatic aberration that tends to occur in telephoto shooting." Panasonic says that a great lens makes a great camera and they are correct. Their new advertising phrase is, "The eye of a Leica, the heart of a Panasonic."

What you give up by buying the ZS15 and saving a hundred dollars are features I find to be of little value: the GPS, the longer zoom (16x is generous enough) and stereo video recording. If anything, the ZS15 nets you slightly better image quality, better battery life and you lose little else. There is no particular reason to avoid the 20x ZS20, but the more fiscally conservative folks will say that the so-called “downgraded” ZS15 is no downgrade at all for outdoor use.

The ZS15 uses the new sensor from the Panasonic FZ-150 (a very good thing) coupled with the lens and body from the ZS-10 (not a bad thing). The sensor obviously boosts image quality, the precise area where the ZS-10 stumbled.

It has been often said that Panasonic has the best artificial intelligence algorithms in the point and shoot camera segment. Their iA (intelligent auto) mode is industry leading. It is as close to “set and forget” as can be found. The Lumix ZS15 uses a higher resolution LCD screen (460,000 pixels) compared to its earlier and cheaper models, keeping pace with the Canon. It forgoes the sometimes annoying pop-up flash in favor of an integral camera body flash, an approach I prefer for general outdoor work.

Sony has long had the “sweep panorama” mode, still ignored by Canon, but finally added here by Panasonic. The battery life of 260 pictures (C IPA Standard) is not shockingly good, but is above average and no GPS or touch screen drain is present. It is a bit better than the Canon SX230 (230 shots). Note, however, that the Canon number is are estimated with the GPS unit turned off. Another useful mode, High Dynamic Range, is added and it is surprisingly effective in difficult lighting conditions.

According to Panasonic, “The Intelligent Zoom is an extensive zoom function using digital zoom. However, you can even draw the subject 2x closer than the original optical zoom with minimum deterioration of image quality thanks to the Intelligent Resolution technology. This means the 16x optical can virtually extend to 32x equivalent.” 16x zoom is a goodly amount of zoom as is, a notch longer than the 14x Canon SX230. While I'm hesitant to call it as good as true optical zoom, it appears surprising close and in the rare instances where you really need 32x for a still, you've got the shot. It does extend the versatility of the camera.

At 4.13 x 2.27 x 1.31 inches, the dimensions of this camera are slightly more compact than many and the 0.46 lb. weight with battery and memory card is also appealing. On the negative side, ostensibly to save money, Panasonic has gone to in-camera battery charging that not only puts the camera out of commission, but is unbearably slow. Consider the addition of an optional wall charger an absolute must, along with an extra battery. Those planning extensive video capture should consider an extra battery or two mandatory. As the temperature outside drops, so does battery life.

I am hesitant to put prices into a digital camera review, as they can change drastically, literally overnight. By the time the holiday shopping season rolls around, you'll likely see some impressive deals, not based on camera quality or performance, but just what is left in inventory that needs to be moved to make way for the next year's models. It can be worth waiting for, if you are on a budget. The bad news is that the most popular models may get sold out and don't make it over to the price cutting stage.

If the 20x zoom and GPS hold great appeal for you, you may well want the Panasonic ZS-20 for the extra c-note. Same situation with Canon, the extra zoom, extra scene modes,and handling features might be worth the hundred dollar price increase for the SX260 vs. the SX230. It isn't for me, but that is why they call them choices. Thus, I'll compare last year's winner, the Canon SX230, directly to this Panasonic ZS-15, which should help make the differences a bit clearer.

  • Battery life: Panasonic wins.
  • Battery charging: Canon wins with a speedy external charger.
  • Zoom Range: Panasonic is longer
  • Size / Weight: No practical advantage either way.
  • LCD screen: The Canon's 16:9 ratio screen is better for video; Panasonic's 4:3 ratio screen is better for stills.
  • Video features: Canon has high speed video modes for lower-resolution, slow-motion video; Canon also has stereo sound, but the stereo separation on pocket mega-zooms is not distinct. Panasonic lacks these features, but does have 30 fps HD video vs. the 24 fps HD of the Canon.
  • Sensor: Sensor size is the same, the dinky 1/2.3 inch common to many compacts. Both are about 12MP effective resolution.

To test the intelligent zoom, I shot representative pictures of my utility box on a windy, rainy day from a laser-verified 43 yards. The pictures were taken at the 5M mode (2560 x 1920) and resized with no cropping to 640 x 480 for web use. The Panasonic ZS-15 yields an indicated, astounding, 37.9x zoom. The more I experimented with the ZS-15, the more it became apparent that the intelligent zoom is not a gimmick.

For close images under favorable lighting conditions, many compact digital cameras do a fine job for snapshots. For typical portraits and family events, speed isn't always important and you can usually get as close as you need to be by simply moving your feet. Slow focus, slow shot to shot times and overall sluggish performance has been the stopper for several otherwise enjoyable cameras. Last year's Canon SX230 was a substantial improvement. This year's ZS-15 from Panasonic addresses the weak link of previous Panasonic compact long-zooms, that being poor image quality. In doing so, it has not just closed the gap with Canon, it has leapt ahead by a good margin.

As you might be guessing by now, the just-released Panasonic Lumix ZS-15 exceeded the performance of the already excellent SX230 handily, with greater capabilities and noticeably faster operation. There isn't much to find fault with, but I'll try. The slow USB charging is a step backward and “genuine” Panasonic branded batteries are overpriced. You can solve both issues by picking up a Wasabi Power charger and twin pack of batteries that are rated at 1200 milliamps, compared to the OEM 895mAh for 27 dollars, which is exactly what I did. The supplied Panasonic software is both “wizard-crazy” and forgettable. The full manual is on CD and like most, I'd prefer a bound copy. These issues are only niggles at best.

For a fast-operating, long-zoom-range camera that is easy to slip into a pocket and has the ability to take shots you never thought you'd get, effortlessly, with an artificial intelligence mode, the ZS-15 can only be described as a smoking hot deal at around $230. By comparison, most other travel cameras feel underpowered. It is truly rare to have a pocketable long-zoom digital camera that gets it all right, but this new Lumix ZS-15 is as close as I've ever experienced.

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Copyright 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.