While users of cheap digital compact cameras have been spoiled for choice in the last 12 months, it's exciting to see the enthusiast end of the compact market also heating up in the form of these two "power zoom" models from Canon and Panasonic.
The new PowerShot SX200 IS and DMC-TZ7 have large 12x zooms not normally seen in regular compacts, which tend to max-out at 3x, or in some cases 5x.
Don't be mistaken by the title though - the 12x optical zoom is only one of the tricks these devices have over cheaper compacts. You get a much more rounded camera, with wide angle lenses, high-definition movie recording, and manual control (in the Canon). The cameras have 12x zoom, optical image stabilisation and ISO 1600 in common, but the Canon has 12.1MP versus 10.1MP for the Panasonic. Panasonic's partnership with LEICA gives the DMC-TZ7 a classy 25mm-300mm lens, compared to 28mm-336mm for the Canon.
Both cameras are small: the chassis is larger than a mini-compact such as Canon's new IXUS 100 IS, but it's still compact-size, and easy to slip into a pocket. The Canon has a plastic feel, and the right-hand edge of the camera angles forward making the grip comfortable. The only unusual design point is the pop-up flash, which is always raised when the camera is on. The Panasonic has a much more streamlined metallic-look silver body.
Panasonic's 460,000 "dot" 3in LCD display looks stunning compared with the 230,000-pixel 3in LCD Canon display.
One of the more appealing features for beginners and hobbyists is smart auto scene selection. Switch to "Auto" mode on the Canon or "iA" mode on the Panasonic and the camera will attempt to select the appropriate scene settings. We found this worked well in our testing with low lighting, telephoto or even macro shooting. The only quibble was the lack of manual focus frame control in full auto mode.
Both cameras also attempt to deal with extremes of light contrast. Toggle the "Intelligent contrast" mode (a separate control to the main shooting mode) to balance out particularly dark or blown-out bright areas. This has a noticeable effect even in relatively flat lighting conditions, although we preferred the more dynamic contrast with this setting turned off.
Increased zoom introduces some exposure and focusing challenges, which Canon and Panasonic have handled admirably. Softness around the edge of subjects shot in daylight in our tests make it clear that you need to play with settings to keep things sharp. The Panasonic has two levels of optical stabilisation, an Intelligent ISO function which lets you set a maximum ISO, and also a minimum shutter speed setting. The Canon has a "Safety shift" mode which compensates for overly ambitious shutter/aperture settings.
Unlike the Panasonic, the Canon SX200 IS lets you switch between aperture priority, shutter priority, or full manual. For advanced users who like manual control, this might be the clincher, though in our tests we found the Canon gave a limited aperture range, especially when zooming.
The Canon also has true focus and exposure locks; you can set these separately for separate subjects in a photo. The Panasonic lets you lock focus and exposure by half pressing the shutter, but you can't control them separately. You still have exposure compensation, but the greater control with the Canon, which also has manual focus and AF Point zoom (which gives you a magnified view of the focus area), puts it firmly in the lead here.
Picture quality was excellent for both cameras under a range of lighting and shooting conditions, and picking which camera shot which photo in a blind test would be very difficult to the untrained eye. The Canon showed more vibrant colours when shooting macros under difficult lighting conditions, but a lack of detail compared with the Panasonic.
Where the Panasonic shines is its movie mode. Both of these cameras offer 720p recording and HDMI output - something that you won't see in cheap compacts. The Canon offers 1280 x 720 at 30fps in .MOV format and colour swap effects, while the Panasonic gives you 1280 x 720 in the AVCHD Lite at 17Mbits/sec, as well as a stereo mike, wind cut filter, and manual control over face tracking, colour modes and the Intelligent Exposure.
With picture quality on par, and both cameras being easy to use (the Canon aided by helpful menu explanations), it was hard to separate both models. The Panasonic outclasses its rival with its video abilities, but Canon is our pick for more advanced users with its manual modes.