Cameras are getting significantly cheaper for the tech spec that gets crammed into increasingly lean bodies. When I reviewed the Lumix DMC-FT3 last year it cost a not inconsiderable £329 for 12.1 megapixels. Today, you'll trump that pixel count for half the price.
Here, we meet the FT20, which sits alongside its older sibling at the 'rugged' end of Panasonic's current camera line-up. Costing around £160, its native resolution beats the F3 by a full 4 megapixels. What's more, the FT20 is both slimmer and lighter than its predecessor. But is it any better?
The price and size aren't the only specs that set the two apart. The FT20's zoom is 4x, equivalent to a respectable 25-100mm on a regular 35mm camera. On the FT3, the zoom extends slightly further to 4.6x. There's also an optical image stabiliser on the FT20 to even things out at the longer end.
The reason it's not exactly a superzoom is quite simple: like its predecessor, the FT20 is built like a tank, with no protruding parts, so it can't accommodate an external lens arrangement. It's designed to be freeze-proof to -10C, dust-proof, waterproof to 5m and able to withstand being dropped 1.5m. So, in every physical respect, it's the ideal traveller's camera.
Shutter speeds top out at 1/1,300 second at the fastest end of the scale, and 8 seconds at the slowest, each of which should be fine for all but the most esoteric conditions. At 8 seconds, you shouldn't have any trouble taking attractive night-time shots of illuminated buildings or streaking headlights.
Many of the FT20's core specs are pedestrian. Sensitivity stretches from ISO 100 to ISO 1,600, with a fairly narrow compensation of +/-2.0EV in 1.3EV steps. To go any further, you'll have to enable the high-sensitivity scene mode, but this reduces the maximum resolution to a poky 3 megapixels.
Certainly bear these compromises in mind when choosing your snapper, but consider that each one has been made because you've opted for a rugged camera. Allowing the specs to dictate your buying decision would be short-sighted. This is a camera you'd buy because you want something that can withstand more than the occasional knock or touch of dampness. In that respect, it's got very little competition outside of Panasonic's line-up.
We set the FT20 to Intelligent Auto mode throughout these tests to best emulate how most buyers would put it to use. In general, the camera did a great job of picking the most appropriate sensitivity, aperture, shutter speed and point of focus in each frame.
Viewed full screen, the results were impressive. However, when zoomed to 100 per cent, so that each pixel in the image is given its own pixel on screen, some deficiencies become more obvious.
This image of a church and its grounds appears sharp when zoomed to fit your display. But closer examination of the lower-left corner, which isn't as brightly illuminated as the rest of the frame, reveals a pointillist effect -- it looks more like it was painted than photographed.
In many cases I found that the results were sharper at the centre than they were at the extremes of each frame. In this more evenly-illuminated shot, the clock at the centre of the tower is sharp, while the grass towards the edges starts to lose definition.
Similarly, while the colours on the front of this gatehouse are accurately captured, detail is lost in the surface of the driveway while the clock, which is in full sun, is overexposed. This led to further loss of detail, in particular on the painted motto beneath it, and on the minute hand.
This is a shame, as in many respects the FT20 does a great job of capturing detail. The words on the gravestone below are clear, and the roof tiles are very well reproduced. However, where the Samsung WB150F, which I tested at the same time, retained further detail in the clapboard porch, this area is bleached out in the FT20's results.
It did an excellent job in the macro test. Its closest focusing distance in this mode is 5cm. While the maximum aperture at wide-angle is only f/3.9, which doesn't allow for a particularly fast fall-off in the focus beyond the sweet point, it still captured an extremely sharp frame. The individual fibres that line the inside of a sweet chestnut husk are cleanly rendered.
In the interior shot below, it was forced to ramp up its sensitivity to ISO 400 to cope with the muted ambient light. Naturally, this introduced a degree of noise to the image, which is more obvious towards the back of the frame where the subject falls out of focus. Closer to the camera, the level of detail is impressive, and it's easy to make out individual fibres on the weave of the knitted kneelers.
Turning to the still-life test, the FT20 did a good job of balancing the tones when shooting in the available ambient light. However, both here and when using the onboard flash, it had to increase its sensitivity to ISO 400 -- as it did in the church, above. In this instance, the resulting digital noise was more evident in the main focus of the image, not just in the unfocused areas.
This impacted the overall sharpness of the results, and when using the flash to illuminate the scene, the back became over-dark as the exposure time was shortened from 1/10 second to 1/60 second. This affected the whiteness of the pages in my book.
The FT20 can record up to 50 minutes of footage in a single shot, at either 1,280x720 or 640x480 pixels, in each case at 25 frames per second. The former qualifies as HD but the results, sadly, left me underwhelmed.
Footage featuring large amounts of movement lacked clarity, in the same way that some of its stills did. However, when the camera was securely positioned so that the background of each scene was largely static, with only the subject moving, performance was much improved. This suggests using a tripod would ensure the best possible results.
Of more serious concern, in areas of high contrast where light and dark patches came together in my samples, there was clear stepping, which resulted in a camouflage-like effect.
Despite having a very short travel, the working of the zoom could also be heard on the soundtrack. So too could the auto-focus mechanism, which chattered as it settled into position.
The FT20 is an ambitious product. There are plenty of reasons to buy a rugged, waterproof, crash-proof camera, and who better to build one than Panasonic, with its heritage of Toughbook computers?
I can't help but wish the company hadn't been quite so ambitious where the sensor was concerned. Sixteen megapixels is a lot to fit onto a small sensor, and in this instance, it hasn't quite paid off, resulting in some fudged detail in areas of lower light.
That said, if you need a camera you won't be afraid to take into the sea, up a rockface or onto the piste, this is where you should be looking. If you don't, spend a little more on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ7.