Over the years we've seen manufacturers shrink down their pocket cameras, increase the number of pixels and extend the zooms, but without something truly innovative, it's harder than ever for them to convince us to upgrade.
That could all be about to change. After a lull in the low-to-mid-priced market, we're starting to see some developments, like Wi-Fi, that make an upgrade truly worthwhile.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-SZ5 is one such contender and can be bought for around £180. But does it offer enough reason to buy over lower-priced rivals?
This isn't the first time we've seen Wi-Fi built into a compact, as Samsung has included it in its 'smart' cameras for some months. But it's good to see it appearing in competing models now.
Setting up is a breeze, with both wireless wizard and manual configuration options walking you through the process of identifying the base station with the strongest signal and entering your wireless password. You can also set it up so it automatically transfers your shots to a PC on the same network, while you're still shooting, or to a smart phone or tablet using the free Lumix Link app for iOS or Android.
If you don't have a wireless network to hand, perhaps because you're on holiday, you can still connect your phone and camera, as the camera will act as its own wireless access point with a unique SSID and password. Once the two are connected, you can review whatever pictures you already have on your card and have full control over zoom and remote shutter release.
This latter point is important as it means the smart phone can act as the kind of remote control only available with a small handful of premium cameras. It's even smart enough to rotate the phone's live preview of what the camera can see when you turn the SZ5 through 90 degrees.
Build and features
Beyond the integrated Wi-Fi, the SZ5 sports some pretty impressive specs. The body itself is less than 2.1cm, front to back, yet that's sufficient depth for it to collapse a full 10x zoom (equivalent to 25-250mm on a regular 35mm camera). Maximum aperture at wide angle is f/3.1, while at full telephoto it stands at f/5.9. These are handled by the camera as there's no aperture priority mode (nor shutter priority). The camera-selected shutter speed runs from 1/1,600 second to 8 seconds.
It manages 1.5 frames per second (fps) if you're shooting at native resolution, but I achieved 7fps in my tests when switching to high-speed mode. This can be seen in the sample below, which shows two racers passing through the frame in real time. Each frame is less than 0.15 seconds duration. This is undeniably impressive, but the pay-off is a lower resolution of just over 3 megapixels (2,048x1,536 pixels) per shot.
Full-sized images measure 4,230x3,240 pixels, which equates to 14 megapixels. If you want to take advantage of all your available pixels you'll have to shoot conventional 4:3 ratio images, but these are supplemented by square-cropped 1:1, 3:2 and widescreen 16:9, which would be well suited to playing back on TV and incorporating into videos.
Sensitivity tops out at ISO 1,600 in regular use, kicking off at ISO 100, but you can unlock a maximum ISO 6,400 by switching to high-sensitivity mode. That's so long as you're happy to shoot with fewer effective pixels, as in this mode the maximum image size is 3 megapixels. Fortunately, you shouldn't often need to resort to very high sensitivities as ISO 1,600 was good in my tests, with accurate colour reproduction and well-controlled noise.
The minimum focusing distance is 50cm in regular use at wide angle and 150cm at maximum telephoto, but you can trim it to 5cm in wide angle if you switch to macro.
I performed my tests using a mixture of auto and intelligent auto modes over two days with both direct sun and overcast skies. The camera was writing JPEGs to a class 4 SDHC memory card.
I took it to a heat of the British Lawn Mower Racing Championship to test its performance in shooting high-speed action, and it performed well. The shutter was fast enough to freeze the action while panning with the subject, allowing for a high level of accurately captured detail.
Colours were bright and true to the originals, while transient detail such as dust and dirt clouds were subtly rendered, with smooth transitions between areas of similar tone.
The lens proved to be sharp and true throughout my tests, accurately capturing smaller details such as fine branches, as seen in the image below, without introducing any unwanted third colours that were not visible to the naked eye -- a problem exhibited by cameras with lesser lenses.
This good level of focus was maintained consistently across the frame and was as sharp in the corners as it was at the centre. This is good as it leaves you greater freedom to crop the image as you please to adjust the balance of the subject matter in post-production, without having to worry that you'll end up with an inferior result.
The SZ5 shoots HD video at 1,280x720 pixels, 25fps, so it's a couple of steps down from the top of the scale, with an option for 640x480 pixels at 25fps, which is better suited to web use.
There's a dedicated record button on top of the camera body, so you don't need to switch modes and risk missing an important moment.
Performance was good overall, with fast-moving action cleanly captured and the soundtrack extremely clean and detailed when kept out of the passing wind. However, fail to protect it from a breeze and it's very obvious on the soundtrack as there's no wind noise reduction option.
The optical zoom remains available for use when filming though, and it's barely audible at all on the soundtrack, which is impressive as ambient background sounds remain clearly audible the whole time you're zooming.
Changes to the level of available light are handled well, with smooth transitions and no evidence of any stepping.
The built-in Wi-Fi does much to enhance the appeal of the SZ5. Indeed, without it the specs wouldn't greatly differentiate it in an increasingly crowded market.
The fact that Panasonic has managed to keep the price down below £200 is good news -- particularly as image quality remained consistently good throughout my tests.
More advanced users should bear in mind there are few manual controls. If this isn't an issue for you, it's also worth checking out the Samsung ST200F, which was £130 when I reviewed it in June and has now dropped to just over £100 on Amazon. It also has built-in Wi-Fi and a 10x zoom, but the sensor sports 16 megapixels compared to the SZ5's 14. At that price, it's a steal.