Like its predecessor, the Lumix DMC-TZ5, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-ZS3 offers an interesting combination of features, including a 12x zoom lens and 720p AVCHD video capture, in an attractive, compact body. And with better photo quality, slightly faster performance, and a wider angle lens, the ZS3 does improve upon the older model. It also holds pretty well compared with competitors like the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS.
Available in blue, silver, black, and red, the ZS3 (aka the TZ7 elsewhere) has a similar little brother, the ZS1, which differs in some obvious and not-so-obvious ways for their approximately $100 price differential. Though they both shoot 10-megapixel photos, the ZS3 actually uses a 12-megapixel sensor in order to maintain the same angle of view 16:9 and 4:3 aspect modes. The ZS3 also offers a 720p HD movie mode with stereo and a mini HDMI output versus the ZS1's monaural VGA, and has a larger 3-inch LCD.
At 7.7 ounces with dimensions of 2.4 inches by 4.1 inches by 1.3 inches, the ZS3 counts as compact, and fits quite comfortably in a jacket pocket. For the most part, it uses the same design as the TZ5--both attractive and functional--and it's smaller and lighter. Panasonic swapped the traditional locations of the shutter and the mode dial, placing the former to the left of the latter. After a while, it starts to feel more natural, however. A dial lets you switch among camera and movie modes, as well as two slots for program exposure (scene) modes--these have the same choices, but allow the camera to remember two of your last selections--Intelligent Auto and an odd Clipboard mode that captures low-resolution photos to internal memory for fast display. Panasonic fixed the placement of the microphone; though there's still a warning in the manual to watch you don't put your fingers over it, it's farther in toward the center and didn't pose any problems.
The four navigation buttons toggle among the exposure compensation, flash, macro, and self-timer options. Depending upon your current zoom, it automatically chooses standard or telemacro. The ZS3 adds a macro zoom mode, which is basically digital zoom; I suggest you avoid it. Even though the photos look fine when small, I kept forgetting I'd left it on that mode rather than the standard AF Macro.
The Q(uick) menu button brings up a subset of options that are also available in the full menus: LCD brightness, picture size, aspect ratio, intelligent exposure, ISO sensitivity, white balance, AF mode--spot, face detect, AF tracking, 11-area, 1-area high speed, and 1-area--and burst shooting. The full menu adds more shooting settings--picture quality, Intelligent ISO, metering, continuous and Quick AF, intelligent exposure, color effects, digital zoom, minimum shutter speed, audio recording, AF assist, optical image stabilization mode, and clock set--as well as setup screens.
Panasonic adds face recognition to selected models in the Lumix line for 2009; in this case, the ZS3 but not the ZS1. At this point, I think the implementation is still more novel than useful. You can register up to six faces in the camera memory with names and birthdays, priority (for AF and exposure), and a custom focus icon. During playback, the person's name appears. However, you can't use this information to search during playback, and it doesn't seem to appear anywhere in the EXIF data for the photo. As with the TZ5, I still like the minimum shutter speed setting; you can set it as slow as 1 second or as fast as 1/200, and though it doesn't prevent the camera from shooting when exposure drops below the threshold, it does blink a warning message. Intelligent ISO lets you set a maximum for the auto of ISO 400, ISO 800, or ISO 1,600.
The various AF area-mode selections are pretty practical as well, though more for limiting the range of subjects the AF system chooses to focus on than for speed. For instance, the 11-area AF will frequently choose incorrect subjects, where the 1-area AF, which limits the focus area to the middle of the frame, will probably choose correctly more often (since most people simply point at their subject, which puts it in the middle of the frame). The ZS3 has a variety of continuous-shooting modes: standard burst (three best quality shots); a slower infinite burst (highest quality until the card is full), which most closely resembles a typical continuous-shooting mode; and a high-speed burst scene mode, with combinations of various reduced resolutions and ISO sensitivity setting constraints.
Movie-specific options include size and quality, a choice of area or face detect for AF, continuous AF, color, and wind filter. The ZS3 shoots 1,280x720 30fps (720p) HD video, which gets saved in the AVCHD Lite format. This might be a bit of a problem on the software end; many players (software and standalone) need to see the entire AVCHD path on the media, but if you use a photo downloader it might either ignore the movies entirely or simply copy them over without the directory structure. The ZS3 can zoom--quietly, too--while shooting video, but the autofocus doesn't adjust while zooming and takes a second to lock again once you've stopped. But it's got a dedicated movie-record button, which comes in handy.