Panasonic took a "why mess with a good thing" approach when it came time to update its 2011 top-of-the-line rugged model, the Lumix DMC-TS3.
Its replacement, the TS4, is just as durable, waterproof to approximately 40 feet, shockproof to approximately 6.6 feet, freezeproof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and dustproof. Much of the rest of the camera's hardware -- the 4.6x f3.3-5.9 28-128mm Leica lens, 12-megapixel high-speed CCD sensor, 2.7-inch LCD, and built-in GPS -- are the same as on the the TS3, too.
Most of the new features are shooting modes, two of which stick out as unusual for a rugged compact. One, it has a full manual mode, giving you control over shutter speed and aperture. Shutter speeds go from 60 seconds to 1/1,300 second, and apertures are f3.3-10 at the wide end and f5.9-18 at the telephoto end. While the aperture control isn't all that useful, the shutter speed control can come in handy.
The other interesting mode is a Time Lapse Shot, where you can set the start time, interval, and the number of photos to shoot, and the camera automatically snaps photos. When it's done capturing, the TS4 will condense the shots for fluid playback, so you can see things like clouds moving across the sky or a flower opening.
All in all, the new stuff is nice to have, and the photo quality and performance are just as good as they were in last year's model, making the TS4 a fine rugged compact camera.
The TS4's photo quality is like that of a lot of point-and-shoots: good with a lot of light, but with a noticeable drop in quality in low-light conditions.
Below ISO 400 you'll get very good results with nice color and decent detail. Its main sticking point is with softness; photos -- and video -- never look really sharp straight from the camera. Add in increased softness from noise reduction at higher ISO sensitivities and you may not want to view or print your results at larger sizes. On the upside, the TS4 handles noise better than its predecessor in low light.
Basically, don't expect to be able to take this 30 feet underwater without additional lighting or be able to make huge prints of what you capture. It's more likely you'll end up with good photos that you can share online. In shallower waters, such as with snorkeling or in a pool, you'll get better results, though you probably won't have a lot of fine detail when viewed at 100 percent. A lot of what you're paying for with this camera is its durability and features, so if your main concern is having a pocket camera to take along with you to the beach, hiking in the woods, or flying down the slopes, it's a solid option.
Video quality is better than an HD pocket video camera or high-end smartphone; good enough for Web use and undemanding TV viewing. Panning the camera will create judder that's typical of the video from most compact cameras and you may see some ghosting with fast-moving subjects. The zoom lens does function while recording, but you may hear it move in quieter scenes. However, there is the chance you'll get no audio at all because the mic is easily covered by your fingers when holding the camera.
Shooting performance is very good. Shutter lag -- the time it takes from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- is only 0.3 second in bright lighting and 0.7 second in dim lighting. From shot to shot without the flash is only 1 second; adding the flash drags that time to 2.2 seconds, though. The TS4's time from off to first shot is 1.8 seconds.
For those who need to capture action, the camera can shoot a continuous burst up to 3.6fps, but in our lab tests it averaged 2.7fps. That used to be pretty fast for this class of camera, but there are a couple other models this year that can beat it. Note, though, that they all set exposure and focus with the first shot, so anything moving really fast might not be in focus for all shots.
Design and features
The TS4 looks and feels like it can take a beating. Judging by user reviews of rugged cameras, one might wonder if the TS4 will hold up to its durability claims. I had no problems with my review camera, but that doesn't mean problems can't happen. However, as with all rugged and waterproof cameras, there are handling precautions you need to take to keep water and dust out of the camera. Panasonic has stored information about these precautions in the camera for easy reference and a warning pops up when the camera's turned on.
Fortunately, even with all this protection, the TS4 still functions like a regular point-and-shoot. Controls are easy to master, as is the interface. Actually, the TS4's all-button controls are nicer than on Panasonic's compacts that use switches for power and to change from shooting to playback.