It may have the looks of a compact camera, but the 8-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ4 has the power of a superzoom in a small package. It sports a large 10x zoom lens made by Leica, with a satisfying 28mm wide angle. It's available now for around £180 online.
The TZ4's styling has a certain retro lumpenness. The key to appreciating the design is to think of it not as an unnecessarily chunky compact, but as a slimmed-down superzoom. The large lens qualifies, and it is in fact more pocketable than most of the SLR-shaped snappers in that category. There's plenty of grip for the right hand, including a textured space for the fingers and an indent at the back that's uncannily well-fitted to our large right thumb -- your thumb-fit may vary.
Controls are straightforward. The usual four-way controls and menu button are joined by a handy quick menu button that gives one-touch access to shooting options such as white balance and ISO levels.
At the top of the camera is a mode dial that allows you to save two scene modes for quick access, and an easy-zoom button. This sends the zoom out to its full extent with one press, but it won't save any time, as zooming both manually or with the button takes 2 seconds.
The sturdy frame is rounded off by a hinged door for the connections, including HD component out, with the SD/SDHC card slot in the bottom of the camera. The tripod bush is placed entirely off-centre, but at least this means the battery and memory card can be swapped without taking it off a tripod.
Our only real sulk about the TZ4's design is the underwhelming screen. The black border makes the ungenerous 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD look even smaller. The incremental backlight does make it easy to see, however, even when held up at different angles, and adjusts automatically to different lighting conditions.
Panasonic's highly capable optical image stabilisation is essential here, with a long lens potentially magnifying the effects of camera shake. This system senses small vibrations and compensates to reduce blur in images. It can be on all the time -- mode 1 -- or just when the shutter is pressed -- mode 2. The difference is marginal, but we think mode 2 has the edge.
Manual control on the TZ4 is surprisingly limited: there's no shutter or aperture priority, let alone full manual. What you do get is a wide choice of shooting options, such as autofocus options including face detection, 9 area, 3 area, spot or high speed. There are two burst options, and a choice of aspect ratios: 16:9, 4:3 or 3:2.
If that all sounds too much to think about, an intelligent scene selector will work out what sort of environment you are in, an intelligent auto mode will work out focus and exposure for you, and a digital red-eye removal system will make children and pets look less satanic.