It's always nice when a camera fulfills its promise. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZR1's unassuming outer shell doesn't stray from the company's other compact megazoom cameras, but what's inside does with a re-engineered autofocus system, an ultracompact, wide-angle lens with 8x zoom, and a revamped optical image stabilization system. Add in fast performance and very good photo quality, and you get a pretty great pocketable megazoom camera.
The ZR1 is shockingly small considering its lens specifications. Though 8x is on the short end of megazoom, it's longer than the more typical 3x or 5x zoom lens found on cameras this size. Generally compact megazoom cameras--especially those with wide-angle lenses--are heavy and thick from the lens. This model, however, uses a lens unit made up of superthin 0.3 millimeter elements, allowing for a lightweight, compact body. The camera looks and feels good, too, and, though it's available in black, silver, blue, and red versions, its subtle design won't stand out in a crowd. A nicely rounded right side gives you something to grab onto when shooting one-handed. The ZR1 also features new image stabilization--Power OIS--that doubles the repression power of Panasonic's previous Mega OIS system. In my tests it worked quite well, particularly when the zoom lens was in use.
The camera's controls are simple and straightforward enough that out-of-the-box use shouldn't be a problem for most people who are familiar with digital cameras. A silver plastic Mode dial on top lets you easily slip between shooting options; so easily that it frequently needed to be reset after taking it in and out of a pocket or case. Plus, you have to reach over it to press the shutter release and use the zoom ring, which might bother some users. Otherwise, the remaining controls on back are relatively large, easy to use, and logically arranged. Worth mentioning is the Extended Optical Zoom (E.Zoom) button next to the thumb rest, which quickly zooms the lens completely out with one touch. However, press it again and it activates the extended optical zoom that basically crops the 12-megapixel image down to its center 3 megapixels. This effectively gives you a longer zoom, but not at full resolution making its name misleading. Press the button a third time and the lens goes back to its starting position.
The menu systems are by and large uncomplicated. A Quick Menu button (Q.Menu) on back at the lower right brings up a vertical bar of shooting-mode-sensitive options. A general Menu button sits at the center of the four navigational buttons that double as exposure, flash, macro, and timer controls. The main menu system features three tabs: one for setup, one for shooting features, and a Travel mode. The Travel mode lets you program in date, time, and location for a trip so that everything shot between the programmed dates are grouped together. There's also a slideshow playback option so you can go straight to viewing just those photos and videos taken on your trip. However, if you plan to view those travel photos on a TV, you'll have to pony up for a USB-to-AV cable (or USB-to-component cable if you want HD).
The ZR1 is primarily a point-and-shoot camera, with no controls over aperture or shutter speed. In Normal Picture mode you get the most control over results with settings for focus, light metering, color effects, white balance, ISO, and exposure. You also get access to Panasonic's Intelligent ISO for limiting the sensitivity to a maximum of ISO 400, 800, or 1,600. (Because of the poor photo results at ISO 1,600, I recommend using the ISO 800 setting.) If you like scene modes, the ZR1 has 29 of them. The list includes familiars like Portrait, Landscape, and Night Scenery, and more unusual artistic options like High Dynamic Range, Pinhole, and Film Grain (though the last two are limited to shots 3 megapixels and below). A MySCN option is also available, letting you associate a favorite scene mode with the MS marker on the Mode dial. Of course there's a fully automatic mode--Intelligent Auto (iA)--that determines the most suitable Scene mode and helps correct any blurring, focus, and brightness issues. There is a Movie mode capable of capturing some very good video at HD quality and you get use of the quiet optical zoom while recording. The last spot on the dial goes to a Clipboard mode that stores low-resolution images to the camera's 40MB of internal memory for fast recall. A recommended use would be for taking pictures of bus/train timetables and maps, which is made more useful by the wide-angle lens.