It's a tough world in the compact camera market. So many options to choose from (to HD or not to HD?), cheaper prices, sexier designs, easier to use features ... it's little wonder that any consumer is going to be left bewildered by the options out there. The Lumix DMC-ZR1 is a piggy in the middle, squeezed between the ultra-compact cameras in the range like the FS15 and the full-on travel zoom TZ7.
"A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips" is a mantra that the ZR1 definitely abides by. (Credit: Panasonic)
The ZR1 is the first (of many to come, we assume) in a new Lumix range from Panasonic, which takes a slim body and pairs it with an extended, though not extensive, zoom. Shaped a little like a squashed down version of the popular TZ7 and TZ6 models released earlier this year, the ZR1 features the same dial and button arrangement on the top (mode dial, shutter button and zoom rocker, and power switch) and at the back, next to the 2.7-inch LCD screen, a playback switch and a four-way directional pad. The layout is standard Lumix, and we appreciate the consistency amongst the new cameras throughout the range. The build quality too is exceptional, with a very solid feel that's not permeated with flimsy plastic or cheap components — it's all metal here.
That mode switch, which we whinged about on the TZ7, is now pleasingly resistive — no accidentally swapping between modes while taking the camera in and out of a case or bag.
At the side are standard ports for connectivity, just HD AV and USB out, no HDMI here. At the base of the camera is a combined battery and SD/SDHC slot. Available in four colour options (black, silver, red and blue), we like the looks of the ZR1 — it's conservative with a touch of class that puts it above the average stylish shooter.
There's one last thing to mention, and that's the "E zoom" button that appears at the back of the camera. Press it once and it extends the zoom from wide angle to telephoto. Press it again and it extends the digital zoom to a maximum reach of 15.6x.
For much of 2009, the critical megapixel number has been 12.0. The ZR1 doesn't buck with tradition on this marker, with a 12.1-megapixel sensor. At the back is another number that's fast becoming standard on compacts, a 2.7-inch LCD screen.
It's not all "same old, same old" though, as there's a new optical image stabiliser technology from Panasonic called Power OIS, which upgrades the range of stabilisation as much as two times more than the conventional Mega OIS system.
The lens is 25mm at its widest and extends to a pretty impressive 8x optical zoom, impressive for such a small chassis that only measures 5.4cm high by 9.7cm wide by 2.6cm deep and weighs 138g. To give you some idea of how it fits in with other comparably slim cameras, the Olympus Mju 9000 sports a 10x zoom and measures 9.6cm wide and 3.1cm deep, and the Nikon S630 has 7x zoom and is 9cm wide and 2.3cm deep. So, not that slim compared to its zoomy brethren, but still svelte enough to slip into a pocket or handbag with relative ease.
It's not a particularly fast lens, though, with a maximum aperture of f/3.3 at the wide end and f/5.9 at the telephoto. We've got high hopes for image quality given our previous reviews of Lumix compacts such as the FS15, and because of the Leica optics. Read on for our full comments about image quality.
The other advantage of the optics is the world's first 0.3mm aspherical lens element, which allows the lens to be a lot more compact than previous iterations. Unlike a number of the new Lumix cameras, the ZR1 doesn't feature the proprietary AVCHD Lite format, just standard HD recording at 720p.
Performance and image quality
The ZR1 starts up in 1.1 seconds, and time from power on to first shot is an admirable 1.5 seconds. It's let down slightly in burst mode though, as it only manages to capture three frames before stuttering to a halt with a full buffer: average shot-to-shot time works out to be 0.65 second. In everyday use the zoom extension is a little slow, taking a good 2.5 seconds to go from one extreme to the other.
While overall image quality was good, especially in terms of sharpness and tonal range, the ZR1 had a little trouble representing colours accurately. We found that blues in particular looked a little too light and under-saturated, unless it was a vivid blue sky. Lens aberrations were pleasingly absent though — little barrel or pincushion distortion was evident at either extreme. There was also a nice sharpness to objects even at the telephoto reach.
Noise control wasn't so exciting though, with noticeable artefacts appearing at ISO 400 at full magnification, and ISO 800 and 1600 displaying very prominent grain. Surprisingly, the ZR1 didn't do as well as the DMC-FS15 in the noise stakes, a smaller camera from the previous round of Lumixes released in 2009.
The intelligent auto mode did a great job of automatically determining the best scene type (whether macro or landscape) for the shooting situation. The Power OIS system worked well for the most part, but don't expect to be able to get blur-free results without a tripod — there's only so much hand shake that the stabiliser can offset. In this instance when using the automatic selection in Power OIS we were able to get down to a shutter of around 1/13 second before shaky hands became visible.
The video quality of the ZR1 wasn't particularly impressive, especially when compared to still image quality, with a fair amount of noise visible. The sound, while mostly clear, did pick up a fair amount of wind noise. Fortunately, Panasonic has enabled full use of the optical zoom while filming.
If you're looking for a compact zoom camera, the DMC-ZR1 is one of the best, if you can forgive some performance issues in terms of burst speed and average video quality.