This month, DigitalCameraReview.com is launching a new regular column called "Head to Head." In this monthly feature, we'll pit two (or more) similar cameras with competitive specs against each other in five key areas, based on data, impressions, and opinions from our review of each product. Not surprisingly, we field a lot of questions about how two specific cameras stack up; if there are two (or a handful) of cameras that you like to see go head to head in future installments, drop us a line at email@example.com and we'll do what we can to make it happen. – Ed.
What some manufacturers have termed the "pocket zoom" segment of the market refers to a class of cameras that simply didn't exist a year ago. With the introduction of the Canon PowerShot SX100 IS, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3, however, 10x zooms and advanced features in a compact body are now both widespread and popular. In this inaugural installment of our "Head to Head" series, I'll offer my thoughts and condensed suggestions from our detail reviews as to how these three very similar, very competitive cameras stack up.
As always, to find out more about any of these cameras in detail, visit our full review for each product:
Sophistication and Styling
I've been known to give Sony a bit of a hard time for their styling choices with the H3, and for all it does well, the Cyber-shot's cheap plastic feel, odd hand grip, and simple buttons that, while very functional, give the camera a proletarian look all but put it out of the running on these criteria.
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The Panasonic, by contrast, is appropriately and convincingly mature from a visual and ergonomic standpoint. It's the only camera of the three built around a metal case, and dressed in its understated dark blue color option, the TZ3 has a clean, memorable look to go with its precise feel. Kudos to Panasonic for offering a step-up camera for more serious users that is neither black nor silver, but also doesn't dabble in the kitshcy colors that seem to be everywhere in new digicams these days. In terms of form and size, it's also the closest thing to a true compact in this group, lacking the more pronounced protrusions found on both the Sony and the Canon.
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Form-wise, the SX100 IS falls back on the familiar basic shape of the PowerShot A series cameras. In keeping with the idea that the SX100 represents a new line of PowerShot devices for Canon, however, the body is much more sculpted than even the newer A models. Best of all, though, is the reworking of the back panel, which retains much of the famililar button arrangement from other Canons but adds a row of buttons providing menu, display information, and features access. From a design standpoint, this, combined with flowing lines, two-tone looks, and an overall form that's vaguely reminiscent of Canon's SLRs with a pop-up flash "hump," give the SX100 the look and feel of a serious camera.
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While it might be more fair to call this one a tie from a form-and-function standpoint, with the TZ3's better pocketability providing some convenience that neither other camera can boast, the less compact Canon is stylistically stronger, especially in its slick black variant. Even so, the TZ3's metal body (versus the Canon's solid, if not stellar plastic) almost steals the victory back for Panasonic. I'm not strongly decided on this one, but based, as the category stipulates, on "Sophistication and Styling" in the purest sense, the SX100 edges out the TZ3 for the top spot in my opinion.
Advantage: Canon PowerShot SX100 IS (if only just...)
Features and Specs
The basic features and specs for each of these cameras are roughly the same (we probably wouldn't be comparing them if they weren't). Of course, the defining spec for each camera in this group is a 10x zoom, putting big camera flexibility in a compact body, and all three representatives sport this option in some form. Both the SX100 and the H3 employ a zoom range that begins right around an equivalent 35mm, giving them "normal" if not wide-angle capability at the short end. The TZ3, by contrast, has a true wide-angle range beginning at 28mm. Of course, this ability sacrifices some reach versus the other two cameras at the long end, but all in all, the TZ3's lens feels more flexible than those on the other two cameras given this wider coverage area – especially if you shoot lots of landscapes.
In terms of lens speed/low-light ability, however, the Canon is a clear winner with an aperture range of f/2.8-4.3 – a full-zoom maximum aperture value that competes favorably with some of the manufacturer's high-end 200-300mm DSLR lenses. Behind the lens, the Canon continues to offer a lot. The challenge in this class is to support newbies looking for great fully automatic performance while appealing to advanced users with plenty of manual control. The TZ3 has excellent functionality as an auto-mode camera, but it's certainly more of a point-and-shoot device than the rest of this pack, lacking any aperture or shutter controls. The H3 and the SX100 are more closely competitive in this regard: both offer manual shooting functionality, but the overall experience is neither as functional nor as refined on the H3, as the Sony uses a slightly awkward manual control system and doesn't offer aperture or shutter priority.
Otherwise, all three share a similar range of features, including mechanical/optical image stabilization systems that work well, a nice selection of scene modes, and similar ISO sensitivity ranges (assuming that we exclude the Sony's generally unusable ISO 3200 setting). Powered by AA batteries, the SX100 has a convenience advantage over the li-ion powered Sony and Panasonic, though it makes a critical trade-off for this nicety. More on this in the next section.
The screen on the TZ3 is still, nearly a year after 3-inch LCDs began hitting the market in greater numbers, impressively large, especially next to the 2.5-inchers on both other cameras. This, combined with the wide-angle lens that I'm really keen on both for its range and optical quality and an Intelligent ISO system that is both excellent and ahead of its time (similar functions are just beginning to show up a year later in competitive models), makes the TZ3 a hard act to follow in the features department. If wide-angle shooting and the large screen are on your list of key features, the TZ3's case in this category becomes in even more compelling.
Photographers looking for a camera to grow with, however, may quickly run up against the TZ3's control limitations. With optics that come close to the quality of those on the Panasonic (and offer better low-light performance, especially at telephoto), and a fully speced manual control system on the mode dial, the Canon SX100 IS is just a little more balanced all around for everyday shooting. As before, it was a close call, but the Canon sneaks in again by a nose.
Advantage: Canon PowerShot SX100 IS
Ease of Use
Given how familiar the Canon user interface is to many point-and-shooters, it might seem at first blush like the Canon is poised for the clean sweep. While the SX100 IS has a lot in its corner, however, the deal breaker in terms of ease of use, at least for me, is a flash recycle time that feels like it needs a calendar to accurately measure. Using two AAs instead of a potentially more powerful li-ion pack, the SX100 IS takes 10 seconds or more in some cases to ready itself for another flash shot. A complete camera black-out during this long recycle time poses a serious usability issue for snapshot shooters, especially, who often depend on the flash for grabbing quick indoor photos.
Without any glaring usability flaws, the TZ3 makes a hard drive to finally take a category in this area as well. Excellent speed is the most noteworthy element at work here, making the Panasonic a joy to use, and a FUNC button groups commonly adjusted parameters into a single pop-up menu.
But while a strong case could be made for any of these cameras in this category (and conversely, while usability flaws could be pointed out for each), I think the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3 offers the best balance of simplification, speed, on-screen information, intuitive and ergonomic layout, and overall responsiveness. I like that Sony has centralized shooting options in a single listing; depending on your preferences, your shooting style, and just how much you need to change these settings, this potentially offers a clear advantage in terms of interface transparency. Given that Sony has, in recent times, been known and feared for designing some of the most preposterously complex menus on the planet, a Sony that earns praise for its simplicity, of all things, is worth noting indeed.
In terms of shooting experience, the general sense around here is that the Sony offers the most seamless automatic functionality as well: it seems up to the task of handling the widest range of shooting situations without ever touching a control, and for many users, this kind of simplicity is crucial. If you're looking for a camera with IS and a long zoom that you can pick up and shoot consistently good shots with without spending half of your time in the menus, the H3's a winner.
Advantage: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H3
In terms of image quality, we have three very different approaches to processing, color, and contrast in these three cameras. The TZ3 takes generally pleasing snapshots that tend to stand up well to some contrast and color adjustments in post-processing. A tendency to push highlights without corresponding adjustments to the rest of the range, however, tends to result in images that look less contrasty than merely flat and washed out. Heavy-handed noise reduction begins to smear out fine detail at settings as low as ISO 400, further degrading overall image quality.
The H3 tends to go toward the other extreme, pushing sharpness and saturation (especially in the red values) to extreme levels at times. Default contrast is also higher than is usually preferable, resulting in some blown highlights here as well. While some of this can be tuned out with appropriate settings choices, some of it (i.e. sharpness) really can't be. And most unfortunately, visible noise reduction is even worse here, exhibiting the unintentional watercolor effect that has become an unfortunate characteristic of Sony's compacts.
In many ways, the SX100 takes the middle road here, and it pays off for Canon in a camera that is sharp without being oversharp, vivid without being oversaturated, and contrasty without sacrificing shadow and highlight detail. The lens has some issues that don't exactly make me happy (chromatic aberration, distortion, and vignetting all make an appearance here), and while there's more true noise in the high-ISO shots from this camera, the fact that it's the only contender in this set that retains a decent level of detail beyond ISO 400 makes this a trade-off that I, at least, am willing to make. Overall, the image quality could be better, but by avoiding major flaws in any one area, the SX100 IS offers the most well-rounded straight-from-camera image look.
For sample images, ISO test shots, and a detailed breakdown of image quality for each camera, check out our full reviews:
Advantage: Canon SX100 IS
Price and Value
Pricing for all three of these cameras has generally settled somewhere around the $250 mark, and for this kind of money, all three cameras represent good deals given the set of features that this buys you. In terms of rock-bottom street pricing, however, if you're savvy you can get into the TZ3 for around $225. Simply put, this is an obscenely low cost of admission for a camera with this much power, helping push the Panasonic to a much-deserved value victory.
Advantage: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3
With the SX100 mopping the floor with three category captures to one apiece for the other two contenders, this contest looks like a run-away. In truth, however, the gap between the SX100 and the TZ3 is much closer, in my opinion, than my own judging might suggest. In terms of both styling and features, the TZ3 is breathing down the SX100's neck. And all three cameras could fairly be described as both easy to use, and as great values.
When put to a decision, however, the bottom line is this: the Canon SX100 IS is a consistent performer in almost every way (except that irritating flash, really) – strong enough to edge a win amid some close competition in several areas, and hang just behind the leaders in the others. Among three solid choices, the SX100 brings together the strongest total package – however slim the margin of victory may be.