In this series of posts, I started by naming the Canon SD1100 IS the reference digicam because it has a nice, middle-of-the-road set of features at a reasonable price. I then suggested that if you don’t want to pay the roughly $175 price tag for the SD1100 IS, that you look at the Panasonic Lumix LZ8. The LZ8 is a camera with most of the features of the Canon SD1100 IS at a lower price. But what if you are willing to spend a little more than the Canon costs?
The next step up from the Canon in my view is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20. The Lumix FS-20 costs about $220, or $45-$50 more than the Canon SD1100 IS. For that extra hard-earned cash, what do you get?
Well, first and most important, you get a more useful zoom lens. The Canon only goes to a 38mm focal length (all focal lengths referred to here are normalized to 35mm film equivalents for ease of comparison) at the wide-angle lens. In reality, that’s not a very wide, wide angle. The FS-20 on the other hand, starts at 30mm. That may not seem like a big difference, but if you calculate it in percentage terms, it is 26% wider. In practical terms that means that you can more easily capture a group shot indoors or get most of the interior of a room. This is especially important indoors, because you can’t just back up through a wall to capture more of the scene.
At the telephoto end of the zoom range, the Panasonic goes out to 120mm, whereas the Canon goes to 114mm. That is a small difference, but shows that to get the wider angle lens, the FS-20 doesn’t give up anything at the longer end – in fact it gains 5%.
The other advantage of the Panasonic FS-20 is that it has a larger LCD display. The FS-20 has a 3” display, which is pretty much as large as you can get on a camera this size (see photo). The SD1100 IS has a 2.5” display, which isn’t bad. However, I find that most people use the display on the back of the camera to share images with friends. The 3” display on the FS-20 is a little easier to see in a group setting.
Other than that, there really are no big downsides to the FS-20. It basically has the same dimensions as the Canon SD1100 IS, although it is 0.3” wider (to accomodate that display). It has image stabilization and a rechargeable battery.
One final note. The Panasonic has a 10 megapixel sensor, whereas the Canon offers 8 megapixels. That difference in resolution isn’t meaningful in terms of picture quality, in fact it may be a slight drawback. I doubt that most users will make prints large enough to need the extra resolution. In addition, more resolution means smaller photosites (the actual place where photons are turned into electrical energy). Smaller photosites tend to generate more noise, which isn’t good. Panasonic, like all manufacturers, applies some noise reduction to deal with this. But noise reduction throws away some resolution, so we really aren’t getting ahead here, are we?
But in the end, the FS-20 is a very nice camera: small, with a good lens, plus a good display. And Panasonic’s high quality controls and solid feel are a nice bonus.
An attractive alternative to the FS-20 is the Sony DSC-W170. For about $15 more than the Panasonic, you get another uptick in lens range, with the Sony going from 28-140mm (vs. 30-120mm on the Panasonic). You also pick up an optical viewfinder, which can be useful if you are following an eight-year-old. The Sony has a slightly smaller LCD (at 2.7" it is in between the Panasonic FS-20 and the Canon SD1100).
It might be hard to see why you’d want more than either of these pocketable cameras, but I’ll work to show you some temptations for the next few installments of this series.
Here is part 2: