Design & Usability
The compact SZ9 is indeed compact. You'll have no problem fitting it in your pocket, and the operation is about as straightforward as it gets.
The all-black, angular exterior of the SZ9 is a Panasonic staple. It's a very compact design, and the layout of the buttons is well crafted for the intended users. Better still, they're given room enough to prevent clunky operation. Everything should be immediately recognizable to anyone who's ever operated a digital camera, and the menu design is equally intuitive. I'm a fan of direct, non-animated, non-tooltip-infested menus, and that's another perk of the SZ9's menu design.
Core specs are adequate for everyday shooting, and there's a limited degree of manual control for those looking to experiment beyond the default full auto modes. We suspect most buyers will stay pretty much exclusively in the walled garden, though.
A decent range of features includes an "industry-first" Creative Panorama mode, but there's little else new or exciting here.
The SZ9 seems to reflect Panasonic's awareness of the plight of the modern point-and-shoot. In order to compete with the indisputable convenience of smartphone cameras, the SZ9 packs in a few imaging features that can't be found on a phone—at least, not yet.
Leading the list of specs is the 16.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, capturing shots through a 10x optical zoom. The SZ9 also has a host of white balance controls, focus options, and an ISO range of 100-3200. It records 1080p video with stereo sound. In addition to the core imaging specs, the SZ9 is WiFi compatible.
Yes, WiFi is quickly becoming a ubiquitous feature, but the SZ9 goes a step further and also includes a remote shooting app that lets you monitor and control your camera via a smartphone or tablet—something that's actually pretty impressive for a roughly $200 point-and-shoot.
In addition, Panasonic has included a "Creative Panorama" mode that allows users to combine panoramic photos with up to 12 effects. Panasonic claimed at CES that this feature was an "industry first," but really it looks like it just merges art filters with a standard panorama mode. It's like mixing peanut butter and bananas—someone was going to do it sooner or later.
The Panasonic SZ9 offers a decent range of features and nifty effects, but we don't think it's enough to give it a truly lasting appeal—not with the competition from more convenient crossover devices.
There are people out there who know precisely what they want: a decently priced point-and-shoot with reliable image quality and a useful zoom range. For them, the SZ9 is almost certainly a pretty good option. For many others, the iPhone (and various other smarphones) is the modern equivalent of a Polaroid camera—a fixed-lens camera with good-enough image quality and party-time cred.
Panasonic's newest Lumix compact makes a commendable go at its ever-tightening target demographic. It features just about everything a novice photographer would need in 2013—WiFI, sharing options, focus controls, and a focal range that covers most everyday shooting situations. With its affordable price of around $200, it'll probably shift enough units to justify an SZ11, too. But a SZ13? Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The new model ups the resolution from 14.1 megapixels to 16.1, but retains the same 10x optical zoom hitting 25mm on the wide end. The styling is familiar, the performance is good enough, and wireless connectivity is of course de rigueur, but Panasonic is treading water here.
Sure, it's a good entry-level camera. You get a decently wide field of view and a helpful telephoto zoom range, plenty of resolution, and a familiar, unthreatening user interface. Unfortunately, in our tests, the SZ7's lens was not exactly a stellar performer.
There isn't much by way of innovation, but perhaps there doesn't need to be in this space. Low-end point-and-shoot customers don't buy one camera and then eagerly wait for its replacement, the way iPhone buyers do. They buy a camera to do a job, use it till it wears out, and then buy another—often not even the same brand or series, even if it's an equivalent model.