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If you're surprised to see WiFi in the latest round of toughcams, you haven't been reading enough of our reviews. So first of all, shame on you. Second, it's no secret that smartphones are eroding the compact camera market. In response, wireless connectivity has been popping up all over the imaging industry for the last couple years. Now this trend is finally making its way to ruggedized cameras.
Replacing one of 2012's best toughcams, Panasonic's new Lumix TS5 (MSRP $399.99) adds both WiFi and Near Field Communication (NFC) technology to the shell that was the Lumix TS4. Call us old fashioned, but despite the growing ubiquity of in-camera wireless, we're still pretty lukewarm on the feature altogether. We're far more excited about the new 16-megapixel CMOS sensor, which finally upgrades the TS4's old 12-megapixel CCD.
There's plenty else to like about the TS5 too, including the best video performance of any ruggedized camera this year, and handy burst mode functionality.
There's some controversy in our office regarding the TS5's external design. TJ thinks this is the most attractive toughcam of the year, while I think it looks like a Transformer. At any rate, neither of us can claim that the overall design has changed very much. The square lens and broad, flat front panel makes the TS5 look like a close cousin of the Nikon AW110. But unlike most competitors this year (the Olympus TG-2 and arguably the Fujifilm XP200 excepted), the TS5 is one of the few toughcams to give physical handling any consideration. A small lip wraps around, and protrudes from, the right side of the front panel, giving the pointer and index fingers a convenient spot to latch onto. Unfortunately, the thumb has no convenient place to rest on the rear, and will typically come to a stop right on top of the zoom lever, which can lead to accidents.
Otherwise, the control scheme is free of issues. The rear layout is typical of many compact cameras, though the playback speaker has been relocated to make room for a new dedicated WiFi button. The movie record button is still given a position of prominence beside the shutter release, which is wise considering this camera's exceptional video.
The quick menu button at the bottom right will get plenty of use, opening up an interface that we needed most often to jump in and out of various burst shooting modes. In fact, we wish drive modes got a shortcut on the directional pad. The menu system is fairly responsive, though we did miss a few shots fiddling with the menu or tweaking exposure compensation.
The right panel is home to the TS5's waterproof compartment, which houses the memory card, battery, and connectivity terminals. The TS4 earned a bad reputation after many users took to the internet complaining of leaks and poor customer service when they tried to get them fixed. Whether any of this is still true for the TS5 remains to be seen. The gasketed door is secured by both a latch and a lock, but we do think there's a chance the lock could accidentally slide open inside a pocket or bag. That never happened to us personally, nor did we experience any leaks, but we were being very careful.
While the TS5 has strong overall performance for a toughcam, Panasonic hasn't significantly increased image quality over the TS4. In fact, both color accuracy and noise reduction are actually worse this year.
Noise reduction is the lesser of these two evils. Performance has dropped only slightly from the TS4, thanks to a smoothing algorithm that is slightly less effective at removing noise from low ISO shots. Still, the TS5 remains ahead of even top-scoring competition like the Olympus TG-2 and Nikon AW110.
But the real puzzle is color accuracy, which has fallen off sharply since the TS4. Of course that camera had its share of inaccuracies—pale greens, dark blues, and hot reds—but the TS5 is oversaturated too—something the TS4 avoided. Although the two cameras have similar color profiles, saturation exaggerates all inaccuracies. And bad color is most often a problem when shooting human subjects, causing them to be rendered in an unrealistic, unflattering way.
Sharpness scores have improved, thanks to the new 16-megapixel sensor, but oversharpening (an artificial software enhancement, not a genuine optics upgrade) is partly responsible for the boost. Chromatic aberration, on the other hand, is a little bit worse.
For an in-depth discussion of the TS5's performance, please visit the Science page.
We shot our sample photos at a nearby wildlife sanctuary, but any photographer will need to be quick if they want to capture animals doing their thing. So imagine our relief to learn the TS5 offers full-resolution bursts at up to 10 frames per second and—if you're willing to drop down to 5 fps—the camera can actually use continuous autofocus in between shots. This feature is very rare in compact cameras, and helped us nail some bird photos we would've otherwise missed.
Of course, the TS5 is still far from an all-in-one wildlife photography solution. A rugged camera needs fewer moving parts, which means no telescoping lens, and that means a poor optical zoom ratio. The TS5 maxes out at 4.6x, and the zoom action is frustratingly slow, so you'll need to have some foresight to frame correctly.
On the other hand, short of a GoPro, this camera is certainly the best choice for waterproof videography all year. Like the TS4, the TS5 shoots Full-HD 1080/60p videos that are sharp but, more importantly, smooth. Motion feels true to life, without losing detail as the camera pans or shakes. That fidelity reinforces the TS5's position as the best 2013 toughcam for fast action.
Rounding out the impressive feature set are WiFi and NFC support. These work as you'd expect, but earned yawns from our editorial team. There's also built-in GPS functionality, and it actually gives the Nikon AW110's world-class implementation a run for its money. While Panasonic's setup lacks the AW110's detailed mapping software, the TS5 does include helpful features for the everyday adventurer, such as a compass, altimeter, and even a barometer. Persistent logging is also supported, made possible by the GPS transceiver's ability to stay powered up even if the camera is turned off. (Of course, this can also be disabled to save battery life.)
Despite only moderate improvements over the TS4, Panasonic's TS5 still inherits enough performance from its predecessor to remain one of the better toughcams of 2013.
Budding videographers will appreciate this model's unique ability to shoot smooth, high quality movies in 1080/60p, and that feature alone sets the camera apart from any other waterproof offering this year. Also, if you're anything like us, going to the beach isn't so much a relaxing experience as it is an opportunity for water sports. In that case, the TS5's fast yet versatile burst modes—complete with continuous autofocus—unlock action shots that just aren't possible with any other 2013 toughcam.
In some ways image quality from the TS5 is comparable to the AW110: Both cameras are capable of sharp, technically sound shots under lab conditions. However, the TS5's lens maxes out at f/3.3, so most of the time you'll get flat shots without any background blur.
Of course that's true of every waterproof camera this year, save for the Olympus TG-2 and Pentax WG-3, the latter of which had muddy, ugly image rendition anyway. So among the current crop of toughcams, we'd call the TS5 a solid second or third place. It's behind the excellent TG-2 for sure, but great video, convenient usability, and clean images keep this camera competitive with the Nikon AW110.
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