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Travel Zoom Shootout 2011: Conclusion

Six pocket long zoom digital cameras compared

Talk about your tough calls. Take four cameras that are already Dave's Picks, add the Casio ZR100 that will also likely make a Dave's Pick, and add a more questionable camera, and it's tough to do more than to say one's not really worthy. The Fujifilm FinePix F550EXR would have fared better had it not been for the really terrible lens quality. When there's such a clear loser, it's harder to see anything but that, as it stands out in a way that the others do not.

We've looked at various aspects of our Travel Zooms and come up with a ranking based on how well they did in each. Image quality has done a lot to rearrange our list. As I mentioned at the outset, the order we've kept to was not alphabetical, but organized by how we liked them while we were shooting, starting with the Nikon S9100. But once overall scores were tallied, the list reshuffled somewhat. The results of our Shootout place the Sony HX9V in first place, followed by the Panasonic ZS8, Canon SX230, Nikon S9100, Casio ZR100, and Fujifilm F550.

#1: Sony HX9V

The Sony moved itself up four places based mostly on lens, image, and movie quality, three very important factors. It earned its original fourth-place usability ranking based solely on its very slow startup time, which was very frustrating, so bear that in mind. But once it gets going, the 24-384mm equivalent Sony HX9V excels by almost every measurement. Its full-autofocus shutter lag is shortest of them all, its lens quality is top-notch, its video quality also leads the pack, and its image stabilization is among the best. It's notable that the Sony HX9V's low ISO is affected by Sony's aggressive noise suppression, which limits the largest print size to 13x19 inches instead of 16x20, but as ISO rises, the Sony does a little better than most. Overall, the Sony HX9V stands out as the best travel zoom digital camera.

Link to our Sony HX9V review

#2: Panasonic ZS8

Were it not for the ZS10's poor sensor, the ZS8 wouldn't even be in this shootout, so if it seems a bit outranked in the features department, that's why. But little brother done good against the big boys and comes out in second place, with excellent optical quality, a simple interface, good battery life, fast autofocus, and excellent image stabilization. We were also impressed with its indoor image quality, with a tendency to keep ISO low while still getting a well-exposed shot. Its 24-384mm lens performs well, if not quite as well as the HX9V's. One major difference is its lack of Full HD and a mini-HDMI-out port, so if Full HD video is important to you check out one of the others. Panasonic created this category, though, and continues to turn out a high quality product, making the ZS8 easy to recommend.

Link to our Panasonic ZS8 review

#3: Canon SX230

There were quite a few strikes against the Canon SX230 in the operation department, which earned it fourth place for overall usability, but its combination of better image and video quality earned it a promotion by one level. The score between the Nikon S9100 and was very close, though, coming down to the SX230's better indoor performance, better image stabilization, and better video quality. Remember, though, that its 28-392mm zoom range is least wide of them all, and that its closest competitor, the Nikon S9100, has the longest zoom range and starts at 25mm. It was a close call, and you might choose one or the other based on your desire for GPS (advantage Canon) or a wider, longer zoom (advantage Nikon). Suffice it to say that the Canon SX230 is a very good choice, only with a few operational foibles to drop it below the Sony and Panasonic above.

Link to our Canon SX230 review

#4: Nikon S9100

Obviously we really expected the Nikon S9100 to do better, considering how much we liked using it, ranking it first place for overall usability. But its performance indoors, its major Jello-effect in movies, and fairly shaky image stabilization in movies really hurt its score by comparison. Still, two out of three of those items are largely due to the S9100's long and wide 18x zoom. Statistically it's pretty close to a draw between the Canon SX230 and the Nikon S9100, and for some that 18x zoom lens makes the decision for them. It's hard to beat a 25-450mm zoom in your pocket! So long as you're shooting mostly stills outdoors, we think you'll be very happy with the Nikon S9100.

Link to our Nikon S9100 review

#5: Casio ZR100

We were pleasantly surprised by the Casio EX-ZR100. It's a competent design with good performance, and, as usual from Casio, a great set of innovative digital features. Slightly lower image quality in key areas demotes it beneath the four cameras above, and its significantly shorter 12.5x zoom, ranging from 24-300mm, should have produced a little better image quality if it wasn't going to contend in the 14-18x range. Otherwise, we don't have a problem recommending the Casio EX-ZR100 as a travel camera, as well as one for action and high speed video capture, an area where it particularly excels.

#6: Fujifilm F550EXR

Sadly, the Fujifilm F550 doesn't just lose by comparison to the others, it's really not worthy of consideration thanks to the very poor lens quality. It'll serve as a snapshot camera, but don't expect to be too pleased with any crops or enlargements. Videos, too, will always start out overexposed and then get better. Were the lens more in line with the other cameras in this shootout, we might see a very different arrangement in this list. But optical performance is as important as sensor performance, and the F550 is seriously lacking in the optical department, such that we can't adequately evaluate the sensor's performance. From what we can tell, the much vaunted EXR technology doesn't add enough to bother with, which has been true with all the EXR cameras we've reviewed. If there's promise to the technology, we have yet to see it delivered, and since it's a major feature of this camera, we have to count its failure against it. But we wouldn't even need to, because even at 24-360mm, a long zoom camera with a bad lens isn't worth your consideration. Unless you like that kind of thing.



So that's our Shootout! It was an interesting process, with surprising results. Note that as the primary evaluator of the cameras, I found it was a shootout among quality marksmen, which made it harder to parse which cameras were better and why.

We'd really like your feedback on this shootout, because we'd like to do more in the future. It puts us in your shoes a little more, forcing us to evaluate the various cameras all at once, much as you have to do when reading multiple reviews and multiple websites to pick a camera for yourself.

This shootout was mostly crafted by me, Shawn Barnett. I included the elements that matter to me when I'm looking at a camera; not only for our reviews, but also when I'm laying my own money on the table. Our frequent tendency is to include more detail, features, and tests, but we really need your feedback to decide what to do next time: what to emphasize and what to leave out. We could easily produce a much longer study than this, get down to the very smallest detail and feature, but I've bet that most readers will spend more time skimming and glancing at the crops than reading from end to end as we wish they'd do.

I wanted this to be us walking you through the major elements that we think you should consider when looking for a travel zoom camera, not a comprehensive review of each. For us, only a few Scene modes have ever amounted to much, but multi-shot modes and instant panorama modes are among the truly useful modes, allowing us to do in just a few moments what was so difficult as to be impossible for the average person, but most of the cameras in this roundup make the impossible possible. You won't see anything about sunset mode in this shootout, but the truly useful stuff, including print quality and lens quality are of paramount importance.

I'm as ready to find out that you want more detail about this or that as I am that you want even less detail.

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