It isn't until you hold the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 that you realize just what an engineering feat it is.
Its Leica lens starts off at an ultrawide-angle 24mm and zooms in to 480mm. That's an incredible range for a lens in a body that's just 1.1 inches thick. That's actually thinner than its 16x predecessor, the DMC-ZS10. The lens is paired with Panasonic's Power O.I.S. optical image stabilization, which has been very good in the past, but I'll have to see how well it handles the extra zoom range.
The rest of the design doesn't look too far off from the ZS10's, though instead of it being straight across the front, it has a slight curve over the lens barrel, similar to the design of the Lumix DMC-GF3 interchangeable-lens camera. Panasonic updated the user interface with cleaner, sharper icons and text, making it immediately more enjoyable to use. It has both a touch screen and physical controls, which can be a little awkward because most functions can't be controlled with the touch screen. For example, you can use it to focus and shoot photos by tapping on your subject, but menu navigation is primarily done with the directional pad.
Having spent just a little time with it, I can tell you the shooting performance is very good. The ZS20 features Panasonic's Light Speed AF system, which promises 0.1-second autofocus speed in bright conditions. While we'll have to run our lab tests to confirm, it does feel quick to focus and shoot. Plus, it's loaded with burst-shooting options, including a full-resolution burst at 10 frames per second with focus and exposure locked at the first shot, and 5fps and 2fps bursts with autofocus, which is excellent for a point-and-shoot, especially of this size.
Panasonic's taking better advantage of its high-speed sensors and processing with some new shooting modes, too. Well, new for Panasonic at least. There is an option for easy panoramas, where you just shoot and pan the camera and it stitches the shots together into one panoramic photo. It's joined by an HDR mode that'll quickly take three consecutive shots at different exposures and combine them into one well-balanced photo.
As for photo quality, I've encountered issues in the past with how Panasonic processes its JPEGs. With past models, using any sensitivity above ISO 400 resulted in a lot of color noise in the blue channel, causing yellow blotching. That improved with Panasonic's full-size megazoom, the DMC-FZ150, and it looks like the same can be said for the ZS20 after examining a few test shots. We'll still need to run it through our lab tests and do a lot more shooting with it to know for sure and, unfortunately, without the option to shoot raw, you'll have no other option than to use the ZS20's JPEGs.
Be sure to check back soon for a full review.