Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

Need a pocket-friendly camera with an all-encompassing zoom? We review the Canon SX700 HS, Nikon S9700, Panasonic TZ60 and Sony HX60 to see which is the best camera for you.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Compact cameras with expansive optical zooms have always appealed to the user looking to travel light, and today’s models manage to balance unprecedented focal ranges with surprisingly slender bodies. While budget cameras now typically sport 5x or 10x optical zoom ranges as standard, fully-featured models which reside around the £250-300 mark appear perfectly happy to stretch up to 30x. In 35mm terms this equates to a maximum focal length of 750mm, so it’d be surprising if we didn’t see this pushed further into quadruple figures before long.

This might sound impressive, but such ambitious optics present additional challenges for the manufacturer. Optical aberrations in superzoom lenses, combined with issues associated with handling such diminutive bodies stably make the role of superior optical elements and technologies all the more important. Well aware of this, manufacturers have equipped their latest iterations with a range of features to help maintain image quality at any focal length, and with additional sweeteners such as GPS systems, Raw shooting and Wi-Fi thrown in, each is obviously keen to outdo its rivals with the finest proposition.

Panasonic used to dominate the sector with its TZ range, although competition from Sony, Canon, Nikon and others all mean it has to work harder to impress. While all four models on test appear to do much the same thing on paper, some fare better than others in practice depending on exactly how they are used. We took the four out together and charged each with the same tasks to find out more.

The cameras

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

Clockwise from top left: Canon SX700 HS; Nikon S9700; Sony HX60; Panasonic TZ60

 

Features

 

Canon

Nikon

Panasonic

Sony

Model name

PowerShot SX700 HS

Coolpix S9700

Lumix TZ60

Cyber-shot HX60

Sensor

16.1MP

16MP

18.1MP

20.4MP

Lens (wide)*

25mm

25mm

24mm

24mm

Lens (tele)*

750mm

750mm

720mm

720mm

Max. aperture (wide)

f/3.2

f/3.7

f/3.3

f/3.5

Max. aperture (tele)

f/6.9

f/6.4

f/6.4

f/6.3

ISO

100-3200

125-6400

100-3200 (exp. to ISO 6400 equivalent)

80-12800

Display

3in

3in

3in

3in

Display resolution

922k dots

921k dots

920k dots

922k dots

Touch functionality

No

No

No

No

Manual exp. control

P,A,S,M

P,A,S,M

P,A,S,M

P,A,S,M

HD video

1920×1080, 60fps

1920×1080, 30fps

1920×1080, 50fps

1920×1080, 60fps

Burst mode (full res.)

3.1fps (up to 8.5fps)

6.9fps

10fps

10fps

GPS

via smart device

Yes

Yes

No

Wi-fi

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

NFC

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Other

5-axis IS system, Super Slow Motion video, focus peaking

5-axis VR system, High speed USB charging, OLED display

Live view (electronic) finder, Raw shooting, focus peaking

Hotshoe, Optical SteadyShot system

Weight (inc. bat and card)

269g

232g

240g

Approx. 272g

* focal length stated is in 35mm-equivalent terms

 

Similarities:

 

Displays – Each camera offers a 3in display which is fixed in place and resolution is essentially the same on each. There isn’t a touchscreen to be found among the four; while this feature is helpful it’s far from essential.

Manual Control – The four are united in offering physical mode dials for quickly alternating between exposure modes, and each provides manual control over exposure through the usual Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority and Manual options. Exposure compensation is also offered by each.

Focal length – The four cameras have similar focal length to each other, with any differences on paper giving neither any significant advantages in practice. The Canon SX700 HS and Nikon S9700 also both come with the promise of doubling the optical zoom range while maintaining the same standard of image quality, while the Clear Image Zoom and Intelligent Resolution systems found respectively inside the Sony HX60 and Panasonic TZ60 each promise to do the same with only minimal degradation in image quality.

Wi-Fi – Each camera offers Wi-Fi.

Flash – Each camera offers a built-in flash (although the unit inside the Panasonic TZ60 is the only one to remain in place when in use, with the others springing out from their respective top plates).

 

Confused by the all tech? Click here to read our Compact Camera Buying Guide

 

Differences:

Sensor resolution – While the Canon SX700 HS and Nikon S9700 employ 16MP sensors, the Panasonic TZ60 ups this to 18MP and the Sony HX60 stretches even further to over 20MP.

Raw shooting – The Panasonic TZ60 offers Raw shooting in addition to the standard JPEG option. This allows users to apply their own processing to any captured images.

Viewfinder – The Panasonic TZ60 is also alone in offering a viewfinder, which in this case is an electronic one.

NFC – The Nikon S9700 is the only camera from the quartet to lack NFC technology.

Hotshoe – Only the Sony HX60 offers a hotshoe, which allows external flashguns and other accessories to be used in conjunction with the model.

 

Design and handling

 

Canon PowerShot SX700 HS

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The most shapely camera on test, the SX700 HS fits comfortably in the hand and offers just enough space for the thumb to rest between the LCD screen and mode dial on the back. The body sports a pleasingly smooth finish while the grip around the front provides added security by allowing the middle finger to curl around it. The front plate also offers a standard AF-assist lamp and microphones above the optic for use in video recording.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The top plate is fairly simple in its design, with power, movie-record and shutter-release buttons joined by a zoom collar which encircles the latter. The power button is pleasingly larger here than on the other three models, although its position inside the top-plate’s incline makes it somewhat awkward to access. Nevertheless, the shutter-release button has the clearest definition between its focus and exposed stages, which helps when needing to repeatedly focus on a subject. The zoom rocker is also the largest out of the four here, which makes it easy to use comfortably.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The rear of the camera boasts large and clearly labelled buttons which are comfortable to press. The mode dial, however, is surprisingly stiff, while its rear placement makes it harder to turn than if it were mounted on the top plate. If you only ever use one exposure mode you shouldn’t find this to be too much of a problem, although those used to changing between different modes may take issue with this.

 

Nikon Coolpix S9700

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The S9700 sports a basic front plate, with nothing more than an AF-assist light, microphone holes and a long, thin hump which serves as a grip. In most situations this works perfectly well, although when shooting at the longer end of the lens, it’s clear that a more substantial grip would allow greater stability.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The mode dial is small and only half can be accessed thanks to its recession within the top plate, but this does mean it’s less likely to be inadvertently knocked out of position (and it does turn easily enough). The protrusion from the zoom collar allows you to get good purchase on this too, which means there’s no fiddling around in a hurry.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The S9700’s menu pad dial is a touch smaller than those on the others, but there’s enough room around the buttons for everything to be accessed easily enough without knocking into any unwanted settings. The thumb pad is generously proportioned, though, which is welcome in the absence of a proper grip as it allows the camera to be held with slightly greater security.

 

Panasonic Lumix TZ60

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

While previous Lumix TZ models have devoted a significant proportion of their front plates to a handgrip, the TZ60 opts for just a small hump with a rubber-like coating. This move might not please everyone, but, as with the Nikon S9700, it helps to keep the body slender while still managing to provide a resting point for the middle finger. Presumably anything more substantial would increase the risk of the flash being obscured by the user’s hand when the camera is held; if you’ve larger hands, this could potentially happen quite easily here.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The TZ60’s top plate sports a shutter-release button encircled by a zoom collar, as well as a mode dial, power control and movie-record button, together with holes for the camera’s microphones and speaker. Not only does the mode dial rotate freely but the lack of obstructions around it means that it is accessed with the greatest ease out of the four, which in turn makes it the most suitable option for those used to changing exposure modes with some regularity. Those who tend to stay on one option, however, may have preferred Panasonic to have adjusted its torque for the sake of it staying in place – but this is hardly a deal-breaker. The small protrusion on the zoom rocker could also do with extending out a little further, although it’s likely that many will prefer to use the control ring around the lens for the purpose of zooming. The movie-record button is also dangerously close to the power control, and it’s too easy to press the wrong one in a hurry.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Around the rear, the feature which distinguishes the TZ60 from its peers is its Live View finder, which is activated upon a press of the LVF button to its side. Although there’s no eye sensor for automatic alternation between the finder and rear display, there is at least dipotre correction to tailor the feed to different eyesights. On the right hand side, the camera offers the usual controls we expect to find on such a model, including a dedicated button for activating the wireless functionality. While the buttons are slightly smaller here than they are on the others, and markings on each not quite as clear as could be, each presses positively into the camera and the ring around the menu pad rotates with ease. The small hump that serves as a thumb rest above these also provides extra security when holding the camera with just one hand.

 

Sony Cyber-shot HX60

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Out of the four cameras, the HX60 has the most generously proportioned grip, with the best use of rubber around it for comfort and security. This, together with the inclusion of a hotshoe on the top plate, means it’s not quite as thin as the others here, but it should still fit into most pockets. The only other feature on the front plate is the AF-assist lamp next to the grip, which helps the camera to achieve focus in sub-optimum lighting conditions.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Not only is the HX60 the only camera from the quartet to offer a hotshoe, but it’s also alone in offering a dedicated exposure compensation dial (although exposure compensation can be called upon just as simply on each of the other three models here, albeit in a different manner). The two dials are stiff enough to remain in position, but not annoyingly so to make changing options difficult.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The buttons on the back are reasonably small and not quite as defined as those on the other models, but they are clearly labelled. The thumb rest could do with being a little larger to accommodate the average thumb, although there is ample room around it to rest the thumb without it encroaching on the viewing area of the LCD, and while the menu pad verges on the small side it does turn freely. The only real issue is the position of the movie-record button, which makes it too easy to unintentionally activate the feature when the camera is held naturally.

 

Performance

 

Canon PowerShot SX700 HS

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The S9700 powers up in around a second and shuts down in about the same time, which is about average for such a model. Once ready, the lens moves swiftly and at a consistent pace when zoomed from one end of the other, while an effective image-stabilisation system helps to keep things stable enough for accurate framing at the telephoto end. During movie recording, the lens zooms noticeably faster than expected, which isn’t always conducive to achieving pleasing results.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Instead of digging through menus to change shooting options, most of the controls are accessed quite simply within a couple of side panels. This has the benefit of maintaining the feed from the scene, so that any changes to white balance, colour and so on can be viewed as they are made. The camera’s LCD screen shows a decent amount of detail, but, next to those on the Panasonic TZ60 and Sony Hx60, it’s not quite as crisp or as easy to see in bright conditions. The autofocus system also ocassionally hesitates a touch although, overall, it can generally be relied upon to bring subjects into focus in reasonable time.

 

Nikon Coolpix S9700

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The camera takes around the same time to spring to life as the others here, while the simple tabbed layout of the menu system allows this to be navigated whether you use the buttons, the menu pad dial or a combination of the two. The camera’s hybrid VR systems appear to have a positive effect on images, although the feed is not quite as stable as those from the other cameras, which can make composing images at the telephoto end a little more difficult. The camera also fails to warn of camera shake at some of the riskier shutter speeds (despite warning you at very risky shutter speeds).

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The S9700’s autofocus system is, however, superb. Not only does in a decent performance in fine conditions but also manages to find focus speedily in low light, with little hunting (and even when the camera’s AF assist lamp is deactivated, it still manages to impress). One quirk we did find, however, is that, when left on its Auto mode, the camera has a tendency to raise the flash, even when the subject is too distant for it to make any difference; this in turn leads to occasionally underexposed images. The dynamic range of the LCD screen could also be improved, as it can often struggle to display highlight and shadow areas simultaneously.

 

Panasonic Lumix TZ60

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The TZ60’s viewfinder is perfectly usable in the kinds of situations you may need it, and while it’s understandably smaller than those found in Compact System Cameras, it shows the scene and all exposure information clearly (as well as the menus, if you choose to change settings here). Its dynamic range could be improved to better display shadows and highlights, and the lack of an eye-sensor may be an issue for some, but in both good and poor lighting conditions it proves itself to be both useful and usable. The LCD screen is also bright and colourful, and displays an excellent dynamic range; out of the four, it’s the easiest to view in harsh light. The menu system, meanwhile, makes good use of graphics and explanations for all key controls to make the user experience as pleasing as possible.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Stability is excellent at the telephoto end of the lens, which makes it easy to get the image you want with fewer attempts. The lens moves rapidly (and almost silently) through its zoom range, which is great if you need the other extreme in a hurry, although the zoom rocker is responsive enough to allow for fine control. The focusing system is generally capable, with subjects brought into focus in good time, although it does tend to hesitate where the others do not, needing just a fraction more time to confirm focus.

 

Sony Cyber-shot HX60

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

There’s lots to like about the overall performance of the Sony HX60. The Optical SteadyShot system is clearly effective at longer focal lenghts, stabilising the footage and making it easier to compose the shot, while the combination of default brightness, colour and contrast of the LCD screen makes viewing and composing images pleasing. In fact, only the screen on the Panasonic TZ60 beats it here (and even then, only just).

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

While none of the four cameras show any significant delay as such between pressing the shutter-release button and the image being captured, the HX60 is particularly speedy here. This, combined with the sprightly focusing system, means that it can often be easier to get the shot you want in less time than the others. The menu system is particularly comprehensive, with many more options than would be expected on a camera of this level; this is useful but could also serve to confuse the more novice user. During movie recording, the optical zoom travels relatively slowly and steadily through its range, which is great if trying to use the camera for more creative videos.

 

Image Quality

 

Canon PowerShot SX700 HS

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The SX700’s tendency is to produce accurate rather than optimised images, so some may prefer to use the camera’s MyColors settings to make colours pop a little more; next to those from the others here they can appear a little too neutral. The camera’s metering system does well, with just a slight inclination to overexpose the odd image. This has the effect of bringing up shadow areas a touch, but at the expense of some highlight detail.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

In terms of detail, the camera strikes the right balance between detail retention and noise reduction admirably, with images from the camera being among the best on test in some of the situations in which it was tested. At higher sensitivities there is a little blotchiness from noise, but images are largely clean and bear just a fine-texture in shadow areas from noise and noise reduction.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Chromatic aberrations are controlled very well at the wide end of the camera’s lens, although performance drops off a little at the telephoto end, with purple fringing being more evident. Overall a solid performance, but it’s worth experimenting with the in-camera options to tweak the image quality to your liking.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Nikon Coolpix S9700

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Straight out of the camera, images from the S9700 appear pleasing. Thanks to a slightly warmer Auto White Balance system than the other cameras here, images show vibrant (yet still faithful) colours, while exposures are also fine. Admittedly, there is a touch of overexposure on occasion, but this is arguably preferable to underexposure where immediate use of images is concerned.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

At the telephoto end of the lens the camera does a very job to maintain good contrast, although chromatic aberrations over the edges of details are noticeable. Some chromatic aberration is also visible in wideangle shots, but only upon close inspection of images (rather than at standard print or viewing sizes).

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Next to the others, control over noise appears to be the camera’s sore point. Images show considerable noise reduction, which leaves them relatively free from noise but sadly devoid of finer details too. This tends to be the case even at lower sensitivities, which makes the camera less suitable for anything but the finest shooting conditions.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Panasonic Lumix TZ60

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

In terms of detail in images, the Panasonic TZ60 comes out on top. At lower sensitivities it strikes the best balance between reducing noise and retaining more intricate details, and while there are some noise reduction artefacts visible further up the ISO range, image quality remains strong.  It’s also pleasing to see relatively little distortion at either end of the camera’s optic, which is often an issue with such massive zoom ranges. Only when shooting particularly close to the subject do you notice this to any objectionable level, but this would be the case with any of the cameras on test.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Exposures are pleasing in a range of conditions, and even when faced with backlighting the camera fails to underexpose in a way that might be expected. When you get to the telephoto end of the camera’s lens, contrast drops off a little which is disappointing, but the image stabilisation system clearly makes a difference with regards to maintaining sharpness.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

It’s possible to shoot Raw images with the TZ60. Comparing these to JPEGs straight from the camera shows that it processes JPEG images conservatively, with an appropriate boost in sharpening and contrast, and only slight (but noticeable) noise reduction too. The camera’s weakest area, perhaps, regards control over chromatic aberrations; while there is only a moderate amount of chromatic aberration at the telephoto end of the lens, purple fringing is more evident at wider settings, particularly towards the peripheries of the frame.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Sony Cyber-shot HX60

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

There’s plenty to like about the Sony HX60’s images. On the whole, images are accurately exposed and characterised by vibrant colours and pleasing contrast, which makes them perfectly suitable for immediate use. The camera does appear to have a slightly more sensitive metering system than the others, however, which may make you reach for the exposure compensation control now and again.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Where the camera struggles is with rendering fine details in shadow areas and at higher sensitivities. Coarse noise-reduction artefacts make it obvious that the camera simply can’t keep up with the Canon Sx700 HS and Panasonic TZ60, which is something to bear in mind if you tend to shoot towards at settings above ISO 400 (detail at lower sensitivities, however, is maintained well).

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Images show a touch more detail when the camera’s noise reduction setting is switched from Normal to Low, but not enough to elevate it above the performance of the aforementioned two. Still, chromatic aberrations are controlled excellently at the wide-angle setting of the lens, although some fringes are visible at the telephoto end of the optic.

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

Verdict

 

Superzoom compacts 2014: Which is the best?

 

The Nikon S9700 combines a straightforward graphic user interface and an excellent focusing system inside a relatively svelte and lightweight body, and it manages to equal or better the others at a more attractive price. Those likely to scrutinise images at their full size or seeking to make enlargements may expect a little more from it, but if you want pleasing images straight out of the camera, perhaps for use online or small prints, it delivers.

When their spec sheets are compared, the Canon SX700 HS appears to have the fewest added extras on board. Its core specifications are perfectly sound, but it doesn’t appear to offer anything unusual or different that would immediately distinguish it from the others. Its LCD also isn’t quite as crisp as expected, but its overall performance and image quality are both good, and noise control is a particular strong point (no doubt in part thanks to a less populated sensor). If you don’t need any special features and you just want something you can rely upon, the SX700 HS is well worth considering.

The Sony HX60 does lots to impress, with a great LCD screen, comfortable grip and prompt capture times standing out from its performance. It might not balance noise reduction with detail as well as some of the others, but its stability at longer focal length and fast autofocus make it a particularly good camera for those often reaching for the telephoto end of the lens. If you take advantage of the hotshoe, its possibilities extend even further.

So, with so much competition, does Panasonic’s established TZ range still have anything offer? Very much so. The Panasonic TZ60 manages to impress both on paper and in use, with its comprehensive feature set (including Raw shooting and that EVF) complemented by detailed images and excellent usability. It’s not quite perfect, and those keen on shooting at the telephoto end may prefer the more defined grip of the Sony HX60 or Canon SX700 HS, but otherwise it’s an impressive all-rounder.

 

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