Serious compact cameras compared: Samsung TL500 vs. Panasonic LX5 vs. Canon S95

I initially started with evaluating five different compact models: Samsung TL500, Panasonic LX5, Leica D-Lux 5, Nikon Coolpix S8100 and Canon S95. The Panasonic LX5 and Leica D-Lux 5 are almost identical cameras - take a look at this post over at leicarumors.com. The Nikon S8100 doesn't really fit in this category because it does not support RAW files - I will do a separate comparison between the Nikon S8100 and the Canon S95 over at nikonrumors.com. At the end, I was left with three serious compact cameras for my review: Samsung TL-500, Panasonic LX5 and Canon S95.

There are other compact models from different manufacturers, like the Nikon P7000 and Canon G12, but they are bigger, with an OVF and wouldn't really fit in this compact comparison. The new Olympus ZX-1 would be relevant for that category but unfortunately it was not yet available at the time this review was written.

Ergonomics

The Samsung TL500 is the biggest camera of the trio - it fits perfectly in my hands and has a swivel screens. In manual mode the shutter speed can be changed by the front wheel and the aperture is controlled by the wheel on the menu selector. The TL500 has two wheels on top for the different program modes and burst/self-timer that can be directly accessed with your thumb. There is an annoying blue LED ring that lightens up once you turn the camera on. The tripod thread is centered in the middle of the body. The menu is clean and easy to access. The camera has also a flash hot shoe and can be charged via USB.

The Panasonic LX5 is smaller in size, but with the built-in grip the camera still felt good in my hands. The LX5 has dedicated switch for the aspect ratios (1:1, 4:3, 3:2, 16:9) and autofocus selector (AF, Macro, MF). In manual mode, the aperture and shutter are controlled by the clickable wheel on the back of the camera. The menu is long, with a lot of different options (for example it takes 7 clicks to get to the format card option). Each mode has also a "Quick Menu" which I found to be very helpful. The wheel cannot be used to navigate through the menu. The tripod thread is located on the far left of the camera. The Panasonic LX has a flash hot shoe.

The Canon S95 is the smallest of all three models. The lack of grip makes it hard to hold, but the camera will fit even in a small pocket. The best feature of the camera is the rotating ring on the lens that can be assigned for different functions like zooming, aperture, ISO, WB, manual focus, etc. There is also a second rotating ring on the back that changes the shutter speed in manual mode. The on/off button is located right next to the ring function button and can easily be mistaken. The menu is clean and is designed to provide quick access to all major settings. The Canon S95 doesn't have a flash hot shoe. The tripod thread is "almost" centered.

A good visual comparison of all major compact cameras (including the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5) can be seen here.

Color reproduction

I can assure you that all of those cameras can take decent picture in daylight, so I will concentrate on the low light performance, especially since they all have large aperture on the wide angle end. The first test is to show the color reproduction in daylight (manual mode, ISO 200, f/4, 1/200s, click on image for larger view):

Samsung TL500 in daylight

Samsung TL500 in daylight

Panasonic LX5 in daylight

Panasonic LX5 in daylight

Canon S95 in daylight

Canon S95 in daylight

As I said already - the color reproduction of all three cameras is very similar in daylight.

High ISO/Low light performance

The next set of comparisons were taken with the three cameras at ISO 800/1600/3200. ISO 3200 is the maximum level for the Samsung TL500 and the Canon S95. The Panasonic LX5 can go up to ISO 12800, but anything above 3200 is useless (click on image for larger view).

Samsung

Samsung TL500 at ISO 800

Samsung TL500 at ISO 800

Samsung TL500 at ISO 1600

Samsung TL500 at ISO 1600

Samsung TL500 at ISO 3200

Samsung TL500 at ISO 3200

Pansonic (note: RAW shooting is not possible with ISO above 3200 with the LX5 - the camera automatically switches to JPG)

Panasonic LX5 at ISO 800

Panasonic LX5 at ISO 800

Panasonic LX5 at ISO 1600

Panasonic LX5 at ISO 1600

Panasonic LX5 at ISO 3200

Panasonic LX5 at ISO 3200

Canon

Canon S95 at ISO 800

Canon S95 at ISO 800

Canon S95 at ISO 1600

Canon S95 at ISO 1600

Canon S95 at ISO 3200

Canon S95 at ISO 3200

For a better comparison, here is another set of  high ISO side by side sample crops (all taken under the same lighting condition and then converted to JPG from the original RAW files in Lightroom without any adjustments):

Samsung

Panasonic

Canon

Image noise is a matter of taste. In my opinion, the Panasonic LX5 is the worst performer. Samsung TL500 delivered very "pale" colors when in high ISO mode. Canon S95 seems to be the winner here.

Point and shoot (auto) mode in low light

Two more low light tests: the first one is in auto mode where the camera decides alone what settings to choose:

Samsung TL500 auto mode

Samsung TL500 auto mode

Panasonic LX5 auto mode

Panasonic LX5 auto mode

Canon S95 auto mode

Canon S95 auto mode

and the same setup, but in aperture priority (f/2, ISO 800) - Samsung and Canon chose 1 sec shutter speed, where the Panasonic chose 2.5 seconds:

Samsung TL500 aperture priority at 1 sec

Samsung TL500 aperture priority at 1sec

Panasonic LX5 aperture priority at 2.5 sec

Panasonic LX5 aperture priority at 2.5 sec

Canon S95 aperture priority at 1 sec

Canon S95 aperture priority at 1 sec

Based on this test, the Panasonic LX5 has the most accurate metering. Samsung TL500 and Canon S95 seem to underexpose the photos, especially in auto mode.

LCD screen

The Samsung TL500 has a 3" rotating AMOLED screen that is way better than the TFT display of the other two cameras - the colors are more vibrant and the black is "deeper". The Panasonic LX5 has the worst display of the trio - click on the next image for larger view (Canon on the left, Panasonic in the middle, Samsung on the right):

Canon on the left, Panasonic in the middle, Samsung on the right

Canon on the left, Panasonic in the middle, Samsung on the right

Macro

In real world environment, I was able to focus the Samsung TL500 and the Canon S95 at aprox. 3 inches. The Panasonic LX5 was able to focus at aprox. 2 inches which makes it the best choice for close-up photography:

Samsung TL500 macro test

Samsung TL500 macro test

Panasonic LX5 macro test

Panasonic LX5 macro test

Canon S95 macro test

Canon S95 macro test

The Canon S95 has a 28mm wide angle lens which makes the subject to appear smaller even though the minimum focusing distance is identical to the Samsung TL500.

Camera startup and AF speed

The startup time and AF speed of all three cameras was identical. I am sure that if measured exactly, there will be differences, but in a everyday scenario I could not see any differences. In low light, the Panasonic LX5 seemed to have the fastest AF where the Samsung TL500 and Canon S95 were "hunting around" before delivering accurate AF.

Video

The Samsung TL500 does only 640x480 at 15 or 30 fps video recording and has no manual control, continuous AF or zooming during video. The Canon S95 can do 1280x720 HD video at 24 fps or 30 fps. There is also no manual control and continuous AF or zooming during video recording. The Panasonic LX can do 1280x720 HD video at 30fps and has continuous AF, zooming and full manual control during video recording - program AE, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure:

Panasonic LX5 video control options

Panasonic LX5 video control options

Samsung TL500 and Panasonic LX5 have a dedicated video record button, The Canon S95 does not.

Other

All three cameras have:

  • digital zoom which I find useless
  • manual focus option
  • some kind of image stabilization
  • built-in flash
  • various metering modes
  • exposure compensation
  • continuous shooting option
  • self-timer
  • RAW capabilities

Specifications comparison

The green color indicates the better specs:

Samsung TL500 Panasonic LX5 Canon S95
Pixels 1o MP 10.1 MP 10 MP
Sensor size 1/1.7 in. 1/1.63 in. 1/1.7 in.
Sensor type CCD CCD CCD
ISO range 80-3200 80-12800 80-3200
Lens aperture f/1.8-2.4 f/2-3.3 f/2-4.9
Lens zoom 24-72 mm 24-90 mm 28-105 mm
Screen Rotating 3" AMOLED 3" TFT 3" TFT
Video mode 640x480 at 30fps 1280x720 at 30fps 1280x720 at 24fps
Max shutter 1/1500 sec 1/4000 sec 1/1600 sec
Dimensions (WxHxD) 4.5 x 2.5 x 1.1 in. 4.32 x 2.58 x 1.69 in. 3.93 x 2.3 x 1.16 in.
Weight 0.78 lbs 0.61 lbs 0.35 lbs
Price $349.95 (check latest) $399 (check latest) $399.95 (check latest)

Conclusion

I consider those cameras to be the top three compact choices on the market today (the Olympus ZX-1 was not available at the time this review was written). Based on my personal preferences, I would rate the Panasonic LX as the #1, Canon S95 as #2 and the Samsung TL500 as #3.

The LX5 offers the best overall parameters and has excellent video capabilities. Panasonic has a long history with this product line and it comes to no surprise that they were able to produce such camera. If they could only include an AMOLED display, the LX5 would have no competition for a long time.

The Canon S95 lacks many direct control buttons but its compact size gives it an advantage over the other two cameras. I am surprised that Canon did not implemented more video controls since they are the leader in the DLSR video market.

The TL500 is the first of its kind camera from Samsung. Expect the next generation to be even better considering Samsung's aggressive advances in the digital camera market.

Disclosure: the reviewed product(s) were loaned from B&H who is an affiliate sponsor of NikonRumors.com.
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