Panasonic’s SZ7 is the first camera released in a brand new compact camera line. So what can be expected?

The SZ-series stands for "stylish zoom", which, while we wouldn’t dis3agree with the SZ7’s style, we do struggle to see a key design factor that separates the model from the rest of the Lumix compact range.

The SZ7’s 10x optical zoom lens starts at a wideangle 25mm and stretches up to a considerable 250mm. Considering that the camera body is a mere 21mm wide that’s an impressive feat. It’s this small size that’ll really help to shift the camera and, in line with its "style" motto, the body is far more slender than some other 10x zoom compacts.

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When we went to see Panasonic to see the SZ7, much attention was focused on the camera’s new 14-megapixel MOS sensor. This chip isn’t the usual CCD sensor that you’ll find in compacts of old, which brings advantages to not only stills quality but better movie capture thanks to the sensor type. The claim is also that, despite its 14-megapixel resolution, the SZ7 will have image quality at least 50 per cent better than previous 14-megapixel CCD sensors. As the sample model we got to play with wasn’t a finished one it wasn’t possible to take any sample shots away with us for closer analysis, though the shots on the camera’s rear screen looked good to us.

Where the Panasonic Lumix SZ7 is a cut above many competitors’ compact cameras is in the autofocus department. Panasonic also engineers its G-series compact system cameras and has had breakthroughs in super-fast contrast-detection autofocus. Lucky for all of us, some of that technology has trickled down into the Lumix SZ7 as this compact zips to work and focuses very quickly without hunting for the subject. With most compact cameras the focus speed is decent, but the SZ7 sets itself apart - it feels noticeably faster than similar priced models.

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The speed continues into the continuous shooting mode. Fix the focus point and the camera can snap away at 10 frames per second, or 5fps while continuous autofocus is activated. The continuous focus isn’t always perfect when it comes to maintaining focus on faster moving subjects, as tested with a hand in front of the lens (admittedly not in the very best lighting conditions), but it’s more than can be said for many compact cameras that fail to offer any continuous AF during burst shooting whatsoever.

As mentioned the SZ7’s movie clips should be top quality too. Panasonic has enabled full 1080p capture at 25p using AVCHD or immediate MP4 files. As per stills we’ve been unable to check the quality on a large screen. What we can say is the one-touch movie button on top of the camera is well placed for straightforward activation.

All in all the SZ7 has plenty on offer. A substantial lens, that should be decent image and movie quality, plus speedy autofocus all wrapped up in a thin, well-designed - if not very similar to other Lumix ranges - body. It’s due out in the shops come March time, but there has been no word on pricing and even online retailers aren’t yet listing the model.