Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review: Lumix DMC-TZ50 WiFi Capability - Close, But Not Quite There Yet

A few minutes after buying a Lumix TZ5A on Amazon I realized I could get the TZ50S - for even cheaper. And not only that, but the TZ50S had WiFi built in. How on earth could I pass that up? Generously, Amazon allows you to cancel an order without penalty if the seller hasn't shipped the item. So, after a few minutes of order shuffling, I had the TZ5 canceled and a TZ50 on the way.

Because the WiFi model was an after thought, I didn't really have high expectations for it. This would turn out to be a good thing, as you'll see in a few moments. But first, it's worth outlining what the camera actually does in WiFi mode.

What WiFi Mode Gives You

WiFi mode is quite crude - essentially all you can do is:

  • Connect to an access point. It has an emphasis on T-mobile access points, though any secure or open access point technically works.
  • Upload or View albums on Picasa
  • Send an e-mail which contains a URL of the photo and album you've selected to a single e-mail address

The expected workflow, I suppose, is this: upload the files into Picasa, then send yourself an e-mail (perhaps to your phone?). Then, forward that e-mail onto your friends and family.

The Good and The Bad

I found the WiFi access point setup to be quite reasonable, and actually fairly impressive on one level. Also, I don't particularly mind the limitation of having to use Picasa, as I already use it.

And I can forgive them for only allowing you to send the URL of an image to a single e-mail address.

But there are two points where I think they've gone wrong. First, they limit you to 5 hard coded albums. You can upload files to LUMIX ALBUM1, LUMIX ALBUM2, etc. up to LUMIX ALBUM5. How is that a scalable solution? In what world do people say, "for the life of my camera, I'll only need to organize my photos in to 5 albums." Sure, it would be trickier to allow folks to create and rename albums, but it would be vastly more extensible.

You can partially work around this issue by uploading the photos into one of their standard albums and then renaming the album. The camera gets a bit confused, but will, in the end, just recreate an empty album for you. The problem with this is that any links you've sent out to folks no longer work - as they point to the empty album, instead of the renamed one.

The bigger issue though, by far, is the reliability of the device. I'd say, 1 out of 10 times I've been able to simply turn on the camera, choose the WiFi mode and connect. Inevitably, somewhere along the way - be it accessing the waypoint, requesting an IP or just talking to Picasa - the connection drops. I've found that restarting the camera seems to be the best way to get it back on track in a hurry.

There is a firmware upgrade for the device, though I've yet to hear back from Panasonic how I can apply this update, or if I even need to.

But Is It Hackable?

My first thought was, how can I set it up so that I can blog directly from my camera. As crude as this setup is, I think there are a couple of things working for it that make it fairly straightforward to rig up a blogging hack. Two options that come to mind:

The Easy Way: I could simply plug in my blog by mail e-mail address into the camera. Then, when I e-mail a URL of a photo, the message will appear on the blog. The message will look a little goofy, as the text will look like:

You have been invited to view benjisimon's web album on Picasa! To see the images, please click on the following URL link:


- Google Picasa

The big downfall here is that the links aren't permalinks - what's ALBUM2 above, will inevitably get moved out of the way. But still, as a quick and dirty way to get content on the blog, it could work.

The Right Way: From a hacker's perspective, Picasa was actually a smart choice for Panasonic because it has a public API. One could fairly easily combine the Picas Web API and the Blogger API to create a little mobile app that allowed you quick publishing of albums to the your blog. Here's how I'd see it working:

  • You visit a the app on your phone
  • You select one of the standard Albums
  • You provide a title for the album, and perhaps a description
  • You click Go! at which point the Picasa API is used to rename the album to the provided name and the Blogger API is used to post an entry with an embedded slideshow in it

So yeah, the setup is hackable.

Gimmick or Feature

As interesting as WiFi is, it's definitely at gimmick status right now. If they could get the connection functionality to actually work reliably, and make the software a bit more flexible, they may really be on to something.

I can't think of any detractors yet from having WiFi, so given the choice between the TZ5 and the TZ50, I'd still go with the 50. Perhaps Panasonic will get their act together and issue additional firmware updates?

Oh, one feature that's worth mentioning - the camera comes with 1 free year of T-mobile hotspot service. I have yet to activate this, so I'm not sure about the details. But, still, that's over a $100 value in service, and seems like a really generous offer to me.

Some screenshots of the WiFi mode at work...

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