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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 Gordon Laing, June 2008

 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 verdict

Panasonic has a well-earned reputation for producing quality compacts, so it’s no surprise to find the new flagship model offering a wealth of compelling features. Headlining these on the new FX500 are of course its 5x optical zoom with unusually wide angle coverage and the touch sensitive screen.

The lens with an equivalent coverage of 25-125mm simply zooms out considerably wider than the vast majority of compacts on the market, even squeezing in a little more than those which boast 28mm. This allows you to easily capture huge landscapes, buildings, interiors or group shots and is ideal in situations when you literally can’t step back any further. By extending the optical range to 5x, the FX500 also doesn’t miss out on decent telephoto coverage; indeed by roughly matching the 24-105 or 24-120mm range of top-end DSLR lenses, the FX500 delivers a near-perfect general-purpose coverage.

Touch screens are often little more than a novelty, but with its first model to sport the feature, Panasonic has sensibly reigned itself in and only used it where there’s genuine benefit. The ability to tap where you’d like the camera to focus is nothing new, but the draggable sliders for the aperture, shutter and exposure compensation work very well in practice, as does the zooming and scrolling in playback.






With this working so well, you wonder why Panasonic falls back on the physical joystick to navigate and select options in the various menus, but this hybrid approach ensures the best of both worlds. You only have to use models like Sony’s Cyber-shot T70 for a few moments to see how its insistence on using the touch screen for almost everything often results in slow and convoluted operation. In contrast the FX500 just gets the job done quickly, easily and intuitively.

While on the subject of aperture and shutter, it’s refreshing to find full manual control on a compact camera, and the FX500 certainly makes it easy to adjust the settings to your heart’s content. A high degree of manual control is also joined by Panasonic’s Intelligent Auto mode which in its 2008 incarnation has matured into one of the most capable facilities we’ve tested.

Topping it all off is the ability to record genuine high definition video in the 720p format. It’s the same feature seen on the earlier FX35 and TZ5, and as such while it’s no match for a dedicated HD camcorder – or even a high quality SD model – it’s still a step up from most of the movie modes on other compacts and a welcome feature; although sadly unlike the TZ5 you can’t optically zoom while filming.

 

So far so good, but there are downsides. Panasonic refers to the FX500 as the flagship Lumix model and equipped it with the full manual and noise reduction controls of models like the FZ18, but where’s the RAW mode? This would have really been the icing on the cake and allowed it to compete in some respects with real enthusiast compacts like the Canon G9.

The touch screen operation is also slightly inconsistent at times. In Aperture and Shutter Priority for example, a touch slider operates the exposure compensation, but the same operation in Program requires a prod of the joystick instead. And speaking of which the joystick itself is fairly small and often hard to operate for those with bigger fingers.

In terms of optical quality, the lens performs pretty well, but towards the longer focal lengths, there is some softening. As has been the case for some time regarding Panasonic compacts though, the biggest Achilles’ heel is noise and its subsequent processing artefacts. Like the FX35 before it, which shares the same sensor and processor, the FX500 suffers from visible processing artefacts even at 100 ISO if you’re looking closely enough.

Boost the sensitivity to 200 ISO and pixel peepers viewing at 100% will notice smearing has already begun to eliminate fine detail, and the situation only gets worse as the sensitivity increases – sadly the option to decrease the noise reduction doesn’t really help either. To be fair, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before – it plagues most compacts, but if you are someone who likes to pore over detail on-screen at 100%, then this is not the camera for you.

Another problem facing the FX500 is the fact there’s two very compelling alternative compacts available from Panasonic in the FX35 and TZ5. So how does the flagship model compare?

Compared to Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35

 
 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35
 
 

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35 is the slim model in the range. Measuring 95x52x22mm and weighing 146g with a card and battery, the FX35 is comfortably smaller and lighter than the FX500. Technically it actually shares a lot in common with the FX500 though, with the same 25mm wide angle coverage, and the same sensor delivering pretty much the same image quality. It also features the same Intelligent Auto mode and High Definition video recording with optional Component video output.

The FX500 is unsurprisingly the more sophisticated of the two though. Both cameras may start at an equivalent of 25mm, but the FX500’s 5x zoom has a longer range than the 4x of the FX35. The FX500’s screen may share the same 230k resolution as the FX35, but it’s bigger and of course touch-sensitive. The FX500 additionally boasts full manual control.

But if you only care about the 25mm wide angle, 10 Mpixel resolution, Intelligent Auto and HD movie recording, then the FX35 has it all in a smaller and cheaper package; certainly, if you’re after a classy compact to slip into a shirt pocket, it could be the model for you. See our Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX35 review for more details.

Compared to Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5

 
 
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5
 
 

The Lumix TZ5 is already shaping up to be one of the most popular cameras of 2008, and it’s not surprising given it enhances one of last year’s best-sellers; it’s also pitched at roughly the same price as the FX500. The TZ5’s unique selling point is having a 10x optical zoom lens in a compact form factor. Sure it doesn’t zoom out quite as wide as the 25mm of the FX500 and FX35, but 28mm coverage is still respectable, and being able to zoom-into 280mm with a pocketable camera is remarkable; unlike the FX500 and FX35, you can also optically zoom while filming a video.

The TZ5 also shares the same sensor as the FX500 (albeit only using 9.1 of its 10 Megapixels), while also sporting the same Intelligent Auto and HD movie recording modes. The TZ5’s screen is also the same 3in size of the FX500, and while it may not be touch-sensitive, it does boast twice the detail in playback.

In its favour the FX500 zooms out slightly wider, has a touch-sensitive screen, uses all of its 10 Megapixels (although the quality is roughly the same), sports full manual control and is physically slightly smaller. If you’re seduced by the touch-screen, 25mm coverage and manual control, then the FX500 is the better choice, but many will simply prefer the longer optical range of the TZ5 which is twice as long for pretty much the same money - or less from some suppliers. See our Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5 review for more details.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 final verdict

The Panasonic Lumix FX500 is certainly a classy and feature-packed compact. The zoom range with unusually wide angle and decent telephoto capabilities is very flexible and the optical stabilisation is effective. The touch screen is fun and useful without becoming a novelty or slowing you down. The manual control is a welcome addition for enthusiasts and the Intelligent Auto is sufficiently good for many to trust it for most day-to-day shots. And finally the HD Movies are a step-up from the SD modes on most compacts.

It’s important not to get too carried away though. Like the Lumix FX35 and TZ5, the HD movie output can look quite grainy and like most compacts the audio isn’t anything to get excited about. The manual control may let you fine-tune the aperture and shutter values, but even with the lens zoomed-in and the aperture wide open, you won’t be getting very small depths of fields – see our Gallery for an example.

Then there’s the feeling with only a couple more features like RAW recording, the FX500 could have been a successor of sorts to the LX2 and more of an enthusiasts compact to rival models like the Canon G9 – albeit without its flash hotshoe or larger sensor. 

Image quality is once again the biggest technical issue facing the FX500, with the quality deteriorating at 200 ISO and above – and there’s even evidence of noise at 100 ISO if you’re pixel peeping. The situation is exactly the same with the FX35 and TZ5 though, along with most other compacts, but it would be wonderful if Panasonic could couple its decent optics in the future with a larger, less noisy sensor.

If you’re after a quality compact, the FX500 will fit the bill, although it’s not got what it takes to turn the heads of real enthusiasts from models like the Canon G9. It’s also crucial to compare its features against the other two Lumix cameras mentioned above as all three have a lot in common including the same sensor and HD movie recording facilities.

Indeed you’d only go for the FX500 over either of these models if you really wanted its manual control, touch screen and found its 5x range more appropriate for your style of photography. Even then, it’s hard to resist the Lumix TZ5’s big 10x optical zoom range for the same price or slightly less, and many will ultimately sacrifice the touch-screen and manual control for the longer coverage – while also enjoying a higher resolution screen in playback.

Panasonic FX500

Ultimately the FX500’s decent lens range, touch screen, manual control and HD movies all add up to product we can Highly Recommended, but do compare it very closely with the Lumix FX35 and TZ5, as one may be better-suited to your personal requirements.




Good points

25mm wide angle, 5x range and stabilisation.
Full manual control.
Touch screen with sensible operation.
HD video recording but no zoom.

Bad points
Noise becomes a problem above 200 ISO.
Flagship model, but no RAW files.
HD movies still no match for a camcorder.
TZ5's 10x zoom tempting at same or lower price.



Scores

(relative to 2008 compacts)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

18 / 20
16 / 20
16 / 20
19 / 20
17 / 20

86%


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All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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