Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 Review
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The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 (also known as the DMC-FX580 in the USA) is a new touch-screen digital camera. Offering a large 3.0-inch LCD screen, the 12.1 megapixel FX550 combines touch screen operation with standard cursor key control. Other key features of the Panasonic FX 550 include a 25-125mm 5x zoom lens, HD video at 1280 x 720 pixels, manual adjustment of the aperture, new Venus Engine V processing engine and improved Intelligent Auto mode. Available in black or silver, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX55 retails for £299 in the UK and $399.95 in the US.
Ease of Use
Looking for a small yet robustly built compact to pack with your holiday gear this summer? Panasonic's Lumix range of digital compacts has of late delivered one of the most consistent and reliable performances in the industry. So we expect nothing less from its latest incarnation in the shape of the 12.1 effective megapixel DMC-FX550 - again bolting a user-friendly ethos onto a class-leading feature set.
Though the brushed metal faceplate is an attractive feature, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550's design is distinctly boxy, traditional even. It's no match in the style stakes for recent efforts from Sony and Canon in the Cyber-shot and IXUS ranges respectively, but it does feel reassuringly solid at 167g without accessories and well made too when gripped in the palm. This goes some way toward justifying its premium level price tag of £294 in the UK.
Where the FX550 breaks with convention (at least as far as Panasonic is concerned) is in its implementation of a 3-inch, 230k-dot touch screen at the rear. Yet it can't seem to go the whole hog. Unlike, say, Sony's new T900 or identically priced T90, the Panasonic still features a side panel of physical buttons and controls that fall readily under the thumb. It's a surprise to find that these are as numerous and comprehensive as you'd expect to find on a compact without touch operation.
The screen also self adjusts brightness dependant on ambient light conditions with, says Panasonic, 11 available settings for it to choose from. On board is the fifth incarnation of Panasonic's Venus Engine claimed to have sped up processing up to 2.4x its predecessor. Not that you'd notice as its operational performance is on a par with, and certainly no better, than recent rivals such as Sony's T90.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 again features Leica branded optics and here a 5x optical zoom, starting at an ultra wide angle 25mm and stretching to an equivalent 125mm (in 35mm terms) at the telephoto end. Not bad given the camera is just 21.9mm deep. As expected, optical image stabilisation is on board to help prevent image blur resulting from camera shake when shooting handheld at the extremities of the zoom, or in low light. To avoid the use of flash in such circumstances, the camera's slight sensitivity range runs from a manually selectable ISO 80 to ISO 1600, though an auto High Sensitivity mode (selected from among the on-board scene options) cherry picks settings for the user between ISO 1600 and a new maximum of ISO 6400.
As this is 2009, this latest Lumix also features High Definition movie recording, replay-able in QuickTime on your desktop, though at a resolution of 1280x720 pixels rather than a Full HD 1920x1080. Still, frame rate is a smooth 30fps, and the user has the choice of downgrading to 848x480, 640x480 or 320x240 pixels in order to fit more (memory hungry) footage onto SD or SDHC card, the length of each video hindered only by the space available for it.
Removable media is an optional extra, with a 40MB internal capacity as a fall back. Likewise optional, sadly, is the component cable required to hook the camera up directly to an HD TV. Disappointing also is that use of the optical zoom is not possible when shooting movies. It merely stays put in the position you left it in before starting to film.
For those who want to shoot action, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 offers a maximum continuous capture speed of a very-respectable-for-its-class 10 frames per second (fps) in 4:3 image ratio, the compromise being a resolution drop to three megapixels to achieve such oomph. Should this prove a compromise too far, an acceptable 2.3fps is otherwise offered at full resolution.
As mentioned, the front of the FX550 presents a flatly austere yet not unsophisticated air; the internally stacked lens dominates, with a porthole for the camera's self-timer and AF assist lamp top right, plus a narrow oblong window for the built-in flash situated top left. Being close to, if at least not directly above the lens, red eye can be an obvious problem. Most of the flash settings therefore come twinned with an automatic red eye setting that detects and then corrects for you; the regular auto, forced on and off flash settings joined by one for slow sync.
While the front of the camera has a clean and uncluttered look, so too does the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550's top plate. Looking down on it, at the far right we find a small button marked 'E.Zoom' - or 'Easy Zoom'. Press this and in just under two seconds the camera propels the zoom from maximum wideangle to telephoto - should the use of the slider switch (for manual, incremental adjustment of the zoom) that encircles the shutter release button prove too taxing.
Press 'E.Zoom' a second time and the FX550 will zoom in further to an equivalent 9.8x, but since this is in effect cropping the image - or rather utilising only the central part of the CCD - the resolution drops to three megapixels as a result. A largely unnecessary gimmick perhaps, but it all adds to the Panasonic's user-friendly feel - as exemplified by the ability to rely on the camera's competent intelligent auto (iA) mode - no doubt the default setting for most would be users - and simply point and shoot for the most part.
To the left of this teeny button is the aforementioned zoom slider surrounding the large and springy shutter release button, to the left of which again is a sliding on/off switch. Flick this to on and the camera powers up in a couple of seconds, lens extending from flush to the body to maximum wideangle setting and the rear LCD blinking into life a second or so later. Press the shutter release down half way and the camera determines focus and exposure in just over a second, AF point - or points - flashing green and the camera giving a bleep of affirmation.
Go on to take the shot and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 commits a maximum resolution JPEG to memory in two to three seconds, the screen blanking out momentarily then freezing to display the captured image as it does so. Alternatively, utilising the FX550's touch receptive LCD, users can themselves specify a point of an image to which focus and exposure should be biased by prodding the on-screen icon marked 'AF/AE'. A yellow cursor appears on the screen once you've done this and, if the camera itself is then moved as the scene is re-composed, said cursor 'dances' about trying to stay on target. A cancel button stays in the bottom right of the screen should you want to opt out of this mode at any time with a further press.
Back to the top of the camera for a moment, and we find a single slit for a built-in mono microphone alongside the on/off switch, just along from which again is a quartet of similarly sized slits for the integral speaker. As expected sound quality is tinny and comes with an operational hiss, but it's of adequate quality for at least making sure you've got what you wanted as an aide memoire when out and about.
While the left hand flank of the camera - if viewing the FX550 from the rear - is devoid of any features, the right hand side features an indented eyelet for attaching the provided wrist strap, beneath which are two covered ports for attaching a component cable and connecting the camera up to the TV (an optional extra) and a combined AV out/USB socket. The two cables for this at least come provided in the box, along with a mains charger and plug.
The back of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 is unsurprisingly dominated by the LCD, stretching across almost three quarters of the available space; as mentioned though, the control layout at the back resembles a camera with a regular LCD. In that, unlike say the Sony T900 - that does away with all physical controls at the rear in deference to its touch screen - the FX550 still includes most of the usual suspects.
At the top right of the camera back we have a slider switch for alternating between image playback and capture modes. Unlike on most competing models that allow you to quickly jump out of review mode with a half press of the shutter release button should a photo opportunity arise, here you have to physically flick the slider and wait for the camera to adjust settings. Better perhaps then to have capture mode as the camera's default setting and ideally have a separate dedicated playback button. Beneath this, instead of the regular mode wheel, we get a mode button. Press it in capture mode and eight options appear on screen as lozenge shaped icons, each large enough to select with a finger press.
The choices are the self explanatory intelligent auto - the camera chooses the best settings for the user's chosen subject - followed by a My Scene mode, which lets the user select their own default or custom scene setting from amongst a broad range (26 in total) and so attribute it to that button. Not only do we get a portrait mode, we also get a soft skin portrait mode and the ability to physically stretch or re-shape a person's physique (to high or low degrees), plus, ape-ing the latest Olympus DSLRs, a pinhole camera and film grain modes. High-speed burst and flash burst mode can also be selected. A pretty comprehensive range then, bettered only by Casio's BestShot equipped cameras.
These settings are then repeated by the next lozenge shaped control - Scene mode itself - which is followed by Program AE. Select this option and then press the camera's menu set button and you're provided access to a wider range of functionality than offered by the pared down previous modes, laid out across five successive screens; namely the ability to adjust not only picture size and quality but ISO sensitivity too.
As expected, white balance plus metering modes - multi zone, centre weighted or spot can be manually selected in Program mode, while the user can likewise also implement intelligent exposure and face recognition mode, as found on the newer Lumix models. This allows the user to name and register a particular face with the camera so that it will recognize said 'visog' and bias focus and exposure toward it in the future. Useful for families and stalkers perhaps but again it feels like a gimmick in search of a purpose.
Among the other tweaks that can be made in Program mode is the ability to alter contrast, sharpness, saturation and the degree of noise reduction via a plus or minus slider, while image stabilization can be turned on or off. Other lozenge buttons accessed via a touch of the screen are aperture priority and shutter priority, plus manual exposure (providing on-screen sliders to manually adjust aperture and shutter speed) and finally the aforementioned motion picture mode. The latter presents a cropped version of the screen, with black bands top and bottom to suggest a 16:9 picture ratio.
Beneath the mode button is an identically sized 'display' button. As a default the user is presented with the usual grouping of shooting info, including mode selected, remaining shots, battery life, resolution and compression level. Press this and a nine zone compositional grid appears on screen for those practicing the rule of thirds. Press it again and all icons disappear leaving you with the 'naked' image as seen through the lens.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
Moving further down the camera back we find a four-way grouping of cursor buttons with the familiar menu/set button at their centre. At 12 o'clock in the grouping we find a button for adjusting exposure compensation on the fly (-/+ 2EV). At three o'clock there is access to the flash settings; here auto, auto with red eye correction, forced flash on, slow sync with red eye correction, plus flash off. At six o'clock we have the camera's macro mode: either AF macro or macro zoom, with the ability to get as close as a perfectly acceptable 5cm to your subject. At nine o'clock is a fourth button, this one for selecting self-timer options: either two seconds, ten seconds or off. All of the above are pretty run of the mill for any compact of course.
A point of difference is the final small button near the base of the camera back marked 'Q.Menu' or Quick Menu, which also doubles up as a handy delete button. Press this and the number of options available to you via the touch screen is dependent on which of the previous modes the user has selected. If pressing this with the camera in Program mode, for example, the screen fills with an almost dizzying array of virtual buttons providing access to the same options as displayed by pressing 'menu' - but here at least the user doesn't have to scroll through the menu screens to find them. Thus we get the ability to manually and yes, quickly, tweak white balance, implement the stabilizer and so on.
Switching to playback mode, users can also utilize the screen to touch the portion of the image they want to zero in on and the camera does the rest, zooming up to 16x. Unfortunately it can't yet pan around corners Blade Runner style. A press of the mode button in playback apes the number of options provided in capture mode by again providing a series of buttons. The first is for 'normal play' mode which is exactly as it sounds: the captured image appears on screen and you use the cursor buttons right of the LCD to tab through saved pictures, as with any other digital compact.
The second button/mode is marked 'dual play', and as you might expect this displays two images on screen: one image alongside the next in the sequence so the user can compare them. Though this is a feature we haven't realized we've been missing until now, it proves useful if you've taken two shots of the same subject and are deciding which to save or delete to free up storage capacity.
The next button along in playback mode is the self-explanatory 'slideshow', which lets users play back images according to category, favourites or all together. A second category button further refines things, allowing users to playback images taken in only landscape mode for example, while the next button along allows users to actually categorise image as favourites, embark on some minimal in-camera image editing, with the ability to tilt and level an image if your horizons are 'off' being something we haven't seen offered before. Users can also add titles to an image - a virtual keyboard appears on screen, and resultant text can then be 'stamped' on an image so that it appears at the print stage if the user so desires.
The remaining playback mode 'buttons' meanwhile are calendar, multi playback and a dedicated 'favourite play' button that calls up images previously earmarked as favourites. So, although the FX550 appears a traditional, run of the mill compact on the outside, there's in fact quite an impressively broad range of functionality accessible to the user. It raises the question is this 'merely' a snapshot camera, or one masquerading as user-friendly creative studio?
The bottom of the camera features a lockable sliding door covering the joint battery and media card compartment, next to which is a screw thread for attaching the FX550 to a tripod. The fact that the Panasonic's FX550's rechargeable lithium ion battery boasts 350 shots from a single charge may be so-so, but beats the 200-odd we achieved from recent Sony Cyber-shot rivals in the T90 and T900.
So, what we have in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX550 is a camera that transcends its un-flashy exterior, and a reasonably intuitive one to use at that.