by Mike Pasini
Review Date: 06/13/08
The super-slim Panasonic FX35 features an ultra-wide 25-100mm zoom lens, a 10.1-megapixel CCD sensor, and Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode.
The Panasonic FX35's lens is the big story, as it's a very wide-angle Leica DC Vario-Elmarit-branded f/2.8 to f/5.6, 4x optical zoom lens. Images are framed and reviewed on a 2.5-inch LCD display with 230,000 pixel resolution, and stored on SD/SDHC/MMC cards or the camera's own 50MB built-in memory. Power comes from a proprietary Lithium-ion battery pack, rated for some 290 shots on a charge (CIPA standard testing with 50 percent flash usage at room temperature).
Panasonic's Advanced Intelligent Auto mode actually guesses what kind of scene you're looking at and selects the appropriate exposure mode to match. The Panasonic FX35 features the Venus Engine IV, designed to deliver higher-quality digital photos than its predecessor, with an advanced signal processing system that produces a quick response time.
A slide show feature on the Panasonic FX35 includes a selection of music, from mellow to more "urban" sounds. The Panasonic FX35's intelligent LCD can detect the lighting condition and raise or lower the brightness level in 11 steps. The FX35's High Angle mode brightens the screen to help when composing images with the camera held high to shoot over crowds.
The Panasonic FX35 can shoot 720p High Definition movies and 1,920 x 1,080 pixel High Definition-ready photos that perfectly fit a wide-screen (16:9) HDTV.
The Panasonic Lumix FX35 is available in silver, black and blue variants, with an MSRP of $350, though you'll find it a lot cheaper if you check the shopping links above right or below.
by Mike Pasini
Whenever I get my hands on a Panasonic digital camera I tell myself, "This is as close as you'll ever get to a Leica." Not only do Panasonic digital cameras bear a striking and not coincidental resemblance to Leica digicams, but Panasonic uses Leica glass.
There's something else Leica-like about the Panasonic cameras. Build quality. The minute you get one in your hands, you realize this isn't a cheap plastic camera you're going to ruin before the week is out.
So right from the start, the Panasonic FX35 broadcasts two distinguishing traits. But there's a lot more to it.
That zoom lens, for example, doesn't start out at a measly 35mm. No, the Panasonic FX35 starts you out at 25mm, a true wide-angle. And with its 4x optical zoom, you get to 100mm without bothering to slip into digital zoom.
Then there are those Scene modes to contend with. On most digital cameras you have to memorize them or scroll through them, perhaps never finding the one you want. On the Panasonic FX35, Scene modes can be automatic. The camera can figure it out for you.
There are several other features Panasonic calls intelligent on the FX35. Let's take a look at all of them, as there are big pluses, and a few significant negatives to explore. It's the smart thing to do.
Look and Feel. Substantial, let's call it. You lift the Panasonic FX35 from the table and you know immediately it is well built. There are no cheap compartment doors on the Panasonic FX35, no rubber flaps that never get out of the way, no plastic where metal is required.
Like the tripod socket, which is metal, the door to the connectors on the Panasonic FX35 is also metal -- with three hinges. And the metal door is stamped with labels for each connector. When it's open, it stays open. When it snaps shut, it stays shut. Nothing to click, no fingernail to split.
The Panasonic FX35's Power switch is another example of this intelligent design motif. I prefer the lens cover slides of ultracompacts because you don't have to look for the Power button, no question. I very much dislike Power buttons that have to be pressed in to cycle the power. They are usually too small and very hard to activate, or tell when they have been activated. And you have to look for them.
But the Panasonic FX35 has a switch just short of the middle of the top panel. The button that protrudes is easily felt with your shooting finger, so you really don't have to look for it. And all you do is move it right to turn the camera on or left to turn it off. No mystery.
There's another switch on the side of the Panasonic FX35's back panel of camera to select between Shooting and Playback modes. Up is for recording, down is for viewing. And that matters on the Panasonic FX35, because the lens extrudes. If you want to keep the lens protected when viewing images, slip this switch down before powering the camera on. It's very easy to figure out, hardly any effort to learn, and works every time.
Another bright design choice is the Zoom lever, which is a ring around the large Shutter button. I prefer the ring to the toggle switch used for zooming on many cameras. Your finger is right there on the Shutter button to begin with, so moving the toggle left for wide angle and right for telephoto is intuitive.
The Panasonic FX35's Mode dial is different, too. You can't see the whole dial. A small window cut out of the top panel shows you at most three settings. A white dot reinforces the obvious setting. It's surprising how many cameras make this confusing with some piece of trim conflicting with some raised indicator. The Panasonic FX35 is simple. And the dial only spins to real settings.
There aren't many other buttons on the Panasonic FX35. The navigator is a set of five discreet buttons, not my favorite arrangement, but certainly functional. The usual functions populate the arrow keys: EV, Flash, Macro, and Self-Timer, with the middle Menu/Set button to confirm choices. There's also Display and Quick Menu buttons below the navigator. Simple.
The rounded edges of the Panasonic FX35's body seem like PBS's resident carpenter Norm Abrams took a router to them. Closed up, it's smooth enough to slip into any pocket and go anywhere with you.
The Panasonic FX35's LCD is a 2.5-inch polycrystalline TFT display with a generous 230K pixels (that's high resolution) that displays 101 percent at wide angle and 100 percent at telephoto of the captured scene. That's called accurate, in plain English. The shiny surface is easy to clean (just a rub against your cotton T-shirt gets rid of fingerprints) and, amazingly, you can see it in direct sunlight.
The Panasonic FX35's 4x optical Leica zoom lens has four aspherical lenses and six aspherical surfaces including an Extra High refractive index aspherical lens. The DC Vario-Elmarit lens starts at 25mm and cranks out to 100mm. And, yes, that 25mm matters, even when compared to a 28mm, but especially compared to the more common 35mm+. You can get the whole room from the corner with the Panasonic FX35.
The FX-35 enjoys Panasonic's optical stabilization system to reduce the effects of camera shake in low light situations. A built-in gyrosensor detects when the camera is moving and instantly calculates the compensation needed to stabilize the lens. A linear motor shifts the lens just that much, all in tenths of a second.
You can set optical stabilization in either of two modes. Mode 1 sets stabilization on continuously, which is helpful in composing shots where the subject is hard to track. Mode 2 activates stabilization when you press the Shutter button, which can be slightly more effective.
Interface. While the Panasonic FX35's LCD menu itself was serviceable, it was still a disappointment. The graphic design elements are amateurish. Menu items are displayed in uppercase, for example (no doubt to crowd one more line of them on the screen) with grammar-school level icons on both sides (to indicate function on the left and the selected setting on the right).
Using the Panasonic FX35's menu system is funky, too. I was constantly pressing the Menu/Set button to explore an item rather than the Right arrow.
Submenus slide in from the right side of the screen so you never lose your bearings, a point in the system's favor.
But even the organization of items struck me as peculiar. Why is the Clock setting in the Shooting menu when it is also in of the Setup menu? How often do you fiddle with that? And why could I never get to the Format option efficiently, even after I knew (approximately) where it was?
While the same graphics are at work on the Quick Menu system, it does give you one-button access to a set of options tailored to the shooting mode you're in. Movie mode, for example, offers image stabilization, autofocus mode, white balance settings, picture mode, and LCD mode (with a helpful High Angle option that really cranks up the brightness of the LCD so you can see it when you hold the camera overhead). Intelligent Auto offers stabilizer, burst shooting, picture size, and LCD mode. Normal Auto offers stabilizer, burst shooting, white balance, ISO, intelligent exposure, picture size, and LCD mode.
The options are arrayed along the top of the screen and expand downward as you scroll across them.
That, at least, is a good idea in an otherwise poor menu system.
Modes. Modes on the all-automatic Panasonic FX35 are a bit different than they are on other cameras. There is no Manual mode, where you can set aperture and shutter speed independently. But there are two Auto modes: Normal and Intelligent.
In Lake Wobegon, of course, everyone uses Intelligent Auto (iA on your Mode dial). But Normal Auto lets you customize more settings yourself. It's as close as you're going to get to a Manual mode. As noted above, the Quick Menu provides access to settings for the stabilizer, burst shooting, white balance, ISO, intelligent exposure, picture size, and LCD mode. Color mode and audio recording are also available from the regular LCD menu system.
That is the mode I use when I test a camera because I can push it around to see what it can do. Panasonic calls it "taking pictures with your favorite settings" but they aren't etched-in-stone favorites. Instead, they're flexible, changing from situation to situation and moment to moment.
But Intelligent Auto is an intriguing feature worth more study, so I took a peek.
|Normal Auto||Intelligent Auto|
What's so intelligent about it?
Well, it's really a bundle of five technologies, all active at once (so you don't have to be). Those five are:
- Intelligent Exposure. According to Panasonic, this feature compensates for backlit subjects or very dark ones. Backlight compensation, however, can force the flash to fire, too.
- Intelligent Scene Selector. The camera will try to determine whether it is looking at a portrait, scenery, macro, night portrait, or night scenery. A blue icon is supposed to indicate the decision, displaying for a couple of seconds before it turns red (but I never saw the blue icon myself). If the Panasonic FX35 can't figure it out, it reverts to standard settings.
- Optical Image Stabilization. The gyrosensor-based lens-shift image stabilization is activated so if you move the camera during exposure, the lens tries to compensate.
- Intelligent ISO Control measures subject movement in the scene and sets ISO accordingly to prevent subject blur. Normally, you want to shoot with the lowest ISO possible to achieve the highest quality image. But if the subject is moving (like Junior jumping on his bed), grain is the least of your problems. To eliminate blur, the camera sets ISO higher to be able to use a faster shutter speed.
- Face Detection. Both focus and exposure are set to capture any of up to 15 faces in the scene.
The intelligent thing about this is that on most digicams, you have to enable all these things. On the Panasonic FX35, you turn them all on by selecting iA.
Still, it isn't foolproof photography. It's more assisted living. But when you need help, there's nothing quite like it.
There is a healthy set of Scene modes, too. You can't really expect a camera to know if you're shooting from a helicopter, or if the subject is a party and not fireworks. That takes some actual human intelligence.
Scene modes include Portrait, Soft Skin, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Self-Portrait, Food, Party, Candle Light, Fireworks, Starry Sky, Beach, Aerial Photo, Snow, High Sensitivity, Baby 1&2, Underwater, Sunset, Pet, and Hi-Speed Burst.
There's yet another still recording mode that Panasonic calls Clipboard mode. When you're in Clipboard mode, the camera takes either two megapixel or one megapixel images, storing them to its built-in memory. You can get about 94 two-megapixel images and 140 one megapixel images total in the approximately 50MB available. You can also record up to five seconds of audio to go with the shots. To see them, just switch to Playback mode with the Mode dial set to Clipboard.
Panasonic suggests using Clipboard mode for taking visual notes, shots of train schedules, maps, etc. that you might otherwise be writing down in a notebook.
And then there's Movie mode. To its credit, Panasonic gives you an HD option for movies. After all, they sell HDTVs, too (some of them with SD card readers). You won't get 1080 resolution, but you do get 720 and that's really plenty good enough; at least it's the right shape.
But our first attempt to shoot HD movies with the Panasonic FX35 resulted in an error message. The movie was canceled due to the speed of the card, the camera told me.
That made sense, though. I had an Eye-Fi card in the Panasonic FX35 (a special WiFi-enabled SD card), which is admittedly too slow for video capture, at least HD capture (it worked with 640 x 480 captures). A faster card did the trick for HD.
Set the Panasonic FX35 to 16:9 (which is also available in still modes) to take HD movies. That fills the screen nicely. There are two resolutions available: 848 x 480 (indicated by L in the Quick Menu) and 1280 x 720 (indicated by H). You want H, which will give you 720 vertical pixels. If you select a 4:3 aspect ratio, you can record at 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 (not too shabby for Web display).
You can record at 30 frames per second or 15 fps (perfect for those Best Man toasts) at 720 HD, too (Low res HD gets you 30 or 10 fps). You can also record at either 30 or 10 fps in 4:3 mode.
You do get sound (and can't avoid getting it either). But you don't get zoom. And that's a killer. Much as I like having 720 resolution, I need zoom. I even had zoom on my Super8 Bolex, for crying out loud.
Playback. Speaking of playback, the Panasonic FX35 has some tricks up its sleeve for stills.
In addition to a Calendar display mode, which shows a monthly calendar populated with images taken on that date, you can display images in a slide show with music.
Slide Show offers five effects with music to match: Natural, Slow, Swing, Urban and Off. Off just cycles through the images automatically (which the Normal slide show option doesn't bother to do, forcing you to manually go through them). Natural plays some piano and pans (the music sequence is very short, though, and noticeably repeats). Slow has some hammering industrial music (perfect for the workplace) and more pans and some fancy transitions. Swing brings in the woodwinds and some zoomed images as well as pans and fancy transitions. Urban is as noisy as any city and just as discombobulated.
On the whole, the effect to spice up the old slide show was a disaster. None of these modes is particularly well done. Sony does this much better, and any camera with muvee built in (the Nikons, for example) does better still. If building slideshows on your camera is your cup of Red Bull.
Image Quality. But my cup is image quality. So how did the Panasonic FX35 do on our image quality tests in the lab?
In some respects, the Panasonic FX35 did very well.
The Leica lens, for example, delivered very low distortion at both wide angle and telephoto focal lengths. That's particularly impressive at wide angle because the Panasonic FX35 has a wider angle than most digicam zooms.
Chromatic aberration was also low at both wide angle and telephoto focal lengths. We almost never see that either. And detail was strong to around 1,500-1,600 lines of resolution. Very impressive, especially when you consider that extinction of detail didn't occur until about 2,000 lines.
On the other hand, the Panasonic FX35 disappointed in a number of tests.
The Panasonic FX35 showed strong blurring in the corners of the image at both wide angle and telephoto focal lengths. And "strong blurring" is putting it kindly. You can see this in the images, which is generally not the case.
While color was good overall, the Panasonic FX35 is one of those digicams that likes to oversaturate slightly, pumping up the red and blue tones, while undersaturating bright yellows. Skin tones were a little pink, particularly with Caucasian skin tones.
But most disappointing was the sensor noise, which seemed to be evident even at ISO 100. It's rare to see a camera that exhibits noise at ISO 200, but the Panasonic FX35 is one of them. Usually when you see so much grain at lower ISOs you can expect to see good color capture at higher ISOs, but not with the FX35. Color starts to fall apart at ISO 800.
Flash and low-light performance were two more disappointments. Even at ISO 400, the flash failed to adequately illuminate the test target at 9.8-feet and at full telephoto focal length -- and that's the manufacturer's specification. We needed a +1.3 EV correction to get enough light on our subject. And in low light even our brightest scene was a dim capture at ISO 100.
Our still life test shot seemed among the better examples I've examined. The WhiBal at the top center is fairly sharp, as is the white proportional scale. That may be because the highlights really did not bloom on the FX35, obscuring that detail. You can see them under control in the Samuel Smith label and the white napkin under the brown coffee cup.
But you can see that noise in the shadows even in this ISO 100 shot.
Performance. If image quality was somewhat disappointing, performance was not.
Startup time with the extruding lens was not brisk but average at 2.9 seconds. Shutdown at 1.3 seconds was, however, above average.
While combined autofocus lag was a bit below average (and pretty much the same for both wide angle and telephoto focusing), prefocus lag was exceptional at 0.008 second. Cycle time was quicker than average, too.
Flash cycle time was about average at just six seconds for a full charge, but a full charge wasn't quite enough to light up any scene. This is the one test that is most misleading. High power flashes take longer to recycle but weak ones recycle quickly.
Download speed was briskly above average so connecting the Panasonic FX35 by cable won't be an issue, although we prefer to simply load the card into a PCMCIA adapter or use the Eye-Fi card to wirelessly transmit the images to our box.
LCD size was average (but its resolution was above average) and optical zoom, while unusual for a compact digicam, was not impressive enough to escape the average category. You can get a similarly sized camera with as much as 10x zoom.
Despite its solid feel, the Panasonic FX35 scored among the lighter compact digicams we've tested. Which is good news because a little heft goes a long way in keeping a small camera stable.
Shooting. I was disappointed at how dark some of our images were at EV 0.0. Look at those roses, shot in the shade (see the Gallery tab for these images). Every one of them is much too dark, especially the white JFK rose. On the one hand, this prevents blowing out highlights, but on the other, it prevents highlights altogether.
For anyone curious about iA mode's effectiveness, our NuLOOQ closeup was shot in iA mode which did register it as a Macro shot. And the landscape I shot just after it did register as "Scenery," so iA is no dummy.
While there's almost no color in the Shirley Temple doll shot, it pretty accurately represents the actual conditions. There is a bit more color in realty, no question, but it's close. Unfortunately, a close examination shows how much noise there is at ISO 1,600, something the thumbnail obscures.
Even my ISO 800 doll fares poorly, showing little detail and lots of noise in better light.
One thing I did like, however, was the wide angle lens, particularly coupled with the 16:9 aspect ratio. My shots of the road on Twin Peaks at both 4:3 and 16:9 demonstrate the dramatic difference that wide angle makes with the right aspect ratio.
And the logs laid out as a barrier along one crest are another illustration of the drama that the Panasonic FX35's lens can deliver.
Appraisal. What at first glance seemed like a very nicely designed compact digicam turned out to be a disappointment. Not only were the Panasonic FX35's menus unsightly and awkward to use (with as many as five screens to page through) but functions were hard to find and some simply didn't operate as expected (like digital zoom). The higher-end features sound impressive, but if you can't get the basic functions right, you don't make friends. Weak image quality made the above disappointments difficult to ignore, as well. So while I had a good time with the Panasonic FX35, I think there are better choices on the market.
Panasonic FX35 Basic Features
- 10.10 megapixel sensor
- 4x zoom with 25-100mm 35mm equivalent
- 2.5-inch LCD
- ISO sensitivity from 100 to 6,400
- Shutter: 60-1/2,000 sec.
- Max Aperture: f/2.8
- SDHC/SD memory card support
- Custom lithium-ion battery
- 50MB built-in memory
Panasonic FX35 Special Features
- Intelligent Exposure to compensate for backlighting and other tricky situations
- Optical image stabilization using gyrosensor
- Intelligent ISO that increases ISO for moving subjects to avoid blur
- Intelligent Scene Selector to set the camera for Scenery, Portrait, Macro, Night Portrait or Night Scenery mode
- Face Detection focus and exposure for up to 15 faces
- Quick AF
- HD video capture
- Slide show with music
In the Box
The Panasonic FX35 ships with the following items in the box:
- Battery Charger
- Battery Pack
- Battery Carrying Case
- AV cable
- USB Cable
- CD-ROM with PhotofunStudio viewer, ArcSoft MediaImpression, ArcSoft Panorama Maker, QuickTime, Adobe Reader, USB Driver
- Large capacity SD/MMC memory card. These days, 2-4GB is a good tradeoff between cost and capacity.
- Small camera case for outdoor and in-bag protection
Panasonic FX35 Conclusion
The Panasonic FX35 is a well-built digicam with an impressive piece of glass, the Leica DC-Vario Elmarit that starts at a very wide 25mm equivalent and extends 4x to 100mm. Unfortunately that was where the fun stopped. The Panasonic FX35's menu system is painful to use, and basic functions like digital zoom are awkward or simply not functional. The Panasonic FX35 packs some smart photo technology inside, and if that was all anyone ever needed, it might make the grade. But that's not all anyone needs, really. iA mode is a better Auto for many situations, but none in which you want to control the camera. Ultimately, it comes down to image quality, and the Panasonic FX35 compromises just a little too much, with soft corners in images, and odd demosaicing that produces a grainy appearance across the image. Printed results aren't bad, though, so long as you keep them under 11x14 inches. So while it's not a bad little camera by any means, the Panasonic FX35 just doesn't rise to the level of a Dave's Pick.