Panasonic CM1 Field Test

A bold experiment, but it's not quite there yet

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Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 125

Shooting with the Panasonic CM1

By now, camera manufacturers are undoubtedly aware of the popularly and influence of smartphones and their built-in, always-connected, always-with-you cameras. People love viewing and sharing photos, and smartphone cameras allow people to shoot photos more easily and share them more quickly than ever before. While nearly every, if not all, camera manufacturer is putting Wi-Fi or other wireless technology for smart device connectivity into their cameras, Panasonic is trying something a little more bold with their CM1 smartphone: blending a smartphone with a feature-rich, dedicated compact camera with a massive (for a smartphone) 1-inch-type CMOS sensor.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Product Image

Now, for me personally, I've always enjoyed the more traditional shooting experience with a camera that offers a more substantial grip, a viewfinder of some kind, the versatility of interchangeable lenses and, perhaps most importantly, as large a sensor as possible. I've tried taking photo with my smartphone, but it's always come across as an unsatisfying experience and the resulting photos nothing more than toss-away snapshots. I've now spent some time shooting with the large-sensor Panasonic CM1, and while the CM1 gets it right on some points, it misses the mark unfortunately in some other quite important areas. Read on to find out which.

Note: With IR being a camera review site, my Field Test will focus primarily on the CM1's camera features and functionality. It will not go into the merits or faults of its Android OS software or its functionality as a smartphone in and of itself.

Good build quality, but heavy for a smartphone

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Product Image

As I mentioned earlier in my Hands-On Preview, the Panasonic CM1 is undoubtedly smaller and more compact than a DSLR or even smaller mirrorless cameras like the Olympus E-M5 II or Sony A6000, for example. One may argue that it's slimmer and more svelte than the pocketable Sony RX100-series cameras, which house a similar 1-inch sensor. However, compared to my personal iPhone 5S that I carry with me everywhere, the CM1 is much heavier and bulkier, which, to me, makes it much more awkward and uncomfortable to carry around -- especially in a pants pocket.

The build quality itself, though, is very nice. The camera/phone feels very solidly built with thick polycarbonate backing and brushed aluminum framing along the sides. The large Full HD (1920 x 1080) touchscreen display looks gorgeous, with crisp text and nice fine detail and colors when viewing images and video. I did find that the screen was prone to stubborn fingerprints and smudges as well as some glare and reflections in really bright sunlight. Obviously with such a device, using an EVF is not an option, but if you're used to photographing with just an LCD, the CM1 is no different than a typical compact camera in this regard.

Big lens out in the open

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Product Image

Perhaps my biggest nit-pick with the design of the Panasonic CM1 is the protruding lens, which I understand is most likely technically unavoidable given the large 1-inch-type sensor. However, I'm not one who likes to place devices with large touchscreens on surfaces screen-down. Perhaps I'm overly paranoid, but I try to avoid scratching these large screens when possible. However, the protruding lens prevents the device from laying flat on its back. That's not really that bad in and of itself, however the CM1's lens has no cover or lens cap to place over the nearly-flush front element -- leading to more concern over scratching or dirtying an even more important component.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
The 28mm-eq. lens on the CM1 is able to focus rather closely for macro-ish close-up shots. The wide f/2.8 aperture and larger 1-inch-type sensor lets you create pleasing, shallower depth of field images.
f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 125

Camera-centric physical controls add a nice touch

Ergonomically, the CM1 is similar to most of the bar-shaped smartphones, with minimal physical controls and hard, angular contours. Being a more camera-oriented smartphone, the CM1 does have a few more physical camera-related controls than your average phone. Along the top-plate of the camera -- if you're holding it in standard camera/landscape orientation -- the CM1 features a standard two-stage shutter release button. And around the lens itself is a clicked, multi-function rotating ring, which is used to adjust various exposure settings such as aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation.

As for the other physical controls, there's a volume rocker button, whose function is pretty self-explanatory (it's non-functional while in camera "shooting" mode, but will adjust the playback volume of videos). There's also the sleep/wake/power button as well as a dedicated camera sliding toggle button. This convenient camera mode slider is like a reverse "home" button, in that no matter where you are in the phone, no matter what app you're currently using, no matter if the device is in sleep more, toggling this switch will bring you into the camera app and have you ready to shoot in a couple seconds. Sliding the switch again once you're done shooting will return you to your previous screen, or even re-sleep the device if you woke it with the camera button. Nice.

Thicker design: not so great for a smartphone, better for a camera

While in most cases I'd consider the extra bulk and thickness of the Panasonic CM1 as a downside, it does make the device much easier and more comfortable to hold from a camera ergonomics viewpoint. I feel like I have a much more substantial hold on the camera in both two-handed and especially in one-handed operation. The textured back panel resembles the leather-like rubberized coating seen on many dedicated cameras, however it's simply a hard plastic material in the case of the CM1 unfortunately. However, the texture still helps the camera from feeling too slippery.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Product Image
Panasonic CM1 vs. Apple iPhone 5S -- size and shape comparison

I mentioned one-handed operation, and indeed thanks to the extra thickness and the inclusion of a dedicated shutter release button, the CM1 is easy to hold and operate one-handed, even without a beefier handgrip. If you hold the camera one-handed or with a more traditional hand grip with your right hand, you'll most likely, as I did, have your thumb encroaching onto part of the screen. Thankfully, Panasonic has thought of this and built-in about a centimeter or so of blank space within the camera app's UI, so there's minimal, if any, risk of putting your thumb over an on-screen button.

The camera app software itself is intuitive with the look and feel of a standalone Panasonic camera for the most part -- there's not some unique Android-specific camera UI experience to confuse long-time photographers, especially long-time Panasonic owners, which is a nice experience in terms of usability.

Image Quality

Bigger sensor lets CM1 compete with premium compacts

With a very large 1-inch-type 20-megapixel CMOS sensor, the Panasonic CM1 offers far and away much more sensor real estate compared to the typical smartphone (and even many point-and-shoot cameras). I found the image quality of the CM1 to be very good, with lots of detail and nice, pleasing colors -- especially considering it's still, technically, a smartphone. However, in terms of its sensor, the CM1 has more in common with the highly-regarded Sony RX100-series cameras than say, the Samsung Galaxy S6.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
Non-HDR: f/3.5, 1/1600s, ISO 125
Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
In-camera HDR: f/3.5, 1/2000s, ISO 125

In addition to impressive fine detail for a 1-inch sensor camera, the Panasonic CM1 also produces images with pleasing dynamic range, even without using an in-camera HDR mode. Even on bright sunny days, I was able to capture good shadow detail while keeping highlights in the sky and clouds relatively in-check. Thanks to the RAW capabilities of the CM1, I was also given even more control over the highlight and shadow tones, as well as the other well-known benefits to RAW post-processing (i.e. fine-tuned sharpening, custom noise reduction and easy white balance adjustments).

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image

Even at relatively high ISOs, the CM1 is able to capture a good amount of fine detail with well-controlled noise.
f/2.8, 1/15s, ISO 1600

Low light: CM1 triumphs over your average smartphone

The higher ISO shots from the Panasonic CM1 are also quite good, as long as you keep the ISO sensitively reasonably in-check. While it's no surprise cameras with larger sensors can handle higher ISOs much easier, I was rather impressed with the little CM1, even up to ISO 1600-3200. Now, as expected, at these higher ISOs there is some noise and the resulting softening of fine detail due to in-camera noise reduction processing for JPEGs. However, the CM1 was still able to produce higher ISO images with a fair amount of crisp, fine detail.

Now, given that the CM1 shares the same or very similar 1-inch-type sensor as the Sony RX100, but also competes in the smartphone camera market alongside devices like the Samsung Galaxy S6, I thought it would be useful to compare the higher ISO image quality from these three cameras. (Note: I used a Samsung Galaxy S6 test shot comparison, as the iPhone 6, by default, does not have a way to manually adjust ISO.)

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
Panasonic CM1: ISO 1600, 100% crop from RAW (Adobe Camera Raw, no NR processing)
Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
Sony RX100: ISO 1600, 100% crop from RAW (Adobe Camera Raw, no NR processing)
The CM1, despite being a "smartphone," still has a large 1-inch-type sensor like the Sony RX100 dedicated premium compact camera, which results in similar, well-controlled noise levels and a respectable level of fine detail at higher ISOs.

Up against the Sony RX100, the Panasonic CM1 competes very well. In fact, from the RAW conversions of our ISO 1600 "Still Life" test shot, shown above without any Adobe Camera Raw noise reduction processing, both the CM1 and RX100 display very similar and very well-controlled noise levels.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
Panasonic CM1: ISO 800, straight-out-of-camera JPEG
Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
Samsung Galaxy S6: ISO 800, straight-out-of-camera JPEG
In this comparison, it's easy to see that the larger sensor gives the CM1 a significant advantage with higher ISO image quality compared to other high-end smartphones with smaller sensors.

On the other hand, when placed up against the Samsung Galaxy S6 -- which in and of itself has a widely praised camera -- the Panasonic CM1 displays vastly superior image quality thanks largely in part to its much bigger sensor. In the crop comparisons above, using default in-camera JPEGs at ISO 800 (the maximum ISO allowed on the Galaxy S6), the CM1 displays much more fine detail resolution and significantly less noise and noise reduction artifacts. Note that the CM1 offers +/-5 noise reduction levels, just like most Panasonic cameras.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
Even though the CM1 does nicely at ISO 1600-3200, I'd be hard-pressed to recommend shooting at any ISO levels higher than that, such as with this shot at ISO 12,800. It's doable, of course, but the noise levels and NR processing really degrade fine detail.
f/3.2, 1/30s, ISO 12,800

Performance

A snappy camera, but not great for long bursts

Ed. Note: We'll be testing the Panasonic's CM1 performance in-depth in the lab soon, so stay tuned!

For general shooting, the Panasonic CM1 is quick and responsive. The dedicated camera slider button makes it very convenient to quickly activate the camera, without having to deal with unlocking the phone's screen and finding the camera app. I could pull the camera/phone out of my pocket, swipe the slider button on the side and be ready to shoot in a matter of seconds.

Using JPEG-only or RAW-only image quality settings, the shot-to-shot performance felt quick enough that I wasn't missing any moments. I did find that when using RAW+JPEG that after each shot, there would be a brief pause while the camera "processes" the JPEG image or empties the buffer. This was a little frustrating, since I often like to shoot in RAW+JPEG mode, and would have wait, albeit briefly, until I could shoot again.

This buffer/processing limitation became even more noticeable when shooting in continuous burst mode. The CM1 offers a 10fps burst mode, though it's only able to crank out about five or six frames in JPEG-only mode or about three to four RAW+JPEG pairs before the buffer fills -- at which point the continuous rate of fire significantly slows down. After capturing a burst of images, the camera once again pauses to process the batch of images. While the camera is processing, the other camera functions are inaccessible. You can exit the camera app itself and use the CM1's other smartphone functionality, but having the camera process the images in the background while you return to shooting more photos is not possible.

As before, the wait time while it finishes "processing" isn't an excruciatingly long wait, though it's noticeably longer than with a single-shot RAW+JPEG pair.  However, it does make it more likely to miss the action if you're trying to capture fast-paced subjects. 

Focusing noise that'll wake the neighbors

As for autofocus performance, the CM1's contrast-detect autofocus system is snappy and quick to acquire focus. It does, however, do the characteristic CDAF "wobble" as it finds focus. I also experienced, like other CDAF cameras, the CM1 can struggle at times to achieve focus on low-contrast and very small subjects.

Panasonic CM1 Autofocus/Lens Noise Demo
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (66.7MB MP4)

The lens' focus and aperture mechanisms are quite noisy, with audible whirs, clicks and other servo noises as the aperture diaphragm moves and lens elements adjust during focusing. For stills, this obviously isn't much of an issue, however for video recording adjusting focus during recording is extremely noticeable. Panasonic went so far as to disable C-AF for video capture by default and even warns you about potential autofocus noises being picked up in videos, which is rather interesting given the microphone itself is located about 3cm away from the lens.

Battery life reminds you the CM1 is still a smartphone

One small "issue" I encountered was battery life. I use an iPhone as my personal smartphone, and I typically must recharge my iPhone overnight each day. Since I wasn't using the Panasonic CM1 as my daily cellphone, I would often leave it in standby or sleep mode without plugging a charging cable in every day. Unlike a dedicated camera that powers off with a flick of a switch, the CM1 is an Android device with a more lengthy power on and off process. As such, I would often come back the next day to find the CM1 with a completely dead battery.  The good news, however, is that I found the CM1 recharges quite quickly. From a completely empty battery, I found the CM1 nearly recharged to 100% within the span of a couple of hours.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
The in-camera HDR feature does rather well at increasing the dynamic range, as it should, in higher contrast scenes. However, I did notice the presence of some purple fringing at times along very high contrast edges, such as the small edges of the tree leaves up against the sky.
f/3.2, 1/60s, ISO 200, In-Camera HDR

Capturing Video with the CM1

4K from your phone, but with limitations

On the video side of things, the Panasonic CM1 is the next entry in the Lumix family to incorporate 4K capabilities in some form or fashion. The CM1 is however a bit limited with its 4K video recording capabilities as it can only capture 4K videos at 15 frames per second, which is a rather slow frame rate for smooth video playback, but perfectly fine for frame-grabs using Panasonic's 4K Photo feature.

Panasonic CM1 4K 15fps Sample Video
3,840 x 2,160, H.264, 15 fps
Download Original (97.5MB MP4)

Like the new Panasonic G7, the CM1 has a very intuitive and convenient user interface to extract still frames from 4K videos (or frames from other resolutions as well, if you want). Simply launch the separate 4K Photo app and you're presented with a folder of all your videos. Select a video and then hit play. You can watch or scrub through the video until you get around to the point at which you want to extract the still frame. After tapping on the "cut" or scissors icon, the CM1 processes a +/-22 frame span of the video, from which you can swipe through individual frames in order to select the precise still image you want. Once selected, the camera will extract that frame and save it as an individual photo (and leave the original 4K or other resolution video intact for further use).

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Product Image

In addition to the 4K Photo "after-the-fact" frame grab method, the CM1 also has a "4K Pre-Burst" setting, which instantly gives you the +/- 22 video frames at the press of a button. Using the dedicated "4K Pre-Burst" app, the camera will constantly stream a 4K video (and just continuously flush it through the buffer) until you press the shutter button. Once you press the shutter button, the CM1 records a three second span of video before and after the button press, which is very handy if you time things slightly wrong; there's a chance you'll capture the right moment after all! Then, like the 4K Photo process described above, you can swipe through the frames and select the best one.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
4K Photo frame-grab

The image quality of these 8-megapixel frame grabs can be quite nice with lots of fine detail and pleasing colors, though upon close inspection you do notice the drop in resolution from 20MP to 8MP. You should be mindful when shooting video, especially of fast-paced subjects, to use a fast shutter speed in order to avoid subject blur in the extracted frames. For the CM1, the 4K video option at only 15fps isn't well suited for use as standalone video, so I would often adjust exposure settings as I would for stills and use a higher shutter speed when necessary in order to capture crisp stills from the videos.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
4K Photo frame-grab

Also, since extracted stills are only available in JPEG format, be sure to get exposure, white balance and other image settings adjusted in-camera as you would with regular JPEG shooting.

Video quality is good, though avoid AF if you can

For video quality itself, the CM1 produces very nice video with crisp detail and vibrant colors when using the default Picture Style. You can, of course, use other Picture Styles like monochrome or portrait, or customize the Photo Style to your liking, just as you can with other Panasonic cameras.

Panasonic CM1 Full HD Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, 30 fps
Download Original (45.5MB MP4)

The only real downside to shooting video with the CM1, as I mentioned earlier, is the shockingly loud autofocus and other lens operation noises that are picked up with the small microphone. Sadly, it really hinders the functionality of the device when it comes to video. I'd recommend either shooting video with manual focus (there is a convenient on-screen button for on-demand AF during video capture should you need it) to work around those issues, or simply dedicate video capture solely to 4K and the camera's cool 4K Photo frame-grab options for those hard-to-capture moments.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image
f/3.5, 1/800, ISO 125

Wrapping things up

In the end, the Panasonic CM1 still feels like a bold experiment -- the marriage of a premium, large sensor camera and full-featured smartphone. While I focused on the camera side of the story in this Field Test, the experience using the CM1 as a smartphone felt a little clunky and awkward. The device itself is rather large and heavy, making it less pleasing to carry around all day in your pocket, and the large protruding lens feels exposed and unprotected.

On the flip side, however, the image quality is rather good, at both low ISOs and respectably higher ones. And the CM1 competes handily in sheer image quality against the Sony RX100-series, especially with RAW files. Higher ISO images can still resolve lots of fine detail, even in shots with in-camera noise reduction set to their default levels.

Panasonic CM1 Review -- Sample Image

Another prime example of the close-focusing capabilities and shallow depth of field effect that can be produced with the CM1.
f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 250

Overall though, I have a hard time recommending the CM1 for serious shooting, but at a serious $1,000 price point, it's also definitely hard to recommend for casual use. In my experience with the CM1, it feels too heavy and therefore uncomfortable for a day-to-day smartphone. The 28mm-eq. lens limits the versatility as a dedicated camera, in my opinion, though a fixed prime lens is par for the course with smartphone cameras at this point in time. While the image quality itself is quite good, I hate to say it, as you have to give the folks at Panasonic credit for sticking their necks out and trying something as unique and as different as the CM1, but I'd stick with a dedicated camera at this point for serious shooting, with a pocketable smartphone coming along for the ride.

 



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