Panasonic's FS-series cameras are designed to be simple but classy, and that describes the 14.1-megapixel Lumix DMC-FS33 perfectly. But it still packs a few surprises, notably an 8x wide-angle zoom that Panasonic's somehow managed to cram into a slim, elegant body. That makes the camera's £160 price tag look even more tempting.
Feels pricier than it is
The FS33 arrived at the same time as the Lumix DMC-FS30 and, in case you're wondering, the only difference between them is the size of the display -- it measures 75mm (3 inches) on the FS33, and 69mm (2.7 inches) on the FS30.
What's interesting about the FS33 is that it's almost a compact superzoom, yet it's much cheaper and smaller. There's not much practical difference, after all, between an 8x zoom and a 10x zoom.
The FS33 combines a simple, elegant design with a top-class finish and excellent materials. It feels like it should cost more than it does. It's pleasing and responsive in use, too. Panasonic says it's worked on the start-up time, using 'parallel' rather than conventional 'linear' processing so that the camera is ready to shoot in just under a second after you push the power switch. Panasonic's new 'sonic speed' autofocus is fast too, and very nearly up to Sony Cyber-shot standards.
This camera has a touchscreen interface, so you can focus in the normal way or tap on the screen to choose your focus point. Tapping the screen doesn't take the picture as well -- you still have to press the shutter button -- but it's a quicker way of choose the focus point than using directional controllers.
The picture quality is rather good too. It's best not to expect much from these 14-megapixel sensors, but Panasonic seems to have overcome the usual image-processing issues, combining good textural detail rendition with effective noise control. ISO 800 is dodgy and ISO 1,600 is just a step too far, but the FS33 delivers pictures that are well above average right up to ISO 400.
The FS33 does have some flaws, though. The lens produces pretty strong barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the range, and softens up quite badly at the long end. That maximum 8x zoom is best saved for emergencies, then. There's something odd going on with the minimum focus distance at maximum zoom, too. The camera says the focus range is 2m to infinity, but ours wouldn't focus on anything closer than 4m. It's not a major issue, but some accuracy wouldn't hurt.
Also, where is Panasonic's 'intelligent exposure' feature when you need it? This adjusts the ISO in different parts of the scene to cope with very bright and very dark areas. The FS33 could certainly have done with this feature because it has a tendency to burn out highlights in skies, for example. Clouds disappear and blue skies can turn into a kind of sickly cyan.
The 720p, high-definition movie mode is pretty limited too. You have to set the zoom and focus before you start filming because you can't change either once the camera's running. We also noticed a few skips and jumps in our footage when the camera was being panned slowly from side to side.
It's hard to get too excited about the touchscreen interface either. It works well enough, with big, clear icons and just the right amount of responsiveness, but you can't completely control the camera with it -- you have to also use the series of buttons to the right of the screen.
There are a number of areas in which you can find fault with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS33, but you have to remember its price. It's not much to pay for a camera that's this well made, and its 8x zoom is a major bonus in a sector of the market where a 5x zoom would be considered pretty good. Also, despite the lens' limitations, the overall picture quality is still a cut above the competition in this price bracket.
Edited by Charles Kloet