There are tonnes of smart and dinky compact cameras around, so why buy this one, especially when it costs around £240? The 12-megapixel sensor isn't headline news, but the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX40's 5x super-wideangle lens is rather good, and, beneath that refreshingly straightforward exterior, is plenty of clever technology.
Cameras of this size usually have very plain and limited 3x zooms, but the 5x zoom on this camera goes wider and longer than the rest. The minimum focal length is equivalent to 25mm, which even beats the kit lenses on digital SLRs. And, with a maximum focal length equivalent to 125mm, the FX40's got a pretty decent telephoto capability too.
Usually, the longer the zoom range, the more compromises you'd expect in the lens quality, but this one holds up well. There's not much distortion, very little chromatic aberration and good definition near the edges, which is where many cameras turn to mush.
The FX40 is such a pleasant camera to use too. The metal body is smaller than you'd expect, and the controls are so clean and unfussy that they set this camera apart from the pack. There's a little metal switch for turning it on and off and another for swapping between record and playback mode. Around the back, you get separate navigation buttons that work ten times better than any spongy navigation pad, and a quick-menu button that activates an on-screen overlay containing just about all the everyday shooting adjustments you need to make.
As ever, Panasonic's array of 'intelligent' automation features quickly becomes unfathomable, but one in particular is worth picking out. The 'intelligent exposure' option hikes the ISO slightly to improve shadow detail, and then holds back brighter areas so that you don't get highlight blowout. It really works, and it's much more sophisticated and successful than the post-shot shadow-enhancement tools on other cameras.
Also, if you're into face-recognition technology, you'll love the fact that this camera can recognise individuals. You can register up to six faces, and, from then on, the camera will give them preferential treatment when it adjusts the focus and exposure.
As good as it is, the FX40 isn't perfect. It takes a while to get from one end of the zoom range to the other, and the autofocus isn't that quick either. It's the picture quality that's most disappointing, though. The colours are fine and the exposure system does a great job, but the fine detail lacks bite, and this is especially noticeable in the test-chart shots.
You'd need to produce some pretty big prints for this to show up, and, of course, there's a limit to what these little 12-megapixel sensors can resolve anyway. Even so, viewed up close, the FX40's pictures seem to lack definition compared to those of other 12-megapixel compacts.
Yes, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX40 is pricey, but you're buying engineering and build quality here, not just features. That 5x super-wideangle lens is very versatile, and makes the FX40 the perfect travel camera, especially in narrow streets or tiny interiors. We just wish the definition were as good as the rest of the camera.
Edited by Charles Kloet