Where should we start with the all-singing, all-dancing Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500? It's a 10.1-megapixel point-and-shoot with knobs on, plus features such as a touchscreen, wide-angle lens and HD video rammed into its blocky frame. We put this £225 snapper through its paces to see if it kept up the recent high standards of the Lumix range.
Despite the fetching brushed aluminium face available in black or silver, the FX500 looks boxy and flat at the front. It's a different story at the back, where the sleek black plastic surface is dominated by a giant 76mm (3-inch) touchscreen. Like most touchscreens, this is somewhat prone to fingerprints.
Not all of the controls are accessed via the touchscreen. A mode button, display button and handy quick menu button are arranged around a recessed mini-joystick. The joystick is too recessed for our thumbs to grip properly, although we got used to it.
Even though the back is plastic, the FX500 is an extremely well-made camera. The usual Lumix build quality is in full effect here, with no flex in the frame and sturdy doors for the battery and SD/SDHC card compartment and USB connections.
The FX500's Leica-developed lens has a 25mm wide-angle focal length equivalent to a 35mm film camera. It's also above average at the telephoto end, including a 5x optical zoom perfect for head and shoulders portraits, making this an extremely versatile lens.
It might be quicker to list the things the FX500 doesn't do: it doesn't shoot raw files. Otherwise, it boasts a feature set as long as your arm. In shooting mode, lightly tapping a point on the screen locks focus on that subject. A small box appears and that fixed point is tracked around the frame as camera or subject moves. We generally found this worked very well, although quicker movements could see the yellow box wander.
Pressing the menu button calls up the different modes. Intelligent auto, scene modes, video, program, manual, aperture and shutter priority modes can be selected by tapping the screen. The usual scene modes are available, such as landscape, portrait and, for whatever reason, food.
After selecting manual exposure mode, you can adjust aperture and shutter by sliding your fingertip -- or the provided stylus -- over handy onscreen sliders. Because the shutter and aperture increase incrementally in stops, it doesn't matter that the sliders aren't especially sensitive.
In playback mode, tapping the screen zooms in. Once zoomed in, swiping your finger around the screen whooshes the image around. It's responsive -- and a lot of fun.
The FX500 boasts a 1/2.33-inch CCD sensor. The lens is aligned by Panasonic's proven Mega OIS system to defeat the blurry effects of camera shake. Mode1 adjusts the optics continually, but we got marginally better results with mode 2, which corrects upon snapping.
Everywhere you go, there are options coming out of your ears. For example, when you go to delete a photo in playback mode, you get the options to delete one image, a selection of images or all images. Contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction can all be tweaked.
Our only reservation about the controls is that the touchscreen and the joystick sometimes compete with one another, as some features are adjusted onscreen and others with buttons and joystick. But the more familiar we got with the camera, the less of an issue this became.
One other feature worthy of note is the 60-second long shutter option for interesting night shooting.
The Lumix range features some excellent lenses and the FX500 is no exception. The Leica-developed lens delivers really crisp images corner-to-corner with no trace of barrel distortion despite the width of the frame. Purple fringing is also kept under control very well.
The only image quality issue we have with the FX500 is that when it comes to noise control, the sensor isn't quite up to the high standard of the lens and the feature set. It's not bad: it just doesn't stand out from the compact crowd as much as it does in other areas. The price of a small sensor, especially when it's a high resolution sensor, is that more noise shows up. There's evidence of noise at ISO 200 with 400 and 800 showing sharp dips in quality and 1600 essentially unusable. The less said about the 3-megapixel, ISO 6,400 mode the better.
Still, images are fine for Web sharing and prints. Delving into the menus pays dividends as the ISO speed can be limited to a specified maximum and noise reduction can be tweaked to avoid smearing of detail. Playing about with the manual exposure controls, especially when using the long shutter, can also lead to some great night shots.
If looks are the most important criteria in your decision, the rather plain FX500 can't hold a candle to the comely likes of the Canon Digital IXUS 90 IS. But in just about every other area, the FX500 knocks its competitors into a cocked hat. The Casio Exilim EX-Z200 is another wide-angle option, but you really can't go wrong with the excellent FX500.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday