If the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37 proves anything, it's that success can be a hard act to follow. A light update to the FX35 – a DigitalCameraReview.com Editor's Choice winner from 2008 – the FX37 keeps all of the bells and whistles that made the FX35 such a fun, flexible camera: it's slim, chic, easy to use, and offers an even more versatile version of what may be the best wide-angle lens currently available on an ultracompact.
So what's not to love? While the idea of a 25mm wide-angle lens on a camera small enough to disappear into a shirt pocket is still something to brag about, it's hard not to feel that Panasonic's last FX efforts, with all that it carries over from previous models, is starting to look a little long in the tooth.
FEATURES AND SPECS
Built around the same basic platform as the previous Lumix FX35, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37 features a 10.1 megapixel sensor and a new 5x, 25-125mm Leica zoom lens. An auto-exposure pocket camera, the FX37 sports an implementation of Panasonic's very smooth and savvy Intelligent Auto system, which automatically detects the type of scene in front of the lens and adjusts accordingly.
Other key features include optical image stabilization, Panasonic's new AF Tracking function, and an Intelligent ISO setting for "capping" maximum automatically selected sensitivity at either ISO 400, 800, or 1600. The FX37's basic specs sheet reads as follows:
Panasonic claims the pocket-friendly FX37 is good for more than 300 shots on a single charge of its slim li-ion pack; our experience with the camera suggests that 200 is probably a more reasonable average number for shooting outdoors with the screen gained up, or where lots of flash is required.
The FX37 comes in three colors, including both silver (as seen here) and matte black.
Menus and Modes
The FX37's shooting modes range from the basic, control-limited Intelligent Auto (or iA) and scene presets, to the camera's Normal Picture setting – essentially a program auto mode, with an impressively wide array of user adjustments. The FX37's complete list of shooting modes is as follows:
As noted, the FX37's Normal Picture mode provides a broad range of options that, while perhaps no substitute for manual exposure control, should keep advanced shooters generally satisfied most of the time. Many functions, including white balance, ISO, image stabilization mode, and even Intelligent Exposure controls, can be adjusted through the FX37's Quick Menu – a top bar icon menu called up by pressing (logically) the Quick Menu button.
The Quick Menu options, as well as a few other settings and basic setup functions, are also housed in conventional and easily comprehended page menus – one for shooting functions, and another for basic camera settings.
In general, navigating the FX37's options is fairly straightforward. Experienced photographers will have little trouble dealing with the FX37's interface, and there's nothing about the camera's interface that should intimidate even novice users.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Here's a shocker: the FX37 is, as best we can tell, physically identical to the FX35. Panasonic tends to be pretty conservative in restyling its cameras anyway, and with much of the same hardware (same sensor, same LCD, same processor) under the hood and on the back panel, it makes sense that there was really no need for a fundamental overhaul.
Cased in a rugged brushed metal shell, the FX37 – like the FX35 – remains deceptively small despite its relative heft. The FX37 is easy enough to stuff into a pocket or purse, and well-built enough to survive the trip. After several weeks with the camera, our review unit (which came to us well-used to begin with) showed a few more scratches than when it arrived at our office, but was otherwise no worse for the wear.
Like the FX35 before it, the FX37's extremely solid construction evokes the "premium ultracompact" image that Panasonic has worked to cultivate with its Lumix line. In handling the camera, there's little question that its construction is up to the implicit standards of cameras in the $300-plus price group.
Ergonomics and Controls
Although it's small, the FX37's control layout is surprisingly intuitive and usable for those of us with larger hands. In general, ultracompact models spell ergonomic trouble for me, but the FX37's thickness, heft, and textured thumb-grip area on the back panel give the camera good balance in hand.
Control is managed through an arrangement identical to the FX35, with a four-way controller (with a center "set" button) overseeing menu navigation, in concert with a pair of dedicated buttons that change display settings and call up the Panasonic-trademark Quick Menu, respectively.
In a touch that's become almost quaint in these days of one-press playback, the FX37 still uses a small two-position slider to move between playback and shooting modes. A five-stop mode dial, recessed into the camera body, provides access to the camera's basic shooting modes.
Up top, there's a well-position zoom toggle surrounding the shutter release, as well as a small power switch.
On the whole, the FX37 proved to be one of the more comfortable and intuitively laid out ultracompacts we've shot with in awhile: it's as straightforward as the original FX35, making it easy to get the controls for the new model "under your fingers" quickly.
Like most cameras this size, the FX37 has no optical viewfinder. Shot composition is handled entirely on its 2.5 inch, 230,000 dot LCD. While not as nice as the high-res screens on Panasonic's high-end Lumix models, the FX37's display is perfectly serviceable in most situations. The display is fairly fluid with minimal lag in normal light, and is able to "catch up" quickly even in low light (though the preview is extremely grainy and too sluggish to track moving subjects).
A high-power ("Power LCD") setting in the camera's Quick Menu boosts screen brightness considerably, making the display viewable even in bright sunlight – at the expense of battery life, of course.
Panasonic's reputation for building snappy small cameras was easily upheld by the FX35, which earned one of our Editor's Choice awards as much for its responsiveness and the versatility of its 25mm wide-angle lens as for its vibrant, colorful images. In terms of hardware, only the lens has changed in the transition from FX35 to FX37, with the new model providing more telephoto reach without giving up any of the wide-angle prowess that made the FX35 such a popular choice.
Our primary performance-related gripes with the FX35, in fact, came mostly on the image quality side of the equation. If speed and versatility were excellent in the last Lumix in this line, poorly controlled noise had a tendency to make a mess of images shot at higher ISOs. And in spite of its handful of unique upgrades, with the same sensor and processor in place, the FX37 doesn't hold much promise for improvement in this area.
One thing we liked about the FX35 was its speed. No, it wasn't the fastest camera that we tested last year, but solid all around numbers and reliable performance made the previous model a fine choice for real-world shooting.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.02|
|Canon PowerShot SD780 IS
|Nikon Coolpix S560||0.04|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||0.22|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.23|
|Canon PowerShot SD780 IS||0.32|
|Nikon Coolpix S560||0.61|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37||0.75|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||1.15|
In general, the FX37 feels faster than the above numbers would suggest: in particular, while we had a hard time keeping the camera's default multi-area AF system from running through the entire focus range before locking and firing in our lab test, this behavior seems to be greatly reduced by shooting in the optional single-area AF mode.
In terms of auto focus options, the FX37 has quite a collection of modes to choose from: eleven-area, one-area high speed, one-area, spot, face detection, and Panasonic's new AF Tracking mode as well. As noted, the camera seemed to perform best in the single-area and spot modes, though face detection was plenty reliable – even when detecting faces partially off-axis – as well. In low light, there's a red AF assist lamp to help lock focus, and yet again, we found the spot and single-area settings to perform much better than the rest – consistently acquiring a lock where the multi-area settings failed to do so.
AF Tracking adds another dimension to shooting with the FX37, allowing users to lock focus on a moving subject and keep it there (assuming said subject doesn't leave the composition area, of course). We've demoed this technology several times now, and continue to be impressed with just how well it works in keeping up with fast-moving subjects like kids and pets. In terms of usability, it's equally simple: put the center AF frame on your subject, press down, give the camera half a second to lock, and you're ready to go. Other than simply forgetting that the option is there when appropriate shooting situations arise, my only gripe with the FX37's AF Tracking technology is that it does have trouble getting an initial lock on a subject that's already in motion.
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX37
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||10||1.6 fps|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150
|Canon PowerShot SD780 IS||∞
|Nikon Coolpix S560||5||0.7 fps|
Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
The FX37 provides two continuous shooting modes: a burst mode capable of capturing three full-res shots in under a second, and an "infinite burst" setting capable of shooting until the card is full at just under 2 fps. Even in its slower setting, the FX37 holds its own against most of its competition, and a 3.6 fps high-speed burst mode is truly impressive for a camera in this class.
Finally, the FX37's flash coverage is better than average, pulling nearly 20 feet with auto ISO engaged and moderate ambient light. Full-power recycle comes in under seven seconds, and flash exposure was consistent (albeit around nearly a stop underexposed in most cases) with no other observed problems or anomalies.
Available flash control options are basic and include a pre-flash red-eye reduction mode, as well as a slow sync setting.
The FX37's main attraction is almost certainly its optically stabilized 5x, 25-125mm Leica Vario-Elmarit zoom. Adding the equivalent of 25mm of focal length to the telephoto end, the FX37's lens retains all of the FX35's wide-angle capture capabilities as well, making it a slightly more versatile tool than before. Whether you're looking to reel in sweeping landscape shots or shoot indoors in tight spaces, the FX37's expansive coverage at the wide end is the kind of thing that will make you never want to go back to "conventional" ultracompact lenses again.
Maximum apertures are respectably fast on the wide-angle end (f/2.8), but decidedly slow (f/5.9) at full telephoto. Zooming, though, is smooth and reasonably quick, with the only functional points deduction stemming from the fact that you can't operate the zoom while capturing video.
Barrel distortion was present at the wide end of the lens, although not to the degree that might be expected given the focal length. Pincushion distortion at full telephoto was extremely slight.
Beyond this, the FX37's lens was impressively sharp across the frame and through most of the range. We noted some color fringing/chromatic aberration in the corners of telephoto shots in particular, but even this was quite well controlled and never a serious issue in our samples.
With a nice sharp lens, the FX37 is generally capable of taking some excellent pictures – especially (as is the case with many point-and-shoots these days) if you're willing to not look too close.
Basic considerations like color reproduction, contrast, and sharpness are all excellent, with the FX37 capturing rich colors and deep blacks by default. For even more punch, a Vivid setting among the FX37's several color mode options helps to amp things up further for print-ready snapshots.
Nitpicky shooters will dislike the FX37's slightly harsh contrast, which tends to lose some shadow detail (especially outdoors). The Natural color mode does an acceptable job of rolling back the contrast and sharpening just a bit for most purposes, though the FX37 is still more prone than average to blocking up shadows even in this mode. It should be noted that across the board, the camera did have a slight bias toward underexposure, especially with the Intelligent Exposure system engaged (though it did help to preserve highlights in high-contrast outdoor scenes).
Note, also, that there are no user-selectable metering modes (i.e. spot, center-weighted). The camera's default multi-area setting is the only option.
As expected, automatic white balance didn't handle indoor shooting so well, and some of the presets (the setting for cloudy outdoor shooting, for instance, which shot consistently warm) weren't always as dialed in and neutral as I would've like either.
As noted previously, it's also not exactly surprising that the FX37 failed to excel in balancing the effects of noise and noise reduction. The FX35 was admittedly noisy, even at low ISOs, and using the same sensor, the FX37 exhibits similar behavior.
ISO 100, 100% crop
Bump up the saturation using the Vivid color mode (as in the ISO 100 shot above) and the issue becomes even more pronounced, with the camera struggling to reproduce textures or fine detail with so much noise reduction at work.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
If the lowest sensitivity settings aren't exactly clean, at least things don't deteriorate appreciably from there until around ISO 400. By ISO 800, though, edges are looking pretty hairy, and ISO 1600 is quite soft with a noticeable loss of color intensity as well.
Additional Sample Images
The Lumix FX35 was one of our favorite cameras of 2008, but revisiting the essentially unchanged Lumix FX37 nearly a year later, it's much harder to make the case that this is one of the best, most versatile cameras out there. That's not because the FX37 has taken a turn for the worse compared to the FX35; rather, it's a reflection of the fact that more manufacturers have rolled out solid ultracompacts with wide-angle lenses in the last year. In an increasingly crowded field, the FX37's lens isn't the unique commodity it once was, and its overall performance is, to be fair, beginning to feel a little sluggish next to some of its lightning-fast competition.
To the positive, the FX37's ultra-wide Leica lens is still as good as ever: sharp, fast, and much more flexible than the normal-to-telephoto 3x zooms still found on many ultracompacts. But a great lens does not a great camera make, and with the rest of the FX37 starting to show its age, it's becoming increasingly hard to justify this premium model's premium price tag.
At the end of the day, the FX37 remains a fine camera. But with an update to the FX series (in the form of the recently announced FX48) just around the corner, it's probably worth the wait to see how the next FX cameras fare.
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