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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20 Review
by David Rasnake -  3/23/2008

Unboxing the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20 was déjà vu: "Didn't I just review this camera?" As it happens, in a way I did, having recently checked out the FS20's sister model, the FS3. While the cameras are strikingly similar, visually, with a wide-angle lens, more resolution, and a neat joystick controller, the FS20 makes it clear in a hurry why it gets top billing in this pair (actually, with the mid-level FS5, a trio) of new Lumix cameras.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Good specs, good styling, and good images are all in the FS20's corner. So what's holding it back? In some ways, a case of high expectations for this most feature-packed of the FS models.


FEATURES OVERVIEW

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20 is a 10 megapixel ultracompact digital camera and the top-level offering in Panasonic's recently announced FS series of stylish, budget-conscious pocket cams. Equipped with an optically stabilized 4x zoom that begins at a wide 30mm, the FS20 also makes use of a large, bright, and crisp 3 inch LCD.

The FS20 is an auto-exposure only camera, with an "intelligent" fully automatic mode that actively evaluates scene conditions and selects settings rather than passively reacting to them, as with conventional auto exposure modes. A nice range of scene modes and a well thought-out approach to using them (which allows for quick switching between two different scene presets) should also appeal to auto mode users looking for easy access to a little more control. What you won't find here, however, are aperture or shutter controls of any kind: in spite of its serious look and feel, the FS20 remains, as suggested, a true point-and-shoot in most ways.

One other intelligent feature of note is Panasonic's Intelligent ISO setting: simply set the maximum allowable ISO value and the FS20 selects an appropriate sensitivity within the specified range for a given scene or subject – just like the auto sensitivity "cap" settings found on many DSLRs. A separate High Sensitivity mode increases maximum ISO all the way up to 6400, though given the relatively low 3 megapixel resolution at this setting, many users may automatically write off this supposed performance improvement.

The Lumix FS20's four basic shooting modes are as follows:

In a world where in-camera editing options in compact cameras rival the functionality seen in your computer's default basic image editor, the FS20 seems a bit Spartan. Cropping and resizing options form the bulk of the playback mode choices, and while this decision may not appeal to some entry-level consumers, slightly more advanced photographers looking for a no-nonsense pocket camera probably won't mind that Panasonic has excised a lot of features bloat in this area as well.

For a detailed listing of specs and features, take a look at the specs table found at the bottom of the review.

Note: Given the similarities between the two, I reference the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3 Review often in the evaluation of the FS20 that follows.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL

Sharing the compact, sleek, and precise look and feel of Panasonic's FX cameras, the FS models offer a slightly more affordable take on these same themes. While the FS20 could easily be mistaken for one of the other FS models from a distance, some unique interface considerations, in particular, make this camera unique in its series.

Styling and Build Quality

The FS20 is very much in keeping with the rest of the Lumix FS line, which, in turn, has a strong family resemblance to the Panasonic FX models. Everything is sleek, clean-lined, and straightforward, with a refined look that I'm still a big fan of (even after seeing a lot of it lately with two reviews in a row).

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Compared to the FS3/FS5, the FS20 is just a bit chunkier and just a bit heavier, at 5.3 ounces. The metal case is well made, and overall the newest Lumix models have continued to push Panasonic build quality to the upper tier of current camera makers, in my opinion.

Ergonomics and Interface

Ergonomically, most of what was said about previous FS models still applies: the camera's boxy shape makes holding uncomfortable for long periods of time, and the FS20, with its larger front-side "bump out," may be a touch more taxing than the smaller models.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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The physical switch for moving between playback and shooting modes still has its drawbacks, but once you internalize that it's there (again: just like a camera from a few years back) it's really not a big deal. I'm also still a fan of the fact that the switch can be used to prevent accidental lens extension and possible damage when toting the camera: simply put the camera in playback mode and you're good to go.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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It's in the control arrangement that things get really interesting with this Lumix versus its middleweight FS counterparts. With the FS3, I felt like the buttons were just a little small and cramped for normal adult hands. The FS20's unique joystick controller setup, however, obviates this concern for the most part. The joystick really is a joy to use, making rapid-fire menu adjustments about as simple as it gets. Navigating the FS20's menus (which share a down-to-business look and feel with other recent Panasonic compacts) is an easy one hand, one thumb affair.

An icon-based Quick Menu with single-button access allows white balance, image stabilization, ISO, drive and flash mode, and similar adjustments, depending on the camera's shooting mode. While sorting and grouping of items could be better in the FS20's full-page menus, this camera is easy for casual users to navigate, eschewing the maze of additional options and submenus seen on some compacts.

Display/Viewfinder

No surprises here: another near-perfect display from Panasonic.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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One of the FS20's big upgrades is a 3.0 inch, 230,000 dot polycrystalline TFT LCD. Fluidity is superb in good light, and still good enough in poor light. Manually adjusting the gain to its highest setting, I was able to easily view the screen while shooting on a snowy day, suggesting that one of the primary concerns about the loss of optical viewfinders has finally been answered. And with viewing angles in Wide Angle mode that are simply the best we've seen (better by a small margin than even the very good FS3), it might even be (almost) good enough to make the optical viewfinder die-hards relent.


PERFORMANCE

If you want as much power as you can get in a compact camera without manual controls, the FS20 delivers. It's quick enough for everyday shooting in a variety of situations, has enough usable zoom to capture sweeping landscapes and moderate telephoto scenes, and is as well composed as a cheap DSLR in metering complex scenes. Combine this with quick access to all the functions you need and the learning curve with the FS20 is almost nonexistent. In short, the shooting experience is just as simple the name implies: point and shoot.

Timings and Shutter Lag

The FS20 was a reasonably quick shooter, turning in "pure" pre-focused shutter lag timings of just under a second. AF takes .8 seconds to lock and fire at default settings. As noted with the FS3, the FS20 also has a Quick AF mode that engages the auto focus system continuously rather than waiting for a half-press; in testing, Quick AF alone cuts the lag without pre-focus in half, to around .4 seconds.

Again as with the FS3, the fastest timings were turned in with the FS20's Quick AF disabled and the high-speed center AF mode engaged (.2 seconds, press to capture). This kind of snappy response should make shooting almost any kind of moving subject a realitic possibility, at least.

The FS20 can take three full-resolution shots in under a second before pausing for buffer clearing.

Lens and Zoom

The FS20's lens is a 4x Leica DC Vario-Elmar unit, with an equivalent range of 30-120mm. While the FS20 adds a little bit of reach at both ends of the range over the seemingly ubiquitous 3x models, the slightly wider than normal 30mm wide-angle end proves much more useful in most normal shooting situations (in my experience, at least) than the slight increase on the telephoto end. The lens does give up some speed over competive models as well, with relatively slow f/3.3 and f/5.8 maximum apertures at both ends pushing exposure settings up against the top end of camera's clean ISO range at times.

Otherwise, the optically stabilized lens is whisper quiet in use and slickly built. There is some pick-up lag, but like most other new Panasonic compacts this season, the FS20 has an E.Zoom button that quickly cycles the zoom from one end of the range to the other.

Auto Focus

The FS20 utilizes four basic AF modes: multi-point AF, center AF, high-speed center AF, and face detection. As noted, high-speed center AF adds a significant amount of focusing speed. Otherwise, the auto focus system is usually acceptably quick, though the tendency of the system to want to search to infinity and back before locking focus shows up frequently enough to become irritating at times. As with other recent Panasonics, focus lock, if not always stunningly fast, was extremely consistent here as well.

Face detection on this model is as good as any we've tested, tracking multiple faces with ease – even in low light. Likewise, macro focus works consistently down to the advertised 5 centimeters.

Overall, the FS20 provides about the right number of AF system choices, and enough AF performance, to handle most any shooting situation, making this camera one of the better point-and-shoots (along with the FS3) that I've used for casual shooting in awhile.

Flash

Mysteriously, the FS20 exhibits both a more limited flash range than its smaller FS sibling and slower flash recycle times. At full power, the flash took a full 10 seconds to recharge (compared to 7 seconds on the FS3), though thankfully there's not a screen blackout period while the flash recycles.

All in all, flash performance was a bit disappointing here as well, with some red eye problems, some exposure problems, and some odd color making flash shot consistency a persistent issue, in our experience, across the FS cameras.

Image Stabilization

The FS20 sports Mega O.I.S. lens-shifting image stabilization technology. Our controlled testing showed the system to perform much as expected. I'm still not a fan of Panasonic's "Mode 1"/"Mode 2" naming scheme for the single-shot/continuous IS modes: as suggested in other Panasonic reviews, why not simply call them "Single Shot" and "Continuous" instead?

Unlike the FS3, there seems to be no shutter speed "floor" with the IS system on the FS20 enabled, which may or may not make you happy depending on your perspective.

Battery Life

With a claimed life of 280 shots, the Panasonic Lumix FS20 came very close to meeting this goal in our testing, with our final shot total reaching into the 260s before the battery finally gave up. As there's no optical viewfinder, conserving battery to extend life much beyond this number isn't easy, and while performance is better than many compacts/ultracompacts we've tested, it may or may not be enough juice for a full day of photographing.


IMAGE QUALITY

Exposure, Processing, and Color

The overall look of images from the FS20 is close to neutral, with just a bit of added warmth in many situations.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Colors are rendered well, without excessive saturation in any area. The look is particularly pleasant for outdoor scenes, and without too much contrast or sharpening introduced by default, it stands up well to adding some "punch" in post-process.

Default exposure was dead on across the board, free of any observed odd tendencies. Similarly, the FS20 did surprisingly well (for a compact) with reproducing the full range of values in high-contrast scenes.

Moreover, there's a good balance here: the images are, in most every case, quite printable straight out of the camera, but provide a lot of flexibility for more serious users looking to control their image output a little more directly.

White Balance

Auto white balance in the FS20 isn't as nimble as some other compacts, and as before, the image tone under incandescent lighting is a bit different from what we're used to seeing. Beyond this oddity, however, white balance performed as expected, with few surprises and little need for manual overrides.

Lens Faults

I found the lens to be the most disappointing single aspect of the FS3's total package, which makes the FS20's performance in this area that much more of a surprise. Edge-to-edge sharpness is impressively good for a compact camera.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
Top left-hand corner, 100% crop

There's very little else to complain about here. Some color fringing shows up in high-contrast boundaries, but the problem isn't abnormal for this class of cameras, tends to lessen at narrower apertures, and never interfered with prints at the usual snapshot sizes.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
100% crop

Likewise, there's some noticeable barrel distortion toward the wide end of the zoom – certainly more so than the narrower FS3's lens exhibited.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Vignetting also shows up when the aperture is wide open, though it disappears pretty quickly when stopped down (unfortunately, the lack of manual controls on the FS20 means there's not always an easy way to control the issue). In spite of these minor gripes, however, the FS20 really excels in the lens department.

Sensitivity and Noise

Given that the FS20 gets a slightly larger sensor size to go with its increased resolution, we were interested to see how it stacked up to the lower-res FS3 in this area, especially.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 100
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 100, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 200
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 200, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 400
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 400, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 800
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 800, 100% Crop

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 1600
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
ISO 1600, 100% Crop

Results are, in many ways, very much the same as before, with images showing the most noticeable jump in degradation and increase in color flattening between ISO 400 and ISO 800.

Interestingly, however, in spite of shared Venus Engine IV processing, the FS20 shows a somewhat different look than the FS3 at high ISOs – more noise reduction than noise.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20, ISO 1600

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS3, ISO 1600

I really felt that Panasonic had made a good step forward in dialing down the noise reduction with the FS3. While the FS20 is much smoother and less "crunchy" at ISO 1600 than the FS3, noise reduction also makes a more aggressive processing choice in the more expensive camera (to mask more inherent noise in the higher-resolution sensor, perhaps?). Overall, it comes down to personal preference, as the FS20's noise reduction retains enough fine detail to not cause too much trouble for most users, and many may find its balance between noise and detail loss to be more ideal.

Additional Sample Images

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20
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CONCLUSIONS

Each step up in the FS series gives you clear resolution, screen, and/or zoom improvements, and while these are key upgrades rather than feature bloat, at $50 a jump MSRP, these steps aren't exactly cheap to climb. At less than $200, the FS3 played the part of a much more expensive camera. Although it bests its baby brother in several ways, with a $300 MSRP the FS20 seems fairly, but not nearly so impressively, priced – especially with lots of tempting options (Panasonic's own FX35, for one) just within reach beyond the $300 mark. While the FS20 addresses some of the minor issues I had with the FS3 (including the addition of a truly stellar compact-camera lens), with pressure from both sides, the FS20 – a perfectly good camera in its own right – ends up coming off like a Stealers Wheels hit: "stuck in the middle."

Ironically, then, the final word in my mind is that while the three-star FS outperforms the FS3 in many respects, when price is factored in the Lumix FS20 becomes merely a good camera, rather than a great one.

Pros:

Cons:

 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS20 Specifications:

Sensor 10.1 megapixel, 1/2.33" CCD
Lens/Zoom 4x (30-120mm) Leica DC Vario-Elmar, f/3.3-5.8
LCD/Viewfinder 3.0", 230K-dot polycrystalline TFT LCD
Sensitivity ISO 100-1600 (High Sensitivity mode to ISO 6400)
Shutter Speed 8-1/2000 seconds
Shooting Modes Intelligent Auto, Normal Picture, Scene 1, Scene 2, Motion Picture
Scene Presets Portrait, Soft Skin, Scenery, Sports, Night Portrait, Night Scenery, Food, Party, Candle Light, Baby 1, Baby 2, Pet, Sunset, High Sensitivity, Hi-Speed Burst, Starry Sky, Fireworks, Beach, Snow, Aerial Photo
White Balance Settings Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Halogen, User Set
Metering Modes Intelligent Multi
Focus Modes Face, Nine Point, One Point, One Point High Speed
Drive Modes Normal, Burst, High Speed Burst
Flash Modes Auto, Red-Eye Reduction, Forced On, Slow Sync, Forced Off
Self Timer Settings
10 seconds, 2 seconds, Off
Memory Formats SD, SDHC, MMC
Internal Memory
50 MB
File Formats JPEG, MPEG
Max. Image Size 3648x2736
Max. Video Size
640x480, 30 fps
Zoom During Video No
Battery Rechargeable 1000 mAh lithium-ion, 280 shots
Connections USB 2.0, AV output, DC input
Additional Features Mega O.I.S., iA Intelligent Auto mode, Intelligent ISO, Venus Engine IV processing