DigitalCameraReview.com
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 First Thoughts
by David Rasnake -  5/17/2008

Reasons for the building excitement around the recently announced Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 are probably obvious. Built on a platform that shares several key specs with its highly regarded FX35 sibling, the flagship FX500 sports 10 megapixels of resolution, a 25mm wide-angle Leica zoom that covers a 5x range, manual exposure control, some novel playback and in-camera editing features, and Panasonic's latest Venus Engine IV processor.

Oh yeah, and then there's the touch screen.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Not surprisingly, the FX500's touch screen interface has been big news, putting the new Panasonic in a fairly elite class of high-tech, high-fashion cameras that have lots of appeal with those looking for the latest, trendiest gadget. The huge 3-inch LCD is impressive in its own right, and touch screen cameras are fascinating as much for their novelty as their usability, but those who know the Lumix FX lineup will see a lot that looks familiar in the FX500 beyond those high-profile features. Although the FX500 is larger and boxier than the FX35, the basic form is unmistakably Panasonic, with its brushed metal face and no-nonsense industrial vibe.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Things get a little less familiar out back, however, and it's not just because of the touch screen.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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While the basic layout has a lot in common with other high-end Lumix cameras, I was more than a bit surprised to see a black plastic bezel and controls in place of the usual brushed metal rear panel and buttons. Build quality still feels just fine, but given the camera's flagship status, there's something that doesn't entirely fit in my mind about the choice of plastic over metal.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Of course, the first question on the minds of many concerns how well the touch screen works. After a few days with the camera, I'm just starting to figure out the intricacies of the FX500's touch interface implementation. The Panasonic is definitely different, in many good (and perhaps a few not so good) ways: it should be noted from the beginning that unlike other touch screen cameras I've played with (the Sony T200/T300 being the most high-profile examples), the FX500's reliance on the touch interface is surprisingly limited. The majority of the camera's parameters are actually, as it turns out, controlled in the conventional way, via the FX500's familiar joystick-style five-way controller.

So what's the touch screen there for, then? Its primary application seems to be for focus point selection: touch a point on the screen and not only will the AF lock on to that point, it will actually stay locked in the general vicinity of whatever you've pointed at until you tell the camera to focus elsewhere, or until the camera is moved such that the object is no longer in the frame. The tracking function, which closely resembles the face tracking technology seen in some cameras this year, is a bit cutesy and fairly easy to fool - shake the camera rapidly and it will pretty quickly give up on holding a lock - but it's usefulness for holding focus at a certain point while making a slight framing adjustment, for instance, is clear. Either way, it's interesting technology that fits well with the rest of the FX500's "super gizmo" image.

Aperture and shutter speed (and, in some - though for whatever reason, not all - cases, exposure compensation as well) are also adjustable using the touch interface when shooting in manual exposure modes. On-screen "sliders" allow you to point and drag values up or down as desired. It's a neat idea that has a lot of graphical appeal and gives (oddly) a measure of physical control to manual exposure options not usually seen in a small camera. With both aperture and shutter speed controls literally at your fingertips with the FX500, full manual mode is among the most usable I've come across in a pocket-sized device.

On balance, I'm still not sure how I feel about the FX500's lack of consistency in employing the touch interface. At times the implementation seems a bit willy-nilly, with no logic behind which functions and menu areas allow for touch control and which don't. Conversely, I was never a big fan of Sony's touch-only implementation, which forgoes physical buttons altogether in favor of complete on-screen control: while it has a measure of consistency in approach that the Panasonic clearly lacks, you can't ever choose to not use the touch screen - even for functions where touch control doesn't make sense or isn't convenient. The FX500, by contrast, can for the most part be used just like any other compact without ever fooling with the touch screen if that's your preference.

All of this suggests a larger point: beyond all of the marketing hype about touch control, the FX500 is a fairly straightforward, impressively powerful device for its size. While it shares a lot in common with the popular FX35 on the functional side as well, with its manual exposure controls and wider zoom range, this camera can do things the auto-only FX35 simply can't. Overall, while the controlled testing is just commencing in earnest, assuming the FX500 lives up to the fairly high expectations that come with every FX camera, it's a uniquely promising camera whether you care a bit about the touch screen or not. Initial test shots look very similar to what we've experienced with other recent Lumix cameras, with moderate saturation, plenty of contrast, and a pleasing overall look.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500
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I'll have much more to say on the FX500's performance and image quality, loads more sample images, and a video showing off the touch screen in use in the full review. Keep an eye out for it within the next couple of weeks.