When I reviewed the Panasonic DMC-FX35 back in March 2008 I was sufficiently impressed with its overall performance to go out and buy one for my sister. Since then Panasonic has introduced a minimally changed follow-on model, the DMC-FX37, and now its successor, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX48. The FX37 was reviewed on this site just this past March and left DCR.com's David Rasnake with an overall impression that the Panasonic was largely standing pat in the performance arena while a host of other manufacturers were catching up or surpassing it.
Casual observers of the FX48 might be forgiven for wondering if Panasonic was doing more of the same with the new camera: its outward appearance seems identical to the earlier models despite being fractionally larger. The stabilized 5x optical zoom (25 to 125mm equivalent) of the FX37 is retained, as is the 2.5 inch monitor and 720p HD video capability.
Ah, but those who read the fine print of camera introduction press releases will find some rays of hope: a 12 maegapixel sensor replaces the 10 megapixel sensor of the earlier models and the FX48 carries Panasonic's latest processing engine, the Venus Engine V. They will also find that the new higher resolution sensor is the same physical size as the earlier models and could understandably be concerned about negative impacts to ISO noise performance. King Arthur's magician Merlin produced some pretty powerful magic in his time – can Venus Engine V do the same for the FX48?
BUILD AND DESIGN
Our review camera came dressed in a matte black/gloss black metal body with silver accents (thus technically being a DMC-FX48K, with the "K" designating the black body color) that is essentially the same small deck of cards/small pack of cigarettes size of its predecessor. The camera is easily shirt pocket portable. Build quality appears good and the camera has a solid feel.
The camera can use SD/SDHC memory media for still image or movie capture, and MultiMediaCard memory for still captures only. There is about 40MB of internal memory for still or movie capture, and Panasonic includes a battery charger, battery pack, battery case, AV cable, USB connection cable, AC cable, hand strap and CD-ROM software with each camera.
Ergonomics and Controls
With the exception of a DC coupler cover on its memory card/battery cover door, the FX48 layout is identical to the FX35/37 models that it follows, and that's not a bad thing. The simple, straightforward control layout I found so appealing on the FX35 hasn't changed, so the typical one or two handed shooting grip finds the index finger falling naturally onto the shutter button while the rest of the fingers avoid conflicts with other controls or the flash.
The quick menu button has been retained – a handy tool to pull up some user-available settings for any shooting mode with a single press of the button.
Menus and Modes
The FX48 continues with the largely intuitive menu setup found on the FX35/37 – these Panasonics have one of easiest menu palettes to figure out and utilize (without resorting to the user's manual) of any camera I've reviewed. For someone new to digitals, the user's manual is well-written and easy to follow in the event that becomes necessary. Shooting options are the standard mix for an ultra compact digital: full auto, programmed auto, scene, and movie along with a "clipboard" option that is more a Panasonic original.
As promised, a word here about Face Recognition, "a function that "remembers" registered faces." Panasonic suggests the feature be used for people whose image you often capture, and up to six faces may be registered manually or automatically. Once faces are registered, "when there's a familiar face in the frame, the camera optimizes the focus and exposure so that the face is in sharp focus and bright".
However, Panasonic cautions that there's no guarantee registered faces will actually be recognized; that faces with "similar distinctive features" may not be correctly recognized and finally that the face recognition may take more time to select and recognize distinctive features than regular face detection. Face Recognition is off as a default setting and we'll give it a try in the Shooting Performance section.
The FX48 soldiers on with the same 2.5 inch, 230,000 dot composition monitor as the earlier cameras, and in truth it's hard to imagine how Panasonic could use anything larger and still retain the current overall dimensions of the FX48. With 2.7, 2.8 and 3 inch monitors becoming more and more of an industry standard even in the compact to ultra-compact range, it will be interesting to see how much longer Panasonic opts to stay with the 2.5 inch.
The monitor offers nearly 100% coverage and is adjustable for seven levels of illumination, none of which will overcome direct sunlight from the wrong angles – like many compact digitals the FX48's monitor can be difficult for image composition in bright conditions. There is no viewfinder.
My expectations for the FX48 were fueled partially by the pleasant memories of my time with the FX35, and more significantly by Panasonic ad copy singing the praises of the Venus Engine V: "Apart from the conventional imaging engine, the Venus Engine V has twin CPUs to boast approximately 2.4x processing capability. In addition, this high performance LSI elevates the artificial intelligence of the camera, making it possible to "recognize" the human faces individually."
"In the image processing, parallel noise reduction in both luminance signal and chromatic signal processing systems is performed. Then, the luminance noise is further two-dimensionally separated into high-frequency and low-frequency noises and only the low-frequency noise, which tends to be conspicuous, is eliminated without affecting the high-frequency noise that greatly influences resolution."
Frankly, face recognition is not high on my wish list for camera performance features (in fact, it doesn't even make the list), but things like fast shutter response, speedy write times, good high ISO noise performance and high continuous shooting rates will get my attention every time. Let's see if the Venus V delivers the goods.
The FX48 powers up and displays a focus icon in about 1.25 seconds and I was able to power up, acquire focus in good conditions and make a shot in about 2.5 seconds. Focus acquisition in good conditions can be as quick as about .7 seconds at wide angle and telephoto and go as long as almost two seconds when subjects are small and/or lack contrast.
There is a focus assist lamp for dim conditions and it has good range – out in the vicinity of 20 feet. The camera offers six AF options – face detection, AF tracking and 11 area focusing basically allow the camera to determine the focus point while 1 area high speed, 1 area and spot options allow more precise user-determined focus points. I used the spot option for most image captures.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.02|
|Nikon Coolpix S230
|Canon PowerShot SD970 IS
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX48
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||0.22|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.23|
|Canon PowerShot SD970 IS||0.47|
|Nikon Coolpix S230||0.51|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX48
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||1.15|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX48||3
|Nikon Coolpix S230||2||2.2 fps|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||10||1.6 fps|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150
|Canon PowerShot SD970 IS||∞||1.1 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.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
Press to capture times with no pre-focus ran about 0.78 seconds, with shutter lag at about 0.07 seconds. The shutter seems quicker than this to me, but it's hard to argue with the timing equipment. Suffice it to say once you've got focus acquired the FX48 takes the picture when you press the shutter button unless you've got other settings like a red-eye reduction flash dialed in to slow the firing down. Our town's annual fireworks display goes off in the park across the street from our house, and with the quick shutter response of the FX48 it was a simple matter to react to the first hint of individual explosions to capture the blossoming burst.
Single shot-to-shot times took about 2.75 seconds to shoot, write, reacquire focus and shoot again with a freshly formatted Extreme III card – a bit slower than the FX35.
The FX48 makes it easy to confuse continuous shooting rates since there are High Speed Burst and Flash Burst settings in the Scene shooting mode, and a Burst setting in the internal shooting menu. The Scene modes are of limited value since resolution is drastically curtailed and image quality is set to standard, but they do offer up to a 10 fps rate at 2 megapixels and up to five shots with flash at 2 to 3 megapixel resolution.
The 10fps rate can be sustained indefinitely depending on memory card capacity and speed (but only with SD/SDHC media – MultiMediaCards won't deliver the same rates), and I gave up after about 45 shots of a hummingbird with no sign of slowdown from the SanDisk Extreme III card.
The camera Burst setting can shoot three frames at about 2.5fps at full resolution, and about 2fps until the memory card is full. Focus, white balance and exposure are fixed for the first shot of the 2.5fps option and applied to the subsequent shots; focus is fixed for the first shot of the 2fps option and applied to all subsequent shots, but white balance and exposure are calculated for each individual shot.
Flash recycle times are relatively short with auto ISO at wide angle in nominal lighting – in the 2 to 3 second range, and I was able to take consecutive flash shots in about 4.5 seconds under these conditions. Full discharges in pitch black conditions and full telephoto took longer, but I still managed consecutive shots in about 7.5 seconds. Flash range at auto ISO (80 to 1000) runs out to almost 20 feet at wide angle. Shooting as I did at 80 ISO restricts flash range significantly, but color rendition with flash was good. The camera will not allow you to capture another image with the flash enabled and recharging.
Panasonic claims the Venus Engine V has 16% improved power efficiency and rates battery life for 350 shots. Performance in this regard seems improved over my experience with the FX35, which came up short of its advertised 300 shot life. With moderate flash use and minimal chimping it looks like battery life is around the 300 shot mark for the FX48 – but take a spare battery or two for all day shoots if you shoot a lot of flash and/or review every shot.
Finally, our old friend face recognition – it worked! The face it will recognize needs to be very much in the same format as the registered face – if the registered face is full frontal it will recognize the face in full frontal, not in profile or even three quarter profile.
The "built by Panasonic to Leica standards" 5x optical zoom features a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture at the 25mm wide angle end of the zoom, but slows to a disappointing f/5.9 at the 125mm telephoto end. Here's what those focal lengths look like in the real world – these shots were taken in the standard color mode, which we'll discuss in the image quality section.
The FX48 also features an extended optical zoom that goes 9.8x at "under" 3 megapixel resolution (with intermediate stops at 6.1x/8 megapixel and 7.8x/5 megapixel). The camera lowers resolution and uses the central part of the sensor for image capture. Here are shots at 12 megapixels at 5x cropped to mimic the image area of the 9.8x shot.
12 Megapixel Crop
9.8x Zoom at 3 Megapixels
Even cropped I think the 12 megapixel shot is cleaner than the low resolution one, so extended optical zoom would not be on my list of features to use with the FX48.
Optically, the lens is a good performer, with a bit of barrel distortion at the wide end, and perhaps the tiniest hint of pin cushion at telephoto. There is some softness in corners at wide angle, and in corners and edges at telephoto. Some slight chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was sometimes present in high contrast boundary areas, but it took 200 or 300% enlargements to call attention to it – the lens does a very good job in this regard, and is also optically stabilized.
The 720p HD video of the FX48 is good, but I'd rate it a bit below the Canon SD970 IS I reviewed just prior to the Panasonic – the Canon image seemed just a bit cleaner. Focus and zoom are fixed when recording first starts, and you can record up to 2GB of video continuously in any mode. That translates into about 8 minutes 20 seconds at HD. Panasonic recommends SD/SDHC memory media of at least 10MB/s transfer speed for HD, WVGA OR VGA movie capture.
With all the talk from Panasonic about the Venus Engine V, I was hoping for great things from the FX48 in the still image department. Default images (standard color) seemed OK as to color, but were too soft for my taste. At first I thought it might be hazy conditions at the beach where the first shots were made, but after moving inland to another site with clear air the softness persisted.
The FX48 doesn't have a sharpening setting per se, but the vivid color mode makes the picture sharper per the user's manual. Switching to vivid got the image sharpness more to my liking – unless noted otherwise, every shot in this review taken by the FX48 was made with the vivid setting. Here are shots at 1, 3 and 5x in both standard (default) and vivid color modes:
The image quality disparity between the standard and vivid color settings is problematic since the "Intelligent Auto" mode that a possibly large majority of potential FX48 users will select as their shooting mode of choice doesn't allow the vivid setting to be user enabled – options are standard, sepia and B&W.
If the default image sharpness is satisfactory, great – if not, folks will have to move out of their "full auto" comfort zone and shoot "normal" mode (which involves nothing more than turning the mode dial) with the vivid setting enabled. The alternative is to do post processing sharpening on the images, not something folks buying cameras to take the work out of image capture want to do.
The camera has Panasonic's Intelligent Exposure feature (off by default) to adjust contrast and exposure for more detail in shadow areas, but Panasonic cautions that when shooting with ISO set to 80 or 100 and IE enabled, the camera may adjust the ISO higher, and there is no guarantee of compensation in any event depending on the conditions.
I'm not sure I like the first caveat, since auto ISO can range to 400 without flash enabled, and I was surprised to experience the second on the mission/fountain shot I typically use to illustrate IE type features. While there is some compensation evident in the shadow areas of the image, the effect in this case is slight compared to what I usually see with other cameras.
Intelligent Exposure On
Intelligent Exposure Off
Auto white balance performed well under a variety of lighting conditions, but predictably shot quite warm under incandescent light. There are clear sky, cloudy sky, shade and incandescent settings along with two custom settings. Color setting options include standard, natural, vivid, sepia, B&W, cool and warm.
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light
Metering for image exposure is via "intelligent multiple" metering that "measures the light at points across the entire image to achieve a balanced exposure setting." My impression is the metering and/or exposure determination is biased to retain highlights in high contrast situations. Surf shots and shots of the mission against a blue sky that would ordinarily experience highlight loss in some instances have pretty well retained highlights at the expense of an overall darkening of the image.
Exposure compensation seems the best adjustment to brighten these type images, as enabling intelligent exposure and shooting both intelligent auto and normal modes produced essentially the same results.
Venus Engine V or not, the FX48 is pretty typical in the ISO noise department, with ISO 80 and 100 looking similar, a bit of noise creeping in at 200 and 400 showing signs of deterioration. It's probably no coincidence that the auto ISO setting on the FX48 ranges from ISO 80 to 400, which covers the ISO range before things start to go downhill at a faster rate.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 800 is predictably and significantly worse than 400, with the biggest single hit to noise levels coming between 800 and 1600. Of course, you can make the argument that the FX48 is crowding 2 megapixels more resolution on the same sized sensor as the FX37 with similar noise performance, and that's an improvement.
The only problem with that argument is when Nikon replaced my D200 with my D300 they added 2 megapixels more resolution on the same sized sensor and threw in one or two stops better noise performance to boot – I was hoping for some of the same from the FX48. The low resolution 1600 to 6400 ISO "high sensitivity" scene option is best left for those instances when nothing else will do and a postcard is all you need.
Additional Sample Images
After being favorably impressed with the FX35 some 16 months ago, I was ready for another "gee whiz" moment from the FX48. Sure, there was David Rasnake's review of the FX37 here last March that faulted the camera for largely maintaining the status quo, but the FX48 promised more resolution and the latest processor technology from Panasonic. The "gee whiz" moment never materialized and my sister is in no danger of being gifted with an FX48, at least with funds from my wallet.
The FX48 is not a bad camera, but where the FX35 seemed to do so many things right, the FX48 seems to be just a bit off in some important areas. There's good HD video capability, but not the best I've observed in this class. The FX48 default images are not as sharp as they could or should be, and while this can be largely fixed by selecting vivid color, that option is not available in the Intelligent Auto shooting mode that so many users would favor.
AF acquisition and shutter lag times are average to good respectively, but single shot-to-shot times are a bit slower than the FX35. ISO noise performance is typical for this class of camera. Despite a large dose of new technology with its processor, the FX48 seems to offer just another incremental change from the FX35, and not always for the better.