When Panasonic announced the FX500 back in March 2008 as the "flagship" of the FX line, it became their first camera to feature a touch screen interface. Now the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX580 has been put in play as the successor to the 500, and folks who are familiar with the earlier camera will have a hard time telling it from the new kid on the block unless they're close enough to read the "12 mega pixels" script on the camera body.
But while the physical resemblance is virtually identical, the FX580 has received some hardware enhancements to introduce some separation from the FX500, which no longer appears on the Panasonic roster. Chief among these is the Venus Engine V processor which allows the inclusion of the advanced iA (intelligent auto) shooting mode that includes a face recognition feature along with "high speed, high performance, and low power consumption."
The same physical-sized sensor has received a resolution increase to 12.1 megapixel which will allow more aggressive cropping opportunities. The touch screen interface has been retained, as has the 5x Leica zoom lens that spans the 25-125mm focal range (35mm equivalent) and the full set of manual controls, somewhat of a novelty in this class of camera. Here's what that 25-125mm range can do in the real world:
The camera has 40MB of internal memory and accepts SD/SDHC or MultiMediaCard (MMC for still images only) memory media. Panasonic includes a battery charger, battery pack, battery carrying case, AV cable, USB cable, AC cable, wrist strap, stylus pen (for touch screen use) and CD-ROM software with each camera.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The FX580's rectangular metal body measures out at 2.25x3.74x0.86 inches and seems solidly built - the camera back is finished in a shiny black paint, while the rest of the body is a brushed or matte silver. The black paint is subject to wear and tear as close-ups of our apparently well-traveled review unit will attest. There's also a black body available.
Ergonomics and Controls
Edges of the FX580 have a slight rounding to them and there is a ridge at the right front edge of the camera body that looks out of place but provides an improved grip with the middle finger. Control layout is unremarkable, with power, shutter and zoom controls atop the body while menu, display, quick menu, mode and record/playback buttons are arranged vertically on the camera back adjacent to the monitor. Placement and spacing of the controls seemed adequate to prevent unintentional activations.
There are a lot of 12 megapixel 5x zoom compact digitals in the marketplace, and while the FX580's wider-than-most 25mm starting point will attract its share of buyers, the touch screen interface is what primarily separates this camera from the field. Here's a snippet of a Panasonic press release:
The enhanced hybrid control system in the FX580 combines cursor key control with touch screen operation, allowing a smooth and intuitive operation. Users can make basic settings directly with the cursor key while they can make extensive adjustments intuitively by touching or moving the slider on the screen. Users can set the auto focus and exposure at the desired part of the frame by simply touching the subject at that part while recording. In manual exposure mode, aperture and shutter speed can be adjusted by moving the slider. You can also make fine adjustment of white balance and color temperature with the touch screen.
The key word above is hybrid - the FX580 establishes a lot of settings the old fashioned way, with the cursor key. In general, touch screen options for shooting include selecting the overall shooting mode (including specific scene option from the "scene mode"); making changes to settings found in the quick menu; touch AF/AE for subjects on the screen and setting aperture or shutter speed (or both) in manual shooting modes along with exposure compensation.
Here's a brief overview of the touch screen interface in operation. After turning on the camera a press of the "mode" button on the camera delivers the REC MODE screen.
The shooting mode selected is identified by a lighter colored box, in this case P. You can select another shooting mode by touch (either the stylus pen or finger seem to work equally well, with the added advantage to the finger of being a lot harder to lose) or by the cursor. If you use the touch method the screen changes instantly to the selected mode - using the cursor requires that you highlight the new choice and then select via the menu/set button. We'll stay with P and after selecting it we get the shooting screen.
While there's a wealth of data on this screen, the only touch option at this point is the AFAE box in the lower right corner - your first touch selects the AFAE option and the second identifies the portion of the image selected. From the initial shooting screen a push of the "quick menu" button on the camera back gives you the screen for the manual shooting modes.
Settings available for user input are displayed horizontally across the top of the screen and may be selected by touch or cursor. Selecting an individual setting brings up options arranged vertically on the right side of the screen - in this case, the burst shooting settings. If you happen to be shooting in the iA (full auto) mode, the quick menu screen looks like this:
As is typical with most compact digitals, user-established settings are severely limited in full auto shooting modes.
Finally, when shooting in aperture priority, shutter priority or full manual mode, you'll get a shooting screen like this:
Aperture selection is accomplished by touch only on the horizontal slider, exposure control on the vertical. In shutter priority, shutter speed becomes the horizontal slider and in full manual shutter speed is horizontal and aperture vertical.
Menus and Modes
We've already mentioned a bit about the shooting menus in the overview of the touch screen interface, but besides those there are setup and edit menus accessed via the cursor and both largely intuitive.
Shooting options are largely unchanged from the FX500, with the addition of a "My Scene" mode and a few more specific scenes that bring the total to 25 (26 if you count baby1/baby2 as 2 scenes).
The 3.0 inch LCD monitor is of 230,000 dot composition and adjustable for 7 levels of brightness. It proved to be one of the better monitors I've encountered in compact digitals for use in image composition under bright outdoor conditions (probably due in large part to its size, as all the other better compact monitors have been 3.0 inches also). Coverage approaches 100% and there is no viewfinder.
The Panasonic Lumix FX580 won't attract too many wildlife shooters with a lens topping out at 125mm, but folks looking to shoot scenics or people fairly close by will feel right at home.
The camera powers up and presents a focus icon in about 2 seconds, and if you anticipate this you can get off a first shot in about 2.75 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times (shoot, write, reacquire focus and shoot) times ran about 2.75 seconds as well using a SanDisk Extreme III 20MB/s card. The camera will take three 12 megapixel/high quality images in burst mode before the buffer stops the process to catch up, or 5 images at 12 megapixel/normal quality. Starting the timer with the first shot and stopping at the third, the camera took 1.25 seconds to make the 3 high quality captures, a rate of approximately 2.4 fps. The screen goes dark until after the second shot before displaying the captures starting with the second one.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.02|
|Nikon Coolpix S230
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX580
|Canon PowerShot A2100 IS
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||0.22|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||0.23|
|Nikon Coolpix S230||0.51|
|Canon PowerShot A2100 IS||0.60|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX580
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150||1.15|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX580||3||2.4 fps|
|Nikon Coolpix S230||2||2.2 fps|
|Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T700||10||1.6 fps|
|Casio Exilim EX-Z150
|Canon PowerShot A2100 IS
* 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.
There are also high speed burst options at 3, 2.5 and 2 megapixels (producing up to 10fps and from 15 to 100 continuous captures) found as a scene mode, but there's a host of auto functions imposed on these shooting modes: auto ISO that goes high to encourage fast shutter speeds; normal image quality; and focus, zoom, shutter speed, ISO, exposure and flash level are established for the first shot and applied to all subsequent shots in the sequence.
Shutter lag time was good at 0.03 seconds, an improvement over what we measured with the FX500. AF acquisition time came in at 0.73 seconds - the camera feels quicker at wide angle, particularly with the 1 area - high speed focus option selected. AF predictably slowed towards the telephoto end of the spectrum, but overall while not being blazing fast the FX580 did not feel particularly pokey either.
Flash performance was not an overly strong point, with the exception of flash recycle times. The range is limited, particularly if you shoot at 80 ISO for best noise performance - about 5.5 feet at wide angle and 3.3 feet at telephoto. Even shooting auto ISO the ranges are listed as 19.7 and 9.8 feet respectively, and while the camera seems to approach these distances the auto ISO is being set in the 1200 sensitivity range to do so. Auto ISO can range from 80 to 1600, but you can institute a user-established ceiling below 1600 using intelligent ISO.
Recycle times with a fully charged battery ran about 3 seconds for a partial discharge and a bit over 4 for what should have been a full discharge (telephoto, f/8 and 80 ISO in pitch black conditions).
Panasonic rates the battery for 350 shots using CIPA criteria that contemplates taking a shot every 30 seconds, and a flash shot every other image. A spare is a good idea for an all-day shooting session but I did a fair amount of shooting and a lot of chimping with menus and screens and the battery held up quite well.
FX580 maximum apertures range from a fast f/2.8 at wide angle to a slow f/5.9 at telephoto, but that f/2.8 isn't available very long after you start to zoom - at 2x the max aperture is up to f/4.3; f/4.9 at 3x and f/5.7 at 4x. The lens will focus as close as about 2 inches in macro mode at wide angle.
There is some barrel distortion present at the wide end of the zoom and a slight bit of pincushion on the telephoto end, but both defects are fairly benign. The wide angle is soft in the corners and edges, the telephoto less so. There can be chromatic aberration present in high contrast boundary areas, but it generally took enlargements in the 200 to 300% range to make this defect stand out. All in all, the lens does a pretty good job and the noted defects will require some fairly close scrutiny to detect on all but the largest of images.
The 720p HD video quality seemed only average, but the mono audio was quite accurate. In the video of the mission (which isn't moving, but this one's a sound byte) the chimes are very accurately reproduced, and if you listen closely to the hummingbird clip you can pick up a metallic rumble from time to time that is their wing beat.
The zoom function of the lens is not available in movie mode.
I found default images from the FX580 to be generally pleasing and color accurate at a fixed 80 ISO, but perhaps just a tiny bit soft overall. There are contrast, sharpness and saturation adjustments available in the "picture adjust" portion of the REC menu, and most of the shots in this review were made with contrast and sharpness each increased 1 step (out of a possible 2). You can also decrease these settings up to 2 steps from the default, and there is a noise reduction setting that may be user-established over the same range (-2 to +2).
There are B&W, sepia, cool and warm color effects available via internal menu, but the cool is too blue and the warm too red unless you're looking for a way overblown blast of color. The sepia and B&W options produced nice results, and you could achieve some of the effect of the warm and cool options via saturation and contrast.
Black and White
The FX580 also features Panasonic's intelligent exposure recording option to expand the apparent dynamic range of the camera. The feature may be disabled by internal menu, or there are standard, low and high settings that may be set by the user.
Auto white balance worked well in outdoor light, with flash and fluorescent desk lamps, but shot warm with a 3200 degree incandescent lamp. The FX580 offers daylight, cloudy, shade, halogen (incandescent), white set (manual setting) or Kelvin temperature adjustment for white balance.
Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light
Exposure with the camera in the default multiple metering mode was generally good for normally lit subjects, and this mode handled high contrast shots like breaking waves quite well - there were some lost highlights from time to time, but overall a pretty good performance. There are center-weighted and spot metering options available as well.
ISO noise performance appears average at best, and a bit worse than the FX500 - not a good thing since the FX500 got a lukewarm noise grade in its review here. Our studio shots also were a bit warmer than those produced by the FX500. Despite the introduction of the Venus Engine V processor, cramming those extra 2 megapixels onto the same sized sensor appears to have had the expected derogatory effect on image quality.
ISO 80, 100% crop
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
The FX580 picks up an ISO 80 setting the FX500 didn't have, but once you line the crops up side by side the old camera looks better through 400 ISO, with 800 and 1600 ISO narrowing the gap a bit in favor of the FX580. Small shots look fairly good through the range, except for the annoying warm cast.
Additional Sample Images
When the FX500 was reviewed on this site back in May 2008, one complaint was that while a mode button input was required to display shooting modes, once displayed they could only be selected via touch. The FX580 has put that gripe to rest - once displayed, modes can be selected via touch or cursor, and the same holds true for the quick menu. I ended up shooting a lot of this review in Programmed auto mode so I could manually set the ISO sensitivity, and having quick menu access available via touch screen was a nice (sorry) touch.
This camera hasn't improved on the noise performance of its predecessor and so must be judged average at best in this regard. AF acquisition times are not class leading but not extremely slow, and shutter lag is good.
There are manual controls and a host of user-enabled adjustments available - features that will appeal to the more accomplished user seeking a somewhat DSLR like palette of control options in a compact digital - folks who never move beyond the auto or scene modes will leave a lot of untouched territory in FX580 menus. Image quality is good if you can shoot in the 80 or 100 ISO range, but noise impacts image quality as early as 200 ISO and there's no good news north of that setting. Video image quality at HD is average, but audio reproduction, even in mono, was good.
Not the best camera in the class (and not the worst), it remains to be seen if the touch screen features are enough of a draw to pull buyers to a camera with essentially average overall performance in a crowded field of competitors.