The successor to their DMC-FX550, the new Panasonic FX580 is a supremely pocketable compact digital camera with a bevy of interesting features and a hefty price tag to match. With a 12.1-megapixel sensor, a 25mm wide-angle stabilized Leica lens, full automatic and manual shooting modes, a potentially groundbreaking face-recognition mode, and a nifty iPhone-esque touchscreen interface, this is a camera with real market cachet. It's a pretty little thing, too. But does it take good pictures? Let's find out!
Design and Handling
Housed in a brushed metal casing that comes in your choice of black or silver, the FX580 is a very handsome camera. Highlights of glossy chrome are set against the brushed body, along with a matte finish on the ring surrounding the lens. The camera is extremely solidly built, as you would expect from a $400 machine, and its various doors and compartments are well protected from breakage. Nothing feels flimsy here. A metal tripod mount is another sign of the forethought that went into the camera's build—it's not something you'll find on many compact cameras. The back of the camera is finished in a glossy black plastic with stiffly sprung control buttons.
The FX580's layout is instantly familiar to anyone who's used a Panasonic compact digital camera in the last year or two—or any compact digital, really. A huge 3.0-inch LCD display with a very nice resolution of 230,000 pixels dominates the majority of the space, with the control buttons squeezed along the extreme right-hand side. The big difference from the Panasonic norm here is that the display is a touchscreen. For this camera, Panasonic has developed a "hybrid" control mode that, for the most part, lets the user choose whether to use touchscreen controls or traditional buttons and directional pad keys, or a combination of both. It works surprisingly fluidly.
However, it's not entirely a two-way street. Some screens, such as the main menus, are used with traditional controls only. At first it's slightly annoying to have to memorize which screens use touchscreen controls and which use the directional pad, but you'll quickly adjust. The "Q.MENU"(quick menu) screen, for instance, uses both and works incredibly well. Hitting the Q.MENU button at the lower right corner of the camera brings up an overlay with various shooting options (which options depends on which shooting mode you're using at the time). The user can either page through these options using the directional pad or using the touchscreen. Sub-option menus expand at the touch of a finger. The screen reacts quickly and surely to touches, even from bigger fingers like mine.
In image playback mode, the touchscreen can be used to zoom in on, move around in, or page through the photos stored on your memory card. A simple tap zooms in on the image, and continued taps zoom in with exponential levels of detail (up to 16x). Put your finger on the screen and drag and the image moves around so that you can see other "off-screen" areas while zoomed in. Swiping your finger left or right across the screen advances forward and back through the images in chronological order. It's a pretty intuitive interface, and well-implemented.
The FX580's ergonomics are about as good as this sort of super-compact camera gets, though Panasonic have added a tiny "grip" at the right-hand edge of the camera's front side that feels more like an afterthought than a true feature. The camera is really just a rectangular box, much like a deck of cards, and it's not the easiest thing to hand-hold for long periods of time. However, the controls are laid out nicely, with everything just where it needs to be for the easiest possible on-the-fly access.
Shooting Modes and Performance
A bevy of shooting modes are packed into the FX580, led off by Panasonic's by-now-familiar Intelligent Auto or "iA"mode. iA mode automates all of the exposure settings for theoretically optimal image quality in any given situation. Also included as main mode menu options are Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and Motion Picture modes. My Scene, which allows you to set a particular scene mode as your favorite and then auto-access it with one touch, and Scene are the two final main mode menu options. Tapping the Scene Mode icon brings up a sub-menu of 26 shooting modes, which I won't detail here. Let's just say that they're extensive, and include some gimmicky options like skin softening filters and a "Transform" mode that lets you slim or stretch a subject.
When shooting in iA mode, as you'd expect, the menus and adjustments are pretty locked down. Since the camera is doing everything for you, you have no option to override its choices. This is usually alright, because the FX580's metering is quite accurate. I experienced virtually no trouble with under- or overexposure while using iA mode.
When you move up to Program AE, any of the Priority modes, or full Manual control, the camera's Q.MENU and main menu make a significant jump in complexity. For example, the main menu has one page with four options while in iA mode; in any of the more complicated modes it has five pages with 21 options. Among these advanced options are ISO, white balance, face recognition, autofocus mode, metering mode, burst shooting, image stabilization, and intelligent exposure controls. The majority of these options can be set either via the touchscreen overlay or via the pad-driven main menu. Given the fluidity of the touchscreen interface, I usually found the former to be the quicker and better route.
Panasonic has packed several helpful features into the FX580 in an attempt to make shooting even easier. One that's available in every mode is something called "AFAE." Accessed via the touchscreen, it lets the user set a specific point that will be used to calculate focus and exposure. If, for example, you want your friend's face in focus, you just point the camera at him, touch the on-screen AFAE button, and then touch his face. The camera locks onto his face and will keep it in focus and well-exposed as long as it remains anywhere in the frame.
In non-iA modes, the LCD overlay also offers an exposure guide that will tell you whether the shot you're framing is under- or overexposed given the current shutter speed, ISO, and aperture settings. This is a common thing on dSLRs, but it's nice to see it on a pocketable point and shoot. Also welcome is an optional histogram overlay. Another helpful innovation is Intelligent Exposure mode, which attempts to boost the camera's dynamic range with variable ISO settings, dimming blown-out highlights and brightening black shadows to produce an even exposure in difficult lighting conditions.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the FX580's touchscreen controls, and something that I wouldn't have guessed would work as well as it does, is the slider-style control of the aperture and shutter speed settings when using the Manual and Priority shooting modes. Once you get the hang of not overshooting your desired setting it's a joy to use, and a sign that touchscreens could become a vital component in "serious" digital camera in years to come.
Some of the camera's features are flat-out gimmicky, though. While the Face Detection feature is quite good at picking a human face out of a jumbled scene and focusing on/exposing for it, the Face Recognition feature is flaky at best—clearly a first-generation attempt at a bit of future tech. Theoretically, the mode is supposed to recognize faces that you shoot often and allow you to register them, at which point they will be given preferential treatment in focusing. In practice, it doesn't really amount to much beyond the marginal pleasure of seeing a gallery of your friend's faces in the menu. As the camera's manual puts it, somewhat conservatively, "Accurate recognition with Face Recognition is not guaranteed even for people who are registered."
Shooting performance with the FX580 is generally very good. Shot-to-shot time is on-par with other compact point and shoots in its feature and price class, autofocus time is very quick in good light and acceptable in poor light, and the LCD screen is bright and easy to use even in pretty bright sunlight. The settings menus can be quickly accessed, letting you spend more time shooting and less time fiddling around. The burst recording speed is nothing to write home about, but perfectly in line with the camera's competition.
Image and Video Quality
As is typical in my experience with Panasonic's products, a potentially great camera with beautiful aesthetics, fantastic build quality, and a pleasing controls scheme is let down by pervasive image noise and overaggressive noise reduction. While the FX580 has the design and style of a $400 compact camera, it often produces images worthy of a $100 throwaway.
The problem, as ever, is with the company's unflagging desire to pack as many megapixels as possible into a ridiculously small imaging sensor. This means a higher pixel density, and a higher pixel density means that each of the camera's 12.1 million pixels gets less light because it's effectively crowded by the pixels squeezed in around it. Less light means higher levels of image noise, and more image noise means that the camera will use more aggressive noise reduction algorithms, quickly destroying much of the detail in its images.
In the case of the FX580, the imaging sensor is 1/2.33, or 0.28 cm², meaning that it has a pixel density of 43 megapixels per cm². Compare this with (for just one example) the $120 Pentax Optio A40by all other measures a lesser camerawhich has a 1/1.7, or 0.43 cm², 12-megapixel sensor with a pixel density of 28 megapixels per cm². It's little wonder that despite its relative lack of features and gimmicks, the A40 has by far superior image quality when compared to the FX580's output.
At ISO 80, 100, and even 200, noise levels aren't too noticeable except when viewing photos at 100% zoom, at which point noise reduction is very apparent in a sort of textured smearing effect. At ISO 400 significant chroma noise begins to sneak in, producing oddly-multicolored patches on single-color surfaces. At ISO 800 and 1600, the images begin to look like screengrabs from a YouTube video. Seriously not good. What this means is that to be usable, indoor and nighttime shots MUST be taken with flash, which is a letdown for everyone who hates flash. Which should be... well... everyone.
The Leica wide-angle lens generally seems to perform well, though it has some predictable barrel distortion at the 25mm wide end, and does exhibit a tendency toward ghosting and bad flare issues. It's hard to say how much of this is due to the lens and how much is due to the image processing engine, but the long and short of it is that highlights tend to get blown out and shots in direct sunlight sometimes have an unwanted "dreamy" feeling about them.
On the plus side, the FX580's 720p HD video recording mode is actually quite good, with a smooth 30fps framerate and decent sound. The sensor's noise problems are less glaring in video, which looks decent even in low light. You can even shoot movies in macro mode, which leads to some interesting possibilities.
The FX580 is yet another frustrating release from Panasonic. As a company they've proven again and again that they have a lot of great ideas that appeal well to a broad spectrum of digital camera buyers, but they're crippled over and over by their slavishness to the megapixel race. In terms of aesthetic design, build quality, and interface, the FX580 has few rivals, which makes it doubly disappointing that it's underwhelming as a camera. If Panasonic can create a camera that combines the FX580's brilliant positives with the fantastic image quality produced by some of its rivals' top models, the competition had better watch out. Until then, it's back to the drawing board (where hopefully they'll draw a bigger sensor).