We've seen some touchscreen cameras crash and burn because they try simply to migrate a button interface to a touch screen. But we're impressed with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500, whose hybrid touch-button interface is easy to learn. Unfortunately, despite its optical image stabilization, Intelligent Auto Mode, and 720p video recording, we weren't bowled over by the image quality.
Although the FX500 is Panasonic's first touchscreen camera, its design is classic Panasonic. At 5.5 ounces and 3.7 x 2.3 x 0.9 inches, it's not bulky, per se, but it has a boxier look than Casio's Exilims and Sony's Cybershots, most of which have slimmer, sexier shapes. The brushed-metal body looks elegant but can also take a tumble inside your bag without getting scratched.
Thanks to the touchscreen, just a few buttons are on the camera body: a power switch; a shutter with an attached zoom toggle; a switch for playback and shooting modes; mode, menu, and display buttons; and a five-way joystick corresponding to self-timer, exposure, flash, and Macro controls. The 3-inch touchscreen picks up fingerprints easily but was bright enough for us to use on a sunny day and in harshly backlit conditions.
Touchscreen and Interface
Panasonic's first touchscreen is an overall success, and it's not just because the screen is responsive. The FX500 comes with a small stylus for touch input, but using our fingers was just as effective. All of the on-screen icons are large enough that you're unlikely to select the wrong option accidentally. Another thing we like about the camera is that it doesn't attempt to replace buttons fully. Some touch cameras, such as theSony Cybershot DSC-T300, bite off more than they can chew by forcing the user to control virtually everything by tapping the screen. Sometimes, you just want the precision of a joystick, and in situations like these, the FX500's buttons make for a helpful safety net.
In addition to adjusting on-screen settings, you can use the touch interface in playback mode, tapping the edges of the screen to scroll through pictures and the pictures themselves to zoom in. To zoom out, you have to tap a panning icon in the lower left corner. We found ourselves trying to use our fingers as we would on an iPhone; being able to swipe-scroll and pinch-zoom would have been more intuitive.
The FX500 is one of several new Panasonic cameras endowed with Intelligent Auto Mode, which combines auto ISO, optical image stabilization, face detection, Intelligent Scene Selector, digital red-eye correction, Intelligent Exposure and continuous autofocus to adjust settings automatically as the shooting conditions change. Unfortunately, Intelligent Auto Mode works with only five of the camera's 21 scene modes: Scenery, Portrait, Macro, Night Portrait, and Night Scenery.
In a head-to-head with theSamsung NV24HD($399), the FX500's Intelligent Auto Mode consistently yielded better pictures than a camera without a smart Auto mode. That said, we weren't as impressed with the FX500's photos as we thought we'd be. Although all of our images showed good color saturation, they consistently looked too dark, even when we took pictures on a cloudless summer afternoon. With the exception of Night Portrait mode, which brightened our subjects' faces without overexposing the whole picture, our low-light shots were also too dark and devoid of shadow detail, to boot.
Although the FX500 took a fairly sluggish 4 seconds between shots, most of our pictures taken in Auto mode looked sharp--even when taken from a moving bus. Since Panasonic's Intelligent Auto Mode (along with Kodak's and Sony's scene-selection technology) cannot detect moving subjects, we appreciated that the optical image stabilization was so effective.
HD Video Quality
We liked--but didn't love--the FX500's 720p video quality. It showed plenty of detail in low-light situations as well as decent exposure outdoors. The sound quality of the footage was decent in quiet environments, but when we moved outside, the sound became weak and distorted (for HD video with good movement and sound, check out theKodak EasyShare Z1085 IS.
Speed and Battery Life
The FX500 showed acceptable but unimpressive speeds: it took 4 seconds to turn on and ready itself for consecutive shots. However, we were impressed with the longevity of the lithium ion battery: After taking several dozen photos and videos, we brought the FX500 on vacation for several days, where we took a hundred or so additional pictures and were still able to shoot for several more days before having to finally recharge the battery.
As far as touchscreen cameras go, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX500 is the most intuitive we've seen yet. But it loses points for its less-than-spectacular image quality. Although far from terrible, we were disappointed with our underexposed pictures, particularly given the top-notch technical specs. For $20 less, theFujfilm FinePix F100fd, a non-touchscreen point-and-shoot, offers better pictures--and without any intelligent scene selection.