Technology

Panasonic Lumix: One Smart Camera


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The FX35 10-megapixel point-and-shoot with automated settings should help the company take its place alongside Canon and Nikon

If my friends are any indication, the digital camera market is all about Canon, Sony (SNE), and Nikon. That's why I was intrigued earlier this year at a trade show where I saw a wide array of digital cameras from Panasonic, which is trying to use the strength of its brand in video cameras and TVs to compete in another highly competitive category. Judging from the Lumix FX35, I'd say Panasonic deserves your attention.

The FX35 looks like your typical digital camera—a silver or matte black rectangle that fits snugly in your palm, with a 2.5-in. LCD viewfinder on the back. Buyers should note there's no optical viewfinder, though I found the LCD worked perfectly well in all but the brightest of lighting conditions.

Panasonic packs quite a bit of technology into this tiny package, including the ability to shoot pictures in 10.1-megapixel resolution, enough detail to print poster-size blowups. Other distinguishing points are a 25mm Leica DC lens to capture ultra-wide angle shots and a 4x optical zoom. Combined, these technologies let you squeeze a lot more image into a typical picture without backing up so far that it's hard to see what you're shooting.

Simplicity and Intelligence

The FX35 also is one of the easiest-to-use digital cameras I've tried, making it a perfect gift for people who want a point-and-shoot without all the hassle of adjusting settings for different scenes and lighting conditions.

The key to this simplicity is a feature that Panasonic calls IA, or Intelligent Auto. When you turn on IA with the jog-wheel, the camera determines the appropriate shot mode for each picture, choosing from options such as portrait, scenery, macro, night scenery, and night portrait. Naturally, users still have the option of fiddling with the picture settings in regular camera mode.

Intelligent Auto also will turn on functions such as optical image stabilization to compensate for shaky hands, and ISO exposure selection to suppress motion blur when you're shooting a moving object. Like many high-end cameras these days, the FX35 features face detection technology to sharpen the focus on up to 15 people at a time, as well as automatic red-eye reduction.

Missing USB Ports

Focusing on ease of use as a big point of differentiation, Panasonic offers a very straightforward control layout. On top, there's a power switch, zoom, shutter button, and mode dial. On the rear are menu/set, display, quick menu, and record/play buttons. One nifty feature you can get to from the LCD menus is an option to play background music to accompany a slide show on the camera.

Although the camera has auto flash, I was pleased to find a quick menu key to turn the flash on and off manually. It's so fast and painless that it left me wondering why so many other camera makers bury this function in their menu systems.

My biggest gripe with the FX35 is the proprietary cable ports for connecting it with computers and home-theater equipment. This means you won't be able to use regular USB cords that are so commonplace these days.

There's a New Camera in Town

Panasonic takes full advantage of its in-house technology with its Venus Engine IV image-processing chips. The zippy processor let me shoot a series of pictures with very little lag, a feature that sports- or nature-lovers should really like. Company engineers say the upgrade from Venus Engine III also cuts down on "image noise," which is the digital equivalent of grainy film in analog cameras. While I'm no camera expert, it seemed to work well, particularly with challenging low-light situations and higher ISO exposure settings.

While most pictures came out beautifully, one problem area common to the 300 or so shots I took was oversaturation toward red. Most of the people looked unnaturally pink (though you can fix this problem with most photo-editing software). I also noticed some graininess in extremely low lighting, but was pleased overall with the results. Panasonic estimates battery life at about 300 shots. I managed about 250 with fairly liberal use of the flash.

All told, there's a new kid on the digital camera block. Panasonic delivers a formidable competitor with the FX35 by focusing on simplicity while delivering a powerful tool for serious picture-takers.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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