Panasonic's design team must abide by the old mantra of if it's not broken, don't fix it. Coming directly off the back of its predecessor the Lumix DMC-FX36, the FX38 is remarkably similar in appearance and performance. Indeed, a good old game of spot the difference left us perplexed, and we couldn't find any exterior changes at all between the new and old model.
Spot the difference... the FX38 on top, and the FX36 on the bottom. Or is that the other way around?
That said it's not like there was all that much to improve upon. Just as before, the FX38 is encased in a brushed metal exterior, with all fittings, buttons and attachments coated in shinier, glossier silver. It's a conservative design but attractive nevertheless, as well as being compact enough to sit easily in a pocket or a bag with little protrusion.
Everything is weighted heavily towards the lens side of the camera, which normally wouldn't be a problem except that the FX38 is as light as a feather on the other side, where all the controls and grips are. Perhaps heavier hands will make light work of counterbalancing the weight, but we found it was a bit too heavy on one side. Furthermore, the tripod mount is not centred under the lens, which further adds to the uneven footing — a minor quibble, but one that keen photographers will notice over time nonetheless.
Despite these small misgivings, the FX38 is one of the most intuitively designed point-and-shoots we have come across. The flip panel that opens up to reveal the AV plugs is just so smooth that it warrants mention, and the overall design whispers (not screams) understated elegance.
The quiet sophistication is not just saved for the exterior though — inside the camera is a wide-angle, 25mm Leica lens with a 5x optical zoom. Alongside the multitude of scene modes, which range from pin-hole to portrait, is Panasonic's intelligent auto function, which purports to be adept at automatically choosing the best settings for the shooting conditions. In practice it chose most scenes well, selecting macro for flower and foliage shots, and landscapes for wide vistas. We're not sure if Panasonic have tweaked it since the FX36 given that it performs in such a similar manner.
Another incredibly useful feature was the 50MB of internal memory inside the diminutive FX38. It's something that should be easy enough to implement on all point-and-shoots, yet so very few have this extra smidgen of memory just in case the memory card fills up a shot too soon.
As mentioned before, the underside of the camera lets the side down a little, as alongside the off-centre tripod mount is the battery and card compartment, which is locked into place with a slightly fiddly plastic switch.
Performance and Image Quality
Since so little has changed from the FX36, there are no surprises at all when it comes to the camera's performance. Start up time is a reasonable one second or so and shot-to-shot time capably kept pace with its predecessor's times. One element we did find disconcerting was how easily the unit turned itself on. At the top of the camera, the sliding toggle often switched on automatically while the camera was being transported in a bag or pocket.
The FX38 coped well with highly detailed, vividly coloured shots like this one of a peacock tail.
Click to enlarge
Disappointingly, at the widest angle of the lens there was a moderate amount of distortion, and shots taken at even low ISO levels showed a distinct amount of noise. Zooming in on a subject is another arduous task. Though we took a shine to the indicator on the screen that followed the trajectory of the lens extending, it was still far too slow. Autofocus is tainted with a similar brush — often refusing to maintain focus even with the shutter button half depressed.
Temperamental tendencies aside, the lens did surprise us with the level of detail it managed to capture on some of our challenging shots — see the image of the peacock tail to the right. Though noise is visible here, the FX38 coped well with the dynamic range and rendered most of the detail correctly.
The HD movie mode was a pleasant surprise and delivered some clear moving images, but then again, this hasn't changed since the FX36.
The Lumix DMC-FX38 is a capable point-and-shoot with a number of additional features that will sweeten the deal for many photographers, such as HD-video recording and Panasonic's intelligent auto function. However, it's so remarkably similar to its predecessor the FX36 that most buyers won't recognise the difference between them.
For around AU$150 less, you could pick up the Canon IXUS 870IS which has a similarly wide lens (28mm) and fairly equivalent feature set, except without HD recording. Though if your heart is set on a Panasonic, the one advantage of the FX38 sharing so many features with the FX36 is that you should now be able to pick up the older model at a bargain basement price.