It's not easy being a 7-megapixel snapshot camera. You have to be fast, cute, cheap, smart, and talented just to get noticed. If you're lucky, your company will give you a clear spot in the lineup with your siblings; if not, you've got to duke it out with a cheaper version of yourself. By these standards, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX50 has a hard life. Forced to share a spot in the line with the marginally less-expensive, nearly identical DMC-FX07, which comes in a peacockish array of colours, the DMC-FX50 has only its slightly larger, 3-inch LCD to jazz up its black (DMC-FX50K) and silver (DMC-FX50S) bodies. And though it has a few things going for it -- it's stylish and smart -- its poor photo quality and nondescript performance leave it destined to be a wallflower.
It's not just attractive, it's smartly designed. A highly legible menu system with the occasionally helpful descriptor (under Aerial Photo, it cautions Please turn off the camera when taking off or landing) plus a large joystick control make it easy to use and navigate, no matter how challenged your eyesight or coordination. The buttons are a bit small, on the other hand, and some features you'll probably never discover without the manual. For instance, you can tweak the white balance presets toward red or blue, which you get to by selecting the up arrow -- exposure compensation -- three times.
For operation, you have a choice among automatic, more automatic (a Simple mode with plain-English options), and preset automatic (18 scene modes, including the aforementioned Aerial Photo for shooting from airplane windows and two Baby modes, which store a birth date each for age-stamping your kids' photos). It has two automatic ISO setting modes, the typical mode which optimises for the scene exposure, and Intelligent ISO, which also takes into account subject motion, and therefore selects from a higher set of ISO speeds. Other Panasonic niceties include optical image stabilisation and an LCD High Angle mode for shooting overhead. The lens is a limited 28mm-to-102mm, 3.6x zoom, though the wide-angle certainly comes in handy for vertical applications, such as real estate.
Though it's hardly a speedster, the DMC-FX50 keeps up with the rest of its class pretty well. After a brief 1.5-second wakeup-to-first-shot interval, it shoots 1.3 seconds apart in good light, and 2 seconds with flash. Typical shutter lag is on the high side at 0.6 second, but competitive in dim light at 1.1 seconds. Depending upon shooting mode, the DMC-FX50 captures a run of between 6 and 8 frames at about 1.7fps.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
||Typical shot-to-shot time||
||Time to first shot||
||Shutter lag (typical)|
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
||Typical continuous-shooting speed|
As is typical, however, Panasonic hits the wall on photo quality. It fares reasonably well when it comes to exposure, colour, and white balance, and the lens is surprisingly good, with no distortion at telephoto and little at the wide angle. But if image noise had a sound, the FX50 would make my ears bleed. Its photos start out with significant amounts of noise at the lowest sensitivity setting of ISO 100, then just get worse. There's a switchover between ISO 200 and ISO 400, where aggressive noise suppression kicks in and changes the type of artifacts -- from Seurat's pointillism to Monet's brush strokes. These photos are best viewed small.
If Panasonic could just nail the noise, the Lumix DMC-FX50 might stand a chance against competitors such as the Canon Digital IXUS 850 IS and the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-T30. As it is, however, you're better off letting the FX50 sit this one out.