Panasonic’s Lumix FP7 ultra-compact digital camera is a stylish and trendy model, sporting a flat body and 3.5-inch widescreen touch LCD that makes the back of the camera look like a mini TV. The FP7 shoots 16.1 megapixel stills, packs a 4x optical zoom lens, and offers a slew of scene modes for a $229 asking price. But does it offer substance with that style?
Body & Design
The Panasonic FP7 is a sexy, sophisticated-looking camera. It has a sliding lens cover that protects the tiny internal lens and also functions as the power switch. At one-third of a pound, the FP7 is heftier than it looks, but that weight gives it a durable feel. This point-and-shoot has a minimalist design: a monolithic touchscreen LCD takes up the entire backside of the camera, and just three physical buttons sit on top.
The power button is so tiny and recessed into the camera that it is difficult to use; opening or closing the lens cover is much easier and more efficient. The shutter button is decent, but the zoom tilter is too small. It is supposed to move left and right to zoom throughout the focal range, but it hardly moves at all. There is a zoom control on the touchscreen, but you have to first push a zoom icon before the controls appear; only then are you able to zoom. This takes a few extra seconds, so it isn’t always convenient. In sum, I never used the power button, I seldom used the zoom, but of course I often used the shutter release button.
As far as components go, the Panasonic FP7’s most dominant is the touchscreen. At 3.5 inches with a wide, 16:9 aspect ratio, it could not be bigger. Its 230,000-pixel resolution is insufficient for the screen size, though; most manufacturers pack that resolution onto screens an inch smaller. Individual pixels are visible on the FP7’s screen, so some subjects look blocky. But while the look is lacking, the touch functions felt great. The screen was sensitive, but not too sensitive. It controls just about every function on the camera -- modes, image settings, menus, playback, navigation, focus, zoom, taking pictures -- and was quick and responsive in doing so.
For consumers familiar with the iPod Touch or other touchscreen gadgets, the FP7’s touchscreen doesn’t have all the same functionality. For instance, it does not support multi-touch functions: you can’t enlarge images by pinching and expanding your fingers (like I kept trying to do).
While the LCD is the marquee feature on the FP7, it has some serious flaws like low resolution and questionable durability. The LCD cracked on the 10th day of normal use while sitting in my pocket, in a thin, cotton bag. The crack was under the surface and didn’t affect the functionality of the touchscreen, but it was still visible as a hairline fracture.
The FP7’s 4x optical zoom lens is average for an ultra-compact. No lenses this small ever perform very well, and this one is no exception. Props to Panasonic for including an optical image stabilization system, but the lens quality is a hindrance to those 16-megapixel images: Details were on the soft side, and corners of shots were especially fuzzy. As I mentioned before, the zoom controls aren’t as easy to use as they should be -- there's too much latency in the tilter, and the touchscreen control is awkward. To top it off, the lens is placed in a corner where fingers are likely to wander (especially when thumbs are on the LCD). All in all, the Panasonic FP7 is a real looker, but its slick components carry some baggage. Beware.
Performance & User Experience
The Panasonic Lumix FP7’s modes are easy to find and use on the touchscreen. There are six mode icons for Intelligent Auto, Auto, Cosmetic Mode, My Scene (this simply keeps one scene mode one touch away instead of a few pokes into a menu), Scene, and Movie Mode. I would have buried the Cosmetic Mode into the scene menu because I don’t use it as frequently as other modes, but perhaps Panasonic placed it prominently for marketing purposes. After all, it is a mode that is marketed to whiten your teeth, clear up and tan your skin, and apply makeup. It doesn’t get any more gimmicky than that.
There are 27 scene modes to choose from: common modes like portrait and landscape are represented along with more interesting selections like “transform” (think fun-house mirror) and “photo frame” (think Lisa Frank-style colorful hearts). Settings like white balance, exposure compensation, and ISO level are manually adjustable, but otherwise, this is mostly an automatic affair.
In general, the FP7 was easy to use, The camera starts up quickly, locks focus mostly reliably, takes pictures without much delay (unless the flash is in use), and can squeak out 1.4 frames per second in continuous drive mode. It's not a particularly fast camera but overall standards, but for its class -- point-and-shoot with an emphasis on form over function -- it's a solid performer. The touchscreen -- like most touchscreens -- suffers from some latency and false-triggering issues, but it's far from the worst we've seen.
There are improvements that Panasonic could make for next time around (for example, the aforementioned zoom control), but the user experience is overall satisfying for a touchscreen model.
Image & Video Quality
In general, photo quality is acceptable to good, but never great. The shots are suitable for sharing online or making small to medium prints for your own use. But print anything larger than 5”x 7” and the flaws become apparent. Like many fixed-lens cameras, the extra cost comes from the features -- in this case, the big, wide touchscreen.
The big problem with this camera is the overall softness of images, especially in indoor lighting, and particularly at the corners of images. Sometimes it's poor focus, sometimes it's a bad exposure. Either way, edges and details were rarely crisp, even at the base ISO setting of 100. Motion blur was common, but that’s the norm for ultra-compacts. I took lots of pictures of my energetic toddler and most were blurred when the flash was turned off. Turning the flash on did help, though: Her erratic movements were easier to capture, and I was impressed by the flash’s natural look -- no jaundiced, yellow tones, thankfully. To be clear, most shots are perfectly usable in forgiving media -- social media sharing and prints up to about 5x7 -- but set low expectations for anything beyond that.
Basically, 16.1 megapixels are really just too many for a point-and-shoot with a tiny lens like the FP7. Sure, that number allows for the possibility for huge prints, but you won't like what you see at that level of detail. The FP7 did handle noise fairly well, all things considered; it uses the Venus Engine VI processor, the same processor used in last year's critically acclaimed and commercially popular ZS5 and ZS7 models. But noise control is not so important when the lens is incapable of capturing enough detail to fill up 16 million pixels in the first place. All that we get is fuzzy files that take up too much space on our memory cards and hard drives.
The Panasonic FP7 records 1280 x 720-pixel HD movies at 24 frames per second, which look jumpy when recording quick motion, but offers a classy, cinematic texture. The 640 x 480-pixel resolution records 30 fps, which looks much smoother but won’t look as big on a high-def television. The movie mode is fairly basic: settings like white balance and color mode are adjustable, but the zoom is locked while recording.
The FP7 is a stylish shooter with OK performance and photo quality. That is not a ringing endorsement. There are some great numbers on the FP7's spec sheet, but all told, they add up to a healthy dose of marketing hype.
The FP7 captures more megapixels than most of its competitors, but the bloated megapixel count actually works against it, as far as we can tell. It has a larger touchscreen than other stylin' pocket shooters in its price range, but the resolution is certainly on the low side -- too low for its screen size, in our opinion. It also seems to be somewhat fragile. Its feature set is very similar to those competitors too. You'll probably be decently happy with the image quality as long as you set your expectations accordingly, but hang onto your receipt and warranty.
So before you pull the trigger on this camera, it's a good idea to at least check out some other options in this space. We have not tested any of them yet (it's very early in the new model year), so we can't say definitively which is your best bet.
For starters, check out the Panasonic FP5. It shares the same skinny body, 4x internal zoom lens, and optical image stabilization as its big sister. It drops the resolution down to 14.1 megapixels, and rolls with a smaller 3-inch touchscreen, also with a 230,000-pixel resolution.
Also worth considering are the Fujifilm Z90 and Nikon S4100. Both sport 3-inch touchscreen LCDs, 14 megapixels, digitally stabilized 5x-zoom lenses, and 720p HD movie modes that record 30 fps video. The Z90’s LCD has a 460,000-pixel resolution while the S4100 displays the same 230,000 as the Panasonic models. The Nikon and Fujifilm sell for $179 and $169, respectively.
And on the high end of the ladder, the $399 Sony TX9 is a good-looking shooter with a solid sensor and spec sheet: a 16.2 megapixel CMOS sensor, 10 fps burst mode, and 3.5-inch, 921,000-pixel touchscreen LCD.