The Panasonic Lumix G6 - cue Far East Movement's "like a G6" lyric taking on yet another meaning - is the company's most tech-laden compact system camera to date. Much the previous Lumix G5 model with added pep, the G6 sports a new design, while squeezing in some new and upgraded features: there's not only a new OLED viewfinder but both Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communication) connectivity make an appearance for the first time in this G-series class. But like the aforementioned pop group's 2010 hit, can Panasonic's latest venture catapult it to the top of the camera chart for 2013?
Meet in the middle
As DSLR cameras such as the Canon EOS 100D get smaller, compact system cameras (CSC) such as the G6 seem to be getting more comfortable in their skin and are choosing design over miniature size. The Lumix G6 is a little chunkier than its G5 predecessor which makes it look and feel all the more like a DSLR. But DSLR this isn't - Panasonic's calling it a DSLM - as there's no mirrorbox and, therefore, no optical viewfinder is possible within the design. We're not going to get swept up in the acronym wars, it's just interesting how there's an almost convergence between DSLR and CSC as the gap between the formats narrows.
READ: Canon EOS 100D review
In the hand the G6 feels just right. Any smaller and a full grip with the hand around the camera body wouldn't be particularly comfortable. That's what we mean about design ahead of size - we're sure the G6 could have been made smaller but after using it for a week we're glad that isn't the case.
Where Panasonic has focused on losing the bulk is within the lens system - and this is one of the major reasons to buy CSC instead of DSLR if size is of paramount importance. Alongside Olympus, Panasonic shares a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lens standard which is proportionally smaller than the available DSLR equivalents. But there are other points to highlight: there are now some even more compact electronic power-zoom lens options available (we're not massive fans thus far though, we must confess) and, most recently, next-generation lenses such as the 14-140mm have seen yet more size and weight carved away.
For this review we used the 14-42mm standard kit lens which, while larger than the power-zoom equivalent that came boxed up with the older G5, also makes for a £130 saving when comparing RRPs. At £629 for the kit rather than £749 that's a definite winner in our book. Besides we prefer the traditional zoom and focus ring mechanisms of the 14-42mm lens anyway.
There Where You Are Not
What does the G6 have that a DSLR does not? In the case of the G6 it's all about features for the price point. There's the 3-inch, 1,040k-dot LCD screen which is not only higher resolution than the majority of DSLR cameras' offerings at this level, it's also mounted on a tilt-angle bracket and comes complete with a hyper-responsive touchscreen. It really is responsive too, sometimes almost too much so if a stray finger gets in the way. Otherwise there's no word of a complaint here.
A key reason to buy the G6 is for its electronic viewfinder (EVF). The latest 1.44m-dot OLED panel has been brought into the G6's specification. It's large, bright and gives more feedback info within the display that you could shake a stick at. We found little ghosting or lag from the OLED image when in good light too - it's very clean and clear. Now it may not be an optical finder as per a DSLR and it sure does feel different to one, yet its full field-of-view and display information make up for that. We don't prefer it to an optical finder, but we're happy to adapt to the more "TV screen" style and in most cases we typically found the rear screen came into greater use - it was rare we used the G6 in quite the same way we would a DSLR.
Elsewhere the G6's design is full of controls. Thumbwheel controls and no fewer than five physical function (Fn) buttons ensure quick access to any and all available shooting options are just a few clicks away. These can be programmed as you wish in both record and playback mode which makes for a premium, customisable experience. It's rather good.
If that's all too complex and you just want to point and shoot then the mode dial has scene and creative control modes, while a light-up iA button on top of the camera activates the full auto - or "intelligent Auto" to be critically accurate - no matter what other settings happen to be selected.
Under the hood functionality differs from a DSLR but it's an otherwise similar core user experience. As the G6 is a CSC it depends on sensor-based autofocus, known as contrast-detection AF. Panasonic's hit the nail on the head with getting the speed right up there and it really is second to none. It's blink and you'll miss it kind of fast in most situations. By contrast a DSLR utilises phase-detection AF (contrast-detection AF during live view mode) which is of a similar speed but more versatile when it comes to moving subjects.
However, there are deal-breakers in both camps that might throw prospective purchasers to one side or the other: continuous autofocus as used for shooting moving subjects is still a step ahead in DSLR systems, in our opinion, but the G6 has an intricate pinpoint autofocus option where a cross-hair can be tapped anywhere on the screen for zoom-in confirmation and precise autofocus. The G6's overall less rigid "press anywhere" to focus mechanism feels like a modern camera and will appeal to a certain audience. But we'd like to see continuous autofocus match up to a DSLR standard and then there would be little to separate the two camera types.
As per the recently released little brother Lumix GF6, the G6 has the same set of other autofocus options: there's a 23-area auto mode, user-adjustable 1-area, as well as face detection and focus tracking options.
Also like the GF6, the G6 includes what Panasonic's calling "Low Light AF" - a sensor adjustment that claims to improve low-light autofocus eight fold. A bold claim and one that we're not totally buying - not because of the low-light autofocus ability which is generally very good - because we still fell into occasional issues with focus in dim conditions and if there is any speed difference over the G5 then, if anything, it often feels slower but - and crucially - more accurate more of the time.
Share and share dislike
Another stand-out feature of the G6 is its Wi-Fi connectivity, complete with NFC for one-touch sharing. Whether the latter will catch on is arguable and depends on compatible smart devices, but is a force the likes of Sony think is key in digital technologies. We're yet to be convinced.
Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is an essential drive in the connected, social-network-driven world. The G6 uses the same system as found in other Panasonic cameras such as the TZ40 and FT5. But we're left wanting more. Samsung Galaxy NX this isn't.
There's plenty of potential in Panasonic's Wi-Fi set-up: download an app to your Android or iOS device and it's possible to control the camera, or there are stacks of sharing options - playback on TV; or share to smartphone, PC, cloud (Lumix Club account only), web service or AV device.
If, that is, you get beyond the password request for each one. Rather than one password fits all, each of the above options requires an initial password set-up which feels excessive. Once it's entered it will remain in history, so it's easy to re-use but when out and about and connecting to a new network you'll need to get back on the password waggon again. We'd like it to be simpler.
The other options aren't also entirely camera friendly. Lumix Club - Panasonic's own cloud-based service - can be set up only via a browser (ie, not from the camera) and there's no access to Dropbox, Google Drive and other major platforms that users are likely to want to access. Lumix Club is fine enough, but we don't want to be locked down to one service.
Connectivity is a nice idea but there's not the wide-open accessible implementation just yet. It's also worth pointing out that there's a detrimental impact on battery life when Wi-Fi is in use - and that'll mean plenty less than the quoted 340 shots per charge if it's something you use often.
We like having Wi-Fi around and it's not the worst camera-based implementation we've seen, but it's far from the best one too.
Micro Four Thirds is a compelling concept: the sensor standard, which is smaller than that found in a DSLR system, can produce image quality close to its larger size rivals while maintaning the smaller complete package size. In the case of the G6 that means top quality with little compromise for the most part.
As much as the Lumix G6 delivers, its sensor is the same as that found in the camera's predecessor and, therefore, there's no leap forward in the results. Indeed there's no movement at all: snaps from the G6 look just like those from the G5 to us.
In general that’s good news as the G5 had already achieved a decent level of quality that reinforced the Micro Four Thirds' position in the market. And even if the G6 won't quite outperform most APS-C sized sensors at the higher ISO sensitivities it's not far off.
The lower ISO settings will be of most use the majority of the time, and it's in this ISO 160-400 range where the G6 provides the best detail and a more vibrant colour palette.
By ISO 800 there's a dip in sharpness due to processing - or noticeable grain in raw files - which continues to increase as the ISO sensitivity increases, as would be expected. Up to ISO 3200 we'd call shots usable even if they do lack the sharpness.
Above ISO 3200 image noise is more of a problem, with ISO 12,800 a step too far in our eyes. Even ISO 6400 is a bit of a push - but one that at small scale will definitely have its place.
But high ISO settings aren't really the measure by which to gauge this camera - it's all about the low-mid ISO settings as this is where most shots will be taken. It's a shame there's no true ISO 100 setting available, but that's a growing standard among sensors of this size.
Panasonic Lumix G6 review - sample image at ISO 200 - shown at 100 per cent crop (from raw file)
Beyond stills the G6 offers movie capture that makes great use of the camera's touchscreen for re-focusing with the touch of a finger. Quality ticks the box too, with 1080p MP4 capture at 50, 25 and now 24fps for those more cinematic results. One touch of the red button on top of the camera and recording commences, but the aspect ratio "jump" (from the typical 4:3 aspect ratio into movie's 16:9 ratio) is something to consider when composing a shot as it caught us off guard a couple of times.
We'd argue that the Lumix G6 is not only a step closer in closing the gap between DSLR and CSC cameras’ capabilities, but that - in some respects - it's a step beyond. When it comes to value for money and feature set the G6 is more packed with feature goodness and a more affordable prospect than its G5 predecessor. Good news.
But it’s a subtle shimmy of a step forward rather than a giant leap. While some features such as the excellent LCD screen and viewfinder are top notch, big-hitters such as Wi-Fi just aren’t as fleshed out as they could have been. There's no movement in the image quality department compared to the previous generation camera either - but, in saying that, what the G6 delivers is still top quality and comparable to the majority of its competitiors.
It's the continuous autofocus department that sees the G6 come up just short and, for us, is the last major pillar that stands in the way of the G6 and near-perfection. Top of the pops? Not quite, but nearly - the G6 is a great all-round performer that'll hold plenty of crowd appeal to a wide audience.