First Look: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 review

The new Panasonic Lumix GX1 bridges the gap between the compact Lumix GF3 and the mini DSLR-alike G3 and GH3 models. As such, it sits on the more compact side of the Lumix G series range, but still offers a whole host of controls and features to appease the more creative photographer.

Launching with an aim of hitting stores in time for Christmas 2011, Pocket-lint had the chance to spend a couple of hours with the new camera on a grey Autumnal afternoon. We've had the chance to explore some of the new features of the camera, so here are our first impressions, shots, video and hands-on pictures, pending our full review. Naturally, Panasonic have asked us to remind you that this was a pre-production camera model, with pre-release software, so we can neither judge image quality, or overall performance, as final.

Design

One glance at the Lumix GX1 and you'll see the heritage that has rolled over from the GF2 here. The camera retains the same slightly boxy design, but rather than a simple raised ridge, now has a sculpted grip for the fingers of the right hand. This isn't as severe as it is on the Lumix GH2 or G3 models, but is more pronounced than the entry-level GF3, Panasonic's most compact Lumix G series model.

A handgrip alone doesn't define the camera, but the analogy works rather well, as the GX1 does indeed sit between these models. Both the GH2 and G3 offer a built-in electronic viewfinder; the GF3 or new GX1 don’t. But you do get a hotshoe and an accessory port on the GX1 that will let you attach the new LVF2 (£229) should you wish.

There is a 3-inch touchscreen at the back, which is relatively responsive, but in our time with the camera it never felt quite as snappy as you'd expect from the latest smartphone. The 460k-dot resolution means this isn't the sharpest screen out there. The screen makes up half of the controls, with a healthy scattering of buttons providing direct settings controls as well as the opportunity to customise Fn controls to get to the features you want instantly.

The GX3 feels great in the hand, the metal body is markedly different from the plastics of the GF3 and the metal buttons feel sumptuous and precise under the fingertips. With the X range looking to offer quality, the camera certainly delivers that premium feel in the hand.

Overall measurements come in at (excluding lenses/attachments) 116.3 x 67.8 x 39.4mm and a weight of 318g (without lens).

Controls

The controls of the GX1 are rather comprehensive, seeing the return of a physical mode dial, something we always like to see. This offers the normal run of shooting modes, but the Panasonic iA mode is separately toggled via its own button. This sets up a dichotomous arrangement where you can flip between full auto and whatever mode you were in before with the press of a button.

But you can easily switch from program to aperture or shutter priority, or a range of custom and creative positions, with the option to shoot in a number of effects modes. Joining the list we've seen on other Lumix models, you now get low key and toy effect, making it easy to make even the most boring scene interesting and unique.

One thing we're not totally convinced about is the lack of a video position on the mode dial. Instant video capture via the top plate button throws you straight in, but we sometimes feel we'd like things to be slightly more deliberate: engage video mode, tinker with the video settings, then begin capture.

At first glance, we can't help thinking how close the control layout is to come Canon cameras. A central four-way controller, flanked with more buttons and that mode dial. With numerous buttons, it's almost possible to forget that the GX1 offers touch control too and that's probably the aim.

We found it did take a little time to adjust to the dual approach to controls. The on-screen menus have been brought into line with some of the Lumix compact cameras, but you also get access to the Quick menu. The former, main settings menu feels like it should be controlled with the conventional buttons, the latter by touches on the screen. Flexibility is great, but we walk away with the impression that you'll spend a good time flitting between buttons and touch to get the settings you want dialled in.

Of course, being able to program those Fn buttons makes a huge difference and if you wish you can program two more buttons on the screen in the same way, so once you've identified which settings you're after, it won't take you long to make them immediately available.

In touch with the world

Moving over to touch control, there are a couple of neat features it offers. We're not quite convinced by the touch to capture, as we took a lot of accidental shots this way when handling the camera and you don't get that feeling of considered composition that some photographers crave.

One of the boasts of the Lumix GX1 is speed, with 0.09 second contrast autofocus. There are range of focusing options and they are well worth playing around with as we found that, although fast, the GX1 invariably didn't focus exactly where we wanted it to. But with the brief time with had with the camera (and the choice of X zoom lens), we're not surprised we didn't quite master the focusing system.

That X zoom lens we just mentioned is powered of course and one of the neat features of the GX1 is the ability to control that zoom using the screen, rather than the switch on the lens barrel. You can also change the zoom speed amongst other settings. We had some success with smooth slow zooms during video capture, but found ourselves thwarted by focusing again.

In the picture

The GX1 also offers a neat level which appears on-screen. This is a feature we really like as it offers not only horizontal level, but also vertical. This is a high-end feature on DSLRs and it's great to have it this type of camera: ideal for making sure you get those straight lines straight so you don't have to tweak them on your computer after the fact.

Along with the launch of the Lumix GX1, there is also a new external EVF on offer that we had the chance to play with. This offers tilt functionality (rather like the Olympus equivalent) and slots on to the top of the GX1. It occupies both the accessory port and the hotshoe, so there is no chance to use an external flash with the EVF in place.

It is bright and detailed, offering 100% field of view, and the advantage you get from an electronic viewfinder over an optical one is that you see all the changes you make to the camera in the viewfinder, as well as being able to preview shots in EVF. We did get the sensation that the viewfinder presented a brighter scene than real life, but being able to shoot like a DSLR, against your face, makes it easier to stabilise for some of those longer exposures.

As we said, this wasn't a final retail version of the camera, or final firmware, so we can't judge the quality of the results, but we were impressed. The video is especially good, along with stereo sound, and we like the fact you now get the option to shoot in AVCHD or MPEG4, the latter being more universally supported. Unfortunately there is no conventional external mic input.

Verdict

There is plenty of control packed into the shell of the Panasonic Lumix GX1 and the camera keeps itself compact. Choosing the right lens will keep the GX1 pocketable (either the pancake lens or Lumix G X 14-42 powered lens), without that feeling that you've compromised on direct control.

In our time with the camera we didn't quite settle into the right balance of button and touch controls, but this is as much about familiarisation as anything else. The option to add a viewfinder makes the GX1 a much more versatile camera than the smaller GF3.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 will be hitting stores in mid-December, with preview days at Jacobs stores in London, Leicester and Edinburgh being arranged if you're eyeing one up for Christmas. The body only price will be £499.99, or £599.99 with a standard 14-42 kit lens.

We'll be bringing you a Panasonic Lumix GX1 full review when we have a retail unit, so stay tuned.