First impressions of the metal and plastic bodied Lumix FX40, a step up from the FX37, are of another unassuming pocket compact suitable for the occasional happy snap or holiday keepsake. The £255 price tag however suggests there’s rather more on offer than the credit card sized exterior would have us believe – or should be.
With a choice of black, red or silver bodies, the FX40 feels reassuringly firm and solid when gripped in the palm at a weight of 150g with battery and card inserted, while its diminutive size ensures it slips easily into the top pocket of your shirt (or handbag).
Boasting an enthusiastic-enticing Leica branded wide angle 5x optical zoom lens (25-125mm equivalent in 35mm terms, to take in both landscapes and portraits), user-selectable optical image stabilisation, 12.1-megapixels effective resolution, face recognition and intelligent auto, the FX40 also ticks the boxes for the features we now demand of a fully auto snapper.
Quick to power up, we discovered it writes maximum resolution images direct to SD/SDHC media or 40MB internal cache in 2 to 3 seconds, and shutter lag is blink and miss it (officially .007 seconds). The ability to record HD movie quality (MOV or MPEG files) with mono sound is a further bonus, at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels and a smooth 30 frames per second. When recording, the standard ratio screen introduces black bars top and bottom to ape what the end result will look like on your telly or PC.
Like the previously rated FX550, the FX40 not only features a 2.4x more responsive Venus V processor, but an extra optical zoom that boosts capability up to 9.8x. This time however there’s no "instant zoom" button on the camera’s top plate. And if you do want that extra zoom capacity, be prepared to drop some pixels as a trade off.
More positively, on-board and enabling almost seamless point and shoot operation is the Panasonic pioneered intelligent auto (iA) functionality, whereby the camera recognises familiar subjects and conditions and alters its parameters accordingly – though we found lower light had it confused on occasion.
We also get face detection, which in Panasonic’s case not only recognises but "remembers" faces. Like iA it’s not foolproof, but point the camera at your mate Phil, and once you’ve registered your subject’s name, it should flash up Phil’s name next time he appears in frame.
Fast to determine focus and exposure, shooting with the FX40 is a fully automatic process. Take a shot in single capture mode and it writes an image in 2 to 3 seconds, the screen briefly blanking out. It then briefly freezes with a preview of the captured photo.
One gripe of ours is that the user can’t immediately jump from review back to capture mode simply by pressing the shutter release button if a photo opportunity unexpectedly presents itself.
Since alternating between these modes is done by flicking a switch rather than pressing a button, said switch has to be moved back into position before another shot can be taken. By that time the very photogenic herd of wildebeest will have moved away.
Given that the user must rely totally on the reasonably clear 2.5-inch LCD for shot composition and review, a battery life that promises 350 shots from a single charge isn’t bad, though power dropped by a third after just one afternoon’s use on test, suggesting it’s worth bundling the supplied charger (or spare DMW-BCF10E lithium ion battery) into your luggage if a holiday is planned.
Watching the FX40’s HD quality movies back, the frame rate is silky smooth in its transitions, the detail good and colour comparable to stills, even if the file sizes will give your PC’s hard drive a hernia.
A nagging disappointment however is that the optical zoom is "fixed" at the point the user presses the shutter release button, so framing can’t be adjusted whilst filming. As it is, when used during the shooting of stills, the zoom emits a low operational buzz, which could be part of the reason for its deactivation.
In terms of still image performance, results are slightly on the warm side as a default and, for our money, could do with being slightly sharper still. Whilst whether that’s a good or bad thing comes down to personal taste, we found white balance thrown on occasion by a dominance of one colour in the scene, and fringing is readily apparent – as a line of different coloured pixels – when shooting contrasty subjects. OK, so most compacts struggle with such issues, but Panasonic is usually one of the more reliable performers out there.
Ultimately the feeling you’re left with after handling the FX40 is, whilst perfectly acceptable viewed standalone, there’s simply not enough about it to stand out from the crowd. And if you’ve slightly more to spend (around £40 in the UK), then its bigger brother in the FX550 is the more interesting and rewarding proposition.