The Panasonic FT5 is the tank of compact cameras: it's boxy, hard as nails and tough enough to flatten most traditional compact cameras' specifications too. Brute force is delivered in the form of water, dust, freeze and crush-proofing, while global positioning satellite to geotag images with their location, Wi-Fi to share images with smartphones and other devices and NFC to fire up one-touch sharing ensure the techie angle is covered.
The FT5 features a new, higher resolution 16-megapixel sensor compared to its FT4 predecessor, and while it looks similar to previous generation FT-series models the FT5's also undergone a subtle redesign to ensure it delivers the series' best possible user experience yet.
Every major manufacturer has its tough and waterproof compact camera range these days but we've frequently failed to be impressed with many models because they tend to consider the key camera component as an aside to the tough concept. Can the FT5 avoid being more fodder to the fire and shape up by delivering quality as well as toughness?
Designed to last
The Lumix FT5 is a wedge of a camera. It may not look particularly ergonomic but it does sit well enough in the hand, yet the rear placement of a wide-tele zoom control and a shutter button that's a little stiff to press with the one hand isn't immediately reassuring. To have a more traditional zoom toggle around the shutter button would be a nicety - but it'd be tricky to design such a thing that would maintain dust- and water-proofing. Crunchy, sand-laden zooming wouldn't be the one.
Which brings us to the very purpose of the FT5's design: it's built like a brick house because it's waterproof to a depth of 13m, dustproof, can withstand drops from 2.2m - and, frankly, probably a lot further than that from what we've seen - and needn't fret when confronted with weights of up to the 100kg mark. That last one's a bit of an oddity given that most standard compacts could be stood on without worrying about it too much, and even though it doesn't state it implicitly, it's the FT5's impact resistance that takes its design up a notch - we've lobbed it around a fair bit without worry and every ground and surface the camera's met hasn't made a single dent or scratch.
As the FT5 has no external moving parts it means the 4.6x optical zoom lens - a 28-128mm equivalent - remains permanently behind its protective window. As per many other cameras of this type, including the Olympus TG-1, that can throw up a variety of shooting and imaging issues - it's easy for a stray finger to get in the way of the lens, while that protective window can easily get dirtied, smudged or water-marked and affect image quality with soft patches. To counteract issues with the latter point ensure you keep a microfibre cloth on hand when possible.
On the rear of the camera is a new 3-inch LCD screen complete with 460k-dot resolution, surrounded by a series of generic-looking controls. The black, square-shape buttons are prominent and easy to press whether wearing gloves or not and are an improvement over the shiny, silver-like buttons of the FT4.
On the top of the camera there's a one-touch movie button which, while it is close to the shutter, we did find very useful when testing out the camera's movie mode. We mounted the FT5 on a Camera Demon helmet to nab some fast-paced footage around a go-kart track and were impressed with the results.
Tank-like yet techie
Under the hood the FT5's got a lot going on. The rear Mode button loads up the variety of scene and shooting modes which, while it doesn't have the full array of aperture- and shutter-priority modes, does comes equipped with programme auto and a full manual option should you want to use them.
There are further details in the menus which are great to have too: the ability to set a minimum shutter speed, while autofocus comes in variety of options including face-detection, tracking, 23-area auto, 1-area and a central spot option.
We found that spot autofocus's mini-square focus area gave a very specific point of focus - the likes of which you won't find on many other compact cameras - which when paired with the swift autofocus system was was useful for a variety of scenes.
Shot to shot times are quick and the burst mode can whirr off seven frames at a yet-quicker rate of 10fps no problems at all. There's some slight slow-up as the camera writes those shots to card, but then everything's usable almost immediately after the last burst shot has been snapped. Good stuff.
Elsewhere the list of GPS, NFC and Wi-Fi make the FT5's techie features almost on par with Panasonic's own top-spec compact, the Lumix TZ40.
On the rear of the camera is the one-touch Wi-Fi button which fires up the camera's variety of sharing options: download an app to your Android or iOS device and it's possible to control the camera via your smart device; there's a playback on TV option; and images can be sent in real time or post-shooting - deep breath for this list - to smartphone, PC, cloud (Lumix Club account only), web service or AV device.
Using each option requires a Wi-Fi network or device pairing, as confirmed by tapping in an encrypted password. Problem is passwords become too commonplace - each method of connection requires its own password even when using the same router and network. Ugh. After each successful connection there's the possibility to use the same settings via the history segment in order to bypass password re-entry, so it's not all bad - it's just that initial hurdle that's slow.
As we commented on in our TZ40 review, some of the other options aren't achieved in camera - the likes of Panasonic's own Lumix Club, for example, will require a computer with browser access to sign up to the service online prior to use. No access to the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive or other services is also a shame. While all these connectivity options are fun to have, we still found ourselves just taking out the SD card, popping it into the side of our computer and sorting and sharing images from there.
The impact of all this tech on battery life is also unavoidable. We were impressed with the amount of video we shot with the camera with little apparent impact to battery life - one of the three bars vanished after over 30mins of 1080p60 AVCHD footage was captured - but the remaining two bars then promptly vanished in a far shorter period of snapping after. That's part of the issue with a tough three-bar display - they're just not accurate enough.
The FT5's pushed up the range's resolution from 12-megapixels to 16-megapixels yet the sensor remains the same 1/2.3-inch size. Squeezing all those extra pixels into that small space sets alarm bells ringing for us, so how does it affect image quality?
Generally speaking the FT5's shots are okay, but that's as big a thumbs-up as we can give. They're as good as any other tough compact camera out there, which does put the FT5 in the mix as a tough cam favourite, but they're not up there when compared to some other straight-up compacts - the kind that put image quality in first place.
Just like the FT4, the FT5 has to sacrifice overall quality at the expense of toughness: the camera's internal lens doesn't keep things particularly sharp when zoomed in, while there's a presence of mottled, grain-like image noise throughout much of the ISO sensitivity range. At the lowest ISO 100 sensitivity there's just about enough clarity, but in-camera processing does show up lots of artefacts and grain - it's not the super-fine results we'd desired. As the ISO sensitivity increases so softness increases too, with the addition of subtle colour noise from around the ISO 400 mark lurking throughout much of the image. Saying that, there's not a huge amount of degradation to shout about at all - and we were getting some acceptable shots up to ISO 800.
We did feel that some images looked a little washed out and "mute" in a number of cases too, while auto white balance varied in its accuracy - it wasn't uncommon to see red, blue or green excesses in shots. The tough camera is in a tricky spot: it needs to employ a distinct design to be tough, but this comes at the expense of that pristine image quality. The FT5's rise in resolution hasn't done much to help the camera's cause either, but in the same breath it could be considered as one of the contenders for the tough camera crown.
Despite our list of downsides we do think that the resulting images from the camera will deliver the sort of snaps that casual users will be happy with. Let's face it, few other compacts can be used 13-metres underwater and that's where the FT5 comes into its own - it's all about enabling those unusual shots that 99 per cent of other compact cameras can't come near to.
The Panasonic Lumix FT5 is a solid all-rounder in the tough camera market segment. But it does fall into that typical trap: the tough features essentially come at the expense of the best possible image quality. While the FT5's images are reasonable enough, the £349 price tag is at odds with the quality department - the price reflects the mass of tech that's on board.
Where the FT5 is strong is in its delivery of a huge range of features. Not only is autofocus fairly swift, there's the inclusion of things like a minimum shutter speed and spot focus for heightened control and accuracy.
Although tank-like, this is a techie beast that's loaded up with stacks of useful features. Although you won't be doing any sharing under the waves, the likes of NFC and Wi-Fi certainly have their place in a modern compact - even if they do further plump out the price tag compared to its predecessor.
Overall the FT5 isn't exactly a revelation in image quality terms, yet it's a decent tough compact with a lot on offer and is among the best tough cameras that we've yet used.