Top Gadgets

28 February 2012

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1panasonic-lumix-dmc-gx1

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 ($799.99 direct with 14-42mm lens) is the camera that many people wanted the Lumix DMC-GF3 ($599.99, 3.5 stars) to be—a compact Micro Four Thirds body with plenty of physical controls, an accessory port, and a hot shoe. The 16-megapixel camera does a better job in lower light than other Micro Four Thirds bodies, but not as well as mirrorless cameras with large APS-C sensors such as the Samsung NX200 ($899.99, 3.5 stars) or our Editors' Choice Sony Alpha NEX-C3 ($649.95, 4.5 stars), and its kit lens can't match the sharpness of the one included with a competing Micro Four Thirds camera, the Olympus E-PL3 ($699.99, 3.5 stars)—of course, there's nothing stopping you from using the Olympus lens on the Panasonic camera, thanks to the interoperability of the Micro Four Thirds system.

Design and Features

Like the smaller GF3, the Lumix GX1 is styled after a point-and-shoot camera. It features a sardine-can shaped body with a modest hand grip. The GX1 measures only 2.7 by 4.5 by 1.6 inches and weighs 9.6 ounces without a lens. The GF3 is only slightly smaller at 2.6 by 4.2 by 1.3 inches, and a bit lighter at 7.9 ounces. Even though the Lumix GX1 is compact, it does include a built-in flash—something that other mirrorless cameras like the Olympus E-PM1 ($499.99, 4 stars) and Sony Alpha NEX-5N ($699.95, 4.5 stars) don't.
The standard kit lens included with the GX1 is Panasonic's tried-and-true 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) zoom. It isn't the smallest in the world—in fact, it's not too far off in size from the 18-55mm (27-82.5mm equivalent) zoom that manages to cover the large image sensor in the Sony NEX camera line. If you're looking for a more compact version of the GX1, consider a kit with the collapsible Lumix GX Vario PZ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH power zoom lens, which reduces the overall size of the camera and is priced at $949.99. Panasonic also offers a pancake prime for the Micro Four Thirds system—the Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 ASPH ($399.95) features a fast aperture and a fixed, wide-angle field of view.
The camera's rear 3-inch LCD features 460k dots of resolution and supports touch input, just like the one found on the GF3. The display is fixed, which is makes it less useful than the tilting displays found on the Sony NEX series and the Olympus E-PL3. The fixed display limits you to using the camera at arm's length, like a point-and-shoot, when taking handheld shots. If eye-level shooting is what you're after you can add the optional DMW-LVF2 Electronic Viewfinder ($249.99), an LCD finder with a 1.44 million dot resolution.
The GX1 has almost as many physical control buttons as a D-SLR, which is a departure from the control interface found on the consumer-oriented GF3. The top of the camera houses a Mode dial, iA button, Shutter release, and a Movie Record button. On its rear you'll find a Control Wheel and buttons to adjust ISO, White Balance, and the Autofocus Area. There is also a Q. Menu button, which launches an overlay menu that allows you to change other shooting settings on the fly—either via the camera's physical buttons or via touch input.

Performance and Conclusionspanasonic-lumix-dmc-gx1-benchmark-tests

The GX1 performs quite well in terms of speed. It can start up and grab a shot in 1.1 second, records only a 0.1 second shutter lag, and can rattle off photos with just 0.25 second between shots. Perhaps most impressively, when shooting JPGs, it can keep this 4 frame per second pace for about 62 photos before slowing down. This compares favorably to the Olympus E-PM1, one of the faster Micro Four Thirds that we've previously tested. That camera requires 1.2 seconds to boot and shoot and also manages to grab 4 frames per second. Its shutter lag is slightly longer at 0.2 second.
Sadly, the GX1 and included lens don't quite do as well in terms of pure image quality. I used Imatest to measure its sharpness at the wide, mid-range, and telephoto settings of its 14-42mm zoom lens. At 14mm the lens was only able to resolve 1,552 lines per picture height of sharpness—shy of the 1,800 lines that denotes a sharp photo. It did better at 28mm, recording 1,864 lines, but softened to 1,778 lines at 42mm. The more compact—and more expensive—power zoom version of the 14-42mm actually scored a bit lower in terms of sharpness. It netted 1,676 lines at 14mm, 1,670 lines at 28mm, and 1,485. Olympus also makes Micro Four Thirds cameras, and kit lens included with its latest generation models can grab more than 2,100 lines per picture height at 14mm.
I also ran tests on the GX1 to see how it will perform at higher ISO settings. Increasing a camera's ISO makes the sensor more sensitive to light, so you can manage to grab sharp photos in lower light, but image noise increases as you raise the sensitivity. Like other tested Micro Four Thirds cameras, the GX1 didn't perform spectacularly in this regard. Its images were able to keep image noise just under 1.5 percent through ISO 1600—but at the next setting, ISO 3200, noise shot up to over 2.2 percent. If you want to use the camera at its top ISO setting, 12800, be prepared for some extremely grainy photos—noise at that ISO makes up 3.3 percent of your photos. Some other mirrorless cameras with larger APS-C image sensors, like the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 and Samsung NX200, are able to grab clean images through ISO 6400.
The GX1's video recording capabilities are quite competent. It supports 1080p30 and 720p60 video recording using AVCHD, as well as 1080p30 and 720p30 in MP4 format. Regardless of the setting, video is crisp, smooth, and features very nice color. Audio is recorded with a built-in stereo microphone. It can autofocus while recording, although that sound can be heard on the soundtrack, as can the sound of the optional power zoom lens moving in and out. Unfortunately, there's no mic input jack, so you won't be able connect a better microphone to the camera. You can output video to an HDTV via mini HDMI, or connect the camera to your computer via a proprietary USB port. It supports standard SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.
Demanding shooters should be happy with the amount of physical control options available on the GX1, but may feel a bit underwhelmed by the fixed rear LCD and lack of a built-in EVF. It is the only 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds body that is currently on the market—the upcoming Olympus OM-D EM-5 ($999.99 body only) will match that resolution, but in a larger form factor with a built-in EVF. Unfortunately, the included 14-42mm lens doesn't quite keep up with the sensor in terms of sharpness, and the newer, more expensive power zoom version scores lower in this regard. If you've invested in the Micro Four Thirds system and already have some lenses or a dedicated flash, the GX1 is a capable, compact camera—and you can buy it without the kit lens and save $100. But if you are considering your first mirrorless camera and aren't looking for more advanced features like a hot shoe and a bountiful number of physical controls, you may find more value in one with a larger sensor like the Sony Alpha NEX-5N. That camera can do much better in low light and has an external viewfinder accessory available, just like the GX1.
By Jim Fisher