Since introducing its first digital camera as long ago as 1997, Panasonic has built its Lumix brand into a market leader with a solid reputation for quality and technical innovation. I’ve reviewed well over a hundred different Panasonic cameras over the years, and I’ve become accustomed to finding very few faults with them. It comes as something of a surprise then to find one that is as disappointing as the Lumix DMC-FX90.
Launched in October 2011 the FX90 sits somewhere toward the top end of Panasonic’s huge range of compact cameras, which currently consists of no less than 24 models. The FX series is Panasonic’s premium ultra-compact range, and the FX90 is an expensive camera by any standard, currently on sale in the UK at a hefty £269.99, although it can be had for around £230 if you shop around. Within the FX range it is positioned between the FX77, which is basically the same camera but minus a couple of features, and the range-topping FX700, which costs nearly £100 more.
In overall appearance the FX90 has a very similar style to most of the previous cameras in the FX series over the past eight years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though; the simple minimalist design has aged well, and the FX90 is a nice looking camera, even if it doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. It’s very slim and light, measuring 102 x 56 x 21mm and weighing in at 149g including battery and memory card, certainly light enough to carry in your pocket for a night out.
Unlike most Panasonic cameras the FX90 is only available in one colour, the matte black milled finish shown here. The build quality is excellent, as one would rightly expect considering the price. The body shell is mostly aluminium, with only the top panel, the battery and card hatch and the antenna cover on the side being made of shiny black plastic. The camera feels solid and well made, with no squeaks when squeezed.
The FX90 has only a few external controls, because it is mostly operated via a touch-screen interface. What controls it does have are mainly on the top panel, and consist of Panasonic’s usual small slider switch for main power, a dedicated video recording button, a fairly large shutter button with a nice positive half-press action, and a small and fiddly zoom control teetering right on the top corner. The only other button is found on the upper right of the back of the camera, and activates the FX90′s main party trick; its Wi-Fi connectivity.
Integrated Wi-Fi is hardly a ground-breaking feature, having first appeared on the Nikon CoolPix P1 as long ago as 2006, but the FX90 claims that it can also talk to your smartphone, assuming of course that you have one suitably equipped to join in the conversation. You can download an app for your phone that, at least in theory, allows you to transfer pictures from your camera to your phone via a Wi-Fi link. This sounds like an idea with some potential, so I tried it out, downloading and installing the app on my HTC Sensation Android phone. Unfortunately the implementation falls somewhat short of the mark.
The app itself is very poorly designed, with a help page that appears to have been translated by someone with only a tenuous grasp of English. It requires a log-in ID and password with no explanation as to where these are to be found. The camera provides an “SSID” and “encryption key”, but the app won’t accept these. Now I’ll readily admit that I’m no expert when it comes to wireless networking, so I handed it over to my friend who’s a Cisco-certified network engineer and even he couldn’t figure it out.
The Wi-Fi connection to upload pictures to a computer was similarly complicated, requiring installation of the supplied PHOTOfunSTUDIO software, and in practice as usual it proved far quicker and more convenient to simply pop the memory card out and stick it in the computer’s card reader slot. I’ve never seen a camera with a Wi-Fi feature that was actually worth paying extra for, and I’m afraid the FX90 is no different.
Unfortunately the FX90′s problems don’t end there. The camera is operated mainly through its touch-screen interface, but for anyone accustomed to the slick and responsive screens found on most modern smartphones, the FX90′s screen serves as a reminder of just how bad they used to be. It’s slow, fiddly and requires a firm press to get it to react at all. The on-screen buttons are too small for anyone whose fingers aren’t shaped like pencils, and some of the controls make no sense at all. Why bother taking up space with a touch-screen zoom control when the camera also has a physical button that does the same job?
The situation is not helped by the fact that the buttons are labelled with unhelpful symbols, many of which remain unexplained in the rather terse user guide, and also cover a lot of the screen area, getting in the way when you’re trying to compose your shot. A well-designed touch-screen interface is supposed to make gadgets quicker and easier to use, but the one on the FX90 has the opposite effect. Compared to a D-pad and menu it is slow, clumsy and frustrating.
These problems are especially annoying because the FX90 has a number of very good points. It starts up and can take a picture in approximately 2.4 seconds, which is very quick, and in single shot mode it can shoot full-resolution pictures at a rate of approximately one a second, which is fast by any standard. It doesn’t have a normal continuous shooting mode as such, but it does have a high-speed burst mode restricted to 3-megapixel resolution. It focuses quickly and accurately even in very low light, and the exposure is generally accurate in most circumstances.
The f/2.5 maximum aperture is fairly fast, the 24mm-equivalent wide angle lens can pack in large groups of friends or wide landscape shots, and it does have some clever features, such as full 1080p HD video recording and a 3D synthetic stereoscopic mode, although you’ll need a Panasonic Viera 3D TV to see the results of that. One major concern however is battery life, often a problem with cameras featuring Wi-Fi connectivity. After all that mucking about trying to get the Wi-Fi to work properly, the battery was exhausted after only 100 shots.
Picture quality is unfortunately another weak point. Despite the 12.1-megapixel sensor and a fairly large file size of around 5MB per shot, images look over-processed and lack fine detail. There are visible jagged edges on diagonal lines, colour reproduction is blotchy and uneven, and there are visible compression artefacts even on the highest quality setting. Image noise is also a problem, with reduced detail even at 200 ISO and very poor image quality at the highest setting of 1600 ISO. This is a pity, because the lens quality is very good, with excellent sharpness right across the frame, virtually no chromatic aberration and relatively little barrel distortion even at the 24mm wide angle setting.
ISO Test Shots
The full image at ISO 100, resized to fit the page.
At the minimum ISO setting there’s no significant noise, but you can see the jagged diagonals on the edge of the green car fender.
Even at a setting as low as 200 ISO there are visible noise reduction artefacts and blotchy colour reproduction.
The noise reduction effects are more noticeable at 400 ISO, and fine detail has been lost.
At 800 ISO the image quality is greatly reduced, sacrificing fine detail in order to reduce image noise.
At the maximum setting of 1600 ISO the image quality is very poor and shows clear signs of pixel binning, with greatly reduced detail.
Detaill and Resolution Test Shots
As usual with Panasonic’s Leica-branded lenses the optical quality is very good, with little barrel distortion despite the 24mm wide-angle.
Centre sharpness is excellent, retaining plenty of fine detail in good light.
Corner sharpness is also very good, with almost no blurring or chromatic aberration.
This is a comparison that I take with every compact camera so that you can compare the level of detail. See below for a full magnification crop.
While the excellent Leica-branded lens produces plenty of fine detail right across the frame, the heavy-handed processing doesn’t keep much of it intact.
Dynamic range is about average for a 12MP compact, but is biased towards shadow detail producing blown out highlights.
- Feature packed, small and compact design.
- Disappointing image quality, confusing Wi-Fi integration, expensive.