Lumix GF5: Panasonic fine-tunes its entry-level ILC (hands-on)

We took a preproduction unit of Panasonic's latest entry-level interchangeable-lens camera for a spin and found its design tweaks useful and its performance zippier.

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While the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 isn't perfect, it's still my favorite choice for snapshooters looking for a faster, better camera but one that's similar enough to a point-and-shoot that they're not forced out of their comfort zone.

The GF3's small size, well-designed touch-screen interface, fast performance, and solid photo quality -- and, for its type, a more-or-less reasonable price -- make it a compelling option. With the DMC-GF5, Panasonic makes some subtle updates and enhancements that improve on the GF3 for that same snapshooter.

The most important physical change is the new grip; the GF3's was very slippery, and this larger rubberized grip is a huge improvement, especially if you need to shoot one-handed.

The buttons are also bigger, though the controls remain pretty much the same. To go with the higher-resolution LCD, Panasonic redesigned the look of the touch-screen interface, and it's a lot more attractive than before. It also incorporates the flyout tab that debuted in the DMC-GX1, as well as interface hints.

There aren't a lot of new capabilities. Panasonic's added a handful of new special effects, and the GF5 will offer suggestions of effects to make your photos more interesting when you're in one of the intelligent auto modes. And it's updated to shoot 1080/60i video in AVCHD or MPEG-4, along with a boost to a built-in stereo microphone.

Though it's the same resolution as the GF3, the GF5 incorporates a new version of the 12-megapixel sensor with an updated version of its image-processing engine. The images I shot with a preproduction model look okay, but I think Panasonic still needs to tweak its noise-reduction and JPEG processing a little before it ships. Still, as long as you don't peer too closely at the midrange-ISO-sensitivity images they look pretty good.

One pleasant surprise was the performance. The GF3 is fast, but my preproduction unit was even faster. We ran some preliminary benchmarks and it was 20-30 percent faster on several of the tests. In everyday shooting, focusing and shooting feel almost instantaneous, even for raw+JPEG.

Here's the competitive market in the GF5's class:

  Nikon 1 J1 Olympus PEN E-PM1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 Pentax Q Sony Alpha NEX-C3
Sensor (effective resolution) 10-megapixel CMOS 12.3- megapixel Live MOS 12.1- megapixel Live MOS 12.1- megapixel Live MOS 12.4- megapixel BSI CMOS 16.2- megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
13.2mm x 8.8mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 1/2.3-inch 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.7x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 5.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3200 / 6400 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 / 12800 (expanded) ISO 125 - ISO 6400 ISO 200 - ISO 12800
Continuous shooting 5fps
n/a
(60fps with fixed AF and electronic shutter)
4.1fps
n/a
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
3.8fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
4fps
unlimited JPEG/4 raw
5fps
5 JPEG/n/a
(1.5fps raw)
2.5fps
18 JPEG/ 6 raw
(5.5fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
None None None None Optional optical for prime lens None
Autofocus 73-point
phase detection, 135-area contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 25-point contrast AF 25-point contrast AF
Shutter speed 30-1/16,000 sec; bulb; 1/60 sec x-sync 60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; 1/160 x-sync 60-1/4,000 sec; 1/160 x-sync 30-1/2,000 sec; bulb; 1/125 sec flash sync 30-1/4,000 sec; bulb; 1/160 flash sync
Metering n/a 324 area 144 zone 144 zone n/a 49 zone
Flash Yes Included optional Yes Yes Yes Included optional
Image stabilization Optical Sensor shift Optical Optical Sensor shift Optical
Video 1080/60i/30p, 720/60p H.264 MPEG-4 QuickTime MOV 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps/29 minutes 1080/60i/50i @ 17Mbps
720/60p @17Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
1080/60i/50i @ 17Mbps
720/60p @17Mbps AVCHD or MPEG-4 QuickTime MOV

1080/30p H.264 MPEG-4

720/30p H.264 MPEG-4
Audio Stereo Stereo Mono Stereo Stereo Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
920,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 230 shots n/a 320 shots 330 shots 230 shots 400 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.2 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.3 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.5 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.9
Body operating weight (ounces) 9.7 9.3 9.3 9.3 7.1 (est) 10.7
Mfr. price n/a n/a $499.95 (body only, est) n/a n/a n/a
$649.95 (with 10-30mm lens) $499.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $599 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $649.95 (with 47mm- equivalent f1.9 lens) $649.99 (with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 lens)
$899.95 (with 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses) n/a $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) $749 (with 14-42mm power zoom lens) n/a $599.99 (with 16mm f2.8 lens)
Ship date October 2011 September 2011 July 2011 Q2 2012 November 2011 August 2011

The camera will come in black, white, and red in a couple of different kits -- one with the 14-42mm power zoom lens and another, cheaper kit with the older 14-42mm lens. I'm still not a big fan of the power zoom lens, mostly because I never find the zoom switch on the first try; I end up fiddling with the manual focus switch instead and wonder why it's not zooming.

Panasonic's release schedule looks like it's just slightly ahead of the crowd, so while the GF5 ranks comparatively well now, it's not clear how it will compare as the competition -- most notably Olympus and Sony -- roll out their 2012 models. Sony especially is a wild card: though it tends to lag a little on performance, the company has been nailing the sensors.

It does look like the GF5 will be better than the GF3, and better optimized for snapshooters looking to step up. I'll be back with a full review when it ships later this year.

 

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