Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G3 is a step in the right direction

After spending a few quality hours with the Lumix DMC-G3, we think the camera will deliver better image quality and performance than its predecessor, and we welcome the updates to the design.

Succeeding the G2, the long-rumored Lumix DMC-G3 is Panasonic's reaction to finally getting the fact that most of the people buying these interchangeable-lens cameras (ILCs) are stepping up from a point-and-shoot rather than sideways from a dSLR. That's partly what's driving Panasonic--and therefore Best Buy--to dub these "compact system cameras"; they want people to mentally associate them with the compact cameras they're replacing.

But calling them compact doesn't necessarily make them so. While the G3 is substantially smaller than the G2, it's still pretty large to be considered compact. (I even trip over calling smaller enthusiast models like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 "compact.") Only Sony's NEX models, which are about as small as you can make them while still fitting a mount for a decent-size lens, really qualify, and they do so by jettisoning both a viewfinder and a flash.

And in Panasonic's product line the Lumix DMC-G3 is not considered the compact model: it's the step up from the GF2 with a built-in electronic viewfinder and a physical mode dial, as well with as a deeper (and I think more comfortable) grip. It retains the same flip-and-twist LCD and relatively well thought-out interface, too.

Here's Panasonic's current ILC lineup:

  Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 16-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 16.1-megapixel Live MOS
17.3x13.0mm 17.3x13.0mm 17.3x13.0mm 17.3x13.0mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x 2.0x
Image processor version Venus Engine HD II Venus Engine FHD Venus Engine FHD Venus Engine FHD
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 160 - ISO 12800
Continuous shooting 3.2fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
4.0fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
3.2fps
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
5.0fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Electronic
1.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.4x/0.7x magnification
Electronic
1.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.4x/0.7x magnification
Optional Electronic
n/a
Electronic
1.5 million dots
100% coverage
1.42x/0.71x magnification
Autofocus 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb up to 4 minutes; 1/160 x-sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 2 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes; 1/160 x-sync 1/4,000 to 60 secs; bulb up to 2 minutes; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 144 zone 144 zone 144 zone 144 zone
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video AVCHD Lite 720/30p or Motion JPEG MOV AVCHD 1080/60i/50i @ 17Mbps 1080/60i/50i @ 17, 13Mbps
720/60p @17, 13Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
AVCHD 1080/60i/50i/24p (60p sensor output) @ 24, 17, 13Mbps; 720/60p @ 17, 13Mbps
QuickTime MOV Motion JPEG
720/30p
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo Stereo Stereo, mic input
LCD size 3 inches articulated
460,000 dots
3 inches articulated
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3 inches articulated
460,000 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 390 shots 250 shots 300 shots 340 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.9x3.3x2.9 4.5x3.3x1.8 4.4x2.7x1.3 4.9x3.5x3.0
Body operating weight (ounces) 13.1 11.8 (est) 11 17.8
Mfr. price $540 (body only) n/a $499.95 (body only, est) $899.95 (body only)
$599.95 (with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $699.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $999.95 (with 14-42mm lens)
$649.90 (with 14mm lens) n/a $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) $1,499.95 (with 14-140mm lens)
Ship date May 2010 June 2011 January 2011 December 2010

Full-time AF and AF tracking are back, but while the video's boosted from 720p to 1080/60i AVCHD--with only a 720p MJPEG fallback--and it now sports a stereo onboard mic (and retains the full manual capabilities in movie mode), gone are the mic and headphone jacks. That set of capabilities firmly positions the G3 between the GF2 and GH2, with Panasonic obviously driving the videography buffs upstream to the more expensive camera.

The G3 has a new 16-megapixel sensor; though it's the same resolution as the GH2's, it's a less sophisticated (and cheaper) one. For the sensor, Panasonic has added on-chip noise reduction, similar to the scheme used by Sony's Exmor chips, along with the Venus Engine FHD image processor that's in the GF2 and GH2. It also incorporates Panasonic's Light Speed autofocus system from its more recent cameras. That AF system drives the sensor at 120 frames per second to more quickly iterate down through the contrast autofocus decisionmaking process.

Panasonic adds Pinpoint focus, which basically allows you autofocus with pixel-level accuracy. The camera pops up a magnified area as a visual aid. It can also provide a picture-in-picture magnified view for easier navigation, but I couldn't find it. The problem remains for the G series that there's so much here that you'll miss half of the capabilities if you don't read the manual. The company has also changed the names of a couple of features to make them more approachable: Film mode is now Creative mode and My Colors has become Photo Style. And I have to mention that a feature I've been asking for has finally been implemented: you can turn off the touch focus to prevent accidents. That said, I'd rather you be able to toggle the capability or simply lock the selected focus area than have to live with it or live without it.

I haven't formally tested the camera yet, but the autofocus system from the preshipping version feels zippy enough. The ISO 3200 shots I took definitely look better than those from the G2, and there seem to be far fewer JPEG artifacts than Panasonic's usual. Even midrange ISOs, like ISO 400 and 800, seem more usable than with previous models. But that's just based on the 50 or so shots I was able to take, and a real judgment will have to wait for more formal testing. One disappointment though is that battery life seems to have dropped down to about 250 or 270 shots from 390.

Here's the competitive lineup:

  Olympus E-PL2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Samsung NX100 Sony Alpha SLT-A55
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 16-megapixel Live MOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS 16.2-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
17.3x13mm 17.3x13.0mm 23.4x15.6mm 23.5x15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 1600/12800 (expanded)
Continuous shooting 3.0fps
n/a
4.0fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
3.0fps
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
6.0fps (10fps with auto exposure)
20 raw/35 JPEG
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional plug-in articulating EVF
1,440,000 dots
0.58x
Electronic
1.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.4x/0.7x magnification
Optional plug-in EVF
201,000 dots
0.55x
(98 percent coverage)
Electronic
0.46 inches/1.2 million dots
100% coverage
1.1x/0.73x
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 15-pt phase-detection AF
3 cross-type
Shutter speed 60-1/2,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 2 minutes 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 324 area 144 zone 247 segment 1,200 zone
Flash Yes Yes No Yes
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical Sensor shift
Video 720p Motion JPEG AVI AVCHD 1080/60i/50i @ 17Mbps 720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 AVCHD 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440x1,080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo Mono Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed
460,000 dots
3 inches articulated
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
921,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 280 shots 250 shots 420 shots 330 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.5x2.8x1.6 4.5x3.3x1.8 4.7x2.8x1.4 4.9x3.6x3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 12.7 11.8 (est) 12.2 17.8
Mfr. price n/a n/a n/a $699.99 (body only)
$599.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 msc lens) $699.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $499.99 (est., with 20-50mm f3.5-5.6 i-Function lens) $799.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
$799.00 (est, with 14-42mm and 40-150mm lenses) n/a $599.00 (with 50-200mm lens) n/a
Ship date January 2011 June 2011 October 2010 September 2010

As I see it, because of its size, price, and feature set, the G3's biggest competitor is the Sony Alpha SLT-A55, a camera that straddles the dSLR and ILC worlds. (Sony considers the A55 a dSLR, but the "R" in there stands for "reflex," something which the A55's fixed mirror doesn't provide. That R enables an optical viewfinder, which the A55 doesn't have, and I think the through-the-lens optical viewfinder is the distinguishing characteristic of a dSLR.) I suspect performance will ultimately differentiate the two cameras; right now, the A55 ties the GH2 for fastest in the category and the G3 incorporates the GH2's AF system, which bodes well for it. If the G3's photo quality turns out as good as my preliminary shots imply, then the camera may turn out to be a class leader--in a class defined by EVF-equipped ILCs not targeted at videographers. Probably not the mass market Panasonic's hoping for, but a step in the right direction.

 

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