It's been a busy few months in the digital camera business. Most of the major companies have launched ranges of new products this summer, and a few more are yet to do so. One of the first big launches of the season was Panasonic's announcement of the Lumix DMC-FZ18 super-zoom camera, and the FX55 and FX33 ultra-compacts, at a lavish media event in Dublin last month. It's not often I'm lucky enough to get such early review samples, but I've already looked at the FZ18, and this week it's the turn of the FX33. These are brand new cameras that have barely arrived in the shops yet.
For its past few camera launches, Panasonic has wisely concentrated its efforts into what it does best; high-quality super-zoom bridge cameras and stylish high-value ultra-compacts. Both of these are competitive fields, but in the later category the Lumix range is pitted directly against the excellent and deservedly popular IXUS range from market leaders Canon. Whether it's an example of convergent evolution, sheer coincidence or the sincerest form of flattery, the new FX33 has a specification that is strikingly close to that of a new camera announced by Canon just this month, the new IXUS 860 IS. Since that model is a replacement for the most popular camera in the IXUS range, the excellent 850 IS, Panasonic's new FX33 is going to have a tough job. At least it can compete on price. The FX33 has just gone on sale at around £230 from several online retailers, which is about the same current price as the 850 IS. The 860 IS is being launched in September at £299. The FX33 is still quite an expensive camera when compared to other premium compacts such as the Nikon S500 (£145), Olympus mju 760 (£170) and even the new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W90 (£220).
Let's take a look at that specification. The FX33 has an 8.1-megapixel 1/2.5-in sensor, a Leica-branded 3.6x zoom lens with a wide-angle end equivalent to 28mm, a 2.5-in 207k pixel LCD monitor, the high-performance MegaOIS optical image stabilisation system and an improved Venus Engine III image processor delivering a maximum ISO of 1600. It also features Panasonic's new Intelligent Auto function, which is supposed to produce better results more easily. It doesn't have any manual exposure functions, but then it's not the sort of camera that needs them.