The upgrade to the FZ38's internal systems includes a new faster Venus Engine HD image processor and a much faster autofocus system, and as a result the camera's overall performance has been significantly improved, although the start-up time is still approximately two seconds, not the 1.3 claimed in the accompanying press release. Shot-to-shot time in JPEG mode is noticeably faster at approximately 1.4 seconds, compared to the 1.8s of the FZ28, however in Raw + JPEG mode shot-to-shot time is unchanged at approximately 3.5 seconds.
What is rather puzzling is the lack of a long-period continuous shooting mode. Instead the FZ38 has a simple 3fps high-speed burst mode, which takes three, five or ten frames depending on the image size. In other words, in the full 12MP size that most people will want to use, it only takes three shots. This mode is not available when shooting in Raw + JPEG.
The new autofocus system isn't just faster, it also works even better in the dark. The FZ28 had no problems in this department, but the FZ38 will focus quickly and accurately in total darkness at a range of several metres, although it does slow down a little at full zoom.
The big Leica lens is of course unchanged, and rightly so. It produces excellent edge-to-edge sharpness with no optical distortion at all, although some of that is undoubtedly due to post-processing. Nonetheless the level of fine detail in the resulting images is outstanding, with colour depth and dynamic range to match.
I was concerned that the increase in sensor resolution would have a negative impact on image quality, but this has not proved to be the case; in fact image quality is noticeably improved. There are inevitably some black shadows and burned-out highlights, but only at the extremes of contrast. The FZ38 has an additional low-speed setting of 80 ISO, at which the image quality is as good as any 12MP compact on the market, and the performance of the noise reduction system at higher ISO settings is also better, with virtually noise-free images at 400 ISO. Like the FZ28 the FZ38 has a maximum of 1600 ISO, and even at this setting the results are far from useless.
My verdict on the FZ38 is pretty much the same as for its predecessor. If you've already got an FZ28 it's probably not enough of an improvement to justify an upgrade. However for anyone else looking for a new super-zoom camera they really don't come much better than this. Build quality, handling, features, performance, image quality and versatility are superior to any of its immediate rivals, and the excellent video quality is icing on the cake. To get anything better than this you'll have to move up to a DSLR.