With metal face plate screwed into position at each of its four corners and chunky plastic edging, the Panasonic FT3 has an industrial appearance and feel. It may not be pretty, despite being available in eye catching colours, but it does look up to the job. That said, Sony has managed to create a much more attractive and svelte alternative in the DSC-TX5, which is only slightly less resilient than the FT3. What's more it incorporates a metal cover which protects the lens from direct knocks and fingerprints. While the FT3 has a recessed and reinforced glass cover to its lens, it's still preferable to have something non-optical cover the whole lot.
Inadvertently, we tested the FT3's mettle when our review sample accidentally slipped from our camera bag and dropped a couple of feet onto concrete, before we'd even got going with taking our test photos. Thankfully it survived unscathed.
In the predictable absence of an optical viewfinder, photos and video are composed via a 2.7-inch, 230k dot LCD screen. Thanks no doubt to its need to have a thick reinforced covering, it's neither the largest nor sharpest we've witnessed but is perfectly adequate for its purpose. One particularly subtle advantage is that the brightness automatically adjusts according to the surroundings.
As with most pocket compacts, a raised edge to the faceplate is the only thing provided by way of a grip (which is still an improvement over the flat fronted FT2), and there's nothing at all at the back for the thumb to rest on when gripped in your right hand. As a result we found our thumb skating over the mode and playback buttons at the rear, which are fortunately slightly recessed to prevent accidental activation. We also found it all too easy to cover the rear speaker with a thumb, though this is obviously much less of an issue when capturing footage.,
Another ergonomics issue comes courtesy the zoom control. Instead of the familiar rocker switch on the top, the FT3 has a couple of individual buttons on the backplate. We found these slightly awkward as the thumb has to dart from one to another when determining your framing; you can't just quickly 'toggle' back and forth as you would with a switch type control. Having said that the internally stacked zoom, which starts out at maximum wide angle setting upon powering up the device, moves steadily and silently through its range in just over three seconds.
Further questions arise in our minds when it comes to the dropping of the FT2's mode dial and replacement with an icon-led menu. It provides access to eight record modes. From the top left hand corner we have the default setting of intelligent Auto for reliable snapshot-type operation, then Program Auto (which gives access to a wider range of manually selectable menu options - such as ISO - when you start to drill down into the camera's features), Sports mode, a dedicated Snow mode, separate Beach and Underwater modes, a more indepth scene mode (with 26 sub menu options), and finally the aforementioned 3D mode.
The other backplate controls comprise the familiar four-way command pad, or cross keys, with central menu/set button. Ranged around this are means of manually adjusting exposure (a modest +/- 2EV), flash settings (On, off, auto plus the usual red eye reduction and slow sync suspects), self timer options (two or ten seconds), plus macro option (AF macro, or macro with digital zoom).
The button we found ourselves pressing the most often though was the Q.Menu ('Quick Menu') button, tucked unobtrusively in the bottom right hand corner of the backplate. This gives access to all the key shooting settings - if you have Program mode selected - that anyone might want on a daily basis. These are displayed as a toolbar along the top of the screen, with drop down selections as each option is alighted upon. Thus we get access to two GPS modes (with one for airlines) as well as the ability to either switch that feature on or off, AF modes, white balance, ISO, image resolution settings and the ilk without otherwise having to drill down into the main menu screens (themselves simplistic and easily navigated, to be fair). In other words the Q.Menu provides a very useful shortcut and time saver.