With intelligent Auto mode selected, operation of the FT3 is as un-fussy and straightforward as you'd want it to be when you're hurtling down a black run, or metres deep under water.
The camera powers up with a press of the recessed on/off button located on the top plate, which again isn't the best option for ease of use when wearing gloves, but obviously it does at least stop accidental activation. Once successfully pressed, the FT3 readies itself for the first shot in just over a second, which is fast for a compact.
When you've arrived at the composition you want and are ready to take the shot, a half press of the shutter release button and focus and exposure is determined near instantly, green AF point highlighted with a beep of confirmation. As with the power up time, we couldn't really hope for any faster on this class of camera.
Panasonic claims the FT3 makes use of what it calls 'intelligent resolution' technology. This apparently intelligently picks out edges, detailed texture areas and soft gradients and applies in-camera sharpening at an appropriate level to each part of the image, enhancing detail while not causing smooth areas of colour to become blocky. In truth we were hard pressed to tell any difference between this camera and any other point and shoot with a quick bit of sharpening applied, either in Photoshop or in-camera.
Such technology also enhances the performance of the optional Intelligent Zoom, which virtually extends the zoom ratio by a 1.3x equivalent, in theory delivering slightly better results than your average digital zoom. Again in practice it's hard to notice a big difference as overall quality from the small folded lens is inevitably not as good as that from a physically larger one - for example that found on Panasonic's own TZ10 model – with most images appearing somewhat soft. It's not appalling and certainly is in line with many average compacts but it's always worth bearing in mind that such cameras seldom produce results you'd want to print large.
The camera is as quick to determine focus and exposure as one would hope. Panasonic claims the auto focus mechanism - the grandly named Sonic Speed AF - is 28% faster than that of its predecessor the FT2. Officially shutter lag is an almost imperceptible 0.005 seconds, while it takes around three seconds for a full resolution JPEG to write to memory. Not the fastest ever but again perfectly acceptable for this class of snapshot camera.
As for low light performance, it's best to stick to ISO800 and below to avoid noise becoming particularly intrusive and/or visually distracting. The built in flash isn't the most powerful with a maximum range of 5.6m but it'll do for more casual shots, and there's a powerful focus assist lamp as well. As ever, the lack of a full manual mode means it can sometimes be difficult to get a balanced flash-assisted shot but again this is typical for what it at its heart a point and shoot camera – we've never understood why manufacturers leave out manual mode, even if it's buried deep in the menu system.
In terms of default image quality the FT3 may provide similar results to your typical £199 point and shoot then, but for that extra £100 you're getting additional goodies such as its nigh indestructible construction, GPS which makes this a real tool for the traveller, 3D shooting mode (useful only if you own a compatible TV) and Full HD video clips, so you might feel the extra is worth paying anyway for both peace of mind and added creative flexibility. While we couldn't quite replicate exactly the full gamut of rugged tests required to take this camera to its limits it certainly survived the few trials we put it under. And based on past experience with the Panasonic FT2, we're sure The FT3 will be just as true to its hardy word.
Ultimately the FT3 has to be the most feature packed toughened camera we've seen to date. We'd suggest there isn't quite enough to warrant users of recent tough models, such as the Panasonic FT2 and Olympus mju-Touch 6020, should consider upgrading but newcomers to the market could certainly do much worse. One thing to consider is the more recently announced Olympus Tough TG-810 could very soon be snapping at its heels. So maybe hold onto your pennies for a few weeks yet before making your mind up.