(CNET) -- Every so often a camera comes along that gets (and deserves) high marks, but which I don't necessarily like as much as the rating would suggest. The latest object of such ambivalence is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1.
On one hand, it's a surprisingly fast 12-megapixel shooter that's capable of producing some first-rate photos, with a great feature set that includes interchangeable-lens support and a large flip-and-twist LCD. It's solidly constructed and has some clever and well-designed controls.
On the other hand, there's the electronic viewfinder. Many people are fine with them; I find EVFs annoying and frustrating. And since most of the shooting experience is about the viewfinder, it feels like a make-or-break issue on this camera.
With the G1 specifically, and the Micro Four Thirds standard in general, Panasonic (and Olympus) hope to attract those users who want the advantages of interchangeable lenses and the flexibility of a dSLR, but in a more compact design.
And to a certain extent, the G1's specifications read like those of an entry-level dSLR, including a 12-megapixel Live MOS chip (with the same expanded photosite design of the sensor in the Lumix DMC-LX3) and rated continuous-shooting speed of 3 frames per second for an unlimited number of JPEGs and 7 raw.
But the G1 finds itself in an odd competitive situation. On one side of it are relatively compact enthusiast models such as the Canon PowerShot G10, Nikon Coolpix P6000, and Panasonic's own Lumix DMC-LX3: small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, with full manual feature sets and high-quality photos, but with no pretensions at acting like dSLRs and commonly available for less than $500.
On the other side of the G1 sit less-expensive entry-level dSLRs such as the Nikon D80 and Canon Rebel XSi. While they're about as much bigger than the just-under-a-pound G1 as the G1 is over its compact competitors, the G1 still can't fit into a large jacket pocket. (I don't think it would even if equipped with one of the pancake prime lenses promised for the future.)
And while the G1 and future models will be able to use standard Four Thirds lenses via an adapter--not all will support the MFT contrast-focus AF systems, though--with the exception of pancake primes such as the Olympus f2.8 25mm lens, they're all awkwardly big relatively to the size of the G1.
Unlike dSLRs, though, the G1 comes in three colors: two-tone black and blue, black and red, and sedate solid black. The camera ships with a Lumix G Vario f3.5-5.6 14-45mm (28-90mm equivalent) lens, and currently there's one other lens available, the Lumix G Vario f4-5.6 45-200mm (90-400mm equivalent).
Though Leica lenses are likely in the Micro Four Thirds future, these are Panasonic lenses. Panasonic also offers a converter which allows you to mount standard Four Thirds lenses on the G1, but AF will only function if the lenses support contrast AF.
The body is made of sturdy plastic with some metal on the inside and on the mounts, with a nice-feeling rubberized coating over everything. It's also got a large, comfortable grip. It offers a considerable number of direct-access button and dial shooting controls, and, overall, I like their layout and operation. (Click through the slide show for details and commentary on them.)
There are two exceptions, however. First, the front jog dial. You press it to toggle exposure compensation adjustment. Nice in theory, but in practice I found myself accidentally pressing it way too often. It needs to be further from the grip indentation.
And second, the EVF. As far as EVFs go, the G1's is pretty good; 1.4 million dots with 100 percent scene coverage, bright and easy to see, with a relatively speedy refresh. But it's still an EVF. (Read about my issues with EVFs.) If it weren't for that, I'd have really enjoyed shooting with the G1.
There's an onscreen Quick Menu for accessing settings from a central location: white balance, ISO sensitivity, AF mode (face detection, AF tracking, 23-area AF, and single-area AF), metering (multi, centerweighted, and spot), Intelligent Exposure (low, standard, high, and off), flash, image size and quality, self-timer, image-stabilization mode (active, on prefocus, and y-axis only) used in conjunction with the optically stabilized lens, and film simulation mode (standard, dynamic, nature, smooth, nostalgic, vibrant plus black-and-white versions of standard dynamic and smooth).
If you don't want to use the full onscreen display, you can also set the camera to display the settings around the edges of the screen and cycle around them that way. You can also set the camera so that the EVF display mimics the menu display, though you can't display settings on the LCD while viewing the scene through the EVF.
The G1 offers plenty of manual and semimanual features to please amateurs and enthusiasts, but you can run on full or semiautomatic if all the buttons and dials scare you. Several features stand out from the crowd, though. The 3-inch, 460,000-dot flip-and-twist LCD is a big attraction, for one.
Many users were upset when Canon dropped the articulating LCD from its G series of cameras, and it's quite a welcome feature here. It's a good LCD, but keep in mind that because it's a wide-aspect LCD, it pillarboxes (crops with vertical black bands) standard-aspect photos so they don't display as large as on typical 3-inch LCDs. In other words, for displaying 4:3 or 3:2 photos it's equivalent to a 2.5-inch LCD.
There's also a mode in which you can preview changes to settings such as aperture and shutter speed, to gauge the effects in advance. Though it's somewhat hard to see depth-of-field changes, and you can only get a general sense of the shutter speed affect because of the LCD refresh, the capability to preview exposure may be invaluable for some.
You can also save three sets of custom settings. While I'd rather be able to access them directly from the mode dial instead of just the single Cust slot with menu flipping to select one, this is lots better than nothing. In addition to traditional exposure and white-balance bracketing, you can bracket three different film modes.
The gaping hole in the G1's feature set: no movie capture. Panasonic plans to introduce another model in 2009 that handles video, and for many people this may be a reason to delay buying into the whole system until then.
When it comes to performance, the G1 was full of pleasant surprises. It goes from power on to first shot in a brisk 0.8 second and can focus and shoot in 0.4 second in high contrast conditions and 0.6 second in dim, which is very good for its class. Shot-to-shot times for both raw and JPEG settle at about 0.9 second, and zippy flash recycle time adds about 0.1 second to that.
Equipped with a fast SD card--at least 20MB per second--it can shoot 2.6fps for almost 90 JPEG frames in burst mode; with a slower card, it stalls after about six or so frames. Keep in mind, though, that the EVF blackouts--though relatively brief--can stymie your attempts at keeping the subject framed in the scene.
As with its performance, the G1 displays excellent photo quality that rivals or bests similarly priced dSLRs. The kit lens we tested with it produces sharp images across almost the entire frame, with absolutely zero fringing or bleed. While it chronically underexposes, you can readily compensate, so I don't really ding it for that in the ratings. Its one weak point: it doesn't render exactly accurate colors.
But they're within the bounds of acceptability and certainly pleasing. The same goes for its noise profile. You can shoot up to ISO 800 with confidence, and above that it does a very good job of balance noise with sharpness; there's no color noise to speak of, and what there is looks more like film grain. (Click through the slide show for samples and more discussion of the G1's photo quality.)
There's quite a bit to like about the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, if you accept it for what it is: an alternative to a dSLR that can match similarly priced models in speed, photo quality, and features, but not the shooting experience. And if you don't share my dislike of the viewfinder--and you should try before you buy--then you may find it equal even in that.
However, you're also buying into a new system that currently lacks a full selection of lenses, and ultimately you may be better off waiting for Panasonic's next video-supporting model or Olympus' as-yet unavailable contender.
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