Hands-on: Panasonic's CM1 may be the best smartphone camera yet

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The Panasonic Lumix CM1 is a high-end compact camera which is also an Android smartphone (Simon Crisp/Gizmag.com)

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There are plenty of smartphones out there which have good, if not great cameras, but even among the best the specs of the Panasonic Lumix CM1 stand out. It features a large 1-inch type 20-megapixel sensor which dwarfs those of most of its rivals, and boasts RAW shooting for more flexible processing. Gizmag recently got to spend a bit of time with the smartphone camera to see if it really is a viable high-end compact replacement.

While most smartphone cameras are best thought of as smartphones that are also good cameras, the Lumix CM1 is being billed as a high-end compact camera which also just so happens to be a fully-fledged Android phone. Indeed, in the marketing bumph, mention of the CM1's smartphone status is limited to an "Other Functions" section.

When the CM1 was initially announced last year, it was bizarrely only stated for release in France and Germany. Since then the release has been extended slightly, with more countries due to get the CM1 later this year. Having previously used the Nokia 808, Nokia 1020, and Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom Frankenphones, I was keen to get my hands on the new would-be smartphone camera champion at the recent UK Photography Show in Birmingham.

The first thing you notice about the Panasonic CM1 is that it really does feel more like a camera than a smartphone. It's slightly strange as the 135 x 68 x 21 mm (5.3 x 2.7 x 0.8 in) dimensions and 4.7-inch touchscreen scream chunky smartphone, but the solid-feeling build-quality, the big lens and camera-like buttons (yes, there's a physical shutter button and a control ring around the lens) make it clear that this is camera first, smartphone second.

Getting from the standard Android 4.4 KitKat-based interface to the dedicated camera mode is as simple as flicking a camera selector button on the top of the device (if holding it as a camera). This puts you straight into photo-taking mode and we were impressed by the speed at which the CM1 becomes a camera and is ready to shoot. You are not going to have an excuse for missing the shot with this camera-phone.

Once in camera mode you are reminded that you're using a smartphone by the large 4.7-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel touchscreen, which is the main way of changing settings on the CM1. Menus are relatively straightforward to navigate for those who are used to using a dedicated camera, though we found they could be a bit fiddly on the touchscreen. More serious menu-diving feels like it would have been made easier with physical controls.

That said, there are plenty of settings to keep even the most control-hungry photographer happy on the CM1. Unlike the majority of smartphone cameras, users can manually set things like ISO, shutter speed and aperture, giving much more creative freedom with its fixed 28-mm equivalent F2.8 lens. The camera can also shoot post-processing friendly RAW files in addition to JPEGs, this is a huge bonus for photography enthusiasts.

We found the autofocus speed of the Panasonic CM1 to be very good for a compact camera, let alone a smartphone camera ... which can all too often be so sluggish that the moment has gone by the time the shutter triggers. There are a number of focus modes including Touch AF and manual focus with focus peaking to ensure accurate focus. For many photographers who now primarily shoot with their smartphone, the ability to focus on a half press of the shutter button will also be a welcome blast from the past.

While we were unable to bring any images away from the show to look at in more detail, zooming in and reviewing them on the phone showed them to be of a very high quality, even those taken in lower-light situations. Images should be comparable to cameras like the Sony RX100 III or Canon Powershot G7 X, though obviously without the option of optical zoom.

The model we used didn't have any apps loaded capable of processing the RAW files, and given our recent experience of trying to edit RAW images on a smartphone, that's probably no great loss.

Another great feature of the Panasonic Lumix CM1 is 4K pre-burst which is designed to make sure you don't miss a shot no matter how brief. When using this mode, the CM1 will fire off 15 frames per second (at 4K 3,840 x 2,160 resolution) for 1.5 seconds before and after you press the shutter button. This gives you 45 sequential shots to select select from, and gives you a much greater chance of capturing an exact moment.

As you might have guessed from that, the CM1 is also capable of recording 4K video at 15 fps. There are also more usable 30 fps frame-rates when shooting at Full HD 1080p, or HD 720p resolutions. While video quality was good in our quick tests, the lack of optical image stabilization is missed here even more than when shooting stills, and our test footage displayed more wobble than we would like.

When it comes to smartphone features rather than camera credentials, the CM1 is decidedly less impressive. Inside there's a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU and the whole thing feels like a mid-range smartphone. To be honest, every-time we tested the smartphone functionality, we got a bit bored and went back to checking out new camera features. Despite this, the CM1 is a still a competent smartphone, which will allow you to edit and share your images as you'd expect of any modern smartphone.

The image quality delivered by the Leica lens and large 1-inch type sensor, along with the creative freedom allowed by the ability to manually adjust so many settings, means the CM1 sets a new standard for smartphone photography. However, as with previous smartphone cameras which claimed to do the same, this is at the cost of some smartphone capability, though arguably to less of an extent.

We were somewhat smitten by the Panasonic CM1, and it could be enough to finally persuade us to leave the compact camera at home. However, for some power smartphone users, it might not be enough to leave their Samsung Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6 at home.

The Panasonic Lumix CM1 is available now in some territories with a £799 (that's around US$1,200) price-tag.

Product page: Panasonic Lumix CM1

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