The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100 is what would have been referred to as a bridge camera, before the waters between compacts and DSLRs were muddied with the Micro Four Thirds system and other hybrids. All the same, the FZ100 occupies a very good niche for someone looking to make the step up from a more basic digital camera.
It's certainly not small. There are better, more expensive models out there which are far more pocketable. What it does give you is a healthy chunk of power. Were it a car, it would be one of those old VW beetles kitted out as a drag racing hot rod.
First up is the lens, manufactured by Leica as is the way with the better end of the Lumix range. Panasonic has stretched out the spec of the old FZ35 glassware so that you can pull between 25mm wide to 600mm telephoto equivalent. That's 24x magnification in modern money. The good news is that the tight end of this is actually usable and easy enough to get sharp focus shots even indoors.
This is down to the addition of Motion Deblur technology which is an orchestrated combination of Intelligent ISO control, Intelligent Exposure control and Power OIS all of which both stabilise the effects of your shaky hands and do their level best to select the quickest shutter speed possible without underexposing your shots. Fortunately for the user, all you need to do is switch the camera into iA mode and let the FZ100 do the work. The only time the system really fell down was at maximum zoom in candlelit low lighting, where we weren't expecting much in the way of results.
The mechanical shutter itself is also a huge credit to this camera. It rattles off a very impressive 11fps at full 14.1-megapixel resolution. You might think that's enough to catch any motion without blur. It's not. So for faster movements you can go for 60fps while settling for 3.5-megapixel sensing. Sadly, that still wasn't enough which leaves the final option of rattling off shots at QVGA size (very small indeed) at 220fps.
What's nice about the way Panasonic has set this up is that there's a burst button on the top right of the of camera chassis so that you can switch between modes without having to go deep into the menus and miss the action. You get a burst of 15 shots at 11fps which was just about enough to get what we wanted. It did take a bit of getting used to at the higher burst frame rates. You couldn't hear the shutter going, which did leave you in some doubt as to when your imaging had started or finished or even if it was happening at all. On the plus side, when in playback mode, the software is designed well enough to group all the larger bursts into sub sections to save you having to navigate through 60-odd shots each time you want to get passed.
To complete the consumer package, the FZ100 can also capture video and at full 1080p/60i resolution as well. What's good about the way this has been implemented here is that they've also backed up the headline stats with some very basic editing software, allowing you to top and tail footage in-camera as well as the fact that you can record in the highly compatible AVCHD. On top of that, there’s even a stereo microphone so that the sound is up to scratch as well. From the short time we tried the video capture, it seemed smooth enough and the fact that the stills iA mode worked for motion settings as well was a real bonus.
As for the handling of the FZ100, well, it is quite big but yet still manages to give you a bit of thumb cramp after an hour’s use. It's obviously much smaller than a DSLR but probably features just as many buttons on the back, if not more, only in a smaller space. The likes of an AF/AE lock switch and the burst shooting selector are very welcome, but it does start taking up real estate that might be nice to spread your hand over instead.
Panasonic is obviously proud of the new jog wheel it has fitted to the body. However, we never really bothered using it in testing because it seemed a bit superfluous positioned right next the five button navigator array, which essentially does the same job anyway. By the same token, the Quick Menu was never really our first port of call as it made for yet another branch of an already fairly complicated UI to get used to.
Manual mode, the focus mode switch on the barrel of the lens and the aspect ratio selector also all felt like the gilding of the lily. At the end of the day, this is an advanced compact rather than something for the serious enthusiast. It's already packed with a million different intelligent modes and functions. It's not that likely that any of the users are looking for that level of manual control placed right at their very fingertips.
Finally it's great to see both a viewfinder - if only electronic - as well as a very worthy 3-inch swivel LCD to use. Good, comfortable shooting was had from both with the 460,000-dot screen providing a decent image even in bright daylight.
A good way to look at the Panasonic Lumix FZ100 is like the GH1, only with a little more advanced technology and without the ability to change lenses. You really feel that the company has thrown every little trick and feature up its sleeve at this one - you might argue a few too many. All the same though, it's hard to see that anyone buying the FZ100 would be anything less than thrilled with their choice provided that, when the price comes out, it's far enough away from the Lumix Micro Four Thirds range.
There's bags of support and flexibility for basic camera users looking to beef up their compact power without any of the additional complications. It's something anyone could use and use to good effect even if all the control of a DSLR is your normal choice. For that reason, it'll make an excellent general family camera or the kind of thing you'd want to take on safari with all it's high zoom prowess.
The only place you're going to lose out is when you want to start pushing the ISO beyond 800 or so. There is a flash to help you out there or indeed a hot shoe if you'd like to go down that route. However, if you're really looking to accessorise, there's probably more advanced imaging avenues you should be exploring. All in all though, a definite thumbs up.