The minimal, flat fronted design and internally stacked/folded zoom lens mechanism of Panasonic's 12.1 effective megapixel Lumix DMC-FP8 may be a claimed bold departure for the electronics manufacturer's range of otherwise conventionally styled digital compacts. But, at the same time, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Minolta Dimage X camera series of 5 years back.
The brushed metal strip on the front of this credit card sized, 20.2mm in depth point-and-shoot model also more subtly recalls recent Sony T-series Cyber-shots, likewise flat fronted and with internal zooms to make them just as pocket friendly.
So we approach the solid feel yet lightweight 131g aluminium-construction (without battery/card) FP8 with a distinct sense of déjà vu. The question is: what new, if anything, does Panasonic have to add to this distinctly boxy form?
Um, how about illuminated blue buttons on the back plate that bleep when pressed? Fortunately these can be deactivated if you're worried about attracting muggers, or looking like a big kid.
With the camera powering up in a zippy second, usefully the hidden Leica-branded 4.6x optical zoom starts at a wide angle 28mm, so is ideally suited to group portraits and landscape shots, composed via the bright 2.7-inch, 230k dot resolution LCD screen at the rear. There's the further ability to adjust screen settings to increase visibility when holding the camera at arm's length and shooting over the heads of a crowd. Since there's not much on this Lumix to get a firm grip on when shooting pictures handheld, the lens is stabilised courtesy of Power OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation), said to be twice as effective as Panasonic's previous implementations of OIS, not that in practice we noticed.
Returning more effectively here is Panasonic's Intelligent Auto mode (iA), now co-opted by nearly every other rival compact in its class, and which allows users to simply point the camera at a scene and a subject and have the FP8 automatically choose the most appropriate settings. No need for beginners to bother manually selecting macro mode when the camera will do it for you.
This time iA handily has its own button to the right of the shutter release that lets photographers quickly flip between this setting and whichever alternative shooting mode was previously selected with a press of the dedicated "mode" button top left of the back plate.
The other capture mode choices are "normal" auto along with 28 scene modes and an additional My Scene mode, which provides a shortcut to one scene option in particular - portrait for example. Ticking the boxes for the latest must haves Panasonic has also included a 1280 x 720 pixels HD video shooting option, though the optical zoom is "frozen" at the point recording begins so cannot be adjusted mid-filming, which is limiting.
Curiously, and while we're having a grumble, there's no automatic cover protecting the FP8's lens glass when the camera is not in use, meaning that it inadvertently attracts smudges and fingerprints when extracting the camera from pocket or bag. Also, the lens location top right of the faceplate, as with Sony Cyber-shots, ensures the odd finger-end occasionally creeps into shot - most likely to happen if handing the camera to someone else for that quick you-and-your-mates holiday snap. Similarly, middle fingers can get in the way of the lozenge-shaped integral flash with a maximum 5.5 metre range at the front. Such compromises are perhaps inevitable when bringing a smaller compact to market.
For those wanting to forego the use of flash to achieve more natural looking results, a manually selectable range of a broader than usual ISO 80 through ISO 1600 is offered, with an only-if-you're-desperate boosted option of up to ISO 6400 equivalent accessed via High Sensitivity scene mode.
Thankfully then the camera's operation is otherwise swift, responsive and reliable. Maximum resolution JPEGS are written to memory - removable SD or SDHC card or 40MB internal cache - in a couple of seconds, metering mostly on the money. Smooth and steady is the best way of describing the zoom action, lens travelling from maximum wide angle to extreme telephoto in around 3 seconds.
Maximising user-friendly functionality, Panasonic has provided a "Q Menu" (Quick Menu) button secreted away in the bottom right hand corner of the backplate and providing a shortcut to key shooting settings via a toolbar running across the top of the LCD screen. This then provides drop down user-selectable options that furthers the camera's overall user-friendly feel.
Despite our reservations about some aspects of the FP8's functionality, outdoors with plenty of light around the camera is able to pick up a fair amount of detail and deliver crisp, sharply focused results. Indoors, switch off the flash to avoid giving your subjects that rabbit-in-the-headlights look and soft images are the inevitable result, even with OIS activated.
Staying with low light operation, even images at ISO 400 bear witness to speckles of image noise creeping in, if, to be fair, shots up to and including ISO 800 remain perfectly usable; higher than this is best avoided. So go near that High Sensitivity scene option at your peril.
Colour wise, we preferred the boosted saturation provided by selecting the "vivid" option to the camera's occasionally drab default setting, the former often closer to the actual scene anyway. So make a few rudimentary adjustments and this camera can deliver the goods.
Ultimately what you're getting with the Lumix DMC-FP8 is a fairly standard line up of features, but at a premium price thanks to that metal build and swish/samey styling. Incidentally, for completists the FP8 is available in red, black or silver bodied versions, distracting further from the fact that while there's not a lot that's new about the FP8 it's a competent example of its kind anyway.