Of the quintet of new Panasonic digital camera releases over summer 2010, the serious yet approachable-looking Lumix DMC-LX5, in succeeding the LX3, has been the one we've been keenest to get our mitts on to take a closer look. Why? Because it's possibly the most sophisticated non-interchangeable lens compact the company has released.
With a robust metal construction, and padded leather effect detailing to the handgrip, thickened in comparison with its forebear, the LX5 feels reassuringly solid. Dimensions are a pocketable 109.7 x 65.5 x 43mm and the camera weighs 271g with battery and SD memory card.
The LX5 has design echoes of the company's impressive GF1 hybrid, yet with non-swappable bright F/2.0 lens boasting an image-stabilised 3.8x optical zoom (up from 2.5x) and a focal range equivalent to 24-90mm in 35mm terms. Coupled with a 10.1-megapixel high sensitivity CCD, a pixel count which sounds modest on the face of it, its manufacturer promised at its European press launch that the LX5 delivers unrivalled image quality. Users can choose to shoot JPEG files, unprocessed RAW files, or a combination.
Up to ISO 12800 light sensitivity is offered - the sort of spec found on semi pro digital SLRs, but with a resolution drop above ISO 3200 - and, as a further nod to sophistication, this pocket model most notably echoes the GF1 by including a vacant hotshoe plus accessory port for optional Live View finder just below.
The most obvious competition then is not only Panasonic's own hybrids, but also Canon's enthusiast targeted G-series PowerShot camera range. Yet the LX5 is a more compact and overall neater solution when gripped in the palm, with a control layout that more obviously resembles a step up from a humble point and shoots lower down the Lumix range.
Sure to catch the eye of high-end amateurs or those stepping up from said snapshots, it also ticks the boxes for attendant must haves, with a dedicated video record button on the top plate for its high-definition movie clips recorded in a choice of AVCHD Lite or even more accessible Motion JPEG formats.
Another funky feature is the ability to swap image aspect ratios on the fly, courtesy of a physical switch mounted just above the lens barrel, rather than just as a software setting buried within the menu screens. The options here are the standard digital 4:3 ratio, plus 3:2 or elongated 16:9, and more unusually 1:1. It helps the camera feel more interactive and somehow more substantial, despite the relatively slender proportions. As we indicated at the outset, this is a camera that almost screams "touch me".
Before palms start to moisten however, there's the price to consider. The LX5 is a manufacturer's suggested £449.99. Ouch. That's identical to the FZ100, which we also felt was at least £50 over-priced, and indeed found it for a more realistic £390-420 online at time of writing.
Its manufacturer part justifies the premium outlay by claiming enhancements to both the camera's 10.1-megapixel CCD and image-processing engine - the magnificently named Venus Engine FHD - over its LX3 predecessor. Together they are claimed to offer boosted dynamic range and better low light performance.
Like its Lumix siblings, the DMC-LX5 also provides an Extra Optical Zoom option accessible in 4:3 ratio with incremental resolution decreases, namely 4.5x at 7 megapixels, 5.4x at 5 megapixels and 6.7x at 3 megapixels or under.
Other Lumix regulars likewise make a re-appearance, including the "Q.Menu" (Quick Menu) button on the backplate, a press of which calls up on-screen a time-saving drop down toolbar of essential shooting functions. The screen itself is a bright, class leading 3 inches with 460k-dot resolution that provides a more life-like relay of the scene before the lens than we're used to seeing on a compact. Scene and subject recognising and optimising intelligent Auto (iA) for point and shoot operation, My Colour modes (both via a twist of the top-mounted mode dial) are also present and correct, as is the selection of film simulation modes when the shooting dial is turned to a creative mode, such as program, aperture priority, shutter priority or manual for example.
In terms of picture quality, under clear bright skies the Panasonic LX5 acquits itself extremely well, holding detail in both highlights and shadows and, if images benefit from subtle Photoshop tweaks mainly for adjusting brightness and contrast to add definition to scenes and subjects, such requirements are minimal. Dull conditions are another matter; yet if the shots start to look particularly flat, then choosing the "Expressive" option from among the camera's on-board colour modes can provide a much needed dynamic boost.
In lower lighting, images hold up well for detail up to and including ISO 1600, at which point the LX5 gives a performance comparable to what lesser snapshots can achieve at the lower ISO 800 setting. At ISO 3200 noise/grain is starting to noticeably intrude, but not at ruinous levels. As indicated, above this and there's a resolution drop to 3 megapixels to limit the appearance of such degradation, which does have the knock on effect of pictures appearing a tad painterly. Still, if shooting abstracts, it might just work.
Ultimately though it's the sharpness and clarity delivered by the bright Leica branded lens that impresses. This camera doesn't leave you with the soft, slightly murky images delivered by your standard point and shoot.
There is clearly more to this camera than immediately meets the eye, as the LX5 comes across as a veritable pocket rocket and sports the physically smaller dimensions we imagined Micro Four Thirds hybrid models would deliver, when we first saw those cameras' press shots.
All we need now is to be able to swap the optic on the front, and thus quite possibly never need to have to buy another digital camera ever again. That will probably be the case in any event, as unfortunately you will need an extension on that overdraft to be able to purchase one for the too-high price being asked on launch.