Panasonic already owns the Photokina 2014 spotlight with its CM1 camera phone announcement. Nothing else the Japanese manufacturer does at this week's photo show will come close to rivaling it for attention, though that doesn't mean the company isn't trying its best. Introduced alongside the CM1 is today's new LX100 camera, which takes the familiar Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor that Panasonic and Olympus have been pushing for many years now and fits it into an even more compact body.
MFT cameras have always been about reducing the necessary size for high-quality photography, and Panasonic sees the LX100 as the next logical step. A new quad-core CPU provides image processing good enough to handle 4K video recording at 25fps and shoot full-resolution stills at 11fps. The Leica-branded lens up front also opens up to a very wide f/1.7 aperture. Panasonic claims the LX100 is a real leap forward for image quality in its size class. One thing it certainly does offer is one of the most comprehensive sets of manual controls on a compact camera.
Scattered around the LX100's body, you'll find dials for manual shutter speed and exposure adjustment, aperture control and focus rings, and no less than three programmable function buttons. A separate slider switches the camera's aspect ratio: from 3:2 to 16:9 to 4:3, and there's even a square option to keep up with the Instagram crowd. Those are all generally desirable things, but when they are shrunken down to the LX100's size, their utility is somewhat diminished. In particular, the button cluster at the back of the camera is almost impossibly small to use, requiring you to always carefully select the particular key you want to press and never allowing for natural tactile interaction. It's a very prominent usability compromise that comes with the camera's small size.
Also underwhelming is the 1,025mAh battery, which is just about the bare minimum for a camera that will be powering either a 3-inch LCD display or an electronic viewfinder anytime it's turned on. The electronic viewfinder is unimpressive, exhibiting noticeable lag as you move the camera around to reframe the shot. It's large enough to be adequate for most users, but it's just not as satisfying as the best EVFs around. Having today tried out Samsung's NX1, which has an almost lag-free EVF, I'm feeling the LX100's failing here even more acutely.
I don't wish to make the LX100 sound like a total disappointment because it absolutely isn't. Panasonic's technical feat here is impressive, and the result is as cute as any high-powered camera we've seen in recent times. It just feels like Panasonic might have done better to sacrifice some of that manual flexibility in favor of making each individual control more usable. As it is, the LX100 is rich on options that many people will struggle to use.