Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

The 10-megapixel Lumix LX5 backs up its F2.0 ultra-wide-angle zoom lens (3.8X optical zoom, 24mm to 95mm) with manual controls for both still shots and video, a great macro mode that practically lets you touch the lens to your subject, fast access to focus controls, and a button layout that provides easy access to in-camera settings. On the back is a 3-inch LCD screen for framing your shots, but there's no optical viewfinder; instead, a proprietary hot-shoe connection lets you connect an eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF) that's compatible with Panasonic's G-series interchangeable-lens cameras.

Priced at $400 as of January 3, 2011, the Lumix LX5 resembles a miniaturized, fixed-lens version of Panasonic's interchangeable-lens , right down to the boxy, classic-looking frame, the pop-up flash, and the stand-alone lens cap. The LX5 is a larger-than-average point-and-shoot camera and won't fit in your pants pocket, but it's compact enough to slip into a jacket pocket or a purse.

Fast autofocus has become Panasonic's specialty over the past few years, and the LX5 continues the trend. You can power up the camera and snap a sharp shot within 1 second (assuming that you remember to remove the lens cap), and the camera rarely searches in and out as it locks focus on a subject.

A simple switch on the side of the lens lets you move quickly between autofocus, macro focus, and manual focus controls, and the LX5 offers stunning macro performance. With a minimum focus distance of 0.4 inch, this camera shines at extreme close-ups; you can practically touch the lens to your subject and get a crisp shot with a dramatically shallow depth of field.

You'll be glad you have so many manual options to choose from, because the LX5 isn't a great performer when it's set to Intelligent Auto mode. In PCWorld Labs' evaluations of image and video quality, which involved appraisals of test shots taken in Intelligent Auto mode, the Lumix LX5 turned in disappointing results in all four image-quality categories--exposure, color accuracy, sharpness, and distortion. The LX5 earned an overall image-quality rating of Fair, as most shots looked underexposed in comparison with the other cameras in our . The LX5 did much better when we adjusted and used manual settings.

Video quality, on the other hand, was excellent at the camera's automated settings. Indeed, the LX5 was among the best video shooters we saw in 2010. Our test footage captured in bright light looked sharp and smooth, and audio snagged by the LX5's on-board mono mic sounded crisp. Low-light video was less impressive at the camera's automated settings, but the LX5 does have adjustable ISO, white balance, and shutter settings to help you capture better footage in low-light situations. Overall, the LX5's video quality was judged superior, and the in-camera adjustments that it supports for shooting video are a significant step beyond anything else in its class.