One thing that's immediately obvious with the LX7 is that it's built around the same basic chassis as the LX5. From the dimensions to the general design, handling and the control layout, pretty much nothing has changed. Build quality is good, as is product assembly. Plus, the camera body gives good grip and all the controls respond well.
Panasonic has, however, made two noteworthy additions. First, on the back of the camera there's a new clickable ND/Focus switch located just under the thumb. This allows you to switch to manual focusing or to activate the inbuilt neutral density filter (this can be handy when shooting in full daylight to extend the exposure time when you can't close the diaphragm or reduce sensitivity). The second new feature can be found on the front of the camera, as a control ring has appeared around the lens.
Lens rings seem to be all the rage right now in expert compacts, recently spotted in the likes of the Canon S100 and the Sony RX100. Here, however, it can only be used to control one setting: aperture. It's therefore marked with settings from f/1.4 to f/8, using the same kind of lettering as Leica lenses. But this new control ring has three key limitations. First of all, the lens ring is only of use in A and M modes. Second, it can't be assigned any alternative settings. Third, as the aperture doesn't remain constant when you zoom, the first settings on the ring have no use once you zoom—at 90 mm, the first five settings equate to f/2.3! In the end, Canon and Sony have made much better use of their lens rings. In the LX7, only a few aperture priority buffs and manual mode addicts will really find use for it.
The LX7 has a pretty nice screen. It's sharp and viewing angles are good, but onscreen image quality still isn't really accurate enough (light greys wash out to white, colour fidelity isn't great) to sort and delete photos onscreen or to fine-tune the white balance, for example.
The LX7 interface is typical Panasonic stuff. It's nice and clear but it's rather limited when it comes to customisable options—unlike Panasonic's G-series model, the LX7 doesn't let you choose which settings are available in the Q menu, for example. It could also have been nice to let users change the manual focus setting on the ND/Focus switch to something else, as it may not be useful all the time.
Yes! Finally we've found a responsive compact!
The LX7 is a speedy piece of kit from the moment you power it up. It takes a first shot 1.4 seconds after you press the "On" switch. The autofocus is up to the usual Panasonic standards too—in other words, it works very well. Plus, photo-to-photo turnaround barely takes as long as you'll need to lift your finger off the shutter-release and press it again—and that's in both Jpeg and RAW modes!
But it was the burst mode that really blew us away. The LX7 shoots 12 frames in 1.2 seconds, before stopping to save the shots. Here too, the speed is maintained when shooting in both Jpeg and RAW! What's more, you don't need to wait until the LX7 has finished saving the shots to start another burst. In Jpeg mode, if you press the shutter-release two seconds after the first burst ends, the LX7 shoots another six photos at the same speed.
The Sony RX100 raised the bar to a whole new level with its 1" (8.8 x 13.2 mm) sensor and its very advanced image processing system, delivering impeccable images up to 1600 ISO. In comparison, the Panasonic LX7 has a standard-sized sensor. This has a usable size of around 4.8 x 6.4 mm and is 4:3 format (although Panasonic's "multi-aspect-ratio" technology does make the notion of sensor size a little more complicated). So in spite of the fact that it has half the resolution of the Sony sensor, the Panasonic LX7 has a higher pixel density. The Panasonic sensor therefore has everything to prove in our ISO tests.
But things get a bit more complicated when you factor in the lens. The LX7 lens "opens" 2/3 of an f-stop more at wide-angle and two f-stops more at telephoto. In theory, then, the LX7 should be able to stay at 800 ISO at times when the RX100 pushes up to 1600 ISO or even 3200 ISO.
And, on the whole, the LX7 does a decent job of handling sensitivity. Although noise does start to appear from 200 ISO, it remains very discreet up to 800 ISO. There's a real improvement compared with the LX5.
The problem is that Panasonic's image processing system is much harsher than Sony's, and at 1600 ISO, images are prone to artefacts: colours falter and block-colour backgrounds start to get a kind of criss-cross "woven" look. The Sony system smooths images more, but then it cleverly restores textures to a certain extent. Ultimately, we think this makes for a better trade-off in the final shots. So while some users will no doubt like the more natural, more raw-looking photos in this Panasonic camera, most people will probably prefer shots from the Sony at 3200 ISO to those from the Panasonic at 1600 ISO. All in all, unless you're allergic to Sony's more heavy-handed approach to processing, Panasonic's faster lens won't be enough to compensate for the difference in quality.
As is often the way with Panasonic, the lens is of exemplary quality. At its wide-angle setting, the LX7 lacks a little sharpness at full aperture, but at f/2.8, it gives the sharpest, most detailed image of all small-sensor compacts out there (but the excellent lens in Sony's RX100 and its 20 Megapixels obviously trump the LX7 on sharpness).
It's the same story at telephoto settings too, as the LX7 lens gives sharp and consistent results across the frame. In the middle, it gives the best level of detail of any small-sensor model. In the corners of the frame, it even outdoes the Sony RX100, which is less consistent in quality at its telephoto setting!
Note, however, that Panasonic makes generous use of its image-correction software tools in the LX7. With wide-angle shots, the difference between a RAW shot (developed with UFraw) and the final Jpeg is quite spectacular, as the camera's internal software corrects distortion and chromatic aberration on the fly. The result is remarkably effective, but the angle of view is slightly out as a result: in 16:9 format—the largest format available (thus the format at which distortion is most visible and the most corrections need to be made)—the RAW angle of view works out at 80° (or an equivalent focal length of around 23 mm) while Jpeg is limited to 74° (equivalent to 25 mm).
On the whole, if the RX100 is out of your price range, the LX7 has a top-quality lens and its sensor isn't bad either. However, before we make any final decision about this particular model, we'd rather wait and see how the LX7 compares with the new expert compacts of summer 2012 that haven't made their way into our test lab yet, like the Samsung EX2F and the Nikon P7700.
Thanks to its new CMOS sensor, the LX7 can now film Full HD video at 50 frames per second. The image is clean and clear with no noise, but the automatic white balance gave an unusually cold result in our test lab—that's nothing to get too worried about, but you may find you need to switch to manual white balance sometimes when filming indoors.
Sound quality is good, with a nice stereo effect and voices that sound clear and easy to understand. Some models record a slightly softer sound, like Sony's RX100, but that's only something you're likely to notice with the most metallic sounds (like the little train set in our test video).