Each year, Leica releases a handful of digital cameras with specs almost identical to a handful of models in Panasonic's line. Among this year's batch is the Leica V-Lux 1, which corresponds to Panasonic's Lumix DMC-FZ50. If you're going to relabel a product, the DMC-FZ50 is certainly a good choice. This superzoom sports a 12x optical, 35mm-to-420mm, f/2.8-to-f/3.7 zoom lens and a 10.1-megapixel CCD sensor, and it has a body that's as big and heavy as an SLR's.
While this last part may scare off some users, more seasoned shooters who value image quality over small size will appreciate what this camera has to offer. As usual, the Leica version of this camera carries a significantly higher price tag (around £500 as opposed to around £350), but it does come with Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, a £60 extra. So, if you don't count yourself among the family of photographers who find value in the classic Leica red-dot logo and the service and support that come with it, then you may want to look at the Panasonic version.
The Lumix did perform slightly faster than the DMC-FZ50 in our tests, but it also had slightly worse JPEG compression. Given our frugal, proletarian upbringing, we know what we'd do, but you'll have to make that decision for yourself.
Leica's V-Lux 1 is large, but if you can get past that, you can enjoy some of its better features. For example, it includes a rotating, flip-out LCD screen to make extreme high- and low-angle shooting easier, as well as a hotshoe so you can add an accessory flash, should the camera's built-in, pop-up flash not be powerful or versatile enough for you. Unfortunately, the LCD screen measures only 51mm (2 inches) diagonally, but flip-out LCDs tend to be smaller, so it's on a par with the competition.
Its electronic viewfinder (EVF), like most EVFs, is rather coarse to look at, but again, is roughly equivalent to its competitors'. In continuous-shooting mode, it doesn't go blank as some EVFs do between shots. Instead, it shows you the last image shot, which doesn't help if you want to recompose or try to follow a subject while shooting a burst of shots. This makes burst shooting somewhat random and much less useful, though this is true of all EVFs. If you haven't ever shot with an EVF camera, we suggest you try one out in a shop before you make your final decision.
As the camera is styled like an SLR, it's no surprise that you'll want to use two hands, especially since Leica has put the focus controls on the left side of the lens barrel. We found this convenient when switching between AF modes, choosing a focus point or making a quick switch to manual focus. All other buttons find their home on the right side of the camera, and all are within reach of either your thumb or your forefinger. The focus/autoexposure lock button would've been more comfortable to use if it was further to the right, but it wasn't out of reach.
Two dials, one in the front of the grip and one on the back, let you change aperture and shutter-speed settings respectively, when in the appropriate exposure modes. This made shooting in manual mode faster and more convenient than with cameras that make you hold a button while turning a dial to set either aperture or shutter speed in manual mode. In addition to one ring to control the zoom, Leica includes a second ring on the lens barrel for manual focus. When you move the ring, a box pops up in the centre of the LCD or EVF with a magnified portion of your subject to make it easier to see if you're in focus. If you press the shutter button halfway, the box disappears, or it won't appear at all if you press the button before touching the ring. You can still change the focus, though, so be careful.
A 710mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery powers the camera, is conveniently placed inside the grip, and loads from the bottom. Leica says that it should work for approximately 360 pictures in program AE mode, when measured according to the industry standard CIPA guidelines. The V-Lux 1 stores images to SD cards, which load into the right side of the camera. The camera is SDHC-compliant, which means that you can use it with SDHC memory cards as well as standard SD cards. SDHC cards allow the SD format to grow to capacities larger than 2GB but aren't compatible with all card readers or cameras.