There's one clear downside to digital SLRs -- their size. Thanks to Micro Four Thirds cameras and their ilk, however, you can enjoy the advantages of near-professional image quality and interchangeable lenses without having to risk a hernia. Not only that, but you can also take home the brand new Lumix DMC-G3 for the relatively affordable sum of £550 without a lens, and about £600 with a 14-42mm lens. Are there any chinks in the G3's armour, then?
The Micro Four Thirds system is relatively new. It was developed by Panasonic and Olympus in a bid to make smaller alternatives to a dSLR that offered similar image quality and features. Micro Four Thirds cameras do away with the mirror and light box that you'll find taking up space inside most viewfinder-based dSLRs, which helps to reduce the bulk considerably.
The G3 certainly looks like a shrunken dSLR. That's particularly true of the black version, with red and white models also being available. The moulded right-hand grip and top-mounted viewfinder housing add to the feeling of authenticity.
Pick the G3 up and, if you're used to wielding full-size dSLRs, it'll look like you have the hands of a giant. Having said that, we'd be lying if we suggested the G3 was in any way pocket-sized. The body weighs 336g, and, once you've added a lens, that will rise to well over half a kilo.
The other notable aspect of the G3's design is the inclusion of both an electronic viewfinder and a 3-inch fold-out LCD screen. The latter pivots so that you can twist and tilt it into a variety of positions, which is great for taking high- or low-angle shots, and even self-portraits.
The display is touch-sensitive, although the implementation of touch controls isn't as intuitive as we'd like. There's some use of on-screen sliders, for example, but the G3's touch panel isn't designed to respond to iPhone-like, natural gestures.
Also, Panasonic is reluctant to relinquish traditional controls altogether, so what you end up with is an odd combination of tappable on-screen options and old-fashioned physical button presses and dial turns. It takes a while to learn when you can and can't use touch commands. Touching the screen to focus on and track a specific object soon becomes second nature, however, and you'll wonder how you ever managed before.
It's worth noting that there's a surprisingly diverse selection of lenses to choose from, including compact pancake lenses, self-stabilised telephoto lenses, and even a 3D lens.
At the heart of the G3 is a Four Thirds-sized image sensor -- it's much larger than the sensors used by most compact cameras and the same size as those used in full-format dSLRs. Bigger is better when it comes to image sensors and the G3's newly minted Live MOS chip has the added benefit of a very high resolution -- 16 megapixels to be precise. Also present is a high-speed autofocus system that can lock onto a subject in as little as 0.1 seconds.
This is a camera that has been built with creative experimentation in mind. There are two auto modes -- standard 'intelligent auto' and 'intelligent auto plus', which adds some manual tools back into the mix via the touchscreen. Curiously, the auto modes need to be selected via a dedicated button -- the top-mounted mode dial is reserved for switching between the program, aperture- and shutter-priority, manual, scene, creative control (effects), and two user-customisable modes.
High-resolution shots can be taken in bursts of four frames per second, although this can be increased to 20fps if you drop the quality to 4 megapixels.
As well as still shots, the G3 can film video in 1080i high definition, at a smooth 50 frames per second. Movies are encoded in the AVCHD standard, which offers higher picture quality compared to some M-JPEG formats, while consuming less space on your memory card. Stereo sound will accompany your movies, courtesy of the top-mounted microphone.
Usefully, the touch-based autofocus feature works in movie mode just as it does when you're taking stills. A dedicated video button makes it quick and easy to start shooting.
An HDMI output is provided for hooking the camera up to a high-definition television, and further connectivity includes a combined USB and analogue AV port, and a remote socket. The camera has a hotshoe for accessories but there's also a decent built-in flash that pops up when you flick a switch on the side of the viewfinder housing.
The camera's performance is just as impressive as you'd hope. Our daylight test photos revealed deep but delicately balanced colours, plenty of fine detail, and low grain. The G3 also offers a great-looking 'bokeh' effect that throws your subject into sharp focus, while blurring the background.
The camera provides a pleasantly soft overall image, although it's possible to sharpen your shots, should you so wish. Indoor and low-light performance is also strong, with barely any picture noise at lower ISO settings and tonnes of visible detail right up to ISO 800.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 offers high-quality images, attractive features and fairly compact dimensions. It's very versatile and surprisingly good value for money too. Despite some minor issues with the touchscreen, we wholeheartedly recommend the G3 to anyone who wants the power and creativity of a dSLR without having to lug around a thundering great lump of plastic.
Edited by Charles Kloet