Weighing barely more than 100g and costing around £100, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 is light on the pocket in more ways than one. It also captures 14.1-megapixel shots and 720p high-definition videos. But is it actually any good?
With its rounded edges and lightweight plastic casing, the S3 feels more like a toy than a serious piece of photographic kit. That's particularly true if you opt for one of the more colourful incarnations on offer, such as the pink, purple, red or white models.
Not everyone wants to look like they're carrying around one of David Bailey's cast-offs, though, so the S3's friendly design is likely to win it plenty of fans -- not least because it makes the device so light.
Despite its cheery demeanour, the S3 packs some serious technology under its plasticky shell. Sadly, this doesn't include a Leica lens -- Panasonic clearly saves these for its more grown-up models. The Lumix DC Vario lens is decent enough, though, with 4x optical magnification giving a 35mm-equivalent focal range of 28mm to 112mm.
Even more impressive is the image sensor, which can produce pictures of up to 4,320x3,240 pixels. That's more than some cameras twice this price are capable of. High resolutions extend to the camera's video capabilities, with 720p HD movie capture. Some cameras are edging into the 1080p area, but to have any kind of HD recording capability on a device this small and cheap is pretty impressive.
The camera's 'intelligent auto' mode combines optical image stabilisation with face detection, intelligent ISO control and intelligent scene-selection features. If that isn't enough intelligence for you, the 2.7-inch monitor on the rear is also described by Panasonic as an 'intelligent' LCD screen. We can't for the life of us work out why, though. Apart from showing low-res (230,000-pixel) versions of your subjects and shots, it's not particularly clever in the slightest. Touch controls are completely absent, so you have to rely on buttons to navigate menus and the like.
Thankfully, the S3 is very straightforward to operate. A mode button allows you to select from four different types of operation: normal, intelligent auto, scene and movie. The menu/select button brings up a fairly standard selection of options. Navigation is carried out via a familiar directional pad, with the delete button doubling up as a 'back' button. Our one small gripe is that the zoom rocker is placed on the rear of the device, rather than on the top, which we find more convenient.
In general, we were quietly impressed by the S3's performance. Ready to shoot in just over 2 seconds, it's quick and quiet, apart from a brief high-pitched whine when the lens first extends.
Well-lit environments are the camera's forte. Our exterior daylight tests produced some remarkably strong shots for such a low-cost camera. There's plenty of detail to soak in and some beautifully deep, rich colours to appreciate.
You may notice a little lens distortion around the edges and there's some chromatic aberration, but neither is particularly shocking. Look closely and you'll see some noise in areas of solid colour and shadow, but this too is pretty negligible, and shots are largely blur-free, thanks to the optical image stabilisation.
Indoors, the story isn't quite as happy. Despite ISO sensitivity settings of up to 1,600 -- plus a separate high-sensitivity shooting mode -- this isn't a camera you can rely on to take good low-light shots without the flash. Noise and colour distortion set in fairly quickly, making everything look like a grainy, tinted mess.
On the video side, we weren't that impressed by the S3's take on 720p high definition. Motion is jerky and wobbly. Colours are unpredictable, edges aren't terribly sharp and you can't zoom while you're filming.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-S3 is a great little device. It's cheap, light, easy to use, and takes a pretty good picture given the right conditions. Its low-light performance is something of a disappointment, but, if you can live with using the flash when shooting indoors, the S3 provides very convincing evidence that you don't have to pay a fortune if you want to take a good photo.
Edited by Charles Kloet