Panasonic has really got the hang of this digital camera lark. Whether you're an experienced amateur photographer, an enthusiast or simply someone who's looking for a compact digital snapper, the chances are that Panasonic has something that's right for you.

The Lumix DMC-LC80 is a smart little camera that has a lot to offer. For a very reasonable asking price of £195 you get a 5-megapxiel CCD and a Lecia DC Verio-Elmarit lens with the seemingly standardat- this-price 3x optical zoom. If you take advantage of Panasonic's initial offer, you can also get a 64MB SD card thrown in alongside the standard 16MB one.

Size and usability

Picking up the Panasonic LC80 for the first time, it feels reassuringly solid and weighty; an impression that remained constant throughout the time we were using it. It may be small, but it's incredibly solid, and while its face-on dimensions are very slight, it's pretty chunky from the side and the slight bulge where the fingers of your right hand wrap around it add to the feeling of security and comfort.

Around the back, the DMCLC80 gives some indication of where corners have been cut to reach this price point. The 1.5-inch LCD monitor is pretty bright and clear, but it's large enough for only the most basic checking of results on the fly. You'll have to rely on it for shooting as well, as the optical viewfinder is seriously small, and of no real use.

The dial mechanism for choosing shooting and playback modes fares better, and the four-way controller below it makes it a breeze to get through the menu system, which in turn is intuitive to get to grips with. The dial control gives you access to a number of quick options, including a simple mode for pointand- click shooting.

The shutter control sits atop the camera, with the zoom easily accessible next to it. (Also up there is the on-off switch, which is quite easy to knock in transit, therefore affecting both battery life and possibly causing you to scratch the lens if the camera isn't in a case.) One major advantage this camera has over some supersaver snappers we've seen is the response time.

Panasonic's Venus Engine LSI works wonders, both in terms of image quality, which we'll come back to, and the response times this camera is capable of achieving. Instead of keeping you waiting while it writes an image to memory, the DMC-LC80 is ready and waiting to go almost immediately.

It also offers a Mega Burst Consecutive Shooting facility, which enables you take up to nine consecutive shots at just below three a second.

Battery life proved to be good. The camera comes with a battery charger and a brace of AAA batteries. A good thorough charge overnight saw this camera through a weekend away in Brussels without a hitch, and that was with plenty of playing back images on the screen as well as shooting.

On the downside, the DMC-LC80's compact frame means that the flash sits very close to the lens, resulting in the occasional bout of red-eye, even with reduction selected. It also suffers from a degree of camera shake in low-light situations, which is pretty understandable but worth a mention.

But all this clever design and features would be for naught, if the resulting pictures weren't up to scratch. Thankfully, the DMCLC80 exceeds expectations for a camera at this price point. The word that immediately springs to mind when reviewing images from this camera is crisp. You really get the impression the 5-megapixel sensor is backed up by the on-board processing every inch of the way. And while the lens may only be fronting a compact camera, there's bags of detail on offer when the images are blown up.

Noise levels aren't at all bad, considering the price, and while blowing the images up dramatically reveals problems, for the target market's standard-sized prints this camera is more than capable. Dynamic range is also as good as you could expect from such as compact camera, with blooming kept to a bare minimum.

The Panasonic proves adept in terms of exposure accuracy, getting it right most of the time without recourse to more advanced tactics - only a particularly overcast afternoon giving it real problems. Colour reproduction is at a similarly high level, with bright tones remaining bright, while more muted shades are treated with respect and not over-emphasised.

All in all, the Panasonic DMCLC80 is an absolute bargain. If you see anyone taking pictures with a mobile phone, point them in the direction of this budget beauty... Shaun Marin

Via PhotoRadar