Externally the FZ5 is almost identical to its predecessor, the FZ3. The only changes are a slightly redesigned grip with a larger area of textured covering, which improves handling. More important is the relocation of the shutter release at the front of the grip, which is where it should have been in the first place. The only other change of note is the addition of a new dedicated image stabilizer button (why? to make the system easier to demonstrate in the shop I suspect). The camera is available in silver (as tested) or black (which in my opinion is much nicer).
As with the FZ3, the first thing you notice is how small it is - especially compared to big brother the FZ20. The design is simple, boxy even, and is dominated by the huge (for a compact camera) 12x F2.8 zoom. It may look like it should squirt water when you press the shutter, but the basic, 'mini SLR' design is functional rather than decorative - which shows Panasonic has got its priorities right.
Side by side
To give an idea of just how small the DMC-FZ5 is, here's a shot of it with the Panasonic FZ20 (right) and the new Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z5 - itself a pretty diminutive camera, but one that looks positively bulky next to the DMC-FZ5.
In your hand
The smaller size doesn't harm the FZ5's handling one bit. Quite the opposite in fact; the camera feels stable, safe and solid, and operation of the main controls (zoom and shutter release is very easy. The excellent handling - along with the image stabilization - means the FZ5 (along with identical twin the FZ4) is probably the only 'super zoom' camera I have ever felt really safe using with one hand. It is very well balanced and not too heavy (though inevitably you'll get less camera shake if you support the right side of the camera with your 'spare' hand). The new grip and repositioned shutter release are the icing on the cake. Excellent.
The FZ5 is powered by a Lithium Ion pack that sits beside the SD card slot under a sturdy spring-hinged cover. The battery pack has a retaining clip, so there is no chance of it falling out when changing cards. We found battery life to be very good for a camera with an EVF and large lens - Panasonic quotes a 300 shot per charge figure (CIPA standard) - a 60-shot improvement over the FZ3. We found we could get well over 300 shots when using the EVF.
Images are stored on SD or MMC cards - a rather measly 16MB SD is supplied to get you started (well, as much of a start as 5 fine quality pictures at full resolution can be). The FZ5 only supports FAT16 formatted cards, meaning the biggest card you can use is 1GB.
The 130,000 pixel, 1.8-inch LCD screen is bright and clear, and has a high enough refresh rate to appear virtually lag-free - and it's much better than the FZ3's 1.5-inch LCD. It works well in practically every situation - though (as with all screens) it can be a little difficult to see in very bright direct sunlight. Like previous models it doesn't automatically 'gain up' in low light, but (unless it's very dark) it remains perfectly usable due to the fast lens and bright screen.
The 114K pixel electronic viewfinder (EVF) is identical to the one on the FZ3, and - though not a patch on the LCD - is bright and clear enough for use in most situations. There is a slight video lag - although Panasonic doesn't quote a refresh rate, I suspect it is a little lower than the main screen. It works well in bright light, and remains perfectly usable indoors at night under low lighting. It's not the best EVF we've ever seen, but for a 'budget' model it is very impressive.
The pop-up flash is activated manually by a small button on the rear of the camera. It is fairly high - around an inch from the top of the lens barrel, which should help minimize red-eye, and fairly powerful. With auto ISO you can use the flash from around 30cm to 4.5m, and it recycles very quickly. All the usual flash options (on, off, red-eye reduction, slow synch) are available; the red-eye reduction system is a simple single pre flash (around 0.8 seconds before the main exposure).
Of course the big selling point of the FZ5 is all that glass on the front. The Leica-designed 12x (36-432mm equiv.) optic is slightly slower (F2.8-3-3) than the FZ3, and has a slightly longer focal length (both due to the different sensor - we're presuming it's the same lens). Unlike the FZ20, there are no ED glass elements in this zoom and no manual focus ring. The zoom extends around 16mm on power up, after that all zooming is internal (the lens doesn't get any longer).
Panasonic supplies a 'flower' lens hood for use with the FZ5, which attaches via an adapter collar (which also accepts optional MC (multi-coated) and ND (neutral density) filters - though not at the same time. The hood reduces flare in bright light - especially at the wide end of the zoom. You can't leave it attached permanently, however, as it can interfere with the AF illuminator in low light, and block the flash at short subject distances.
Another sturdy hinged flap (on the right hand side of the camera viewed from the back) covers the USB connector and DC input. The connector is USB 2.0 compatible, but only at 'Full Speed' (which is USB 2.0-speak for slow old USB 1.1 - 12Mbits/ sec). The same port is used (with a different cable) for audio/video output.
The shutter release now sits at the front of the grip - a much better and more natural position than the FZ3's release. The zoom lever is a ring around the shutter release. The zoom motor isn't stepless, but it is darned near - unlike some superzooms, which leap from one zoom position to the next in huge steps. Zooming is smooth, and fast - though we would like to have seen at least a two-speed system to make using such a huge range a little easier.
The main mode dial - also on the top of the camera - gives fast access to the main exposure modes. The heart symbol is the now-ubiquitous Panasonic 'simple' mode, which features fewer options and large, friendly on-screen symbols. Note that macro has its own mode - you cannot change exposure (save for AE compensation) when shooting macro.