Where the FZ7 saw a fairly major redesign of the FZ5, the new camera is externally almost identical to its predecessor, with a few new chrome accents (around the lens and on the mode dial) and the larger electronic viewfinder eyepiece the only visible changes. Not that I'm complaining; the FZ7 was a very handsome camera, and one that did an excellent job of recreating the handling and control of an SLR in a very compact package.
In your hand
The small size doesn't harm the FZ8'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 FZ8 feels perfectly safe to use 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 FZ8 is powered by a Lithium Ion pack that sits beside the SD card slot under a sturdy spring-hinged cover. It's the same battery, but the new Venus III processor pushes the battery life up slightly (to 380 shots, CIPA standard)). Images are stored on SD (new for the FZ8 is SDHC compatibility) or MMC cards - there is also 27MB of internal memory.
The new screen is the same size as the FZ7's, but has had a resolution boost to a much more useful 207,000 pixels. This means it's as bright and sharp as ever, but is now also capable of showing a lot more detail too. It's one of the nicest screens we've seen in a long time.
In a welcome move the electronic viewfinder has been fairly substantially upgraded - it's now bigger, brighter and has almost 70% more pixels (188,000 vs 114,000). This makes it not only a lot more usable than the FZ7 - it's now one of the best on the market.
The pop-up flash is activated manually by a small button on the rear of the camera. The range remains the same as it was on the FZ8 (0.3 to 6.0m at the wide end using auto ISO).
Of course the big selling point of the FZ7 is that huge zoom. The Leica-designed 12x (36-432mm equiv. F2.8-3-3) optic appears to be identical to the lens on the FZ7 (and indeed the FZ5 before that). As before the FZ8 is supplied with a screw-in filter adaptor and a flower lens hood.
Again the lens extends when the camera is powered up, extending by around an inch at the wide end of the zoom.
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 it's still 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 sits at the front of the grip. 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. It's also very quiet, and has two zoom speeds according to how far you push the zoom lever.
The biggest change to the operation of the FZ7 was the inclusion of a 'joystick' and quick menu for commonly changed settings (ISO, white balance etc). The joystick is, thankfully, still here, and the functionality of the quick menu has been expanded to include more functions.
The four direction keys are used to navigate menus, and each also has a dedicated function in record mode.