It's not the prettiest camera on the block, but the LZ2 is very compact when you consider it is packing a full 6x optical zoom lens. The all-plastic construction keeps the weight down (though with a set of AA batteries installed it does feel fairly hefty), and seems very well put together. The control layout will be immediately familiar to users of any recent Panasonic Lumix camera (it's almost identical to the FZ5, for example). As is increasingly the case with compact cameras, there is no optical viewfinder, but the LCD screen has been upgraded to a 2.0-inch (though it's only 85,000 pixels). The front grip is well placed, though the lack of any textured surfaces makes the LZ2 feel a little unsafe in the hand (I had a few near-misses where I lost grip on the smooth camera body) - something you can help by using the wrist strap and using two hands to shoot.
In your hand
Despite the current vogue for ultra-compact cameras, there's no denying the advantage of a slightly bulkier camera when it comes to the actual business of taking pictures. Everyone who tried the camera had reservations about its design, and everyone agreed it was a lot easier to handle than very small models, such as Canon's IXUS range or Panasonic's own FX7. Aside from a slight lack of purchase when you've got very dry hands (the glossy plastic surface mentioned above), the LZ2 feels very secure - and very well balanced - in the hand. It's one of the few cameras I've tested recently that offers real stability for single-handed use (though, again, I'd recommend using both hands - it makes using the zoom easier, and feels safer).
The LZ2 uses two AA batteries that sit inside their own compartment under a sturdy sprung door on the base of the camera. If you use a decent set of NiMH rechargeables you should get up to 390 shots from a single charge (CIPA standard testing), which is pretty impressive stuff. We found it was perfectly possible to get over 200 shots on a standard pair of high power disposable AA cells, and you can extend the battery life slightly by use of the Economy mode.
The SD card slot sits under another fairly sturdy door on the right side of the camera (viewed from the rear). The LZ2 has 14MB of internal memory that is used whenever there is no card in the slot, and you can copy images between the internal memory and an SD card.
On the left side of the camera (from the rear) is a rubber compartment cover, behind which is the combined AV/USB port and DC-IN port (for use with the optional mains adaptor).
The 2.0-inch LCD screen is bright and clear, and has a high enough refresh rate to appear virtually lag-free. It works well in practically every situation - the 'TRM' design means it's even fairly usable in bright direct light. The resolution (85,000 pixels) is low for a 2.0-inch screen (which keeps the cost down), so looks a little 'pixellated', but it's not bad at all. The screen can be difficult to see in very low light (it does appear to 'gain up', just not very much).
The 37-222mm equiv. lens doesn't sport the Leica name (unlike the higher-end Lumix cameras), but it's got two aspherical lenses (and 3 aspherical surfaces) and - at 6x optical - has a much longer range than most compact cameras (and any camera in this price range). It's F2.8-4.5, which is a little slow at the long end, but the only way to keep the size down.
The lens retracts into the body when the camera is powered down, leaving the body around 1.6 inches deep - not exactly pocket-sized, but plenty small enough to carry around wherever you go. The lens extends to a maximum of 35mm (1.4 inches) at full zoom.
The rear controls are clustered around the same 'four-way' button set as most other current Panasonic cameras. As well as being used to navigate the on-screen menus each button has its own function in record mode. This gives you direct access to flash mode, AE compensation, AE bracketing, self-timer and quick review (for viewing or deleting the last shot taken without leaving record mode).
The top plate also has its fair share of controls. The shutter release sits inside the zoom rocker, both of which have a nice positive action. As is now the case with all new Lumix models, the Mega OIS image stabilizer gets its own, pointless, button. Below the shutter release is the power switch.
To the left of the shutter release sits the main mode dial. There are 8 positions on the dial: Movie mode, Macro mode, Economy mode (dims the LCD, more aggressive power-saving), Record mode, Playback, Simple mode, Scene 1 and Scene 2.
The small built-in flash isn't particularly powerful - it has a range of around 4.2 m (13.7 feet) at the wide end and 2.6 m (8.5 feet) at the tele end (using Auto ISO). Our only major complaint (see later) is the recycle time of just under 3 seconds per shot.