The Panasonic Lumix GX7 (left) and Lumix LX100 side-by-side. They offer same sized Four Thirds sensors, but the LX100's lens is fixed where the GX7's is interchangeable. 

It was fine once upon a time for the compact camera department to ignore and be ignored by the department that made interchangeable lens system cameras. The difference between the two types of cameras was so great and the target market usually so different that there was very little chance of one stepping on the toes of the other. There would be times, inevitably, when one would produce a camera that the other was extremely jealous of, and there may have been restrained congratulations over the fence at lunchtime, but largely the two worlds would remain quite apart. 

The line between the compact and the SLR began to blur somewhat with the disruptive influence of the Advanced Photo System (APS), and while the system itself was short lived, the cameras it generated have made a lasting impression. Today’s compact system cameras are only a logical progression, and the butch high-end compacts that we enjoy today are the grandchildren of the feature-rich ambition that dropped as seeds the day the flower heads of the APS system dried up and died. 

The birth of the gap-filling high-end digital compact

The craving for high-end compacts was developed in the period during which compact cameras were all that digital enthusiasts could afford. To cater for their SLR-fed palate and compensate for their frustrations, compacts were made that acted like DSLRs, looked a bit more like DSLRs than compact cameras and which even had the turny wheels and dials that SLRs used too. I think we rather liked those cameras, and were amazed by what they could do (and wondered why our film compacts couldn’t have PASM modes). And our taste for the small camera that offers lots of control and better-than-average image quality did not go away the day DSLRs became cheap enough that most photographers could comfortably afford one.  

Announced September 18, 2000, the PowerShot G1 sported a 3.3 megapixel CCD sensor, 1.8 inch fully articulated LCD and Raw shooting. The Canon G series has been through more than a decade of evolution and remains attractive to enthusiasts looking for a compact with lots of manual controls.

These days we have the very DSLR-like Canon PowerShot G series – the Godfathers of the advanced compact – and the drive has continued with larger sensors, more pixels and more DSLR-type functions in ever-smaller bodies. It is a great thing, but the desire for high image quality, and high spec bodies and lenses, has forced the price of these things in an ever upward path - some now are more expensive than the DSLRs this category was originally designed to just emulate. 

Nothing better to do - thankfully

The rise and dominance of today’s high-end compact camera has more to do with the fact that the squabbling low-end of the market is being ferociously digested by the very smart smartphones that keep arriving and magnetically holding the gaze of the ex-camera-buying public. With nothing to do save some thumb twiddling, the main camera brands have suddenly got serious about the advanced and enabled compact category and are finally paying it the amount of attention that photographers have wanted for a long time (we think that's a very good thing). So in many ways the decimation of the junk-end compact market is great news for the serious photographer, as the cameras brands no longer have the capacity-consuming distraction of the mass-mass market. 

The Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II is sold alongside the preceding model, offering a 1.5" sensor that's only 20% smaller than Canon's APS-C sensor. 

The introduction of the big sensor compact was a great thing, and the interest around Canon’s almost-APS-C PowerShot G1 X demonstrated the existence of a demand almost all brands seemed to have been ignoring. What was magic about that camera was not that it was a compact camera with a big sensor, but that it combined the ideals of a small body with high image quality. The demand existed not because photographers want compacts that take good pictures, but because their good-picture cameras were too big.

Where fixed and interchangeable systems collide

With the emergence of the Micro Four Thirds system as a ‘good picture system’, and now that we have APS-C cameras with smaller bodies, the demand for small cameras that take good pictures is being met from two angles – small changeable lens models from above and high quality compacts from below. That makes me wonder what the photographer has in his mind when he walks into the camera store to buy something that he can take away with him at the weekend. He will want something that is going to take pictures that come close to the quality he is used to from his SLRs, but which is small enough to take to a romantic dinner without obscuring the tablecloth or tripping the waiter from under his chair. But is the picture in his head of a compact camera or a small system camera? 

The enthusiast-focused LX100 sports a fixed 24-75mm equivalent lens with dials for adjusting aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation, as well as a manual focus ring.

When we put the new Panasonic Lumix LX100 next to the same company’s Lumix DMC-GX7 and Lumix DMC-GM5 we might have to spend some time deciding what it is that we actually want. Here we are faced with cameras that use the same sized sensor (although not all of it, in the case of the Lumix LX100), the same EVF and essentially the same menu systems and layout.

The LX camera has a lens that doesn’t come off while the GX and GM cameras have access to close to 60 lenses via Panasonic’s own G system, Olympus’ Pen and OM-D lenses as well as the independent contributions to the Micro Four Thirds system of Tamron, Sigma, Samyang, Voigtlander and Zeiss – not to mention those cheap C-mount CCTV lenses on eBay. Suddenly we have to question the existence of the high-end compact, and whether it is a category that we actually have a need for anymore. Has Panasonic produced something that just competes with its own current line-up, and which is a relic of a battle we no longer need to fight?

So, what’s the difference?

Should we compare the Panasonic Lumix LX100 and the Lumix GX7 with an eye to finding a small good-quality camera, there seems at first not much to choose between them. The $899 / £799 we’d have to shell out for the Lumix LX100 would buy a Lumix DMC-GX7 with a standard zoom and we’d have a bit to spare towards another lens. But part of the attraction of the Lumix LX100 is its lens – the 24-75mm equiv. Leica F1.7-2.8 DC Vario-Summilux. The equivalent 12-35mm X Vario F2.8 for the Lumix DMC-GX7 costs as much as the Lumix LX100 on its own. 

In addition, the Lumix LX100 has features that the Lumix DMC-GX7 can’t match: in-camera raw processing, depth-by-defocus focusing, 4K video, 11fps burst shooting, for example. It also has the features that make the Lumix DMC-GX7 an attractive camera to serious enthusiasts, such as Highlight Shadow curve adjustments, silent shooting mode, pinpoint AF, focus peaking and a level gauge. 

The Lumix G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm F1.2 sports an aperture dial and a $1600 price tag.

To become the proud owner of nine aperture blades the Lumix DMC-GX7 owner needs to buy the F1.2 Nocticron, which costs a third again the price of the Lumix LX100. The Vario-Summilux of the Lumix LX100 has nine blades included in the price.

How much is it worth to have a clicky aperture dial around a lens on a compact camera? Some people couldn’t care less, but plenty of others will value this feature of the Lumix LX100 very highly – not to mention the traditional top plate controls for exposure compensation and shutter speed adjustment. Again, you have to go to the $1600/£1200 Nocticron to find clicky apertures on an AF lens for the Micro Four Thirds system, let alone one that does it in 1/3 stop increments.

And the lens doesn't even come off

The downsides of the Lumix LX100 compared to the Lumix DMC-GX7 might be that the camera doesn’t use the whole sensor for image recording - the same device that produces 16-million-pixel images in the Lumix DMC-GX7 can only manage 12.7-million in the Lumix LX100. Astonishingly, Panasonic’s signature touch screen functions are simply not present in this model – so the AF point has to be toggled across the frame instead of the instantaneous magic touch AF in the Lumix DMC-GX7. 

The LX100 uses a multi-aspect sensor, affording some creative composition opportunities, but reducing the sensor's maximum resolution output to about 12.7MP.

And the lens doesn’t come off! Perhaps though, when you have a lens with the specification that this Leica Vario Summilux has – F1.7 at 24mm and F2.8 at 75mm, for starters – you mightn’t feel the need to take it off. It certainly is a much more interesting and creatively useful lens than any of Panasonic’s G series kit lenses, on paper and from the short time I had with a preproduction model at least. With a nine-bladed iris it promises delightful bokeh, and those wide apertures suggest an ability to isolate a subject from its background with the look of a system camera. With Power O.I.S as well, experience tells me that I’ll should be able to handhold the camera with shutter speeds at least three stops longer than would otherwise be safe. 

The longer I look at the Lumix LX100 the more convinced I become that the time hasn’t yet arrived when we no longer need the advanced compact. This model does still meet a lot of needs that the G series, and CSCs in general, can’t satisfy. It offers most of the important elements of an interchangeable lens camera designed for decent photographers, but maintains a scale that allows it to fit into pockets and bags that would not hold a Lumix DMC-GX7. The matching of lens and sensor into a single fixed unit has allowed a specification that exceeded what could be managed in an interchangeable unit, and which can be done for a fraction of the cost.

At $899 / £799 the Lumix LX100 is undoubtedly a high-priced compact, but it does still offer good value when compared to the Lumix DMC-GX7 when all is taken into account. As for how much we’ll miss those 3.2 million pixels, though, for that we’ll have to wait and see.

Damien Demolder is a senior contributing writer for DPReview and the former editor of Amateur Photographer Magazine, the world's oldest weekly photographic publication.