Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX50
It's not just attractive, it's smartly designed. A highly legible menu system with the occasionally helpful descriptor (under Aerial Photo, it cautions Please turn off the camera when taking off or landing) plus a large joystick control make it easy to use and navigate, no matter how challenged your eyesight or coordination. The buttons are a bit small, on the other hand, and some features you'll probably never discover without the manual. For instance, you can tweak the white balance presets toward red or blue, which you get to by selecting the up arrow--exposure compensation--three times.
For operation, you have a choice among automatic, more automatic (a Simple mode with plain-English options), and preset automatic (18 scene modes, including the aforementioned Aerial Photo for shooting from airplane windows and two Baby modes, which store a birth date each for age-stamping your kids' photos). It has two automatic ISO setting modes, the typical mode which optimizes for the scene exposure, and Intelligent ISO, which also takes into account subject motion, and therefore selects from a higher set of ISO speeds. Other Panasonic niceties include optical image stabilization and an LCD High Angle mode for shooting overhead. The lens is a limited 28mm-to-102mm, 3.6x zoom, though the wide-angle certainly comes in handy for vertical applications, such as real estate.
Though it's hardly a speedster, the DMC-FX50 keeps up with the rest of its class pretty well. After a brief 1.5-second wakeup-to-first-shot interval, it shoots 1.3 seconds apart in good light, and 2 seconds with flash. Typical shutter lag is on the high side at 0.6 second, but competitive in dim light at 1.1 seconds. Depending upon shooting mode, the DMC-FX50 captures a run of between 6 and 8 frames at about 1.7fps.
As is typical, however, Panasonic hits the wall on photo quality. It fares reasonably well when it comes to exposure, color, and white balance, and the lens is surprisingly good, with no distortion at telephoto and little at the wide angle. But if image noise had a sound, the FX50 would make my ears bleed. Its photos start out with significant amounts of noise at the lowest sensitivity setting of ISO 100, then just get worse. There's a switchover between ISO 200 and ISO 400, where aggressive noise suppression kicks in and changes the type of artifacts--from Seurat's pointillism to Monet's brush strokes. These photos are best viewed small.
If Panasonic could just nail the noise, the Lumix DMC-FX50 might stand a chance against competitors such as the Canon PowerShot SD800 IS and the Sony Cyber Shot DSC-T30. As it is, however, you're better off letting the FX50 sit this one out.