The Lumix LX7 feels solid and well-constructed in the hand, just the way you'd expect a premium compact camera to feel. The grip has returned to the straight edge seen on the LX3, which is a right shame as we found the angular grip on the LX5 more comfortable. The straight grip isn't bad, it just isn't as good. We suspect the straight grip might have returned to give users with big hands more space on the front surface, instead of cramping their fingers between the grip and lens.
Other than that, the LX7 isn't that different from the LX5. It gains an aperture ring, which lets you easily switch aperture settings. On the LX5, you switched between aperture and shutter speed control in Manual mode by pressing in the rear control dial. The aperture ring lets you turn both settings without having to do that extra step.
While the LX7's aperture ring is a welcome addition, it can also be a tad confusing. Open it up at f/1.4 and the camera will shoot at that aperture setting when at the widest end of 24mm. Once you zoom in though, f/1.4 will no longer be available and the LX7 will shoot at the widest aperture to be had at that particular focal length - the actual aperture setting is now different from the setting on the aperture ring. It's a little disconcerting at first, but we quickly got used to it.
The LX7 retains the aspect ratio switch on the lens, which we haven't found very useful - how many times do you really change your aspect ratio on the fly - and it's downright dangerous - if you're not careful, you can accidentally change the switch while moving the camera around and end up snapping a 3:2 image (9.5MP) when you thought you were capturing in 4:3 (10MP). It's quite fun to shoot in 1:1 from time to time though, so perhaps it would be prudent to make this a soft switch in the Quick Menu rather than a physical one.
The AF/MF/Macro switch also makes a comeback on the side of the lens. We're more ambivalent with this switch - we love our physical controls - but it's a pro-level switch. You need to know it's there and what it does, if you lend it to a casual user they might accidentally trip the switch and wonder why the camera isn't focusing anymore. Thankfully, Panasonic had the foresight to lock MF out of iA (Intelligent Auto) mode, which is where most casual users will be at.
Something else that's making a comeback is the lens cap. In a day when Sony can make the RX100 with a automatic lens cover, we'd expect Panasonic to be able to do so as well. Having to continuously cap and uncap the lens becomes old real quick. Having it dangle off the camera attached to a string is even more of a hassle. We guess we'll just have to wait for someone to make an auto lens cover like for the LX5. Even though we don't like the idea of a lens cap on the whole, we have to say that this lens cap is a nice one. It's thick, making it easier to grip and harder to drop, and it snaps satisfyingly onto the lens.
From the back, you'd be able to tell the LX7 apart by the new ND/Focus dial which sits below the Mode dial. The other way is to power on the screen - the LX7 now has a 920k-dot LCD with double the resolution of the LX5's 460k-dot screen. The quality of the screen is visibly different, the LX7 is clearer, sharper, more vivid. Another (long awaited from this reviewer) improvement is that the LX7 now features aliased fonts, which are much more pleasant to look at than the pixelated letters on the LX5.
But can we get percentage indicators for the battery instead of the three-bar indicator which has been around forever? This isn't just a critique of the LX7, but of all compact cameras which still use the archaic three-bar indicators. If Sony's NEX cameras and mobile phones can tell you exactly how much power you have left, we don't see why compact cameras cannot. End rant.
One last thing we about the LX7's design: The white version is a luminous beauty. Even after some scuffling in a messy bag, the paint held up well with no visible chipping. We're not usually that big on white cameras (we prefer to be inconspicuous photographers) but in this case, we suggest you have a look at both models for yourself before you decide.
The LX7 comes with a built-in 3-stop ND filter, which you drop in by pressing the new ND/Focus dial. ND (Neutral Density) filters cut the amount of light coming into the lens, and they've been used to do things like lengthen shutter speed in bright daylight in order to blur movement.
ND filters are especially useful with bright lenses. That's because if you shoot wide open (in the LX7's case, that's the maximum aperture setting of f/1.4) outdoors in bright sunlight you can capture so much light that it overexposes the image. You can always stop down and reduce the aperture size to something more reasonable like f/8 but then you won't be able to blur the background as much. Dropping in the ND filter will help you cut the amount of light reaching the sensor while keeping a wide aperture.
The camera comes with two additional Program Priority modes which let you take advantage of the bright lens. Getting to them however, is just confusing. The options are found under a 'Program Diagram' setting in the menu - we're not even sure what that means. Once there, you can toggle between Standard, Max. Aperture, which places priority on maximizing background blur by using the ND Filter whenever necessary to open up the lens as much as possible, and MTF/Optimum Accuracy, which uses the ND filter to stop down the lens and avoid using narrower apertures to prevent diffraction.
These are priority modes with good intentions buried under awkward menus with puzzling names and obtuse descriptions. You can't even find descriptions of these two Program Diagram modes on the official Panasonic LX7 page, or even in the operating manual. Maybe they figured at the last moment that experienced photographers will figure out to drop in the ND filter themselves when needed.
Besides serving as the ND filter toggle, this dial also handles manual focus. Much like the zoom toggles on compact cameras, you push the dial left and right to fine-tune focus. A handy distance indicator shows up on the screen, and you can magnify a chosen spot to check focus.