Tech: Panasonic peaks with perfect mix in LX100
Our technology editor reviews the Panasonic Lumix LX100, Vodafone Smart Ultra 6, Sony Xperia Z3+ and the GoPro Hero 4 Session.
Panasonic Lumix LX100
Price: €900 from Conns Cameras
Rating: 5 stars
Panasonic's Lumix LX100 camera is probably the best overall compact camera I've ever used. Its larger-than-usual photo sensor, Leica F1.7 lens and limited zoom (3x or 24mm-75mm) give it results and flexibility that I haven't had with any other camera of its size. The sensor is almost the same size as semi-professional cameras from Canon and Nikon, meaning that you have a huge quality advantage with this camera over cheaper compacts or smartphones. Because of the unusually bright F1.7 lens, you can get very stylish depth-of-field shots at a wide angle. Even zooming in to its maximum 75mm, its F2.8 shots are very bright.
Aside from...than the quality of the photos, Panasonic gives huge control over the camera's functions via rings and dials on the outside of the camera. This includes an aperture ring for the f-stop settings, shutter speed and even the format size of the photos: you can shoot in Instagram-friendly 1:1, as well as 3:2, 4:3 or 16:9. For those who know what they're doing and want instant control, this is all excellent. But even for beginners, it's fine: there's an 'intelligent auto' button you can push that lets the camera make all the decisions for you. (A separate 'filter' button gives fun monochrome and stylised formats to play around with, too.) The LX100 is also very nicely styled with knock-resistant metal and rubber.
There are a couple of minor drawbacks. First, it doesn't have the flexible flip-out screen that rivals have. Second, it's a little slow to start off from scratch - around two seconds each time, in my usage of it. Its digital viewfinder, while bright, is also a little too sensitive, switching the live screen off too often when a finger rubs against. Finally, the LX100 is marginally too big (115 x 66 x 55 mm) to fit in a pocket. Its main rival, Sony's smaller RX100iii just about manages this feat (and also has a flip-out screen). On the other hand, the LX100's sensor is twice the size of the RX100's so those looking for maximum quality might naturally gravitate more toward this camera.
Decent phablet for under €200
Vodafone Smart Ultra 6
Price: €170 prepay with Vodafone
Rating: 4 stars
While Sony's Xperia Z3+ is a thing of beauty, Vodafone's own-brand smartphone (which is made by Chinese company ZTE) is one of the best value full-size smartphones you'll ever see. The 5.5-inch Smart Ultra 6 'phablet' isn't quite as smooth or as powerful as the Z3+ or Samsung's S6 but it is a quarter of the price. And from my experience of it, it gives far more than a quarter of the value. The full HD (1080p) screen is better than average while it packs in an awful lot of power (via a Snapdragon octacore processor and 2GB of Ram) for something pitched below €200. It comes with 16GB of storage. This normally is a little thin, but my model had over 10GB available for things like photos and videos. So that wasn't a problem.
In terms of styling, the Smart Ultra 6 looks like a generic Android smartphone. There is quite a lot of plastic and it's slightly bulkier than premium rivals. That said, it's quite light. The other area where you can see the budgetary compromise is in its 13-megapixel camera and 5-megapixel selfie camera. These are decent but don't match the quality on offer in premium handsets: the engine (focusing and other bits) is a little slow. But they still beat what you'd normally get for this price.
Obviously, another compromise is that this is a Vodafone-only smartphone, which you're reminded of with all of the Vodafone apps pre-loaded on to it. But if you use that network anyway, this is a really good deal.
Understated Sony phone with real pixel power
Sony Xperia Z3+
Price: free on Vodafone bill-pay
Rating: 4 stars
If you're looking for an alternative to the iPhone and Samsung at the premium end of things, Sony sure does make a presentable case. Its new 5.2-inch Z3+ flagship phone is supremely elegant, lightning fast and packs one of the best cameras you can get with a smartphone. It's also almost waterproof, a feature that may be useful to some (I've never seen the point of it).
Sony has always been very underrated for its phone cameras: the 20-megapixel lens here is basically the same as Sony's recent Xperia phones, but that's no bad thing. Image stabilisation, a 5-megapixel selfie camera and extra control with focusing puts it on a par (at least) with anything else out there at present.
The ability to shoot and output 4K video theoretically gives it an edge, although I've yet to come across many people actually doing anything useful with 4K. It also has a beautifully fluid, bright smooth full HD screen and some really handy additional features, such as a 'glove mode' to let you handle it in colder weather. My demo model had 32GB of storage, although Sony and Vodafone only say that it's available "up to 32GB", so you might get stuck with a 16GB version (which isn't really enough storage for a phone like this). Powering all of this is an ultra-fast octacore processor (via two quadcore processors) and 3GB of Ram. Despite the high spec, battery life is respectable, thanks to a 2,930mAh battery: a day is usually very doable with this handset.
There is the usual bloatware that comes on the phone which you'll want to delete straight off. But a lot of Sony's additional apps and features are actually pretty clever. The company has made good strides, in particular, on power management features in its recent handsets. This is a really nice smartphone worthy of its premium status.
Gimmicky new GoPro is pushing it
GoPro Hero 4 Session
Can anything stop the GoPro? What started out as an adventure sports accessory has become the default camcorder - and even standalone camera - for a much, much wider audience.
But despite its outdoorsy appeal and ultra-portable size, the gadget has never been idiot-proof to use. The new Hero 4 Session model aims to make strides on this front, reducing the size even further and simplifying its controls. Instead of requiring a separate plastic housing unit, the new model is itself waterproof and easier to mount on devices. It's also faster to switch on and to start recording. On the other hand, it needs to be connected to your phone to change many of the settings and the video quality isn't quite as good as the similarly priced Hero 4 Silver, which I own (see previous review on Independent.ie). Its simplicity could be its attraction, but real action video users may skip it.