While we were out in Las Vegas last week for PMA, I had the chance to pack the new near-production Panasonic Lumix TZ5 compact ultra-zoom along for a helicopter trip out into the desert. While there wasn't time to conduct a detailed review, a day with the 10x successor to the popular TZ3 was enough time to form some opinions about where the update succeeds, and where it's still a little rough. As we reported last week, the TZ5 – the latest addition to Panasonic's line of "travel zoom" cameras – features the TZ3's familiar 10x Leica wide-angle zoom, with an equivalent range of 28-280mm, in a familiar compact body. Effective resolution is up a bit, from 7.2 to 9 megapixels, over the previous model. Most impressive among the physical specs, however, is the TZ5's 3-inch, 460,000-pixel (no, that's not a misprint) LCD. The sharpness from all those dots in a relatively small space (compared to, say, your computer monitor) makes everything taken with the TZ5 look crisp and bright on-screen. Otherwise, the TZ5 is largely indistinguishable from the TZ3 in its physical attributes, all the way down to the shared range of colors (as before, silver, black, or blue). But given that the TZ3 is a favorite camera in use around here, no one's complaining about the high level of carry-over. The camera felt at least as fast and responsive as the TZ3, suggesting that some speed benefits may have been realized by processor benefits, and that nothing in this area seems to have been lost in the slight resolution bump.Processor-side improvements courtesy of Panasonic's new Venus Engine IV focused heavily on dynamic range issues – something that reviewers of the current TZ (your author included) have whined about. The most heavily hyped new addition is Panasonic's iA intelligent exposure technology, which allegedly makes smart capture choices based on a multi-variable analysis of the scene. Similarly, it was suggested in the press briefing for Venus Engine IV that the system employs improved noise reduction technology, suggesting more detail capture and less smearing at higher ISOs.Shooting with the TZ5, I could hardly have been happier. Other than a continued lack of manual controls (which will likely only bother curmudgeons like me), the new Lumix is a powerful camera. In iA mode, I rarely felt the need to jump to the cam's bevy of scene modes, and when I did, I remembered how much I appreciate Panasonic's pair of scene mode dial positions (meaning you can select two different presets and quickly jump between them). An "Easy Zoom" button, which allows instant cycling between full wide, full telephoto, and full telephoto with digital zoom, makes zooming in for a grab shot quick and easy. With all the talk of improved processing and the strong focus on image quality issues generally, the test shots from the new camera, while perfectly acceptable for most uses, really didn't show as much vibrancy as I was expecting. (view large image)(view large image)(view large image)(view large image)(view large image) (view large image)Admittedly, the American southwest can often tax the color reproduction and dynamic range capabilities of even the best cameras, especially on a mild, sunny day. That said, the images which had so much punch on the TZ5's amazing LCD lost some of their lustre when viewed at screen size on a calibrated monitor. There's lots of contrast here (arguably too much), but the images, and not just the ones taken through the helicopter bubble, have a washed out look that's similar to what we've seen from previous TZ cameras. So is it time to replace your TZ3? While there's a lot to like about the TZ5, improvements here are definitely incremental in most cases. It will take some more controlled shooting to further explore the new model's image quality proclivities, but while I'm wild about this camera in use, I wasn't blown away with the promised processing gains, and still (to be picky) would've liked to see more dynamic range in the new model. On the flip side, while the TZ series cameras continue to produce images that are a little contrasty for my taste, the more muted color rendering stands up well to post-processing for more saturation – preferable to hyper-saturation, in my view. As a snapshot camera, the bottom line is that I really enjoyed working with the TZ5, limitations and all: with some improvements in overall image quality, this could have quite possibly been the best all-around compact on the market, and even without significant gains in these areas, it's still an extremely strong contender in a crowded field.We'll be working to put together a full review of the Panasonic Lumix TZ5 as soon as we can get our hands on a test unit.