I'll be candid: the Panasonic G1 does not have a very secure hold on a place on this list. I puzzled over including it. I'm convinced it's an important camera, and I'm persuaded that it's a very well-designed camera and a very well-implemented design. I'm just not entirely sure whether it all adds up to a very good camera, is all.
But first things first. Regular readers of mine know that I've been advocating for large-sensor compacts for a long time now. I've been following with great interest the Sigma DP1 and DP2 as well as this Panasonic and its sister camera the GH1, and I'm eagerly awaiting the upcoming Olympus Micro 4/3 camera as well as all future developments in large-sensor compacts. Little fingernail-sized sensors are very good in good light, but at ISOs of 400 and higher, larger-sized sensors start to assert their superiority, and by 1600 have completely outclassed the little guys. (More about this tomorrow.) Big sensors rock.
Micro 4/3 was the big announcement of the past year in this area, of course. And Panasonic pulled out the stops for its first Micro 4/3 camera: the little G1 is superbly designed. It's obvious that a great deal of thought went into its tactile properties, from the almost indecently sensual feel of its super-soft body covering to the lovely SNICK-zzzp of its shutter sound (the designer of the original Mazda Miata used to listen to tape recordings of other cars' exhaust notes* on his way to work, so he could get the Miata's to be just right; I wouldn't be surprised if the designer of the G1 listened to recordings of other cameras' shutter sounds.) Panasonic's camera people did an outstanding job on this product.
The G1 is also important because electronic viewfinders are in our future, like it or not. Why? Because the precision reflex mirror box and prism of an SLR is a large part of the physical cost of any SLR, and eliminating it will eventually make cameras manufacturable for much less cost. We will see more of these, not fewer, as time marches on.
And I really have no quarrel with the G1's EVF. It's different from an SLR—you might think of it as one more step away from the "plain glass window" of a rangefinder like yesterday's camera—and it's a bit like looking at an old TV. But it's quite bright indoors, and I find that its "flat" look helps me compose pictures. Yes, it has some other idiosyncrasies, but it's nothing I couldn't get used to.
So what's the problem? Let me put it this way. As pediatricians, child psychologists, and some parents know, children who are extremely big for their ages sometimes get treated as if they're developmentally retarded. If you have a three-year-old who's as big as the average five-year-old, people will treat him like he's slow, because they expect him to act, speak, and have the physical coordination of a five-year-old, and he doesn't.
The g1 has a little bit of the same problem. It really is a "gap camera" occupying the territory between small-sensor digicams and DSLRs. What it should feel like is a very capable, really superior digicam; it is that. But because Panasonic opted for a traditional SLR layout and look, I just can't stop the impression that it's more like a slightly inferior DSLR. That's not quite fair, but that's the vibe I get from it, persistently.
There are lots of reasons to like the little G1. There's a lot of wonderful technology in the little camera, the haptics (to steal Erwin Puts's word) are superb, and the camera is pleasant to use. In Japan, which tolerates more gender-specific advertising than is the custom here in the U.S., it will be pushed most strenuously at females, who will appreciate its small size, sensuous feel, and overall elegance. ("Elegant" is the first word that would come to my mind to describe the G1.) And maybe the Japanese are right, in this case. In any event, it's a camera that I like and admire, though not one that has invited much use while it's been in my possession.
I should mention, too, that there is a thriving subculture of enthusiasts using a wide variety of other types of lenses on the G1, by way of a variety of adapters. This is surely a lot of fun for them, and constitutes a whole 'nuther reason to like this camera. For those to whom this doesn't appeal, the kit zoom is excellent.
*I.e., the sounds the engine makes.