"Think of digital cameras and names like Canon, Sony and Pentax come to mind. But Panasonic is proving to be a dark horse, releasing models with impressive looks and good performance."
a: Pentax doesnt come to mind at all...maybe replace that with Nikon for North American readers or Olympus/Fuji for the rest of us.
b: your quite right, ever the darkhorse Panasonic has become in this marketplace, they've gone in so deep on the digital camera front that classic film camera maker Leica have started rebadging Panny's to edge their way into the Digital market place...Panasonic utilise Leica's lenses and it appears to be a good partnership.
i've been using a Panasonic LX2 for the past year and it's a top camera, constantly on the look out for it's replacement at the top of the compact camera range but it hasnt arrived yet and only the £500+ Sigma DP1 is looking a worthy replacement right now but i'm sitting tight with my Panny.
i've got all the manual control i could ask for but as i'm a novice photographer i'm more than pleased it has full auto mode for those moments when the learning goes out the window and you just need to get that good shot 1st time.