There have been many attempts over the years to squeeze DSLR-like power and flexibility into a smaller, lighter and more manageable package.
It was kick-started with cameras such as the half-frame Olympus Pen in 1959, and has culminated recently in the emergence of a new breed of compact digitals with high-end pretensions. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 is the latest to hit the shops.
It is without doubt a very compact camera for one with DSLR aspirations. In fact, it's a similar size to the Olympus PEN E-P1, the body measuring a mere 74mm deep at its thickest point, 127mm wide and 38mm tall. It's larger than most digital compacts, but considerably more wieldy than most DSLRs.
It's a less obviously retro design than the PEN, however, all square-shouldered with a metal body adding to a solid all-round feel, and it's available in three colours - red, silver and black.
Its size isn't the only thing it shares with the Olympus. Both cameras boast the same sensor and lens mount system, known as Micro Four Thirds.
And it is this system that allows the GF1 to combine high quality with near-pocketable dimensions. Unlike a DSLR there's no bulky mirror mechanism between the lens and sensor in a Micro Four Thirds camera - which unfortunately means the GF1 also suffers from the same drawbacks as the PEN.
Remove the lens and the sensor is right there in front of you, with nothing to protect it, leaving it worryingly exposed to the elements and the ruinous prod of stray fingers. The lack of mirror also means no optical viewfinder: you have to frame all your shots using the 3in LCD on the rear.
The latter similarity also highlights one of the major differences between the two cameras: the screen, which at 460k is double the resolution of that on the Olympus PEN E-P1, and makes the job of manual focusing far less of a chore.
Meanwhile the optional viewfinder, for those who prefer to shoot at eye level, is of the electronic variety, where Olympus PEN owners only have an optical viewfinder available to them.
Look to the left-hand side and you'll see another advantage - a built-in flash, which pops up on a complicated-looking hinge mechanism. It's not particularly powerful - with a guide number of just six it's a lot lower than most DSLRs of equivalent price - but it's better than nothing at all.
The GF1's contrast-based autofocus is also much faster than its Olympus rival, contributing to a more DSLR-like feel, and in another coup for Panasonic, the GF1 also boasts autofocus tracking.
Simply point the crosshairs at the subject you want to focus on, and the camera will endeavour to follow that subject around as you recompose your shot. The burst mode is good too, allowing you to reel off up to six frames in RAW mode at just under three frames per second.
Other useful features include a depth of field (DOF) preview that automatically ups the gain, making it more useful in dark conditions than in other cameras, where switching to DOF mode darkens the frame to the point where you can't see anything. A related feature that we haven't come across is shutter speed preview.
Press a button while in DOF mode, move the camera, and you'll see the GF1 attempt to simulate the blurring effect your chosen shutter speed will have on the final image.
And, as is becoming increasingly common in cameras at this price, the GF1 also shoots 720p video - at 30fps and in either AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG mode - with autofocus that remains active (and reasonably quiet) while filming.
The GF1 comes with two kit lens options. The more expensive is the package on review, and includes a compact, super-fast f/1.7 20mm (40mm in 35mm terms) fixed focal length pancake lens.
This is a top-quality lens with no chromatic aberration, capable of super-sharp images in low light and very compact to boot. For the same price, you can have the more versatile, optically stabilised 14-45mm lens (28-90mm in 35mm terms).
And it's this that brings us to the GF1's one major weakness compared with the PEN E-P1 - it has no in-body optical image stabilisation.
But image quality is largely beyond reproach. It's far better than any normal compact and resolves an impressive amount of detail with good dynamic range. Meanwhile, HD video recording gives simply superb results.
In fact, the only issue we have is that noise levels at ISO 1600 and above are noticeable and less well-controlled than they are with either the best consumer-level Nikon and Canon DSLRs or the Olympus PEN E-P1.
That, and its price, which though competitive with the Olympus PEN E-P1 is high compared to conventional DSLRs, prevents us from wholeheartedly recommending the Lumix DMC-GF1. But that doesn't stop us from liking this camera, its fantastic, fast lens, speedy and intuitive operation and its host of useful features.