As a first time digital camera owner with the Lumix FZ18, i can say that i'm pleased.
As all the reviews said, the camera is fun to use and due to some dslr features and fast operation it forces you to learn photography with its program/aperture/shuttle priority modes, i started with program mode and slowly getting into aperture priority as my skills and understanding of photography rise up, its a long way to go ofcourse but this camera surely helps.
Feature wise its got it all, cant complain here, Panasonic in my opinion packs very good electronics that are ahead of the pack compared to other manufacturers, its achilles heel is the Venus engine, rather simple compared to Canons engine, especially with noise reduction algorithms.
Now to the question of noise...noise is...noise, and with this camera class of small sensors, its unavoidable. From my research on the problem of sensor noise i came to some revealing conclusions... good noise, which means well controlled by the engine with no colored specs/blotches/bands contributes to detail and sharpness, i was amazed by the detail and sharpness the Olympus entry lever DSLR cameras exhibit when the Noise Reduction is turned off according to a professional reviewer, http://www.wrotniak.net/photo/43/e510-fs.html
. Personally i prefer this kind of noise any day at any ISO instead of smeared/blurred plastic looking pictures with Noise Reduction on. The same happens with the Panny FZ18, ofcourse nowhere near DSLR quality, reducing noise reduction to -2 on the Panny brings more noise but also more detail and natural sharpness, its my prefered setting on this camera.
Unfortunately, Noise Reduction can't be turned off in Panasonic cameras, according to my tests with the FZ18 this happens necessarily because NR reduces hot/stuck pixels that plague almost all small sensors, with the NR setting at -2, one or two red/blue colored pixels,chroma noise, comes through above ISO 200 in dark areas, not a problem though if you post process your images and run them through a software color noise reduction function. I use Lightzone 3 for my post process needs.
Comparing the FZ18 with the FZ28 i can surely say that the new sensor and especially the new Venus IV engine will bring more quality images, so for an newcomer on digital cameras he will be very pleased, personally as an already owner of the FZ18 i cant see any reason to upgrade, my purchase was based in learning photography and brushing up my skills with a great first time small camera and later jump ship to the DSLR world with Olympus entry level cameras. Ofcourse the Panny will stay with me.
So the answer to the question of which model?, it depends on how deep is your purse or your patience...personally i take the patience route and would be waiting a little time for the FZ18 prices to drop, and they will when the FZ28 hits the stores sometime in september, but if you're itching for a new cam, the FZ28 would be a great first timer.
Thanks for reading this and excuse me for my english.
Congratulation to the site for honest reviews, i enjoy the site layout, the videos and the friendly attitude on the forums, very pleased.