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Dpreview Recommends: Top 5 Compact Cameras

Barney Britton | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Nov 23, 2012

'What camera should I buy?' That's a question we get asked a lot here at dpreview, and it's a tough one to answer. We use a lot of cameras, from simple point-and-shoot models to professional workhorses, and everything in-between. We review as many of the interesting models as we can, but we can't cover everything, and our reviews are spread out across the year, which can make it hard for you to make buying decisions.

In this short article, we've selected five of what we think are the best zoom compacts on the market right now, spanning the market from point-and-shoots to Raw-capturing high-end cameras. By 'zoom compact camera', we mean cameras with non-interchangeable zoom lenses, regardless of size. Of our top 5 selection we've summarized their major strengths, with links to previously-published content, including samples galleries. Here are the cameras we've selected (in alphabetical order). You can click to go directly to the camera you want to read about or just start at the top:

Canon PowerShot G15

$499 / £499

Canon's PowerShot G-series is one of the most iconic lines of digital compact cameras, with the original G1 having debuted back in September 2000. The latest model, the G15, features a 28-140mm zoom with a fast maximum aperture of F1.8-2.8 mated with a Canon-made 12.1MP 1/1.7"-type CMOS sensor. The G15 features an ISO range of 80 to 12,800 and full HD movie recording at a frame-rate of 24 fps, with stereo sound from the built-in microphones.

Canon PowerShot G15 key features

In our testing, we found that the G15's long but impressively bright lens is a real selling point compared to both its predecessor, and indeed most of its competitors. Having a maximum aperture of F1.8-2.8 combined with a useful 28-140mm (equivalent) zoom means that you've got a lot more flexibility in poor light, allowing you to set either a lower ISO sensitivity for cleaner images, or a faster shutter speed to avoid camera-shake or blurring due to subject movement.

The Canon PowerShot G15 offers an abundance of external controls, and an unusually fast lens, with a maximum aperture of F1.8-2.8 across its 28-140mm (equivalent) zoom.  Unlike its predecessor the G12, and some competitive models, the G15's rear display is fixed, not articulated. This makes for a smaller camera than the G12, despite the faster lens.

In other respects, the G15 is a very solid performer, firmly in the G-Series tradition. This latest model is fast and responsive in use, offers about as much direct manual control as you could hope for, but isn't as bulky as previous G-series compacts. This is partly due to Canon's decision to go with a fixed LCD screen on the rear of the camera, rather than an articulated model. This makes the G15 less flexible when shooting from awkward angles, and when shooting movies, but the increased portability compared to earlier models, and competitors such as Nikon's Coolpix P7700 is very welcome. 

As far as image quality is concerned, the G15 doesn't disappoint. Detail capture is high at the low end of its ISO sensitivity scale, and its 28-140mm lens is excellent, aided by a very effective image stabilization system that we've found can deliver sharp images at shutter speeds as low as 1/15sec at full zoom. The G15 gets noisier at its higher ISO settings but even at ISO 3200 and 6400, image quality is good enough for small prints or web use, and for critical use, shooting in Raw mode will allow you to get the most out of the camera. All in all, the G15 is a great performer and a pleasure to use. The G15 is highly recommended for anyone that needs a general-purpose compact with lots of manual control that can deliver great quality images. 

What we like: Excellent 'hands-on' ergonomics in a small, relatively portable body, optical viewfinder can be handy on occasion, very nice image quality, good, responsive operation. 

What we don't like: We miss the G12's articulated screen, and the lack of any meaningful manual control in video mode will frustrate budding filmmakers. 

Links

Olympus XZ-2

$599 / £423

The Olympus XZ-2 is the successor to 2011's XZ-1 and offers a lot of improvements. The XZ-2 incorporates a more modern 12MP CMOS sensor, a screw-in hand grip, tilting touch-screen and a two-mode control dial around the lens. Although the XZ-2 features the same lens as its predecessor, the 28-112mm equivalent range is useful and the F1.8-2.5 maximum aperture is still impressively fast, promising greater versatility in marginal light than some of is competitors. 

Olympus XZ-2 key features

We haven't tested the XZ-2 yet, but we've been using it a lot since it arrived in our office, and in an incredibly busy year for new products, it's one of the cameras that we've been getting most excited about. The XZ-1 was a great camera that earned our gold award when we reviewed it in early 2011, thanks to its excellent lens, high-quality display, effective ergonomics and good image quality. The XZ-2 improves upon the older model in several key ways, and incorporates a lot of the same customization options that we've seen in Olympus' PEN-series interchangeable lens cameras, but leaves the essentials alone. This is the best kind of upgrade.
The XZ-2 is reasonably large for a compact camera, but an optional screw-in grip provides a nice solid hand hold. The control dial around the lens is customizable.  The rear of the XZ-2 is dominated by a 3 in, 920,000-dot LCD screen. In this view you can also see the mechanical catch for the XZ-2's small built-in flash. 
Whereas the XZ-1 offered 10MP resolution from a CCD chip, the XZ-2 is built around a 12MP CMOS sensor. Not a huge boost in pixel count, but with the new sensor comes 1080p video, and a wider ISO sensitivity range (up to ISO 12,800). This is probably the same sensor that Nikon uses in its Coolpix P7700. In terms of ergonomics, the XZ-2 has the same dual control-dial interface to its predecessor, but the front control dial can be customized, and boasts a mechanical switch to go between stepped rotation (ideal for inputting exposure changes) and stepless rotation (much nicer for zooming or manual focus). The XZ-2 doesn't offer the OLED display of its predecessor, but its 920,000-dot LCD is one of the best in its class, and now it's tiltable, too.  
 
Although we haven't been able to run the XZ-2 through the full gamut of our studio and real-world testing yet, our initial impressions are very positive, both in terms of image quality and operational ergonomics. As such, we have no hesitation in recommending the XZ-2 if you're looking for a high-quality compact camera.

What we like: Fast lens, proven 12MP CMOS sensor, excellent ergonomics including extensive customization, good image quality (on initial assessment). 

What we don't like: It's too early to make a definitive judgement, but the XZ-2's lens range isn't as wide as some of its competitors, and it's a little pricey.

Links

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200

$549 / £439

The 12MP Lumix DMC-FZ200 is Panasonic's flagship super-zoom compact digital camera and features a lens with an F2.8 maximum aperture across its entire zoom range of 25-600mm (equivalent). Last year's DMC-FZ150 (which we liked a lot) had an F2.8 - F5.2 lens, so the lens on the FZ200 is a huge improvement, and the extra brightness should make a real difference at long focal lengths and/or in poor light, allowing you to shoot at lower, less noisy ISO settings.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 key features

Its constant F2.8 aperture makes the FZ200 stand out in its class, especially when it comes to versatility in poor light, or when shooting at the long end of the zoom. That large aperture allows it to offer faster shutter speeds at the same ISO settings as its peers, or use lower sensitivities at the same shutter speeds as the competition. In our testing, we found that in everyday outdoor shooting, the extra brightness of its lens meant that we rarely needed to select the FZ200's highest ISO sensitivity settings.

The FZ200's built-in lens covers an equivalent focal span of 25-600mm, with a maximum aperture of F2.8 across the entire range. 

The FZ200 features a built-in electronic viewfinder, above which are a hotshoe for external flashguns, and a stereo microphone. On the right you'll find an exposure mode dial. 

This is good news because although the FZ200's image quality is very good at the low end of its ISO sensitivity scale, things get pretty nasty above ISO 1600, as noise really kicks in and the camera's noise-reduction system smears away fine detail more than we'd like. As always though, if you stick to small prints or web display, these issues are much less noticeable. If you're critically-inclined, the FZ200 offers a Raw capture mode - still relatively unusual for this class. Shooting in Raw can make a lot of difference and careful processing will reward you with excellent image quality, particularly between ISO 100-400.

As well as offering impressive brightness, the FZ200's 25-600mm lens also offers very good sharpness. Considering the large maximum aperture and ambitious zoom range, we had no complaints about the FZ200's lens for everyday use. There are cameras out there with longer lenses (Nikon's Coolpix P510 is great value, also offers very good image quality and boasts an extraordinary maximum telephoto setting of 1000mm equivalent) but in terms of its feature set, versatility and overall performance, the FZ200 is one of the best super-zooms we've ever used, and highly recommended for anyone that needs the ultimate in flexibility - especially when traveling. 

What we like: Fast, high-quality F2.8 lens, well thought-out ergonomics for still and video shooting, effective image stabilization, good image quality in JPEG mode and the option to shoot Raw for best results. 

What we don't like: Image quality drops above ISO 800 in both JPEG and Raw, and ISO 6400 is unusable for all but the least demanding output, some operations can be a little 'laggy', no automatic LCD/EVF switch.

Links

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 / TZ30

$249 / £229

Panasonic was the manufacturer that defined what we now call the 'travel zoom' segment of the compact camera market, and its latest flagship model, the ZS20 (TZ30 in some markets) is the most advanced yet. The ZS20 offers a 20x zoom lens, covering the equivalent of 24-480mm, built-in GPS and a new 14MP MOS sensor that allows for features like high-speed 10fps burst shooting and 1080p60 video recording. 

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 / TZ30 key features

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 packs in some great features, foremost among which is undoubtedly its 24-480mm (equivalent) zoom lens, which is Panasonic's most ambitious lens yet in the ZS/TZ series. For traveling or just everyday point-and-shoot photography, the ZS20 is hard to beat in terms of sheer versatility. If you're shooting a wedding, we wouldn't recommend relying on the ZS20 as your only camera, but for grab shots, the ability to quickly re-frame from 24mm to 480mm is extremely useful, especially in a camera that can slip into your jacket or pants pocket. 

The ZS20 is a slim travel-zoom camera which features a 24-480mm (equivalent) zoom lens and built-in GPS.  On the back you'll find a 3 inch LCD display with 460,000 dots and a small cluster of buttons. 

When we used the ZS20 we were impressed by its adaptability, but also by the effectiveness of features like its built-in GPS. While most GPS-equipped cameras just log your location, Panasonic also offers a built-in database of a million landmarks, plus maps of ninety countries. It can even show you where you are on the map, though they're not nearly detailed enough for navigation. If you don't need GPS though, you should turn it off - it will reduce battery life. The ZS20 is also capable of recording excellent video footage, up to 1080/60p, which is still relatively unusual in cameras in this class, although in video mode, the ZS20 is effectively a point-and-shoot camera.

Speaking of which, we like Panasonic's iAuto mode a lot. If you have no idea how to operate a camera, just set the mode dial to iA mode, and the camera will do the rest. The ZS20 has a limited set of manual exposure controls as well, but lacks the option to shoot in Raw mode, bracket white balance or focus manually.

The main strengths of the ZS20 then are its versatility and ease of use. Image quality is decent, but not outstanding. If you'd prefer better images, with fewer bells and whistles, the ZS20's 'younger brother' the ZS15, is worth a look. 

What we like: Great zoom range, responsive operation, excellent iAuto mode gets the most out of point-and-shoot photography, useful 10fps burst mode, very good built-in GPS.

What we don't like: Average image quality, limited manual control, relatively low-resolution LCD screen (by the standards of the best of its competitors).

Links

Sony Cyber-shot RX100

$649 / £443

The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 is an enthusiast compact camera based around a large 1" 20 MP CMOS sensor, paired with  a Zeiss-branded 28-100mm equivalent F1.8-4.9 stabilized lens. The rest of its specification is pretty impressive too - a 1.2 million dot 3.0" LCD (VGA resolution but using Sony's WhiteMagic technology to offer greater brightness or improved battery life), and 1080p60 video capture or 1080i with the ability to shoot 17MP stills without interrupting movie recording. All of this in a body of roughly equivalent size to more conventional compact cameras with much smaller sensors. 

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 key features:

The RX100 is a very impressive compact camera, partly just because of the amount of technology that Sony has squeezed into it. The RX100's sensor has twice the surface area of the 2/3" EXR sensor inside the Fujifilm X10, and around three times the surface area of the 1/1.7" sensors in most other high-end compacts. The RX100 offers excellent image quality which is a step above its compact competitors in most situations, from bright sunlight to the subdued environment of a bar or concert venue. The only camera which really tops it in terms of critical image quality is Canon's PowerShot G1 X with its even-larger 1.5" sensor, but the bulky, more expensive Canon is also slower, and in some respects less pleasant to use. 

Despite its large 1" (13.2 x 8.8mm) sensor, the RX100 is roughly the same size as many of its small-sensored competitors. A control dial around the lens can be customized. The rear of the RX100 is home to the majority of the control points, including a direct movie shooting button and a control dial to the right of the 3" 1.2 million dot 'WhiteMagic' LCD display.

As well as solid image quality for still photographs, the RX100's video specification is very impressive, and its performance is excellent. 1080/60p video recording is still pretty unusual in compact cameras and resolution is very high, and footage very smooth. Unlike some of its competitors, the RX100 also offers a useful amount of manual control in video mode. 

On the whole, the RX100 is a pleasure to use, too, thanks to its generous external controls and customizable Fn menu, which provides quick access to up to seven shooting parameters. Its front control dial is unusual - it moves smoothly, making it ideal for zooming or manual focus (but much less fun if you want to use it for setting discrete exposure parameters like aperture, shutter speed or exposure compensation).

The RX100 isn't perfect, but we're impressed by it not only as a feat of engineering, but also by its overall performance. The larger sensor really does make a difference, placing this camera at the top of the class when it comes to image quality, and making it worth the price premium compared to some of its competitors.

What we like: Excellent image quality, small, portable body, good, fast lens (at the wide end), excellent video specification and performance.

What we don't like: USB charging, front control dial isn't great for setting discrete exposure parameters, flash exposures aren't completely reliable, image on rear LCD can be hard to see in bright light, lag when magnifying images in playback mode is frustrating.  

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