As anyone who has every struggled to get reception or use the tiny keys on one of the latest ultra compact mobile phones can tell you, having the smallest, slimmest possible form factor means accepting a certain amount of compromise. In digital camera terms this means accepting that having something you can slip into your pocket probably won't offer the same image quality, versatility or ergonomics as something more substantial.
That said we were pleased to see that in general terms the latest generation of ultra compact cameras produces surprisingly good results, and that all are capable of capturing images that will print well at normal print sizes. Unless you're pushing the ISO in low light all will give you sharp prints at 8x10 inches, and even at the highest ISO settings I doubt anyone would complain about the quality of a postcard print from most of these cameras. Crucially all the cameras here will wipe the floor with any cell phone camera, not only in terms of image quality but in general responsiveness, versatility, features and usability.
Whether the compromises that the slimmest, smallest, coolest-looking cameras demand are an issue or not will depend on the individual user. We found some of the cameras put style over utility to such a degree that they were almost impossible to hold in a steady, stable way. And don't try using those tiny buttons with gloves on, either.
From an image quality point of view it's less clear cut; the truth is that there's little difference between any compact camera over about $100 until you get right to the top of tree, and that few of the models in this group offer better IQ than those we tested in the budget group last week. In fact the opposite is often the case; the folded optics used in the very slimmest cameras are (with the notable exception of the Sony T700) no match for more conventional zoom lenses, but you really need to be pixel peeping to see any problems; at normal viewing magnifications it's simply not an issue.
An old photographer's adage is that the best camera in the world is the one you've got with you, and there's no getting away from the fact that having a slim camera in your pocket at all times is going to get you a far better picture than a high end SLR you left at home because it's too bulky. With this in mind our assessment of this group was based far less on pixel level image quality and far more on the print quality, the reliability of the automatic exposure, white balance and focus systems, the performance of the flash in low light situations and on the overall usability. If you really want to pixel peep you can easily do so using the samples in the review.
Image quality: outdoors / daylight
If you mainly shoot outdoors in good light any of the cameras here will do the job, with little to choose between the better cameras here unless you intend to print at sizes larger than about 8x10 inches. That said there is a visible difference in sharpness / detail between the best and worst, with the Canon SD790 IS taking the top spot and the Fujifilm Z200fd, Olympus 1040 and Nikon S210 coming out worst. Overall ranking takes into account not only sharpness but color, metering, white balance, focus and contrast. I must stress that for this particular test the differences are very small:
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot SD 790 IS, Panasonic FX37
- Middle of the road: Pentax Optio S12, Sony T700, Nikon S210
- Bottom of the class: Fujifilm Z200fd, Casio S10, Olympus Stylus 1040
Image quality: Low light / High ISO
Shooting at anything over base ISO, and particularly when you start to get to the higher reaches of the ISO range, produces far more variation in the performance of the different models, with some clear winners and some obvious losers (though even the best ain't that good and all are suitable only for small prints) - and again the real difference in quality from best to worst isn't huge. If you do a lot of photography in low light without flash these results will be important to you:
- Best of the bunch: Panasonic FX37, Pentax Optio S12, Canon PowerShot SD 790 IS
- Middle of the road: Olympus Stylus 1040, Sony T700
- Bottom of the class: Casio S10, Nikon S210, Nikon S60, Fujifilm Z200fd
Image quality / performance: Flash
For this we took the overall flash performance; exposure, color, low light focus and ability to remove red-eye. We also factored in flash recycle time, with cameras taking more than a couple of seconds marked down:
- Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot SD 790 IS, Sony T700, Panasonic FX37
- Middle of the road: Pentax Optio S12, Nikon S60, Nikon S210
- Bottom of the class: Casio S10, Fujifilm Z200fd, Olympus Stylus 1040
Ratings and recommendations
When it comes to the finish line picking a winner for this group was surprisingly difficult, with few models doing everything well and few doing anything particularly badly. From an image quality point of view it's the Canon SD790 IS by a nose, though by the time you hit ISO 800 any differences are masked by noise, noise reduction or both. In a pack just behind the Canon are the Panasonic FX37, Pentax S12, Sony T700 and Nikon Coolpix T700, with the Fuji Z200fd, Casio S10 trailing behind by a couple of lengths.
Of the really, really slim cameras here the Casio S10, which everyone fell for as soon as it came out of the box, was the most disappointing from an image quality point of view, whereas the Sony T700 went some way to justifying its high price by being not only the coolest kid on the block but also putting in a surprisingly good showing in all our tests. If the T700's price is a bit rich for you then we'd suggest you take a look at its baby brother, the Cyber-Shot T77. An honorable mention must go to the Nikon Coolpix S210, far and away the cheapest camera in the group but one of the slimmest, and producing images that, whilst not the best here, are far from being the worst.
Eventually we had to decide, and decide we did, though as before we found it impossible to pick a singe standalone winner.
Runners up: Sony DSC-T700 and Nikon Coolpix S210
None of the ultra slim cameras deserved the top spot but two stood out as being worthy of mention. The Sony T700 is far and away the most stylish camera here, offers good image quality and has the fastest focus of the group and excellent flash performance. We were put off by the price and by the fact that it doesn't make use of the stunning high resolution of its screen at all in record mode, but it was still the best of the size zero models. At the other end of the scale is the Nikon S210, a camera that offers a super slim and compact casing and perfectly decent performance at a remarkably low price. It's easy to use, simple and efficient and shows that you don't always 'get what you pay for' - sometimes you get a lot more.
Joint winners: Canon SD 790 IS and Panasonic DMC-FX37
The best all round camera in this group - in terms of image quality, handling and performance - was the Canon SD790 IS, especially at lower ISO settings, where it easily matches high end compacts aimed at enthusiast users. But the SD790 IS lacks any real standout features; from the 35-105mm zoom range to the boxy styling this is Canon playing it safe, resulting in a camera that sits firmly in the 'solid and reliable' camp. That's not a bad thing, and for those of us who place image quality far higher on our list of priorities the SD 790 IS doesn't disappoint.
The FX37 is a far more interesting proposition, and though it can't match the SD790's resolution or sharpness, it shares many of its qualities; natural colors, reliable exposure and focus, responsive operation and a simple, logical control system. But it's more pocketable, has some very neat features and - crucially for us - offers a considerably more versatile zoom range (covering 25-125mm), which gives you real wideangle capabilities without sacrificing the short telephoto that is so useful for head and shoulders portraits. On this capability alone the FX37 would be a candidate for the top spot, but since it's a pretty good little camera too makes it an easy choice.
Group test written by Simon Joinson with contributions from Richard Butler.
Testing and photography by Simon Joinson, Richard Butler and Lars Rehm.