As you can imagine, a test of this scope, of so many cameras takes a long time. During the couple of months that we've been using and writing about these cameras, everyone on the team has had the opportunity to use and give feedback on their performance. Some of the models in this test surprised us, and some didn't. Some were better than we'd anticipated, and some were in some respects, a little less capable than we'd hoped. However, despite the huge disparity of price and specification that exists across the models in this test, none of them could be called 'bad'.

At base ISO, in decent light, all of the cameras in this group are capable of excellent results given their likely usage, and whilst none of them is capable of producing a convincing poster-sized print, that's not what they're designed to do. You'll notice that throughout this test, we've produced less commentary on pixel-level quality than we might in a typical DSLR review, and that's because it isn't as relevant when assessing compact cameras. However, as you can see from the various examples that we've included in this review, even when viewed at 100%, most of these models give excellent results, given the limitations inherent in their compact designs.

Given that all of the models in this group test can satisfy the demands of small prints and web galleries, how should we grade them? Well, there's more to life than pixel-peeping, and this is where the cameras' metering, white balance and color response is taken into account. Likewise ergonomics, build quality, and the versatility of their lenses. The Kodak Z950, for example, gives better pixel-level image quality than the Ricoh CX3, but the Ricoh's zoom covers a much more useful range of focal lengths, and it has a better LCD screen.

These differences, along with specification are what we consider in our final analysis of these cameras. And make no mistake - your opinions might not match ours, because you'll have your own priorities. Hopefully there is enough information scattered throughout this test to allow you to make your own mind up about the relative merits of these different models, but what follows is our (summarized) take on how they stack up.

Image quality: outdoors / daylight

Firstly, it's crucial to appreciate that all of these cameras are capable of good results in decent light, outdoors. We experienced no serious exposure or white balance issues with any of them, apart from a tendency on the part of the Fujifilm F80 EXR to underexpose scenes that contain a large expanse of bright, cloudy sky. At a pixel level, the weakest performers are arguably the Ricoh CX3 and the Olympus Mju 9010, but if you stick to small print sizes, even these cameras can give great results.

  • Best of the bunch: Casio FH100, Kodak Z950, Sony HX5, Samsung HZ35W
  • Middle of the road: Panasonic ZS5/ZS7, Sony H55, Fuji F80, Nikon S8000, Canon SX210
  • Bottom of the class: Ricoh CX3, Fuji JZ500 (just), Olympus Mju 9010

Image quality: Low light / High ISO

None of these cameras are comfortable in poor light at high ISO settings, and as you can see from our real world low light tests, there are meaningful differences between some of these models when they're forced to shoot in poor light without flash. Almost all of the cameras in this group produce images that look fine at small print sizes, but both of the Sony compacts struggle with exposure, as do the Panasonic ZS5 and ZS7.

Overall, the best results are delivered by the Nikon S8000, which gives impressively accurate color rendition, as well as good high-contrast detail rendition. The Canon SX210IS (again) gives the softest results, and the Casio the least accurate colors, but arguably the sharpest looking detail on screen and in small prints.

  • Best of the bunch: Nikon S8000, Fuji F80 EXR, Sony HX5, Casio FH100, Sony H55
  • Middle of the road: Kodak Z950, Panasonic ZS5/ZS7, Ricoh CX3, Samsung HZ35W
  • Bottom of the class: Olympus 9010, Canon SX210IS, Fuji JZ500

Image quality / performance: Flash

Most of the cameras produce perfectly good flash output and for the typical user there's unlikely to be much practical difference between them. The rankings below represent the sliver of difference between the best and worst based on flash exposure, flash reach, low light focus, recycle time and red eye removal. The only real duds in this group are the Fuji JZ500 and the Olympus Stylus 9010, which struggle to focus in poor light and in the case of the JZ500, fail to give a proper exposure either.

  • Best of the bunch: Sony H55 and HX5, Canon SX210IS, Nikon S8000, Casio FH100
  • Middle of the road: Panasonic ZS5 and ZS7, Kodak Z950, Samsung HZ35W
  • Bottom of the class: Olympus Stylus 9010, Fuji JZ500, Fuji F80 EXR, Ricoh CX3

Ratings and recommendations

Of the 13 cameras in this group, there are a handful that consistently did very well in our tests. One of the best all-round performers (and one of the most popular amongst staff looking for a compact to take out for the weekend) is the Casio Exilim FH100. The Casio combines excellent build quality, a very broad feature set and a versatile 10x zoom lens with sharp, detailed images in a range of situations. It's video image quality is genuinely outstanding, too, and rivals footage from some DSLRs for detail and clarity.

All of the cameras in this group belong to the 'travel zoom' category, and of all of them, the Samsung HZ35W offers the most versatile lens. Covering an astonishing 24-360mm (equivalent) the Samsung truly is a jack of all trades, as comfortable picking out distant details as it is with sweeping landscapes or interiors. The Samsung also delivers excellent image quality, and like the Casio FH100, it boasts an exceptional feature set. Our main gripe with the HZ35W is that it's built-in GPS is quirky to the point of being (in our sample at least) non-operational, but fortunately there is a lot more to the Samsung than this feature, and even without it, the HZ35W is an excellent camera.

The Sony Cyber-shot HX5 very narrowly misses out on a gold award in this test, primarily for the reasons that we mentioned on its individual page. Although it is capable of extremely good results, slow operational speed and a quirky interface did cause us some frustration. Treat it as a primarily 'auto everything' camera, however, and you won't be disappointed.

Towards the middle of the pack are the Canon Powershot SX210IS and the Panasonic ZS5 and ZS7. In last year's travel zoom test the Panasonics came out triumphant, but the competition is stiffer now than it was, and their high price makes them difficult to recommend over some of the other models in this group. That said, both Panasonics are solid performers, with excellent lenses, and well thought-out feature sets. Of the two, the ZS7 is the more appealing, and for some people the built-in GPS will be hugely attractive. We love it, and it works well, so if this function is on your wish-list, grab a ZS7 - you won't be disappointed.

The Canon SX210IS is an interesting camera, but one that we found frustrating. Fussy ergonomics and generally soft image quality didn't endear it to us, but its metering, AF and white balance systems are excellent, and it is a capable performer in video mode. In the final analysis, there's nothing definitively wrong with the SX210IS, we just didn't warm to it. Feel free to take a look at the various images in this review and draw your own conclusions. Likewise the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55, which is a reliable and capable camera, and undoubtedly a good value option, but doesn't really distinguish itself from the other cameras on test in any particular way.

The Nikon Coolpix S8000 is an interesting model, and how 'good' it is depends on what you want from a camera. If you want a lot of control over your photography, look elsewhere. But if you want a small, easy to use compact that takes reliably vibrant, bright images in a range of different situations, it fits the bill superbly. Its excellent high-resolution LCD screen is also worthy of note, and makes a huge difference when shooting in bright sunlight.

Although we can't really place it towards the top of this group in any particular area, we were extremely impressed by the Kodak EasyShare Z950. The only major black marks against it are its lack of a true wideangle setting, and a sub-par screen, but for the price, the Z950 is a truly outstanding performer. Importantly, it is one of the nicest cameras in the group to actually take out and use. It isn't as compact as most of its competitors, but we didn't find its bulk to be a problem. If you're on a budget, the Z950 makes a lot of sense.

Another excellent value camera is the Fujifilm FinePix JZ500, which packs a heck of a lot of spec into a very small, very light and very cheap body. We do have some reservations about the JZ500, but the bottom line is that it's perfectly able to slug it out with the best of the competition in the areas that matter most - exposure, color and ergonomics.

The JZ500's 'big brother' the FinePix F80 EXR is a mixed-bag though, and although it gives superb results in its 'DR' mode, the EXR functionality that sets it apart from its competitors is poorly implemented, and overcomplicated. If you don't mind 6Mp output (and we certainly don't have a problem with it), you'll love the extra highlight dynamic range that you can get from the F80 EXR when switched to 'DR' but set to its default 12Mp output, the F80 is nothing special, and a fussy interface and slow operational speed can make using it quite frustrating.

Towards the bottom of the group are the Olympus Stylus 9010, and the Ricoh CX3, but they're languishing down here for very different reasons. The Olympus gives good results, generally, but is somewhat unpleasant to use compared to a lot of the other cameras in this test. Its ultra lightweight construction and simplistic ergonomics don't inspire confidence, and depending on how large your hands are, its tiny buttons might be uncomfortable. However, images from the 9010 are pretty good, and it is one of the faster cameras on test, so our advice is a firm 'try before you buy'. We're certainly not dismissing it.

The Ricoh CX3, in contrast, is one of the most pleasant cameras to use, and (in our opinion) offers one of the most sensible and well-implemented feature sets of the models in this test. However, its white balance and metering systems aren't as reliable as most of its competitors - particularly at higher ISO settings - and images are marred by a general softness and lack of definition. Not what we'd expect from a camera costing upwards of $300.

So on, then, to the most important part of this review. And the winners are...

Joint winners: Casio FH100 and Samsung HZ35W

The Casio Exilim FH100 and Samsung HZ35W do exactly what we think cameras of this type should - they deliver sharp, detailed images quickly, and combine high quality output with good ergonomics, and solid build quality. You can completely ignore their 'headline' features, of GPS (in the Samsung) and high-speed still and video shooting (in the Casio) and still be wholly satisfied with the two models as photographic tools. And this is high praise indeed.

Group test written by Barnaby Britton