As the digital SLR encroaches ever more into the territory once occupied by the high-end compact, manufacturers need to find new ways to extend the appeal of the enthusiast pocket camera (beyond the obvious size advantage), and this has led to some interesting niches developing. The compact ultra zoom, unheard of a few years ago, is one of the big growth sectors, and it's easy to see the appeal of the likes of the Panasonic TZ5 and Canon SX110 IS. At the other end of the scale the Panasonic LX3, with its classic styling and fast 24-60mm lens, is perfectly pitched at the landscape photographer wanting something light and small that doesn't demand too much of a compromise when replacing a bulky SLR for a day's walking.

But it's also obvious that - in the era of the $400 digital SLR - adding a few extra features and a couple of knobs to the body of a compact camera isn't a compelling enough reason to pay a lot more for a 'prosumer' model if the performance isn't noticeably better than cameras way down the range costing half as much. As mentioned several times in this article, there are cameras in this group that promise a lot more than they deliver at all price points, from the cheap as chips Kodak Z8612 IS to the premium level Nikon P6000.

Three of the cameras here have already been reviewed, one was mid-review and three were unknown quantities. So we knew what to expect from the Panasonic LX3 and TZ5 and the Canon G10, and had a good idea what the P6000 could do in the studio (though this was the first time we'd taken it out in the real world). We didn't expect miracles from the Kodak Z8615, but we had slightly higher hopes for the Ricoh R10, which on paper is perhaps the most appealing camera of the group, combining a really useful zoom range with a small, stylish body. It was therefore especially disappointing to see that the output from the Ricoh was amongst the least impressive here.

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. The two best cameras (the G10 and Panasonic LX3) are virtually indistinguishable unless you're pixel peeping. Overall ranking takes into account not only sharpness but color, metering, white balance, focus and contrast. Even in this widely varied group the the range from best to worst is pretty small:

  • Best of the bunch: Panasonic LX3, Canon PowerShot G10
  • Middle of the road: Canon SX110 IS, Panasonic TZ5, Nikon P6000
  • Bottom of the class: Kodak Z8612 IS, Ricoh R10

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. The winner here is the Panasonic LX3, and the poorest performers the Kodak, Nikon and Ricoh. It should be noted that for the most part the noise performance of the various sensors here is going to be in the same ballpark; what we're rating here is JPEG quality (along with exposure, focus and white balance in low light).

Three of the cameras have Raw shooting capabilities (*) - if you don't like the JPEG output you can shoot raw and use your own noise reduction workflow - though you may not be able to turn the noise reduction off completely with the supplied software, meaning the purchase of a more advanced raw developer.

  • Best of the bunch: Panasonic LX3*
  • Middle of the road: Panasonic TZ5, Canon G10*, Canon SX110 IS
  • Bottom of the class: Kodak Z8612 IS, Nikon P6000*, Ricoh R10

Image quality / performance: Flash

All but one of the cameras (the Ricoh R10) produce perfectly good flash output and in truth, for the typical user, there's little practical difference between them - though none are that well suited to social snaps as they're all quite slow and none seems to like focusing in very low light. In our experience cheaper 'point and shoot' models are better than the models in this class for this kind of shot. The rankings below represent the sliver of difference between the best and worst based on flash exposure, low light focus, recycle time, red eye removal and exposure.

  • Best of the bunch: Canon G10, Panasonic LX3, Kodak Z8612 IS
  • Middle of the road: Canon SX110 IS, Panasonic TZ5
  • Bottom of the class: Ricoh R10, Nikon P6000

Ratings and recommendations

With such a varied group of cameras it's impossible to pick a single camera we'd recommend to everyone - if you want lots of telephoto reach you probably won't want the Panasonic LX3, for example, and if you want something pocketable the Canon G10 and Kodak Z8612 IS will be off your list. There are a couple of cameras we'd struggle to recommend to anyone - the Ricoh R10 is a lovely, well specified camera, but it just doesn't take very good pictures, and one or two we'd suggest exercising caution over (such as the Nikon P6000, which isn't as good as it thinks it is). The Kodak Z8612 IS offers an awful lot of camera for a remarkably low price, and would make a good 'starter camera' for a teenager wanting to learn a bit more about photography, but the image quality isn't good enough for more serious applications.

The two real high end cameras here (the Canon G10 and Panasonic LX3) offer very different approaches to the concept of a compact SLR replacement, with the LX3 easily our preferred choice; given the choice we'd choose a smaller body and wider lens over more bulk and more telephoto every time.

If you do want telephoto capabilities and don't want the bulk of an SLR (which will give you far faster focus at long focal lengths) or one of the many 'SLR like' ultra zoom cameras on the market, the compact super zooms offer a good compromise between performance and portability. There's little to choose between the Canon SX110 IS and the Panasonic TZ5 (not to forget the Sony H10, reviewed here) - it's more a matter of preference (the TZ5 gives you better wideangle and the SX110 gives you better telephoto and more manual control).

Highly Recommended:
Panasonic TZ5 and Canon PowerShot SX110 IS

These two cameras are so close in performance that choosing between them becomes a matter of personal taste and preference. The TZ5 is our favorite because it offers a proper wideangle, a better screen and slightly better high ISO performance, but the SX110 has better manual control and considerably more telephoto pulling power. They're both well priced, well designed and genuinely pocketable, and neither demands too much of an image quality compromise despite squeezing 10x zooms into their diminutive bodies.

We almost gave this to the Panasonic (the extra wideangle makes it much more versatile than the extra tele does for the SX110), but that would be to suggest that our personal priorities were the same as everyone else's, and if you're on the touch line trying to snap your kids playing soccer the Canon's extra reach will prove invaluable. It is worth mentioning, however, that the Panasonic is slightly cheaper, has a metal body and is noticeably smaller too.

Overall winner: Panasonic LX3

The Panasonic LX3 gets so many things right that we knew before we started it would be the camera to beat in this group. It's not that it has the highest measurable resolution (the Canon G10 wins that one) or the biggest zoom range (in fact its one of the smallest here), or even that it offers the most intuitive controls (never going to be the case with a camera so small). No, what's so impressive about the LX3 is that Panasonic has actually produced a camera aimed at photographers, not one designed by a marketing department. So instead of going for the easy option of adding even more megapixels and beefing up the other headline specs, the designers concentrated on the things that actually matter to a photographer.

Thus we get a fast zoom with a real wideangle, a superb screen and excellent image quality, including high ISO performance puts most competitors to shame. The LX3 is positively understated compared to some of its competitors, which loudly proclaim the 'bigger is better' rather than 'less is more', and it's a far, far better camera for it. It's small enough to carry anywhere, fast and subtle enough for street photography and good enough to produce a decent 8x10 without the need to use raw.

Of course it's not perfect; the controls are pretty fiddly (as it's so small) and there's no telephoto to speak of, but if you want telephoto you're not going to be considering this camera. If you want more SLR like controls and a longer zoom - and don't mind the bulk - go for the Canon G10. Me personally? By that point I'm using an SLR. For a carry anywhere 'walk around' camera I'd go for the LX3 every time

Group test written by Simon Joinson with contributions from Lars Rehm and Richard Butler.
Testing and photography by Simon Joinson, Richard Butler and Lars Rehm.