Perhaps the most obvious thing to come out of this group is that the relationship between image quality and pixel count - and price - is far from simple. The truth is that once you get over about 8 megapixels the gains - if any - to be had by adding any more using existing technology are minimal - and in some cases the reverse is true, with more pixels actually reducing quality. In this group the difference between the 10 megapixel Canon SD880 IS and the 14.7 megapixel Samsung TL34HD is a rather extreme example of this disparity.

What you do get at the premium end of the market is usually a bit of luxury (build quality, styling, materials), a nice bright screen, a bucket load of gadgetry and, in most cases a slightly more useful zoom range.

Image quality across this group is more consistent (particularly at normal viewing magnifications) than it was in the previous groups, and for normal use (daylight scenery, indoor flash shots and so on) all will produce an acceptable result most of the time. The differences lie in more challenging shooting conditions (at higher ISOs, with difficult to meter/focus subjects and so on), when some cameras give up a lot more easily than others, and some fail completely in the basic task of getting a correctly focused and exposed shot with colors that roughly reflect the original scene.

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 worst in the group is the Samsung, but even then you'll only see the lack of crisp detail at larger print sizes. 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 pretty small:

  • Best of the bunch: Canon PowerShot SD 880 IS, Fujifilm F100fd
  • Middle of the road: Sony W300, Panasonic FX150, Nikon Coolpix S710
  • Bottom of the class: Samsung TL34HD (NV100HD)

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. Although the gap is nowhere like as large as it was in the days of the F30/F31fd, the Fujifilm still leads the pack here, with the Samsung and Nikon the least impressive.

  • Best of the bunch: Fujifilm F100fd, Canon PowerShot SD 880 IS
  • Middle of the road: Sony W300, Panasonic FX150,
  • Bottom of the class: Samsung TL34HD (NV100HD), Nikon Coolpix S710

Image quality / performance: Flash

All six cameras produce perfectly good flash output and in truth, for the typical user, there's little practical difference between them. 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: Fujifilm F100fd, Canon PowerShot SD 880 IS
  • Middle of the road: Sony W300, Panasonic FX150,
  • Bottom of the class: Samsung TL34HD (NV100HD), Nikon Coolpix S710

Ratings and recommendations

This looked like being the most difficult group to rank as most have a fairly even mix of good and bad points, and there are no real turkeys here. But the pack soon starts to spread out when you look at the balance of image quality (which we put a lot of weight on), the reliability of the exposure and focus systems, useful photographic features (such as zoom range) and winners and losers soon emerged.

Undoubtedly there are some cameras here that offer little over the more reasonably priced models a little further down their respective ranges beyond some extra pixels that you'll never use (and will struggle to see the benefit of even viewing at 100% on screen). It may not come as a complete surprise, therefore, to discover that we ended up picking the cameras with the fewest pixels in the group

Highly Recommended: Canon SD880 IS (Ixus 870 IS)

Canon's Ixus / Elph range is one of the most successful in the short history of the digital camera, and there's a good reason why. Love them or hate them, Canon makes compact cameras that do exactly what they should; take good pictures in a range of conditions with the minimum of fuss. The SD880 IS was the nicest camera in the group to use, has a sensible range of features and - despite the fewest pixels - produces some of the best results here. It has more than a dash of style, is fast and responsive and small enough to carry with you anywhere you go. For many users it will actually be a better choice than the Fuji - which beats it by a whisker - simply because it's a camera you're more likely to actually want to use.

Overall winner: Fujifilm F100fd

If Fujifilm could design cameras that looked and felt like the Canon SD880 IS (see above) but performed like the F100fd they would, I suspect, be unbeatable. Because the truth is that the F100fd isn't a camera you'll fall for immediately; it's not very pretty, the user interface is dated (though perfectly functional) and it lacks the tactile appeal of the more overtly designed cameras in the group. But where it matters - taking pictures - the F100fd shines, especially at higher ISO settings. The gap has narrowed considerably since Fujifilm waved the white flag in its unilateral war against the megapixel race and introduced the latest 12 megapixel version of its acclaimed Super CCD sensor. But the gap is still there, and if you ever shoot in less than perfect light the F100fd is just that bit better than anything else in this sector of the market.

But it's not all about high ISO; the F100fd did well in every one of our tests, whether shooting in broad daylight, in the studio or in a dimly lit bar. It's fast, reliable and has the best zoom range of any camera here. That it's also one of the cheapest is merely the icing on the cake; add it all together and you've got a winner - even if it is by the smallest of margins.

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