Editors' note: This story was originally published on November 21, 2011, but has been updated frequently to reflect more-recent reviews and announcements. The latest update morphs it into a different format and incorporates the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III.
It's a common complaint: You want the photo quality of a dSLR but find you're leaving the camera at home because it's so large.
The compromise is a compact camera with a sensor larger than a typical point-and-shoot's -- sometimes even the same size as a consumer or midrange dSLR, raw file support, and sufficient manual control over aperture and shutter speed to allow for a measure of the creativity to which you're accustomed. What you sacrifice is the speed of a dSLR's faster phase-detection autofocus, and more often than not, the improved shooting experience delivered by a through-the-lens optical viewfinder.
These dSLR complements come in two versions: ones with the traditional larger-than-average point-and-shoot design, and the interchangeable-lens models, which attain a more-svelte-than-dSLR profile by jettisoning the mirror and prism optical path, which is one factor that keeps dSLRs so large. Of course, once you start adding on to the latter models, like tacking on an EVF and even a modest zoom lens, they start to get pretty big. Still, equipped with a kit pancake prime lens like the 17mm (Olympus) or 14mm (Panasonic), they remain quite pocketable. But they also tend to be quite expensive compared with the all-in-one models.
There are always new wrinkles in the enthusiast compact segment. With the debut of the Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, the first full-frame compact-ish camera, and its even more expensive OLPF-free successor, the RX1R, we have a new definition of best photo quality. At more than $2,500 (about £2,350, AU$3,000), the RX1 is out of the reach of most buyers. Leica does best it at redefining "high price" with its X Vario, a $2,800-plus APS-C model (about the same in AU, approximately £2,130) with a slow but unique for an APS-C model zoom lens. Then there's the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10; though it has the body of a megazoom, with the RX100 II's 1-inch sensor and an 8.3x f2.8 lens it has the spirit of a compact and a relatively expensive $1,300 (about £700, AU$1,500) price tag.
And then there are the oddballs, like the Sigma dp series. With the new version of the Foveon sensor, Quattro, and a big, almost noncompact design, I suspect this won't be the model to break the dp out of its niche.
Sony surpasses itself with a camera that outclasses its predecessors for best overall model. It's zippy and compact with a fast lens and excellent photo quality. However, it's relatively expensive at $800 (£700, AU$1,100), so it's not necessarily the right pick for everyone. If you want second best, the less expensive -- though at $650 (£590, AU$900) still not cheap -- RX100 II is a better value, especially if you don't care about the viewfinder, selfie-tiling LCD or better video capabilities. The Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II costs the same as the RX100 III and has a longer zoom lens and larger sensor, but its image quality and performance don't stack up as well.
Furthermore, with its built-in EVF, it also reigns as the best model with a viewfinder. I think EVFs work better in this class of camera than the small, hard-to-use optical viewfinders of yore. Canon dropped the optical viewfinder for the Mark II, replacing it with an expensive optional EVF. The Nikon Coolpix P7800 incorporates an electronic viewfinder, as does the uncompact Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10.
For optical viewinders, the Fujifilm FinePix X20 is the fastest performer of the group, and is capable of producing nice, though not best-in-class images. Canon has two models in this class, the older Canon PowerShot G1 X and the PowerShot G16, though the older G15 is still widely available, at least in the US, at a reasonable street price of $400. While the original G1 X has arguably the best photo quality of this subgroup, it's also slow and expensive, and the lens aperture narrows so fast as you zoom out that it can be frustrating to use.
The G16, on the other hand, has a great, fast lens and improved (but still not great) performance, but it lacks the articulated display of the other Canon models, and its photo quality isn't significantly better than its last couple of predecessors.
It debuted at about $600, which was a pretty steep price for a camera with a 1/1.7-inch BSI sensor. Now that the price has dropped to $300 in the US, though, it merits a shoutout as the best deal in this category. Unfortunately, its JPEG processing isn't very good, but if you're willing to shoot raw it's a great bargain. It's also still a bit too expensive elsewhere -- AU$499 and about £240 in the UK.
If you wantthe smallest model, the Canon PowerShot S110 packs a fast-ish, wide-angle lens and a relatively large 1/1.7-inch sensor with a nice manual control ring into a pretty small 7-ounce (198g) frame. It's a little faster than the S100 it replaces, but neither delivers notably better photo and video quality than the much older S95. The S100 had geotagging, which the S110 replaced with lackluster support for Wi-Fi uploading. Now it's been replaced by the S120, which has supposedly better Wi-Fi support (though Canon still doesn't excel at connectivity) and faster performance. If you're looking for something a little more stylish in this class with a better lens -- albeit a little larger -- the Fujifilm XF1 might suit. It's also more of a point-and-shoot than enthusiast compact, and from that perspective the as-yet unreviewed Fujifilm XQ1, which incorporates the company's X-Trans CMOS II, has better cred.
Olympus conquers this class with the longest zoom range -- a 10.7x 28-300mm (35mm equivalent) model. And it doesn't sacrifice the aperture to get there; it delivers a constant f2.8. It also performs pretty well for this crowd. But its relatively small 1/1.7-inch, low-resolution sensor produces images that might please snapshooters but don't really stand up for demanding pixel peepers given its effective $650 (£500, AU$750) price tag. The only potentially close competitor is the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 with its shorter, 8.3x lens (as yet unreviewed), but that camera has a larger sensor that delivers better photos.
If you want the best photo quality under $1,500 (£880, AU$1,600) the Fujifilm FinePix X100S delivers it. Plus, it has a very nice hybrid viewfinder that switches between optical and electronic. However, it's kind of big to think of as a compact; the main back control dial can be very irritating, and while it's great for manual focusing, the autofocus can be quirky. It also has a fixed focal-length lens which is partly responsible for the high photo quality, but which makes also it less flexible for some shooters. The Nikon Coolpix A is a very good option as well, with comparable photo quality, but with a typical price around $1,100 (approximately £425, AU$900) it's expensive side given that it lacks a viewfinder and has some autofocus issues.
Leica offers its X2 for about $2,000 (£1,260, $AU2,300, which is relatively expensive; the company's new X Vario is even more so at $2,850 (£1,750, AU$2,800), though it's the first APS-C compact with a zoom lens. The lens is pretty slow, however (it hits f6.4 at 70mm).
If money is no object and you simply want the best photo quality, the RX1 delivers that, hands down. It lacks some amenities offered by the cheaper X100S, including a built-in viewfinder, but the amazing Zeiss 35mm lens and excellent full-frame sensor slightly soften the sticker shock of this expensive but ground-breaking camera, which rings up somewhere in the vicinity of $2,300 . It has a sibling, the RX1R, which has the same full-frame sensor but no optical low-pass filter, intended to produce sharper photos for folks who photograph highly detailed still subjects.